Rep. Macpherson making a name behind PERS reform
By PETER PRENGAMAN
The Associated Press
SALEM Rookie Rep. Greg Macpherson removes his glasses and puts his elbows on the table and then launches a battery of tough questions at a meeting of a House panel examining how to reform the beleaguered Public Employees Retirement System.
In the hot seat is Jim Voytko, PERS' executive director. Voytko fields questions from Macpherson about proposals to scrap the existing pension plan.
Leader of a system facing a $15 billion longterm shortfall, Voytko is constantly testifying to the House committee dedicated to pension reform.
Answering questions from Macpherson, a pension lawyer for the Stoel Rives law firm in Portland, requires steely focus and the ability to get technical.
"I don't want to take it into technical realms," said Macpherson when he finished with Voytko, giving a smile to his colleagues. "But with an expert in front of me sometimes that's the best thing to do."
The Lake Oswego Democrat is quickly making a name for himself by using his pension expertise to guide lawmakers through a bureaucracy that's sort of like an onion, consisting of layer upon layer. Lawsuits are threatened as lawmakers peel away at it to find ways to reduce its costs.
Gov. Ted Kulongoski has said reforming PERS is so important that he doesn't want the Legislature to adjourn until it's done.
"I have a feel for the numbers of pensions," said Macpherson. "And I work in tandem with actuaries."
Good thing, because nothing about Oregon's pension system is simple.
In front of lawmakers, experts testify about its "long-term unfunded liability" and about the need to "update retroactively" the "outdated actuarial tables."
There are debates about the costly "employee contribution," usually paid by the employer, and the future of the "money match" option, which is better for some retirees than multiplying the "1.67 coefficient" by the "number of years served in the system."
Of course, "tier 1" members, not "tier 2," are "guaranteed 8 percent" returns on their pensions. But they can also put a chunk of their nest egg in "higher risk variable" accounts.
Consensus on how to reform the system is sparse. But all parties agree on just how woolly the PERS beast is.
Even lawmakers on the pension reform House committee sometimes appear dazed during testimony.
Except for Macpherson, who seems to relish the opportunity to talk retirement systems and bust chops with tough questions.
Those questions are directed to all sides: the pension board, the unions that represent some of the 294,000 Oregonians in the system and employers pushing to abolish the contribution rate they pay into retiree accounts.
"Other members of the committee view him as the expert on pensions," said Tricia Smith from the Oregon School Employees Association, one of the many unions representing workers in the pension system. "He can dig deeper into the issue" than other members, Smith said.
Rep. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican who is chairman of the committee, said Macpherson is a key piece of the reform.
"He adds a specific element that no other person in the Legislature has," said Knopp, talking about his colleague's expertise. "It's timely that he's here when we are having such a significant discussion."
When Kulongoski last month signed into law the first bill to reform the system, he gave a special thanks to Macpherson.
Though this is Macpherson's first stint in the Legislature, it's not the first time the family name has echoed in Salem.
Macpherson's grandfather, Hector Macpherson Sr., served as a state representative in the 1920s and 1930s. His father, Hector Macpherson Jr., was a state senator in the 1970s. He's best known for helping to write Oregon's land use planning law.
"It's been a family tradition," said Macpherson, 52, who grew up on a dairy farm in Linn County.
But he didn't consider following the tradition until a few years ago.
The numbers man he prefers to call himself pragmatic doesn't seek the spotlight. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1975, but has never tried a case.
"Some need a trial to get their juices flowing," said Macpherson, the father of twins now in college. "But I'm not an adversarial person."
Instead, Macpherson helps employers who need to downsize their work force come up with early retirement incentive programs.
The job requires crunching the numbers and then calculating how a company can save money by giving employees a good deal to retire early.
Macpherson acknowledges that finding similar "win-win" situations in PERS reform is more difficult. The only way to find savings, after all, is to scale back benefits.
But he says there is a way to create a fair system, one that doesn't cripple the state or cut too deeply into retirees' pensions.
He believes his expertise can help lawmakers get there.
"Some of this stuff is arcane," Macpherson said. "I just want to fill in the gaps and ask questions."