Ted Sickinger

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.

 

A Challenge and a Legacy Lie Ahead for Legislative Democrats

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

The Democratically controlled 2019 Oregon legislative session will address a “once in a generation” challenge to boost education funding by $2 billion and a potential legacy-making bill dealing with climate change.

Expectations are high heading into the session, which begins in January. Neither will be a cake-walk to achieve, despite Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Some of the complicating factors are:

  • Oregon lawmakers also have to find more than $800 million to sustain the state’s Medicaid program.

  • The Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is expected to grow by possibly as much as $4 billion, with no strategy in place to reduce it.

  • There are signs the US economic recovery is facing headwinds caused by an escalating global trade war, political unrest in Europe and a weakening economy in China.

Passing major tax legislation – and avoiding a referral to voters – is never easy, whether for schools or cleaning up the environment. For example, despite polls showing general support for climate legislation, Washington state voters have twice rejected carbon tax proposals. Oregon’s approach, which involves capping greenhouse gas emissions and allowing carbon trading in a state or regional marketplace, is different, but will still be cast by opponents as a tax.

Governor Brown has called her $2 billion challenge for education an opportunity that lawmakers can’t pass up because of the state’s robust economy and the needed Democratic votes in the House and Senate to approve tax bills. Brown also has called the Clean Energy Jobs bill “absolutely a legacy issue.”

Senate President Peter Courtney has endorsed the legacy label for the Clean Energy Jobs bill. "As a 75-year older person – you know I'm going to go to the children and grandchildren – I cannot think of a more serious issue," he said.

While it might be legacy legislation, it also has been introduced and failed to pass in the previous two legislative sessions. Part of the reason is its inherent complexity. Ted Sickinger filed a report for The Oregonian that outlined some of the complexity, which includes exactly what emissions will be capped and what emissions will be exempted.

In the 2019 session, advocates for the Clean Energy Jobs bill have apparently cut a deal with utilities that say their ratepayers are already footing the bill for greenhouse gas emission reductions baked into their future energy plans. Even that compromise isn’t without some debate over whether the utility plans should accelerate emission reductions. Timber and agriculture also may be exempted.

Another complicating factor is “leakage,” which boils down to manufacturing operations relocating to another state to avoid the cost of a cap-and-trade system. Republican Senator Cliff Bentz points to Ore-Ida Foods in Ontario. "I do not want to drive it 150 yards away into Idaho," Sickinger reported. "It will be devastating."

A report unveiled last week confirms Bentz’s fear that the potential for leakage in the manufacturing and industrial sectors is substantial, which if it happened to any degree would throw shade on the legacy of the legislation. “It would also eliminate a big chunk of allowance revenue [advocacy] groups are expecting to reinvest in carbon reduction and climate change adaptation programs,” Sickinger said. 

Rural interests have expressed concern that the increased price of fuel for cars and trucks will disproportionately hurt them at the pump. Then there is a constitutional question about whether any tax revenue collected from cars and trucks can escape the Oregon Highway Trust Fund. In anticipation of that question, Senator Michael Dembrow wants to include a provision to fast-track a challenge to the Oregon Supreme Court.

There is the need to put the program, if created, some place in the state bureaucracy. In her recommended 2019-2021 budget, Brown calls for elimination of the Department of Energy. She proposed creation of a new agency – the Oregon Climate Authority, which would assume the role of the existing Oregon Global Warming Commission. Creating a new agency and identifying who will sit on its advisory board can produce legendary backroom legacies.

Finally, in a system that involves carbon credits, you need a marketplace to trade them. Backers of the legislation and some industry groups favor linking the Oregon cap-and-trade program to the Western Climate Initiative, led by California. Bentz worries Oregon will be like a flea on a dog’s tail without much influence on the direction of the marketplace. 

Neither the $2 billion education challenge or the Clean Energy Jobs bill figure to be among the early bills to move in the 2019 session. Their destiny inevitably will be as part of 11th-hour legislative maneuvers to clear a path to adjournment, probably sometime next July. That’s often how legacies are born.

 

 

PERS: The Defining ‘Hot-Button’ Issue in the Governor’s Race

There have been grand bargains, court judgments, work groups, dire warnings, threats and inflated claims. Now there is a gubernatorial race that might turn on frustration over how to reform the Public Employees Retirement System. [Illustration Credit: Joan McGuire/Oregon Business]

There have been grand bargains, court judgments, work groups, dire warnings, threats and inflated claims. Now there is a gubernatorial race that might turn on frustration over how to reform the Public Employees Retirement System. [Illustration Credit: Joan McGuire/Oregon Business]

Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian has written a series of revealing articles about the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which his latest story calls the “defining issue” of the 2018 Oregon gubernatorial race.

Ted Sickinger is a long-time member of The Oregonian’s investigative team who has written extensively about the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund, from its arcane actuarial realities to the political firestorms it has ignited.  https://muckrack.com/ted-sickinger/articles .

Ted Sickinger is a long-time member of The Oregonian’s investigative team who has written extensively about the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund, from its arcane actuarial realities to the political firestorms it has ignited. https://muckrack.com/ted-sickinger/articles.

“Perhaps few issues more starkly delineate the views of Kate Brown and Knute Buehler in this fall’s gubernatorial election than Oregon’s public pension system,” Sickinger wrote. 

“Though PERS has been a hot-button issue in the state for decades, the political pressure may never have been higher,” he continued. “Schools, municipalities and government agencies are panicking as their required PERS contributions spiral to historic highs to help dig the system out of its $22 billion unfunded liability. There is no rescue in sight, and contribution rates are slated to jump again in July, pulling another $550 million a year out of public budgets statewide.”

Republican challenger Buehler has used the issue as a political club to criticize Governor Brown’s leadership. Brown has searched for ways to buy down the unfunded PERS liability and insists she won’t punish hardworking public employees. 

As Sickinger describes it, Buehler has promoted a set of PERS reforms closely paralleling those backed by Oregon’s business community. Brown dismisses Buehler’s “threats and bluster” and says she will concentrate on “actual solutions that solve the problem.” 

In reality, the window of possible changes isn’t very wide. “There is a limited menu of changes to the pension system considered economically meaningful and legally viable in light of past decisions by the Oregonian Supreme Court,” Sickinger says. “None would erase the pension deficit, though it is possible to make cost reductions that would help [public] employers.”

Sickinger walks through ideas on the table – public employee cost-sharing, which Oregon public employees already do, a $100,000 salary cap to limit large pension payouts and a transition to a 401(k) plan. 

Sickinger’s article touches on incentives and investments, including Brown-backed legislation to entice public employers to make an extra contribution to PERS and have the contributions matched by 25 cents on the dollar. Buehler calls the idea “political theater” with minimal impact on the unfunded liability.

Brown touts professional changes in the state treasurer’s office to achieve a higher rate of return. Buehler dismisses this, claiming the Oregon PERS portfolio has been one of the best performing funds in the nation.

Regardless of your politics or gubernatorial preference, Sickinger’s reporting on a major state issue is informative and cast illumination on claims, counter-claims and outright inaccuracies. 

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For starters, there were 145,963 Oregon PERS retirees through December 2017 – 127,687 of whom are considered Tier 1, the group with the most court-tested retirement benefits. Another 67,840 Oregon public employees are eligible to retire – 22,300 of whom are in Tier 1.

For the rest of the story, read Sickinger’s story, including a YouTube video on how Oregon got $22 billion in the hole.

 

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