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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Another One Bites The Dust

The 2017 Legislative session began with a bang, and goes out with a whimper.  PERS reform was on everyone’s mind as the session began, and we saw at least a dozen bills and amendments that attempted to “reform” PERS.  But, from the very beginning, the Democrats made clear that without corporate tax reform, they were not going to be the “bad guys” for more PERS reform.  Thus, they presented the Rs in the Legislature with the uncomfortable choice between corporate tax reform and PERS reform.  The Rs chose to wimp out on corporate tax reform, and the Ds decided they weren’t going to be on the hook with voters and the unions for any more PERS reform.  So, the Legislative session will end sometime soon with neither goal accomplished, and the situation even worse when they return in 2018 for the short session and in 2019 for the long session.  Those who hung in and retired before the Legislature did anything bad are now spared the uncertainty for the future, while those who decided to gamble have bought themselves another 6 months or so before PERS itself makes some crucial changes that will exacerbate the problem statewide, although the change is necessary.  Next month (July), the PERS Board will make decisions about the economic assumptions necessary for the next system valuation, which is the basis for setting employer rates for the 2019-21 biennium.  These assumptions include the assumed interest rate, salary growth, mortality tables and the all-important actuarial equivalency factors that will take effect on January 1, 2018.  Two of these three assumptions are likely to change significantly.  The assumed rate is likely to go to 7.25% (or possibly lower, to 7.0% - see California’s recent decision), while the mortality factors are headed to greater longevity per the IRS tables that just changed.  In total, a 25 basis point reduction in the assumed rate, coupled with a normal secular growth in mortality should produce a 3 month setback in benefit (you have to work 3 months longer to recover the benefit you’d receive 3 months earlier under a higher assumed rate).  People affected by this change are all whose best benefit is “Money Match” retiring on or after January 1, 2018, and all Full Formula retirees who choose an option with a beneficiary.  Full Formula retirees who select Option 1 (no beneficiary) are NOT affected by changes in mortality or assumed interest rate, as the benefit is simply the product of the formula itself.

Those of you who are gambling that you can escape without any further pain are, unfortunately, delusional.  The situation is likely to get worse in the near future, and the next long Legislative session, if not the 2018 short session, is likely to include some unavoidable changes to future PERS benefits.  I don’t see how this can be avoided, and most people “in the know” agree with my assessment.  I can’t predict what will fly and what won’t fly.  But I expect that desperate times may beget some desperate measures, even those with a slim likelihood of getting through the Courts.  Court membership changes with each election and one of these days we may get a court that is not so sympathetic to the plight of active workers.  If you are near retirement, I advise you to consider seriously making plans for exiting the system before the 2019 Legislature convenes in early February 2019.  The pressure will be excruciating on that body to do something about escalating PERS costs.  The Board’s decision on rates might be the trigger to push some reluctant legislators over the edge, and financial exigency might force the Courts to consider some changes that we might not have thought legal in the past.  I don’t imagine any cuts to current benefits of the already retired, but if you aren’t retired by the beginning of 2019, I can’t save you from yourself.  It is naive to think that the PERS problem is going to go away.  I think this year’s Legislature squandered some opportunities to remake the corporate tax structure more equitable for the personal income tax payers in the state.  I think the mainstream media squandered its chance to have any influence by its constant drumbeat of bad news that blames “greedy” employees without considering the role of the greedy and irresponsible employers in the current fiscal miasma.  I can say “I told you so” only so many times, but until the media examines the role the employers have played in creating the fiscal crisis of PERS (by not paying what they owed, when they owed it), the situation is going to get worse and worse.  I don’t have a solution to the problem except to repeal Measure 5, which is the ultimate cause of this problem.

This year, the Legislature had a chance to do something meaningful, but blew it.  As Freddie Mercury screams “Another One Bites The Dust”, this Legislature will go down as the least productive, least effective, and most useless in recent memory.

This will probably be my last post for awhile.  I’ll be in Iceland for a good part of July (taking pictures and having fun), but will be back in time for the PERS Board Meeting at which the assumed rate change will be announced.  I’ll probably post something then after the decision is final.  Don’t expect new Actuarial Equivalency Factors to be available to me or to anyone else until the latter part of October, so don’t ask me for specific details about this change until then.  I will have no more information at the end of July than I have now.  We’ll all have to wait.  The actuary doesn’t begin its recalculation of AEFs until after the Board approves the economic assumptions for the next two years.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Big Balls in Cowtown

All the big players in Cowtown have weighed in on what is necessary to reach sine die this legislative session.  The outside players - the unions, the various business alliances, the school boards associations, lobbyists for tobacco, liquor, forest fairies, poisonous mushrooms, mountain oysters, etc - have made their wishes (or their demands) known and what we have is, as they say, a “failure to communicate”.  The Dems in the House, the Senate, and possibly the Governor’s office are sort of on the same page, while the Rs seem to be on a different page in a different book, and the external players have each offered their input on which books are acceptable to them.  The bottom line is that no one seems to have the votes to do much of anything and legislative paralysis looks more and more likely.  The unions claim they don’t support SH 1068 - the PERS changes brokered by. of all people, the unions, UNLESS they get revenue reform that includes changes to the ways that corporations are taxed.  The other special interest groups want the PERS reform, but without the pesky tax increases the Ds and the Unions want.  There are less than 4 weeks left in the Legislative session before the mandatory adjournment date of July 10th rolls around.  Without agreement on these issues, the Legislature is doomed to a Special Session in the Fall.

I’m not advocating for PERS reform, but the problem isn’t going to go away without two things happening:  1) more revenue; and 2) some legal fixes to PERS.  There are two other options available, neither particularly appealing to legislators.  First, there is the problem created by Ballot Measure 5, which probably less than 50% of the current voters were either here for or alive at that time.  This problem is the result of saddling the State of Oregon with the responsibility for funding about 80% of public school operating costs, but leaving the control of the schools local.  That, to me, was a catastrophic failure of Measure 5, and the Legislature could remedy that in either of two ways:  a) taking over complete control of the schools, including hiring, firing, negotiating contracts, and establishing benefit levels; or b) returning total control back to the school districts by removing the obligation for supporting the schools from Measure 5.  The first would give what the original intent of Measure 5 was; the second, would destroy Measure 5, but from people I’ve talked to, most don’t even understand the first thing about how schools are funded.  The second area of mitigation would be to eliminate the “kicker”, which was created to stave off Measure 5-like effects before Measure 5 was even a gleam in the eyes of its proponents.  This wouldn’t solve the funding crisis, but it would eliminate a persistent nuisance in a growing economy.  Why should the state be forced to give back money legally collected for income taxes just because the state economist is unable to forecast the final expenditures in a biennium two full years before that biennium’s end?  If that requirement is necessary, why not have the reverse requirement, i.e. if the state economist overestimates end of biennium revenue, and the state comes up short, why not impose a tax increase?  You can’t expect a tax refund because of an underestimate, while not expecting a tax increase because of an overestimate.  My point is that the whole “kicker” is a monumentally stupid way of running a state.

