Oregon legislators considering changes to the Public Employee Retirement System face a moral dilemma. Economic events have made terms of the PERS package highly favorable to beneficiaries and increasingly burdensome to public employers, which must cut payrolls to meet PERS obligations.
In deciding how to vote on reforms such as those proposed this session, lawmakers must weigh the state's debt to PERS against its duty to provide schooling, protection and other public services. Being PERS beneficiaries themselves compromises their ability to carry out that moral calculus with detachment.
To end the conflict of interest, Sen. Tim Knopp of Central Oregon has proposed a bill that would prevent future legislators from participating in the system. The bill is a good idea.
Knopp's ultimate goal is no secret. As House majority leader in 2003, he successfully pushed for reductions in PERS benefits for new employees. He vowed to champion further reforms in his bid for a Senate seat. If adopted, Senate Bill 651 probably would aid his quest: A legislator might be more inclined to vote for a bill that reduces PERS benefits if doing so won't affect his or her retirement income.
But the merit of the bill—now in committee—doesn't hinge on its effectiveness as a strategic lever for reformers. Knopp is simply right when he says that lawmakers would be better "neutral advocates" for taxpayers if they didn't have skin in the game. In fact, an even better bill would take Oregon's judges out of the system, since they rule on the inevitable challenges to any PERS legislation and now have the same conflict of interest.
There will never be a win-win solution to the PERS conundrum. The best the Legislature can do is tilt the win-lose equation in the public's favor within a limited range of legal possibilities. When fairness is this hard to achieve, it's best that those weighing the dilemma be relieved of self-interest.The Great Divide
The State of Oregon is faced with a great many challenges; however, none is more insidious than the roads issue dividing our communities. Of course, we are talking about the very real threat of a slow driver in the left hand lane. We are a state torn between those who need to get where they are going in the shortest amount of time and those who prefer the journey to the destination. And while this paper would like to believe that the two could live together in harmony, some folks just can't get the hell over.
Fortunately, Sen. Ginny Burdick D-Portland is here to bring the wrath of Salem on leftlane abusers. Burdick, who commutes from Portland to Salem, knows firsthand what it feels like to get pinned behind the righteous lollygagger. Unlike the rest of us, who seethe with rage at our poor fortune, Burdick can bring the power of the state government to bear on their stiff necks. If Burdick is successful, these threats to public expediency could face a $1,000 fine for not abiding in the right lane. For using her constitutional authority to get this state moving again, we bestow a glass slipper on her lead foot and hope for speedy passage of this important legislation.