By CHARLES E. BEGGS
Of The Associated Press
SALEM - Ballots are in the mail for an unheralded statewide vote on a measure that at first glance seems like something only an accountant could love.
The measure comes at the request of State Treasurer Randall Edwards, who wants to refinance at a lower cost the state's share of the public pension system's debt. Lawmakers set a special election on the proposition for Sept. 16 at his request.
Ballots for Measure 29 went in the mail over the weekend. To be counted, they must be returned by 8 p.m. on election day.
Beyond technical language, the idea of the measure isn't complicated.
Edwards wants to take advantage of low interest rates to sell about $2 billion in bonds and use the proceeds to refinance the state's share of the Public Employees Retirement System debt.
Because the general obligation bonds would be debt backed by the state's taxing power, they require voter approval under the state constitution.
Final legislative votes on the measure were 23-1 in the Senate and 58-0 in the House.
The state is paying 8 percent annual interest on the PERS debt.
Because the Federal Reserve repeatedly has slashed interest rates on borrowing in an effort to stimulate the national economy, Edwards believes he could shave the state's interest costs by as much as 3 percentage points.
That would save the state, he says, about $90 million in the new two-year state budget and more than $1 billion over the next 20 years.
The measure limits the bond sales to refinancing pension liability. Some local governments have sold similar bonds to refinance their shares of the PERS debt.
The pension system faces a deficit of about $17 billion, meaning experts figure that PERS will be that much short of paying retiree benefits it will owe over the next 24 years.
Reform measures passed by legislators this year to scale back benefits are estimated to shave the debt by about $9 billion.
Court challenges to the changes are pending from government employee unions.
The treasurer's office says the state's share of the reduced long-term deficit still will be about $2.3 billion, even if the changes are upheld.
The pension system covers almost 300,000 current and former state and local government employees.
The campaign is expected to be low-key, Edwards said, mainly radio advertising supplementing the information in the state Voters' Pamphlet that has been mailed to each household.
The only organized opposition to the measure has come from the state Libertarian Party, with arguments in the pamphlet and a tour of news media outlets around the state.
The party attacks the measure as "a new tax"and "credit card financing," claiming the bonded debt would have to be paid off with more taxes because legislators would squander any money saved from refinancing.
But the Libertarian claims are misleading, Edwards said.
"This is a bill the state already has to pay," he said.
Edwards said Libertarians argue that government should operate more like a business and that reducing costs of debt "is just a smart financial way to go."
Edwards said he has authority to borrow by methods not needing voter approval to refinance the pension debt. But he said the bonds would draw the best interest rate.