I’m guessing that the status quo is what many want, although I suspect the only people who really are really happy are the swinging dicks with the big balls in cowtown (OBI, OSBA, SEIU, AFSCME, and all the other lobbying groups) who have played the game of fomenting paralysis as a high art form.  In in the meantime absolutely nothing of consequence has been achieved by the malingerers in Salem who have been bought by all the special interests lined up in opposition to anything but stasis.  What a waste of human capital, and that applies across the aisle.  However, as a trained evolutionary biologist, I can state with confidence that long periods of stasis are often followed by explosive adaptive radiations.  These can be good, or bad, kind of like the proposed asteroid that brought about the end of the dinosaur reign near the terminus of the Cretaceous period.  We can hope for something that catastrophic to wake up those who are asleep at the wheel in Salem.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

So Long, So Wrong

As this legislative session has dragged on for what feels like an eternity, we seem no closer to any answers than we had when the session started in February.  The words I’m hearing from Salem suggest that the Ds and the Rs are at an impasse over revenue measures,  with the Ds proposing a gross receipts tax that House Dems want to raise about $2.2 billion, while the Senate Dems want to raise about $800 million.  While the Ds are in general agreement over the need for the gross receipts tax, the the Ds can’t even agree amongst themselves about the amount of revenue that should be raised from this tax.  Obviously, the higher the ask, the harder it is to get agreement from any of the stakeholders.  Similarly, the PERS bills (SB 559 and SB 560) seem to be dead with the Rs pushing for them and the Ds resisting.  This gridlock would suggest that a Special Session is almost inevitable, but …… wait for it.

In the midst of this power vacuum in Salem seems to have stepped some of the unions, so I’ve been told by multiple sources.  The term “cost sharing” is being bandied as a partial panacea by various people without bothering to define what that means.  Here’s what it means.  The unions are floating a trial balloon offering to have active workers (those still working in Tier 1, Tier 2, and OPSRP) provide some of the funds to offset increasing employer costs.  Mind you, this is not to cover the UAL, but employer “normal cost”.  I’ve heard several versions, and parts of SB 560 spell out what the Rs would consider a reasonable deal - to completely capture the employee contribution currently going into the IAP and use it to offset employer costs.  That won’t fly because it probably isn’t legal, regardless of how it would be implemented.  So, in step the unions offering a compromise deal.  As the deal is presently structured, employees will have 4% (of the 6% go into the IAP); however, the remaining 2% would be redirected not to the employers (directly), but to a “risk mitigation” account, which would be reserved to keep employer “normal costs” at a relatively constant rate.  The PERS Board would control the fund and would direct resources from the fund if employer normal costs rise due to changing rate structures.  If employer rates don’t rise before an individual retires, then one presumes that the 2% captured from the employee would be returned to the employee’s IAP (plus interest, one would hope).  While nothing about this is fixed, the floating idea is that it would be phased in over several years, so employees don’t take the hit to their IAP all at once.  

I have many problems with this proposal, not least of which is that the unions (who represent employees) are behind it.  Another critical reason I’m opposed to this is because it penalizes all Tiers equally, even though the retirement benefit structure in the three tiers is different.  Everyone loses the same percentage (which seems fair on the surface), but those closer to retirement not only preserve their existing benefits, but suffer from the cut for a shorter period of time.  On the other end, those furthest away from retirement already have the worst of the three retirement plans, yet have the longest period over which to suffer the cut, but also, the longer period over which their redirected money can be captured because of rising employer costs.  Worse still, this does nothing to force the employers to come to grips with the fact that their own profligacy is a major contributor to systemic problems.  This approach provides employers with a cushion against their own fiscal mismanagement, and gives the PERS Board a new way to mitigate responsibility for the employers to pay the full cost of the system, something the employers have refused to do since 1997.  What is floating also does not address the question of the “pick up” itself (i.e. who pays the employee contribution).  Finally, this approach has another “feature” going for it.  If the unions propose it, you can bet they will not sue the Legislature if they agree to it.  For union members and all active members of PERS, this becomes a lose-lose proposition.  

I realize that everyone is in a pickle this budget year.  It is clear that the state needs more revenue, especially as long as we have the “kicker” still in place.  To get more revenue, the Ds need a couple of Rs to join in.  To “buy” those Rs, the Ds are going to have to give on something, and the Rs want PERS reform.  The union’s proposal may be the least bad of a lot of bad options, but I think that the Unions coming to the Legislature’s rescue won’t gain much respect for labor, and may antagonize members.

It is easy for me to criticize all efforts at PERS reform; none of them affect me.  But I try to look at this in a more long term perspective.  Does this proposal do anything to address the long-term problem with PERS?  Nope.  The UAL will still be there no matter what happens.  Does the proposal offer generational equity?  Nope.  Those with the best benefit structure pay relatively little compared with those who are just starting their careers or are in the first decade of their careers.  Will this help attract the best possible workforce?  Nope.  Every time you take something away from people just coming into the system, it makes it harder to recruit and retain talented and enthusiastic workers.  Finally, we have no clue how much this will actually save, and whether it would be enough to stave off further raids on active worker pension promises in the future.  It seems to me that the primary purpose of this proposal is to insulate employers from the inevitable lowering of the actuarially assumed interest rate by the PERS Board effective January 1, 2018, which will have the effect of raising the employer’s normal cost for the employee’s retirement.  So, in the end, active members will get the shaft from two ends - reducing the amount of money going into their IAP, plus lowering the payout structure for annuitized benefits at retirement.  And, we still don’t know how this affects or doesn’t affect the “pick up” itself.  Logic dictates that it shouldn’t affect the “pick up”, but nothing logical has emerged during this session yet.

As this saga continues well into the beginning of summer, it is beginning to look like a case of “so long, so wrong”.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Waiting in the Weeds

While last week’s post was a bit dour, this week’s is less so.  Tuesday’s revenue forecast contained mostly good news, but not quite in the way I expected it.  Because of my own confusion about how the revenue forecast(s) [note the plural] work, I underestimated the power of forecasting to turn two different forecasts into winners for everyone.  The forecast for the 2017-19 budget is up by about $200 million over the previous forecast, dropping the shortfall from the last guesstimate of $1.6 billion, to $1.4 billion.  At the same time, the forecast for the 2015-17 biennium ending balance is up by $400 million, which will trigger the “kicker” if the forecast turns to reality when the final budgets are closed out by late August.  If the revenue drops significantly below the $400 million threshold, then the “kicker” won’t be triggered and the excess can be rolled up into the 2017-19 budget to offset the shortfall even further.  In addition, corporate tax revenues for 2015-17 are up, which means the possibility that the corporate “kicker” can be rolled into K-12 budgets on top of any other revenue they might get.

All this combined reduces the pressure on the Legislature to come up with big revenue enhancements, but the Rs in the Legislature have announced that the budget is good enough for them that NO revenue enhancements are needed, since the shortfall can be covered by program cuts.  For PERS members, this means more wheel-spinning.  The Rs are the ones pushing for PERS reform; the Ds are pushing for revenue enhancement, particularly the corporate income tax.  These two forces stand in direct opposition to one another; there is no way the Ds will agree to PERS cuts, or many other cuts, without the Rs agreeing to corporate tax reform.  So, while more draconian PERS cuts *might* be off the table, PERS cuts, in general, remain so long as there is a possibility that the Rs might agree to some revenue increasing measures.

Expect this saga to drag on for awhile, and lead to, possibly, a stalemate that results in the need for a special session after the revenue situation for 2015-17 is sorted out in the latter half of August.  This only pushes the problem for PERS members further into the future, staying the date of execution until later.  There may be some movement before sine die in late June or early July, but I’m growing discouraged that anything will be settled by then.

