SAIF

PERS Bill Moves on Fast Track to Senate and House Floors

Tackling the still-growing Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is one of the thorniest political issues facing Oregon lawmakers. What appears to be their best shot this session is headed to the Senate and House floors. The bill is more patchwork than policy reform.

Tackling the still-growing Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is one of the thorniest political issues facing Oregon lawmakers. What appears to be their best shot this session is headed to the Senate and House floors. The bill is more patchwork than policy reform.

A PERS bill is moving in the Oregon legislature that is more patchwork than policy reform, but it may constitute all that can pass in the 2019 session. The fast-tracked legislation could reach the House and Senate floors as early as next week.

Senate Bill 1049 is unofficially, but politically tied to the Student Success Act, which generates an additional $1 billion per year to boost education funding and imposes a commercial activities tax on larger corporations. The critical 18th vote provided by Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was conditioned on legislative action this session on what she termed “substantive” reform of the Public Employees Retirement System. Johnson voted for SB 1049 in the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

The core provision in SB 1049 involves extending the minimum payment schedule for the $27 billion unfunded liability for another eight to 10 years, which accounts for the largest savings achieved by the legislation. Detractors called that another example of kicking the can down the road as opposed to actual reform.

“The bill does not meaningfully impact the system’s deficit or move Oregon any closer to solving its underlying pension problem,” writes The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger, who closely tracks PERS issues.

SB 1049 includes a cost-sharing provision that would redirect a portion of employee pension contributions made to a supplemental savings plan that resembles a 401(k) plan. An amended version of the plan that was voted on left out an earlier provision that would have reduced the interest used to calculate the pension system’s money-match. The bill reverses a PERS decision and would give employees discretion on how to allocate investments in their own accounts.

Lawmakers added a provision to tap future net revenues from sports betting for an employer incentive fund to make lump sum payments to pay down liability. Lawmakers also tossed in a one-time $100 million contribution.

There was no mention of diverting personal income tax kicker rebates to reduce the PERS deficit.

Amendments to create a new tier of public employees who would receive a 401(k) plan in lieu of pension benefits didn’t pass in committee. 

Like most bills dealing with PERS, no one was really happy. Public employee union officials indicated they would explore a court challenge to cost-sharing provisions. Business advocates and some public employers didn’t think the measure went far enough. Legislators fretted over having to vote on the bill, fearing political consequences down the road.

“Not a single lawmaker questioned or expressed any apprehension about further underfunding the pension system and extending the deficit for another decade,” Sickinger reported. “That’s the bill’s main thrust – a strategy that could lead to further destabilization of the pension fund and land the issue back in lawmakers’ laps if investment returns don’t live up to expectations.”

In an even harsher judgment, Sickinger wrote, “Several committee members repeated the myth that greedy Wall Street bankers and the 2008 recession are to blame for PERS problems, rather than misguided and financially self-interested decisions by earlier legislatures and PERS boards that actually created the system’s structural deficit.” 

Governor Brown’s task force failed to coalesce around major proposals to reduce the PERS unfunded liability. Trial balloons on ideas such as raiding SAIF reserve funds didn’t gain any political traction. 

The PERS unfunded liability has continued to grow despite a strong economy and in the face of stock market volatility.

 

PERS Task Force Ideas Fall Short of Brown’s Goal

The task force appointed by Governor Brown will submit its suggestions soon to shrink the Oregon PERS unfunded liability, but during the time the task force met the liability hole grew bigger.  Photo Credit: The Oregonian

The task force appointed by Governor Brown will submit its suggestions soon to shrink the Oregon PERS unfunded liability, but during the time the task force met the liability hole grew bigger.

Photo Credit: The Oregonian

The task force named last May by Governor Brown to identify ways to slice the unfunded liability of PERS will soon submit its ideas, but don’t expect them to be easy to implement or add up to the $5 billion goal Brown set.

One of the most promising concepts floated by the task force emerged at its last meeting and doesn’t have anything to do with selling surplus state property or imposing fees here and there. That idea involves an incentive structure to the 900 or so PERS employers to increase their contributions to pay down the unfunded liability.

None of the ideas coming from the task force could be described as a slam dunk.

  • Imposing an additional tax on PERS retirees receiving more than $60,000 annually in benefits (likely to face an uphill court battle);
  • Increasing permit and fee prices (likely politically feasible, but the amount of money it raises would be minimal); and
  • Transferring some of the $1.6 billion surplus in the State Accident Insurance Fund (a possibility, but it is unclear how much of the surplus could be transferred without adversely affecting SAIF).

Complicating the exercise, the PERS board in July lowered the assumed rate of return on investments, which had the effect of increasing the unfunded liability by another $2.4 billion to almost $25 billion. Business interests pushing for PERS reforms said the investment rate change “unmasked the severity of the problem.” PERS employers, which include school districts, will be expected to pay an additional $900 million over the next two years.

