By PETER PRENGAMAN
Of The Associated Press
SALEM - Unions representing public workers filed lawsuits in federal court and the Oregon Supreme Court, challenging a sweeping package of pension reforms passed by the Legislature in May.
Union leaders said reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System violated benefit promises in workers' contracts.
"There is a long history in this country of the courts righting the wrongs done by legislatures," said Leslie Frane, executive director for Local 503 of Service Employees International Union. "We are looking forward to being part of that history."
House Majority Leader Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican who lead reform efforts in the House, said he believed the courts would back lawmakers.
"The Legislature tried to do everything responsible and reasonable," Knopp said. "We share the governor's optimism that the reforms will be upheld."
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who signed the bills into law, has said he's confident the courts will uphold the reforms. Kulongoski is a former attorney general and Supreme Court justice.
Greg Hartman, lead lawyer for the union coalition, said the suits were filed July 22 in the two courts because both the federal and state constitutions prohibit the impairment of contract rights.
If either court rules in the unions' favor, the coalition wins, Hartman said.
Rulings could take up to two years, he said.
In May, the Legislature passed two laws that sharply scaled back pension benefits of many of the 215,000 active people in the system by slowing the growth of retirement accounts and freezing the cost-of-living adjustments for some retirees.
Taken together, the reforms cut about $9 billion off the $17 million long-term deficit facing the pension system.
The unions estimate the changes will cut individual retiree benefits by 10 to 30 percent, depending on where they are in their careers.
In a legal opinion released in June, Attorney General Hardy Myers said key elements of the reform were illegal and would likely be overturned.
The lawsuits challenge four pension changes contained in the new laws. They include the elimination of the 8 percent annual guarantee, the freezing of the cost-of-living adjustments for many retirees, the shifting of the 6 percent contribution to a nonpension account and the updating of life-expectancy tables used to calculate monthly retirement benefits.
Hartman said the suits don't seek to completely overturn the laws.
Instead, he said the courts must decide if there has been harm to individual member accounts, and if so, order they be paid back any loss.