I wish I could offer something more informative, but, like you, I’m still waiting in the weeds.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Way Down In The Hole

PERS members are coming down to the Wire (bad pun for some) to make final retirement decisions.  Nothing of substance has moved in Joint Ways and Means, but broad hints have been dropped about what might await those members near and far from retirement.  The two main areas are for members to pay more for their retirement benefits (redirecting the 6%) and getting less for their money (spreading out the FAS calculation over 5 years instead of 3, disallowing sick leave accrued after 1/1/18, using a first-in-first out method for charging sick leave after 1/1/18).  Not much chatter about all the other “features” of SB 559 and 560 (the $100,000 FAS cap seems to ebb and flow, but its implementation seems problematic, and it doesn’t really save as much money as people thought it might because of its delayed implementation to preserve accrued benefits).  It also seems fairly likely, at this point in time, that June 1 is still a safe date to retire and avoid any possible impact from the legislative changes.  Of course, if none of the changes take effect until January 1, 2018, one could wait to retire as late as the last working of November for a December 1 retirement.  The calculus of choosing that date over June 1 or possibly July 1 is complicated however.  If you are still working for a PERS employer, waiting until a Dec 1, 2017 may make sense because you will continue to get your full salary until November 30, you’ll be 5 or 6 months older in the actuarial tables (this isn’t as significant for younger workers as it is for older workers), and your IAP balance will continue to grow by 6% of your gross salary each additional month you work.  If you are inactive, the calculus is different, especially for Tier 1 members.  While your Tier 1 account balance continues to grow by 7.5% annually (0.625% monthly), and your actuarial factors will be somewhat larger on December 1 as opposed to June 1 or July 1, the former date deprives you of a 2% COLA on your initial benefit that you would get if you retired on either of the latter dates.  In addition, retiring June 1 or July 1 (as well as May 1 or April 1) makes you eligible for the July 1, 2017 2% (assuming you have been inactive since BEFORE October 1, 2013), you also will get 0.14% deposited in your COLA bank to be used in the future if the COLA is less than 2% (remember that the maximum COLA is 2%; it is not a guaranteed rate).  So, when you combine these details for an inactive member, adding in the angst and worry over what the Legislature might still do, you are probably at a near wash between the earlier two dates and the later date.  You have to run your own numbers to see how this works for you (this is why financial calculators and spreadsheets were invented).  [edit 5/12:  I’ve heard an unconfirmed rumor that the PERS bills in Joint Ways and Means are DOA because the Gov doesn’t want litigation uncertainty hanging over budgets for the next two years.  I suspect this is a bit of hyperbole; the real reason may be something more pedestrian like the the two parties can’t come to any agreement over Revenue measures, so PERS cuts are off the table.  What this means is that IF this is a proper rumor with some substantiation [something I’ve not been able to confirm so far], a Special Session is likely to be called once the final revenue information is available in the latter part of summer, long after the Legislature adjourns.  I continue to try to verify the legitimacy of the rumor with multiple sources.]

Next Tuesday, May 16, 2017, at 8:30 a.m., the State Economist will release the final revenue forecast that the Legislature will base its 2017-19 budget allocations on.  This event signals the final push to wrap up budgets, bills that affect the budget, and to enter the glide path towards a desired June 23, 2017 adjournment of the Legislature.  The revenue forecast holds out the prospect of good news, very good news, or good news so good that it turns into bad news.  Everyone knows the economy is up, which thus perplexes people trying to figure out how the state’s revenue is inadequate for the budget needs of agencies in a growing economy.  At last news, the potential budget shortfall ranges between $1.6 and $1.8 billion, depending on who you ask, and what day of the week it is.  The source of the shortfall is unrelated to the economy.  It is result of Legislative stupidity back in 2013 (the COLA legislation that was overturned by the Supreme Court) when the Legislature allocated about ten times more money from the longterm COLA savings, than the short-term savings justified ($60 million in savings vs $885 million allocated).  The court decision didn’t come until late in the 2015-17 Legislature, so the impact of the Court’s ruling was delayed until the 2017-19 session and PERS employer rates rose significantly (because, of course, the employers spent their allocations like drunken sailors on shore leave) for the 2017-19 biennium.  This adds about $400 million or more to the shortfall.  The second factor has to do with the way Medicaid reimbursements changed under the ACA and were reduced under the early days of the current administration.  This is probably about $650 million of the shortfall.  The remainder of the shortfall is largely attributable to inflation that has occurred since the last biennium (about 3.5%) just to maintain current service levels (which should happen minimally in a growing economy).  This accounts for about $500 million or so.  So that explains most of the projected shortfall.  So, in an economy near full employment, with wages and salaries up slightly and tax revenues increasing, what could possibly go wrong?

What, indeed, could go wrong with a growing economy?  Well, for those with short memories, or those who haven’t lived here all that long, a Legislature long ago (1981) passed a monumentally stupid budgeting law.  It is enshrined in the Oregon Constitution as the “kicker” (as in “kick back”).  At a time when property taxes were rising rapidly, Oregon decided it wanted to head off a property tax measure (like Prop 13 in California, passed in 1979-80).  So they created this rule that says, in effect, if the revenue at the end of a biennium exceeds the State Economist’s most recent revenue forecast by more than 2% (e.g. 2.0001%) the ENTIRE surplus revenue is refunded to the taxpayers after the books are closed on the previous biennium (ours will end June 30, 2017).  How this refund occurs has varied over the years, but for at least the past 16 years or so, it has been treated as a tax credit for the following year’s taxes and is based on some fixed percentage of taxes paid in the previous tax year (I would get a huge kicker, but I don’t want it).  So, how does this affect PERS and all the other things mentioned above.  The 2% threshold for 2015-2017 is $336 million.  At the end of the first quarter (Jan-March), the excess in collected revenue over forecast was $206 million.  That leaves, April, May, and June to fill out the remainder of the biennium, and there is an extremely high likelihood that the May forecast (next Tuesday remember) will be forecasting final 2015-17 revenue surplus (and therefore the starting budget for 2017-19) at greater than $336 million.  Of course, the final number won’t be known until all the books are closed on 2015-17 after June 30, 2017 (usually it is late August before all the final accounting and auditing is finished and the budget can be officially closed; this is also the time when the Treasury decides whether the conditions for the “kicker” have been met).  So, if the revenue forecast comes in at $330 million above predictions, the Legislature gets to budget the extra $330 million, which will reduce the amount of shortfall that has to be backfilled, and agencies, and possibly near-term PERS retirees-to-be can breathe a slight sigh of relief because the PERS legislation will be closed out by the time the Legislature adjourns between June 23 and the mandatory July 8, 2017.  But, suppose the revenue forecast comes in at, say, $450 million above final projections.  That ought to be great news but, unfortunately, that’s where the “kicker” comes into play, and the ENTIRE $450 million would have to be refunded (“kicked back”) to income tax payers when they file their 2017 taxes in 2018.  That would mean that the growth of revenue would NOT be available to Legislators to appropriate towards the existing shortfalls.  That could produce an even bigger budget hole, and possibly lead to budget standoffs between the parties who want revenue reform and transportation improvement (the Ds) and the parties that want PERS reform and transportation improvement.  Everything hinges on what kind of deal the parties can make over the contested ground (Ds - revision of corporate taxes; Rs PERS reform).  With less money available, the stress will be greater, and this leads to the possible scenario where neither party wants to budge, and the parties agree to a compromise, temporary budget to start the new biennium, but come back either in a Special Session in the Fall after the final revenue figures are in, or they wait until the even-year session to settle budget details.  Regardless of how they do it, if this happens, it extends the period of uncertainty for PERS members on the cusp of retirement, and with it the anxiety that drives PERS members insane during a legislative year like this.

And, if this isn’t enough to drive people even deeper down in the hole, there is the fact that the PERS Board (very independent of the Legislature) is currently conducting its biennial review of the economic assumptions that underpin the formal system valuation that will occur next year.  This process (required in statute) means that the assumed rate gets revisited, mortality rates get revisited, and after the PERS Board hears from the actuaries and other experts, it will decide to lower the system assumed rate, update mortality tables, and both of those figure into the Actuarial Equivalency Factors (AEF) that convert account balances into streams of payments for retirees and beneficiaries.  The experts have already weighed in on the assumed rate (with forecasts ranging from the high 5% range to slightly below the current 7.5% rate), while the IRS is in the process of updating its recommended mortality tables that are partly incorporated into PERS’ final mortality figures and AEF.  If you look at all the expert opinions, you have to be willing to consider that PERS could drop its assumed rate to 7%, and extend out mortality tables beyond what might have been done in the past.  The bottom line is that if you are Money Match retiree, or a Full Formula retiree with a beneficiary, your monthly benefit will be lower beginning January 1, 2018 even if the Legislature does nothing.  (Do note, that this only applies to people who retire on or after 1/1/18; nothing changes if you are retired before then).

So, there you have the most current update of what is going on now.  There are an incredible number of variables in play, and no clear schedule (except PERS’ own timetable) for when major decisions will be made.  If you thought “you wanted it darker” was dark, now you are way down in a hole, where only math, personal considerations, and external life events can possibly help you with your decision.  Your only question happens to be the title of another song “should I stay or should I go?”.  

 

 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Gilded Palace of Sin

I have to confess that the title of this Flying Burrito Brothers album jumped into my head after seeing a color news photo of the Capitol Building in Salem with its gilded statue on top.  It also reminded me of the line from an old Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “nothing is ever as it seems”, or its modern incarnation as “objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”  So what is this all about?  I am not a believer in conspiracy theories, blind and willful ignorance, or plain incompetence (I do occasionally make exceptions).  I’m also not one to panic, for myself, or for others.  But, I have to confess that actions in the past week have given me new respect for the power of mean-spirited people, being pursued by an angry and worried crowd, to come up with magician’s tricks to fool people into thinking they’ve won a small (or large) victory, when they have, in fact, won nothing.

Since you all know that I write only about PERS (and recently only about the Legislature and its long history of trying to take benefits away from workers), I have been following the discussion (and contributing to it) regarding the Senate Workforce Committee and its unwillingness to confront PERS in more than a desultory way (I mean that; I take nothing from all the informational meetings except a complete unwillingness to do anything for or against PERS bills except to pick two bills and send them up, with all their attached amendment and without any recommendation, so that the Black Hole known as the Joint Ways and Means Committee can do their bidding in the absence of light).  I think this is a cowardly and unprincipled position, and I suspect there are some deeply hidden agendas being played out by leaders of both parties, the Unions, and a variety of other organizations who want money and don’t really care all that much how they get it.

That’s the background, but what’s new?  In the final analysis, after all the stürm und drang over PERS, two bills seem to have survived and will be forwarded without recommendation (the cowardly act) to the Joint Ways and Means Committee, where the action is done is less-than-public view.  The two bills, well-discussed in previous posts are SB 559 (unamended) and SB 560 (unamended, plus 10 [or possibly only 9, see below] amendments) that will be forwarded without any further discussion.

Last Wednesday, the Workforce Committee held its only public hearing where the public was actually permitted to testify on these two bills.  The primary objection was to the presence of an Emergency Clause in both bills, but especially in Senate Bill 560.  Unfortunately, the magician’s trick worked.  Eyes were distracted from the true problem, and like magicians working an audience, the members of the Workforce Committee promised to amend the bill (SB 560) to remove the Emergency Clause.  And they did in a single amendment numbered dash-15.  But like all magicians, the amendment removed the Emergency Clause from the original bill, as introduced, without touching the Emergency Clause in any of the 9 amendments in which it is replicated.  Worse still, either through willful deception, magician’s tricks, or distraction, the Committee did not grasp (again naivete is not an excuse for this experienced group of legislators), that the REAL problem was not the Emergency Clause (in fact, the Emergency Clause is actually necessary for reasons illuminated in multiple previous posts), but the lack of a date certain in the dash-3 amendment, and the section on the bottom of pages 24-25 of the Dash-10 amendment pertaining to the decoupling of the Money Match annuity rate from the system’s actuarially assumed interest rate.  In both amendments, this particular change is fomenting all the fear, uncertainty, and doubt, not to mention causing untold anxiety for near-term Money Match pre-retirees and leading to a mass exodus of people since the beginning of the year.  In both sections of these amendments, these changes, but NO OTHERS, are targeted to “…take effect on passage”.  All other provisions take effect on January 1, 2018.  With the emergency clause in, the “takes effect on passage” means that the section in question would become law the moment the bill is signed into law (i.e. anywhere from late May to Early July).  Removing the Emergency Clause changes nothing about those sections because the courts would have to decide exactly when the bill took effect.  

The problem could be solved simply by omitting the passage “…takes effect on passage” and inserting “…takes effect with retirements on or after January 1, 2018”.  So far, the situation is made even more complicated because the Chief Legislative Counsel, Dexter Johnson, issued a memo to the Senate Workforce Committee pointing out why taking the emergency clause out is a bad idea.  The reasons are virtually identical to those articulated here in multiple previous posts, in responses to individual emails, and in posts over on PERS Oregon Discussion (see link to left).  Without the Emergency Clause, PERS is prohibited from recalculating employer rates until on or after January 1, 2018, and litigants are unable to begin the legal process of contesting any element of this bill before January 1, 2018.  There are other reasons as well, but the long and the short of this is that the Emergency Clause is necessary so that the legal status of any of these changes can be largely settled by about this same time in 2019, while the Legislature is undoubtedly dealing with other budget issues.  So, after everything that happened last Wednesday, it is likely that the dash-15 amendment will die, the Emergency Clause will remain, and PERS members trying to sort through their options will be left in the same position they were in last Wednesday before the promise “…not to create a crisis or chaos”.  No one can convince me that members of the Senate Workforce Committee were so ignorant, so naive, and so patronizing that they didn’t know exactly what they were doing.  I’m sure they deliberately agreed to removing the Emergency Clause, knowing full-well that it would be put back for the reasons enunciated here, there, and everywhere.

