PERS Costs To Deal a Heavy Blow to Oregonians

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, left, says he and a handful of other lawmakers have proposals in mind to address the climbing cost of unfunded liabilities in Oregon's public employee pension system. (Denis C. Theriault/The Oreognian/OregonLive)

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, left, says he and a handful of other lawmakers have proposals in mind to address the climbing cost of unfunded liabilities in Oregon's public employee pension system. (Denis C. Theriault/The Oreognian/OregonLive)

Oregon’s public worker pension system is in the news again, and this time it’s going to cost us all quite a bit more money.

Lost amid the national hullaballoo over the presidential campaign, we learned that the cost of Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) will climb an extra $885 million in the next biennium. That increase will elevate Oregon’s sum of unfunded liabilities to $22 billion for the next year, leaving lawmakers in an overwhelming bind: Find new revenue to fill the gap or start scaling back public services.

Unfunded PERS liabilities rose to $18 billion last year, and projections from four months ago placed the figure closer to $21 billion. They’ve increased again, largely from a combination of declining pension investment returns, a 2015 Oregon Supreme Court decision restricting pension benefit reductions and the simple fact that pensioners are living longer.

The full gravity of the update began to sink in last Friday when actuaries released new financial projections to the PERS Board.

The situation begs all kinds of big questions: Why isn’t this dilemma a central topic in statewide campaigns this election season? And will political leaders once again try to find PERS reforms in the next session or have they just given up in light of Oregon Supreme Court rulings? 

The biggest problem, though, is that state leaders don’t seem to know how to stop this giant snowball from bounding down the mountain. A spokesman for Governor Kate Brown told The Oregonian editorial board that despite casting a wide net for reforms, state leaders so far have found no solutions that would survive a court challenge. Furthermore, Oregonians cannot afford another year of failed PERS reform attempts, the spokesman said.

“There's no end in sight,” The Oregonian editorial board wrote Tuesday in response to the news. “Contributions by employers – they are required to cover the difference between PERS investment earnings and benefit promises – are expected to go up by 4 percent of payroll in 2017, 2019 and 2021. That puts the employer contribution to the system at $4.5 billion for the 2021-23 biennium, more than twice what it is now, reported Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian/OregonLive.”

With the latest projections, school districts are taking the biggest hit, facing an anticipated $335 million increase in PERS costs. Meanwhile, public agencies will have to carve out $260 million of their own funding to cover the shortfall in PERS payments. Ultimately, the pain will trickle down more directly to taxpayers.

“Oregonians, along with the children they send to school, rightfully expect tax and employer dollars to bear fruit, not burden, and throwing money into an expanding fire is useless,” The Oregonian editorial board wrote. “Unless lawmakers prepare to act in the next legislative session, PERS threatens to undermine the capacity of the state to meet its basic obligations. Fewer school teachers, larger class sizes and the diminution of other critical government services loom.”

Potential revenue for the shortage is quietly tied up with the IP 28/Measure 97 effort to generate a cash influx for Oregon. But of course, the fate of those measures remains up in the air.

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said he and a handful of lawmakers have a list of reform proposals in mind, but Democratic leaders need to be prepared to make difficult cuts. 

“If you want PERS to remain solid, and we do, then you have to trim expectations,” Ferrioli told the editorial board. “We're not messing with anybody's retirement. We need to be prospective about this, look ahead. We can use the court's decision as a template. All it will take is a modicum of interest from the House speaker, the Senate president and the governor."

Unfortunately, no matter where you stand on the issue, the one thing everyone can agree on is that the problem seems to have reached a point where it can no longer go ignored.

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist