Surely the biggest task Oregon lawmakers tackle every two years is coming up with a budget. This year the task is complicated by a couple of things. Legislators always want more money — even if revenue is already increasing. Too, the state is faced with a huge and growing unfunded liability in its Public Employees Retirement System fund, a nearly $27 billion projected shortfall that costs money at virtually every level of government in Oregon.
Many lawmakers are eager to find new revenues. They’re less eager to solve the PERS problem. Unfortunately, by ignoring it they’re harming schoolchildren, foster kids, roads, public safety and anyone else who relies on government agencies because so much of any revenue will go, not to education, safety and the like, but to paying off pension bills already coming due.
PERS reform is the necessary first step that must be completed before any new taxes are imposed.
Without it, at least a quarter of all new money raised for schools would go to pay down PERS. The Department of Human Services, which oversees the child welfare system, could be without the money it needs to overcome the serious problems that system has. Sending Oregon foster children out of state or holding them in former jails isn’t an option many Oregonians are likely happy with. Other agencies badly in need of change also would be left high and dry.
In 2015 the Oregon Supreme Court rejected part of the most recent serious attempt to reform the pension system. It tossed out some but not all of a reform created by the 2013 Legislature, saying changing promises made to public workers on money they’ve already earned is unconstitutional.
What the court didn’t say is there’s no path to reform going forward. Yet Democratic lawmakers, who have controlled both houses of the Legislature since 2013, have not taken the issue seriously. That must change if Oregonians are ever to see improvements to government agencies that badly need them. Reforming PERS, in other words, is the critical first step toward making the sorts of improvements Oregon, its schools, cities and counties need.
Editorial Board | The Bulletin