I don’t think I have ever seen a more concerted campaign to distract attention away from the real problem with any bill as I’ve seen in the Senate Workforce Committee.  In the past, legislators were downright nasty to one another over bills as harmful as these; this year, I’m nearly in a diabetic coma from the sweetness of members on this committee who have polar opposite viewpoints on issues pertaining to budgets, PERS, and workforce.  This all suggests to me that Dems, Repubs, Unions, Employers, Oregon Business Council, organizations like OPRI, the PERS Coalition are all involved in many backroom, off-the-grid discussions of how to balance the budget, partly on the backs of PERS members both near and far from retirement.  And this all leads me to brand the Legislature of 2017, meeting under that gilded dome, the Gilded Palace of Sin.

Believe nothing you hear from a Legislator or a Union at this point in time.  Only when you see something in writing, in the form of a bill, an amendment to a bill, or a complete revision of a bill should you take words seriously.  Written words matter; talk is cheap.  So far, nothing said and certainly nothing written offers any assurance that what is proposed to happen will happen in any other way.  Let those words guide your actions.  Make no assumptions, accept no assurances.  It is time for all these people who have been offering vague assurances to put their words on legal paper rather than in in tweets, emails, or E-lerts.  Only when those words make it to bills that matter do any of those stupid assurances have any meaning.  Beware of Emergency Clauses, but beware even more of clauses that have no certain date in them, or bills being forwarded into a Black Hole with blanks where numbers should be.  If you take those assurances at face value, then you are a sucker, and you are playing right into the hands of the charlatans of the Gilded Palace of Sin.

Note added later:  As predicted, the Senate Workforce Committee punted both SB 559 and SB 560 to the Joint Ways and Means Committee.  The votes were both 3-2 in favor of referring without a recommendation.  Senators Gelser and Monnes-Anderson opposed sending either measure forward.  But, in a seriously bizarre twist, perhaps influenced by this blog, perhaps by the sheer number of panicked members, there were three new amendments sent up along with the original SB 560 and the already extant 10 amendments (including the one to eliminate the Emergency Clause).  Of the three new amendments, only Dash-11 and Dash-12 merit note.  While these amendments seem to be variations on the same theme, there are three elements of note in each:  (1) the elimination of the decoupling of the Money Match annuity rate from the system’s actuarially assumed interest rate (the whole section has just vanished); (2) the inclusion of a clear implementation date for all remaining provisions of the bill at 1/1/2018; and, as predicted (3) the restoration of the Emergency Clause.  It would be nice to claim victory or to offer assurances, but this isn’t the way life works.  The effect of this is simply to add more permutations and more combinations of ways in which Joint Ways and Means can choose to implement changes to PERS going forward.  As I noted elsewhere, it appears that we are nearly back a ground zero, with a new group of people to consider changes to PERS not necessarily based on policy considerations, but solely on the basis of how well the changes help balance the 2017-19 budget.  Since the Senate Workforce Committee made no choices, made no recommendations, Joint Ways and Means now has a Chinese menu of options from which they can select one from Column A, one from Column B, and give current and inactive workers an egg roll and a misfortune cookie.  Sadly, this offers those in the position of trying to time retirements to avoid the impact of these changes no guidance whatsoever.  Not only has nothing been clarified, now people are faced with nearly the same list of options proposed long ago by the Portland City Club (except the COLA change is now off the table).  The list of amendments reads like a recitation of that list of changes, coupled with the spaghetti theory of jurisprudence attached - we magicians of the Gilded Palace of Sin do hereby resolve to throw anything we perceive as legal up against the Supreme Court’s wall, and we will take whatever sticks.  It probably isn’t that bad, but it sure feels that way.  [This will be my last post before the end of April; nothing is happening and I’m leaving town.  I’ll be back before anything worth commenting on takes place].

Thursday, April 13, 2017

You Want It Darker (Part 2)

This post is not likely to make very many people happy with me.  But, I have to say that after watching yesterday’s public hearing on SB 560, I can say that PERS members (except two) did themselves in.  They allowed themselves to become victims by total apathy and disinterest.  The blame is shared with others, but I reserve most of my scorn for the members who will be directly affected by anything and everything in SB 560, in whatever form it becomes law — and it WILL become law, mark my words.  Only two active members testified yesterday.  Both were Tier 1 Money Match on-the-edge of retirement.  Both commented about the harm from the annuity rate reductions and made vague references to its timing from the dash-3 amendment and the dash-10, without either actually pointing out the language of the bill that is precipitating their angst.  (we’ll come back to this point in a minute).  There should have been 5, 10, or 20 people signed up to testify, and the room should have been packed with affected members.  Neither happened.  Inside the room, which was anything but full, were about 2/3 professional lobbyists, and the remaining third a mixed bag of people who may or may not have been affected by any of this legislation.  SEIU testified, and basically sold members down the river by urging the committee to move the dash-10 amendment forward.  League of Oregon Cities testified urging moving the dash-10 amendment forward.  AFSCME didn’t testify and may not have even had a rep in the room; OPRI was nowhere in evidence either.  The PERS Coalition certainly didn’t testify and I didn’t recognize the backs of any of their reps heads.  OEA was absent from testimony, OSPOA was absent, the Firefighters were absent.  In short, the testimony was insipid, basically useless, and certainly ineffective.

The one issue raised during discussion was the presence of the “emergency clauses”, and the committee agreed that “…it didn’t want to precipitate a crisis” and would consider removing the emergency clauses before sending the bills up to Joint Ways and Means on Monday.  But, the committee seemed oblivious to the function of the emergency clauses, and unaware that removing them is going to delay the process of resolving these matters before the Supreme Court and prevent the 2019 Legislature from cleaning up after any mess made by all of this (if there is any mess).  It was painfully obvious that no member of the Committee had bothered to read the dash-10 amendment, which we learned from commentary was NOT a Tim Knopp-originated bill, but was a product of a group of luminaries called the Oregon Business Council (which counts among its sponsors the four big Universities - UO, PSU, OSU, and OHSU - as well as my wife’s former private employer, and every major large corporation in Oregon).  This seemed to lend the dash-10 amendment a caché that brooked no criticism and near awe from members of the Committee and certainly the agencies and Union testimony. (Edit:  more than one person has suggested that they detect the fingerprints of former Labor Leader, Kulongoski staffer, Kitzhaber staffer, and Oregonian occasional columnist, Tim Nesbitt on the OBC dash-10 amendment.  I have no evidence one way or the other, but it is an interesting rumor about a labor traitor).

All that said, the Committee announced (in effect) that it was throwing up its hands on PERS, that it could come to no consensus on the bills or amendments, and that it would forward both SB 559 and SB 560 and ALL NINE amendments to the Joint Ways and Means Committee with no recommendation.  Only Senator Laurie Monnes-Anderson objected to this approach, feeling that the Committee was abdicating its responsibility for recommending policy to Joint Ways and Means - a budget committee that normally does not make policy.  This drew agreement from Senators Taylor and Gelser, but no change to strategy.  The form of what goes up remains to be seen on Monday.  Editorial amendments were promised, like taking out the emergency clauses, but a date with Legislative Counsel may change that when they realize what removing those clauses does to the legislation.  Again, they seem completely oblivious to the language pertaining to the decoupling of the assumed rate and the annuitization rate for Money Match retirements (and since dash-3 is still in play, other retirement forms as well if they involve a beneficiary or alternative payee or disability).  They seemed to want to provide a date certain (like 1/1/18) for the effective date of the changes and think that removing the emergency clause would do that, but I don’t see it that way unless either the dash-3 amendment is changed significantly, or somebody actually reads the language related to the same issue in the dash-10 amendment.  Again, the Committee seems to think the Emergency Clause itself is the issue, but that’s a red herring (read my previous post for an explanation of why the emergency clause is there).

