Members of the Oregon Legislature have been sitting on proposed changes to the Public Employees Retirement System all session. A move to get them off center last week died on a party-line vote. It doesn't bode well when public pension reform, while clearly not the only answer to the state's long-term budget problems, is a critical piece that must be addressed.
The bill in question, sponsored by Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend, would have eliminated the requirement that public agencies contribute 6 percent of employee contributions to PERS in addition to their own contributions. The measure has been stuck in the Senate Rules Committee, and a move late in the week to get it out without committee action failed. All 14 Republicans supported the effort and all 16 Democrats rejected it.
There may be no meaningful reform to the system this session.
There are hurdles to PERS reform, to be sure. The state and its subdivisions are legally obligated to keep some of the system's most expensive features in place, for one thing. Some of those obligations are contractual and cannot be undone. Others, like the all-or-nothing approach to the 6 percent pickup, most likely could legally be adjusted so that agencies might negotiate smaller or no pickups in the future. Still others, like the move to quit reimbursing out-of-state retirees for Oregon income taxes they do not pay, seem logical from the outside but apparently are less so inside the Capitol.
A stronger stock market and a better-than-expected state revenue forecast last month don't make the job of PERS reform any easier, unfortunately. In fact, they've served to take a chunk of the heat out of the fire for reform that was evident during political campaigns last fall.
Yet PERS reform should be a centerpiece to budget control efforts. Reform accomplished would send a clear message that this state is committed to handling its finances in a more responsible way. Moreover, reform accomplished helps not only the state but nearly every city, county and school district.
Reform failed does just the opposite. Oregon cannot afford that failure - not now and surely not in the years ahead.
- The Bend Bulletin