Oregon Supreme Court

Oregonians May Get Another Turn at Term Limits

Oregon experimented with legislative term limits more than two decades ago and the outcomes weren’t what was promised. Once lawmakers were elected, they immediately started angling for their next job, often overlooking serious policy choices staring them in the face.

Oregon experimented with legislative term limits more than two decades ago and the outcomes weren’t what was promised. Once lawmakers were elected, they immediately started angling for their next job, often overlooking serious policy choices staring them in the face.

Oregonians may get another chance to vote for legislative term limits. It would be a good opportunity to buy the idea once and for all.

Unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce is sponsoring an initiative to re-impose legislative term limits and apply them retroactively to sitting lawmakers. His measure, if it makes it to the 2018 general election ballot and is approved by voters, would disqualify Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, even though both will be running for re-election on the same ballot.

Term limits are not theoretical in Oregon. Voters approved them overwhelmingly for state and federal lawmakers in 1992. Ballot Measure 3 was partially voided in 1995 by the Oregon Supreme Court to exclude congressional representatives. The entire measure was tossed out in 2002, but not before the fruits of term limits could be assessed. To say the least, the fruit was over-ripe.

Instead of the intended new blood in the legislature, several former lawmakers decided to return to office. That was the good news compared to what happened to the newcomers. They hadn’t settled into their Capitol offices before beginning to plot their next electoral opportunity.

With just three terms in the Oregon House, lawmakers had to make their mark quickly and aim at their next political dart board. A body once distinguished by bipartisan collaboration switched almost overnight to caucus politics by both parties and a political merry-go-round by individual lawmakers of office-shopping.

Perhaps ironically, caucus leaders assumed greater power and imposed stricter party fealty. The concept of new blood morphed into political bloodletting, political opportunism and kicking the can down the road. Why make tough decisions when you would be gone in three or fewer sessions?

Oregon survived the experiment with term limits, but arguably didn’t benefit from it. Now it may have a chance to restore the concept.

For the moment, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum must rewrite the measure’s ballot title – the most-read part of any ballot measure – to refer to its retroactive provisions. Then Pierce and his allies must collect 88,184 valid Oregon voter signatures by next July to place the measure on the November 2018 general election ballot. Because the idea of “throw out everybody” has a certain visceral appeal, chances are good the measure will make it to the ballot.

Previous Oregon term limits were voided largely on procedural grounds. It is still an open question whether term limits are constitutionally valid. Oregonians – and Americans – have accepted the two-term limit for governors and presidents.

Whether constitutional or not, the question Oregon voters should ask is whether term limits actually do what they promise to do. Empirical evidence in Oregon suggests they didn’t. They had the inimical impact of creating a shifting cast of political characters who began running for a new office moments after being elected to a legislative seat.

The concept of new blood ignores the demonstrable benefits of legislative continuity, not to mention legislative experience. It would be hard for anyone but cynics to deny the enduring contributions of long-serving lawmakers such as Senator Peter Courtney, a Democrat, and Rep. Eldon Johnson, a Republican, to mention only a few. Senate GOP Leader Ted Ferrioli has served for five terms and newly elected Senate GOP leader Jackie Winters has served in the Oregon legislature since 1998. 

Ironically, most lawmakers serve for less than 10 years and move on with their lives. Insiders know it takes at least two to three terms in the legislature to learn the ropes, let alone influence policy.

Hailing term limits is a lot like shopping for a brain surgeon who just graduated from med school. They may be cheaper and less experienced, but they aren’t who you want cutting into your skull to dig out brain tumors.

There will be a lot of heavy breathing if the term limit measure reaches the ballot. Voters would be well advised to seek out the voices of people who lived daily with term limits and can tell you how they worked out in real life.



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


Why Oregon Judges Should Be Appointed

A cruise ship in the middle of the Aegean Sea may seem an odd place to launch the idea of appointing rather than electing Oregon judges.

But "A Modest Proposal for the Selection of Oregon Judges" was an onboard lecture topic of former Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who is touring the Greek islands along with members of the Willamette College of Law faculty (and me). De Muniz will join the faculty after he retires from the bench the end of this year.

The independence of judicial systems and integrity of individual judges has made international headlines, most recently in Pakistan where that country's high court challenged Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for failing to pursue corruption cases against the president.

Many argue the rule of law and even democracy itself aren't possible without an independent judiciary. Yet judicial systems are inherently vulnerable.

"Politicians and scholars worldwide have long been impressed with the fragility of judicial power," De Muniz says. "When it comes to securing compliance with their decisions, courts are said to have neither the power of the 'purse' — the ability to raise and expropriate money to encourage compliance — nor the power of the 'sword.'"  

In the absence of these tools, De Muniz adds, "courts really have only a single form of political capital: Legitimacy."

The legitimacy of courts can be undermined by politicization of the process of selecting judges. A recent example is a judicial race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court that occurred at the same time Scott Walker was running for governor on a platform of limiting the ability of public employees to organize.

Wisconsin judicial candidates accepted only public funding for their campaigns, so didn't receive contributions from groups or individuals, but that didn't prevent the Club for Growth from spending $300,000 to support the conservative incumbent judge and union activists raising another $300,000 for his more liberal challenger. The campaign was ugly. One ad skewered the incumbent for his failure as a district attorney earlier in his career to prosecute an alleged pedophile priest.

"Reforms must occur," De Muniz says, "because the current election process makes judges indistinguishable from the rest of the American political process" as they attract large campaign contributions, independent expenditures by interest groups and scads of advertising. He noted some judicial candidates have edged close to the free speech restriction included in judicial conduct rules by hinting how they might rule in certain cases.

Bits and Pieces from the Policy Trail

Here are some worthy tidbits — from a prediction of a recessionary echo to a call for merit-based appointments of judges, with thoughts about international trade, the Greek debt crisis and Occupy Portland thrown in for good measure.

  • Tim Duy on Oregon's Economy: The Oregonian cites Duy's report on a small improvement in Oregon's economy in September, but not enough to allay fears of an echo recession. The way Duy, from the University of Oregon, put it: "...I become very cautious that, in fact, a recession is brewing beneath the surface." He said the European financial crisis could push Oregon and the United States over the recessionary cliff.

    That's not good news for legislators as they head to Salem for "legislative committee days" later this month, including a report to the Joint House and Senate Revenuye Committee on the next state revenue forecast. Duy's comments portend more bad news and that could mean cuts in K-12 education, higher education, cops and prisons and human services, including health care. The further downturn also could put a dent in Governor Kitzhaber's plans for health care and education reform, both of which will be up for consideration in the February 2012 legislative session and both of which rest, at least in part, on decisions about the state budget.