So what makes this darker?  First, no effective representation of member interests in the ONLY meeting in which you would have been directly allowed to testify.  That signals apathy, and encourages malice (it sends a message of resignation to Legislators that PERS members are resigned to being screwed over some more).  Second, a complete abdication by the the Senate Workforce Committee whose function was to recommend policy changes, and it punted to Joint Ways and Means.  This empowers Ways and Means to literally do whatever they feel is necessary to make the budget balance, and PERS is a large component of their thinking about ways of balancing the budget.  No more likely public hearings; virtually everything in Joint Ways and Means will be done in closed session except possibly final votes or invited testimony.  The voice of critics has effectively been silenced, and control has passed from a policy committee that didn’t recommend policy to a budget committee concerned only with budgets but being given the opportunity to choose from a cafeteria menu of many expensive (to members) options without any constraint on committee members.  Oh, I encourage you to write to members of the Joint Ways and Means Committee to express your concerns, but I don’t expect those letters, emails, or phone calls to have much impact.

Anything that happens from this point forward will probably come as a surprise to all members.  While I had hoped that members would have something specific to target for Ways and Means, the complete refusal of the Senate Workforce Committee to take a principled stand on these measures, and the complete apathy of affected members have left the door open for any and all of the possible concepts introduced in SB 559 and SB 560 (and all its many and varied amendments) to become reality.

Moreover, there seems to be a cavalier attitude among many of either of two views:  (1) the Supreme Court will invalidate most or all of these; or (2) I can’t do anything about this because I’m not close enough to retirement to matter; I’m generally screwed.  With the possible exception of the $100,000 FAS cap (still there mind you), I see virtually all of the changes meeting the prospective test of the Moro Court.  So, depending on what ultimately comes out of Ways and Means, there is a high probability that much will be upheld as meeting the Moro standard of prospective.  As for those who say, I’m screwed, let me remind you that the graveyard of history is filled with victims who never raised their voice against the injustices perpetrated again them.  I’m not blaming the victim here, yet, but I do have to remind you that there has been an opportunity presented and then squandered.  From here on out, it becomes much harder to make the kinds of changes that might have happened in Workforce if there had been a more concerted effort to get out and actually protest the changes in real time.

So, the original “You Want It Darker” post a couple of weeks ago, has now become “You’ve got it darker”.  Remember, I’m only the messenger.

NB.  Even if the Senate Workforce Committee successfully removes the Emergency Clauses from everywhere in the two bills, there is nothing to stop the Joint Ways and Means Committee from adding them back if it means revenue sooner, or litigation resolved sooner.  In fact, I expect this would happen to facilitate getting the litigation started immediately.  Second, by making no recommendations, not only does Ways and Means have a cafeteria menu of choices, they could also gut and stuff either SB 559 or SB 560 or both to do whatever they wanted to PERS members.  Finally, and this may not be obvious, but from Monday forward, we will be in a nearly complete information blackout with Joint Ways and Means operating largely in the dark, leaving all members in the dark, leaving me in the dark except for the few inside contacts I may have.  Not only does this NOT REDUCE STRESS, it may actually INCREASE STRESS because now we will have little to no advance warning what is coming, and only the projected close date of the legislature of June 23 or the mandatory close date of July 8 to guide us.  As I’ve tried to say, you’ve now got the worst of all worlds while trying to make your decisions.  Tim Knopp’s assurances that “…we don’t want to precipitate a crisis” is meaningless.  Just remember that Betsy Johnson (DINO in chief) is a significant player in Ways and Means, and she was Knopp’s partner in crime in the pre-session PERS Workgroup with a particular animus towards inactive members (of which Dash-10 makes all dual ORP-PERS members the newest victims of Betsy’s animus).  (EDIT:  The dash-15 amendment, introduced 4/14 removes the emergency clause from the original bill, but retains it all of the amendments.  You are left to your own devices to figure out what that scam is about).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Bottomless Lake (Again, A Long Post)

Did you ever feel like you are falling into an abyss with no bottom?  If you haven’t, then you aren’t a still-not-retired PERS member.  Today brought the latest salvo from a malign, myopic, and malignant group of Republican frat boys in the Senate  who have wet dreams just thinking about ways to screw all PERS members not yet retired.  It came in the form of a 52 page amendment to Senate Bill 560, that seems to consolidate the various features of the 8 previous amendments to the bill, while adding a few new bits drawn from other bills (SB 559, SB 913, HB 3103), and sparing no one not yet retired from the mercenary greed of employers who simply don’t want to pay for the retirement benefits they promised when you started work.  Of course, they will  state piously that accrued benefits won’t be touched, but that is laughable after reading this bill.  Of course, it might just be true, but would require PERS to do mathematical gymnastics that would make Stephen Hawkings’ symptoms 10 times worse just thinking about the math.   In short, I know no other less-offensive way of saying this, but SB560-10 is a royal clusterfuck to anyone still drawing a breath but not PERS benefits.  Oh, and there is advance notice, sort of.  I’ll explain below.

First, for a possibly good piece of news.  The dash 10 amendment conspicuously removes the egregious FAS salary cap of $100,000 previously proposed in an earlier amendment.  Just to douse your good feelings, do be aware that all of the 9 amendments remain in play, so this might be one of those magician’s tricks to get you looking at the big object, while they busily perform sleight of hand to distract you from the smaller object.   Don’t get excited yet.  Remember the axiom:  objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

Now for the elements of the bill, made necessarily brief to keep this post readable.  They are in order of my memory, not the order they appear in the amendment:

1.  5 year average instead of 3 for Final Average Salary (this is actually from SB 559, but seemingly greatly elaborated here).

2.  Lowering the Full Formula service multipliers from their current 1.67% and 2.0% for Tiers 1 and 2, and from 1.5% and 1.8% for OPSRP to some UNKNOWN amount.  This version removes the specific 1.0% and 1.2% multipliers and literally replaces them with blanks, to be filled in at some point so you can be surprised.  I’m guessing that the numbers will be higher than the 1.0% and 1.2%, but still significantly lower than they are now.  This might be their way of waiting until the end to fill the “right” numbers to make the budget balance.  Beware of blank spaces on forms.

3.  Redirecting the employee contribution from the IAP to a individual pension account that basically serves to offset some employer liability for paying out its part of your pension.  This isn’t new, but what is new is that the statutory requirement for employee contributions has been amended from its current mandatory 6% to a vague series of blanks ranging from a low of ___% to a high of ___%.  Again, because of the labor contracts, it is likely that employers will have to offset elimination of the pickup with a salary increase for many employees, but what is diabolical is that by changing the mandatory contribution from 6% to some range, I can envision the employee contribution being made artificially low so that the employers will only have to offset a small part of your salary.  The rub here, of course, is that it requires PERS reevaluate member (employee) contributions every two years and recommend lowering or raising them to meet whatever targets are set for the employee to contribute to his/her own retirement.  Of course, that won’t require a salary offset because the contracts will have negotiated out the replacement for the pickup and will have no language to anticipate this potential time bomb (unless Unions are smart enough to see this coming). It kind of makes you wonder whether members will get the same benefits as employers when employee contribution rates are calculated.  Will there be smoothing?  Will there be rate collars and all the other ways that the PERB and employers have come up with to lead us down the path we find ourselves in today.  Employer greed knows no bounds.

