Rep. Shawn Lindsay, R-Hillsboro, tweeted about it and coffee shop conversations clucked about it. Oregon public employers will have to cough up an additional $1 billion per biennium to keep up with financial demands of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). That will mean fewer teachers, firefighters and health care workers.
Ted Sickinger's account in The Oregonian reminded voters, public workers and policymakers that rising contributions to an underfunded PERS is the biggest single factor squeezing public budgets. According to Sickinger's report, PERS controlled $54.7 billion in assets in 2011, but that only covers 73 percent of its liabilities.
James Dalton, who chairs the PERS board, told Sickinger: "We have a $16 billion unfunded liability. The question isn't if you're going to pay. The question is when you're going to pay."
It isn't hard to see a connection between rising pension payments, along with spiraling health insurance premiums, as reasons for a declining public workforce. Data indicates nearly 250,000 public sector jobs were axed in 2011, with more cuts expected this year. Almost half of the public employment losses in 2011 were laid-off teachers.
There are 656,000 fewer public sector jobs than in pre-recession 2008. Economists say shrinking public payrolls create a drag on U.S. economic recovery by negating private-sector job gains.
The Oregon legislature has tried to curb public pension liabilities, but some of its legislative remedies have been struck down in court for effectively breaking the contract with public employees by changing terms of their retirement. Public employees say they gave up pay increases many times in return for longer-term pension benefits
That strategy, which was pursued in most states and at the federal level, now may be coming home to roost. Forest Grove School District Business Manager Mike Schofield estimated 30 percent of the district's budget goes to retirement benefits. Sickinger's story suggested the additional PERS burden amounts to $700 per household.