As reported by The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger, Brown’s 7-member task force, which has met four times, looked under state seat cushions for spare change to shrink the PERS unfunded liability without directly addressing PERS benefits. The search included selling surplus properties, privatizing state agencies and putting a surcharge on liquor sales. None of those ideas gained much traction in task force deliberations.

In the absence of a silver bullet idea, task force members privately said the sum total of their ideas might only reach around $1 billion, far short of Brown’s goal. Even $1 billion may be difficult to achieve since the task force is submitting suggestions, not recommendations by its November 1 deadline. The suggested incentive to PERS employers to increase contributions to qualify for some sort of state matching funds may wind up attracting the most interest, though it would require lawmakers to scratch together the state revenue to provide matching funds.

There is little doubt the PERS unfunded liability will be a major issue in the 2018 gubernatorial election. GOP frontrunner Knute Buehler regularly criticizes Brown for her failure to offer ideas on how to address the PERS liability and put state budgeting on a sustainable basis.

Majority legislative Democrats, supported by Brown, appear poised to push cap-and-invest legislation in the short 2018 session that begins in February, which could generate an additional $1.4 billion in state revenue. Legislative Counsel has opined that the cap-and-invest measure is not a tax and therefore doesn’t require of a three-fifths majority to pass in the House and Senate.

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Zack Reeves is a state affairs associate who represents CFM clients in the Oregon legislature. He began working as a legislative staffer in 2011 and has developed a wide range of contacts and experience on a broad spectrum of legislation. Before politics, Zack worked as a reporter and copy editor.

With PERS Benefits Off the Table, Time to Reduce Costs

Oregon's gamble on trimming public retiree benefits failed and it now faces a $13.75 billion Public Employee Retirement System deficit, with few ideas on the table of what to do next. Photo by The Oregonian. 

Oregon's gamble on trimming public retiree benefits failed and it now faces a $13.75 billion Public Employee Retirement System deficit, with few ideas on the table of what to do next. Photo by The Oregonian. 

A lot of hand-wringing, but not much action has followed the Oregon Supreme Court's decision invalidating many of the Public Employee Retirement System changes aimed at reducing the state's unfunded liability.

Public employee union officials are clucking, "We told you so." Legislators are conceding there is little more that could be done to trim retiree benefits. And state and local public agencies are bracing for a round of stiff PERS contribution rate hikes in 2017.

If you can't touch retiree benefits, all that's left is reducing costs associated with PERS. And lo and behold, the legislature is sitting on a bill that backers say could save $2.7 billion over the next 20 years in expenses to manage public retirement investments.Under Senate Bill 134, an Oregon Investment Department would be formed as an independent agency, much like SAIF Corporation. The department would be overseen by the Oregon Investment Council and responsibility to administer public retirement funds would fall to a professional investment manager, not the state treasurer. The treasurer would be the vice chair of the Council.

Even though this set-up would require hiring more staff members to manage a portfolio and assess risk, it would enable Oregon to free itself from the higher-priced consultants it pays for now. One benchmarking analyst said Oregon is a “high-cost fund compared to its peers, in large part because of Treasury's heavy reliance on outsourcing.” This is where the projected savings comes into play.

Cost-cutting has the drawback of not appearing to reduce the unfunded liability, but the advantage of reducing the outflow of cash to manage public retirement funds, while "in-sourcing" investment management duties.

Republican lawmakers may fret about hiring more state workers, but they may see increased local employment as a better alternative than sending big sums to Wall Street investment management firms.

The legislation, introduced by Treasurer Ted Wheeler, nearly passed in the short 2014 legislative session. The Oregon Investment Council expected it to fly through the 2015 session. But it hasn't.

Senate President Peter Courtney has sat on the legislation this session out of fear of creating another "Cover Oregon" calamity. But that was before the Oregon Supreme Court ruling on so-called PERS reforms. Now the legislature is staring at a financial tsunami far worse than Cover Oregon.

Wheeler's uncertain political status may be another contributing factor. Deemed constitutionally unable to run for another term as state treasurer, Wheeler appears to be considering his options. Many of those options could involve other elected officials – in the governor's office and in key legislative leadership positions. These potential opponents may not feel a need to give Wheeler a perceived "political victory."

While Courtney's reluctance and other elected officials' wariness are part of the normal political process, the PERS problem may force everyone to rise above "normal."

At a minimum, giving the Oregon Investment Department and the savings it might generate a second look could form the basis of a broad coalition business-labor coalition willing to find ways to nibble away at the problem without threatening retiree benefits. It seems like a much better use of time than hand-wringing.

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