4.  Cutting the annuity rate for Money Match retirements.  This was confusing and confused in the dash-3 amendment.  The current revision is clearer now, but you have to search very hard through the existing statutes to reassure yourself that it only affects annuities for Money Match retirements.  Instead of committing to a fixed rate of 3.5%, they have instead substituted a reference to the annuity rate recommended by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, an entity that governs private sector pension insurance and sets minimum interest rates on annuities from private pension plans.  This rate is variable and changes periodically, up or down, with the economy.  Rest assured that the current figure sits around 3.5% or possibly a bit lower (I really didn’t bother to look).  The most important fact here is that this change is the ONLY change that does NOT take effect on January 1, 2018.  This piece takes effect on passage of the bill and its signature by the Governor, if this piece of the bill survives that far.  Thus, if you are not willing to gamble, if you know you’ll be retiring under Money Match (a few very long term Tier 1s still working, plus a boatload of inactive Tier 1s) you might want to give serious thought to a May 1, 2017 exit.  I’ve noted elsewhere and in comments that because of the process involved in getting this bill to “YES” is going to take awhile, it is likely you could wait until June 1, 2017.  But, trust me, waiting an additional month isn’t going to make a noticeable difference in your pension, so I still advise May 1, 2017 to play it safe.  But again, ONLY if you are 100% certain that Money Match is going to be your mode of retirement.  If not, then you can wait until December 1, 2017 to retire without feeling the effects of any of the above changes, and this one is irrelevant to Full Formula retirements).  Please also note that the biggest victims will be those people, inactives primarily, who aren’t paying attention.

5.  Elimination of further accruals of sick leave and vacation time AFTER 12/31/17 that apply to FAS.  All existing accruals will be honored through 12/31/17.  After then, you can still accrue sick leave and vacation time as before; they just won’t add anything to the calculation of your FAS at retirement.  This piece, plus the longer averaging period, combine to lower FAS in most cases by possibly as much as 10%.  Add the fact that the statutory 6% contribution will likely be lowered, and the salary offset equally lowered, will also serve to diminish FAS going forward.  For long term employees with lots of accrued sick leave and vacation time, this probably won’t have a huge effect in the near term after January 1, 2018.  But for younger employees, the effect could be more noticeable.  (Edit:  One additional question does arise in all this.  I wonder how use of sick leave post-January 1, 2018 will be charged. Is it FIFO - first in, first out, which would be a real downer - or LIFO - last in, first out, which would be the desired outcome.  If you are in a union, this is something you might want to ask because it WILL make a difference if you need to use sick leave Edit Later:  I just discovered that Tim Knopp introduced a dry run of this particular concept in the 2016 short session that explicitly states that the implementation is to be FIFO, which confirms my worst fear about this piece of the bill.  Far from being a benign freezing of benefits already accrued, you’d be going backwards to withdraw from your accrued sick leave if you used any after 1/1/18.  This makes this malignant instead of benign).

6.  Declares Oregon University System members who left PERS in 1996 to join the ORP to be officially inactive PERS members.  Allows ORP members in this situation to move PERS funds (employee accounts only, not employer match) to ORP and sever all relationship with PERS.  Under the current scenario, this would be foolish to do because the employer match is worth nearly as much (if not slightly more) than the member account balance in the inactive PERS Tier 1 account.  Why would any sane person sacrifice half their benefit?  It also permits Community Colleges to form their own ORP for existing and new employees.  There are some other provisions here, which seem to let those who chose to remain in PERS rather than ORP, transfer membership again to the ORP but without the employer contributions tagging along.  This is only sensible for a new member just realizing the disaster that they’ve signed up for.

7.  Eliminates some forms of buyback of service time for employees who leave the system before retirement and withdraw the member account balance.  To be more specific, it limits the ability of members who withdrew from the system and they rehired back into the system from buying back the service time they cashed out when leaving the first time.

8.  Orders immediate recalculation of employer rates to reflect savings from these changes.  What a ginormous, bigly surprise.  Let’s spend the money again before the court rules on the legality of some or all of the changes.  That’s the same mistake made in 2013; these idiots never learn.

9.  Declares an emergency and establishes the bill as effective on passage.  Aside from 4 and 8 above, none of the other features actually take effect until 1/1/18, as clearly stated in the bills various parts.  The real purpose of the emergency clause in this case is to start the clock rolling for the Supreme Court case.  If the bill were to take effect on 1/1/18 and not on passage, any litigation would be viewed as “not ripe” until the bill actually took effect.  This would, in turn, make it unlikely that a court decision would be rendered until it is too late in the 2019 Legislative session, delaying any budget adjustments until at least 2020.  This way, the legal ball can start rolling the minute the bill is signed into law.  The clock is very short.  Litigation against any part of this bill has to be filed with the Supreme Court within 60 days of the bill’s effective date; hence the emergency clause.

As is evident from the above, the frat boys put a lot of effort into making sure that all categories of PERS members from all Tiers, of all ages, and from all retirement forms get hammered pretty good by this obnoxious piece of legislation.  Not only do they force you to stare into the bottomless lake, they are also dosing you with Sarin gas while you are looking.  I sense two things are going to happen regardless of how this all plays out ultimately.  There are 70,000+ PERS members eligible to retire today.  The previous record for most retirements in one year came back in 2003, when nearly 19,000 PERS members retired.  I’m guessing that this year the number will break that record by at least a factor of 2.  My private betting is on 40,000, which creates a monstrous problem for PERS itself.  Not only do they not have the resources to manage a retirement load of this size, they have begged the Legislature not to do anything that would inspire a “race to the door”.  This bill virtually guarantees the very thing that PERS warned against.  If this happens, and the court does not uphold many of these proposed changes, the PERS UAL will increase again, employer rates will rise through the roof, and we’ll be back (I won’t, but maybe someone else will) circling the same drain in 2019.  At the moment, I think our Bend frat boys ought to be on the front lines battling Bashar Al-Assad rather than pushing PERS members into the bottomless lake.

The BIG day for all this is tomorrow, April 12, in Salem.  The Senate Workforce Committee is scheduled for a public hearing (which means you can testify if you get there early enough to sign up) on how this bill, or the individual amendments -2 to -9, plus SB 559 (which seems irrelevant in the context of this bill, but never underestimate the strategy of our frat boy pranksters from Bend) directly affects you and your family.  The meeting is at the Capitol at 3:00 p.m. in Hearing Room A.  The room isn’t huge, but I would love to see it packed inside and outside with hundreds of PERS members affected by this (these) bill (s), and as many people testifying as possible.  Keep your testimony short and too the point.  I can be cavalier, nasty,  and accuse them of malice and stupidity.  I wouldn’t counsel YOU to do that to their faces.  But, to many of these people, PERS is simply a math problem or a financial problem, it doesn’t really involve people’s lives, often into their 90s or beyond.  Your job should be to remind them of the human cost of their decisions.

