It's important to remember that Oregon public employees did not create the PERS scandal. But make no mistake; it is a scandal. And the Legislature is perpetuating the scandal with its cowardly performance on the issue of PERS "mortality tables."
Elected officials are defying a 2002 Marion County Circuit Court ruling that those mortality tables be updated "immediately and fully." Legislators say their action was a compromise, but in fact it was appeasement. In effect they have said: "You must stop stealing money from us ... but you get to keep what's been stolen so far."
Don't denounce all public employees for those outrageously high retirement benefits - most of them didn't cash in on this bonanza. But make no mistake, the benefits going to career public employees retiring in recent years are outrageously high, and the cost to taxpayers translates into decimation of needed public services.
The scandal has four main ingredients. First, years ago, the Legislature reinstated a little-understood "money match" alternative for retirement benefits; second, the PERS Board irresponsibly poured huge 1990s stock market gains into individual retirement accounts instead of maintaining a proper reserve fund; third, despite huge investment losses in recent years, PERS guarantees an 8 percent annual return on retirement accounts, and finally, the PERS Board has refused to update mortality tables for 25 years.
Mortality tables establish how a retirement account is spread into annual payments, and longer life means smaller annual payments. That's why PERS left the tables unchanged, despite evidence of longer life spans. After the judge ordered PERS to update the mortality tables, PERS simply refused.
Public employee unions argue that members have a contractual right to continuation of those outdated mortality tables. That kind of "big lie" should embarrass all public employees.
Public employers - cities, counties, school districts and special districts - joined together to lobby for a full, immediate update of the tables. The Oregon House of Representatives provided a weak-kneed response with a bill that continues use of outdated tables for another four months, and contains a "look-back" clause that prevents any reduction in annual retirement payments.
We are getting fleeced. Almost no one understands how PERS works, including policy-setters and regulators. Yet they lack the will, or the backbone, to do what must be done: Replace PERS with a simple, affordable public retirement system.