Friday, April 07, 2017

The Revolution Starts Now

After more than 10 weeks in session, two PERS bills are scheduled for Work Sessions.  These bills are SB 559 and SB 560, both of which have been discussed a number of times in the posts below.  SB 559 is a relatively straightforward bill that attempts to stretch the computational period for Final Average Salary (FAS) from 3 years to 5 years.  The rationale is simple.  If your salary is averaged over 60 months instead of 36, there is a strong chance that your FAS will be lower than if it had been calculated based only on a 36 month average.    It’s effect is unclear on those still working and who are Tier 1, or even Tier 2.  Because the Legislature has to preserve accrued benefits, it can be argued that the 36 month average is a benefit you accrued while working and that the worst anyone could do would be to blend your service periods and use a 3 year average for your pre 2018 work, and a 5 year average for the post-2017 work, producing some obscure and hard-to-calculate weighted average.  I don’t envy PERS if this passes.

SB 560 is a far more harsh bill, although the amendments (not accepted yet; that has to happen in a work session) strip some of its obnoxiousness and replaces it with other obnoxious stuff.  Taken as a package - the original bill, and the 8 amendments - the bill would redirect the employee 6% pickup to some account that would no longer be accessible to the individual like the IAP is today.  It would also cap FAS at $100,000 max, but again the mechanics of this are uncertain and will cause havoc for everyone trying to figure out (especially for Tier 1s) how to implement a bill that preserves the current “no limit” on FAS,while permitting the arbitrary $100,000 FAS.  It is going to be a mess to calculate, and you can expect some ugly litigation over this one.  Moreover, the bill stops further accruals of sick leave and vacation time for FAS purposes (but permits use of accruals prior to 1/1/2018), it changes the vesting length for PERS membership from 5 years to 10 years, alters the statutory accrual factors for Tiers 1, 2, and OPSRP from their current (general service, P&F) 1.67 (Tier 1 & 2), 2.0 (P&F Tier 1 and 2), and OPSRP (1.5 and 1.8), to a flat 1.0% for general service (all tiers) and 1.2% for Police and Fire (all Tiers).  The bill also tries to decouple the existing assumed rate, currently used by PERS for all calculations pertaining to the time value of money, from the pension annuity rate (usually the same as the assumed rate).  The bill proposes to use a pension annuity rate of 3.5%. 

All features of SB 559 and SB 560 are scheduled to take effect on 1/1/2018 EXCEPT for the last item listed - the decoupling of the assumed rate from the pension annuity rate.  That change takes effect on passage, although the language in the bill is a bit confusing in requiring PERS to start using the new factors on 7/1/17. 

These work sessions are both schedule in the Senate Workforce Committee on April 17, 2017 at 3 p.m.  (Hearing Room A, I believe).  There is also another public hearing on SB 560 on April 12 in the same place at the same time.  The ONLY way you can have any impact on this is to show that you care enough to try to attend these work sessions.  They are often tedious and technical, but you can learn a lot by going.  If you don’t go, you are also sending a message that you aren’t concerned, even though there might be perfectly legitimate reasons for not going.  I assure you that Legislators do notice your presence.  Also keep in mind that the Senate Workforce Committee has 3 D’s and 2 R’s meaning that the bill can’t move until a D crosses over and votes it out of committee with the 2 Rs, or all 3 Ds decide it is worthy of a whole Senate discussion and vote.   

I can’t tell you what to do.  I know what I’d do if any of this affected me.  I would mark my calendar and figure out a way to get to Salem, early is better, and try to buttonhole a couple of the committee members before the meeting and let them know just how strongly you feel against these bills.  Both bills are bad; SB 560 is decidedly worse.  If ever it was time, the revolution starts now.

 

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Flowers In Your Hair

It was time.  Today I changed the theme of the blog to a more modern look.  I’m still tinkering, trying to get all the various widgets where I’d like them.  So far as I can tell, everything that is supposed to be here is here, but it may take people awhile to get used to the new format.  Let me know in the comments what you like, what you dislike.  I can’t promise I’ll change it, but I plan to move some things around.  Plus ça change; plus la meme chose.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Ain't Gonna Do It No More

Just a quick bit of news today.  In a tersely worded email to members of the Senate Workforce Committee, PERS Executive Director Steve Rodeman and PERS Consulting Actuary Matt Larrabee told the Committee that they were "sick and tired of answering the same questions over and over again from ill-prepared Committee members.”  They further noted that “… if the members would simply bother to read the Statutes and Administrative Rules, the answers to their questions would be self-evident and would save PERS time and money sending two highly compensated individuals to waste time with people who obviously don’t have the time and interest to do the job they’re getting PERS benefits to do”.  They concluded with the admonition to “…find your own flunkies to do your work.  We’re so done."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye

Well, here we are two full months into the legislative session with not a single PERS bill having gotten a committee work session.  Most of the action is taking place in the Senate Workforce Committee, where Senator Kathleen Taylor has been running a very tight ship.  There have been four or five information sessions on various PERS bills with various experts and attorneys, but no work session scheduled on any bill through agendas posted for as late as April 3.  While it is too early to write these bills off, it certainly appears that few will survive this year’s legislature.  However, the most likely candidate is Senate Bill 560, which has already been substantially changed by gutting pages 2-16 of the original bill, and with 7 amendments replacing the gutted part.  The 6% pickup diversion is unlikely to fly, not because of constitutional issues, but because of union issues.  We learned from testimony on March 22, that SEIU has had language going back to the origin of the pickup (1979) calling for a salary increase to offset any requirement that the employee pay his/her own 6% from salary.  SEIU negotiated a contract in 2016 that has members paying their own 6% pickup, while the state gave a 6% raise to offset it, plus another 0.95% in cost-of-living increases.  We don’t know the status of other contracts, especially for local bargaining units, but likely has similar language in their contracts, or unions will use SEIU’s leverage to obtain a similar deal.  That leaves the FAS cap of $100,000, the five-year FAS computation (instead of 3), the totally confused idea to cap the annuity rate on retirement (I say confused because the clear intent of this is to limit the annuity rate for future Money Match retires, which are fewer and fewer in number, but the bill isn’t worded that way).  That drew a rebuke from Steve Rodeman, Executive Director of PERS, who cautioned the committee that they really didn’t want to go where the bill was heading, simply because annuity rates figure in all sorts of calculations.  He urged the Committee to work with him and Legislative Counsel to get the wording right; otherwise, the bill is courting difficulty.  Other pieces of the bill would cut the statutory formula rate (currently 1.67% for Tier 1 regular; 2% for P&F; ditto for Tier 2; lower for OPSRP) from its current level to 1.0% for general service, and 1.2% for P&F.  These are serious cuts, but would apply only to service performed on or after 1/1/2018.

 The theoretical “drop dead” date for bills to get a hearing is April 18, 2017.  Of course, there are a variety of parliamentary maneuvers that can extend the deadline all the way to sine die on July 8, 2017.  So, there is no reason to become complacent about the April date, although it may give some breathing room to those inclined to anxiety disorders.

People continue to ask me about “best” dates to retire.  I wish I could give a definite answer, but every situation is unique.  The only piece of SB 560 that doesn’t take effect on January 1, 2018, is the decoupling of the Money Match annuity rate from the assumed interest rate.  That piece is currently structured to take effect on passage, which could be anytime after May 1, 2017.  But that particular piece requires redrafting to remove the complex language that Rodeman warned against; that will require time.  Taylor and Knopp (committee vice-Chair) have agreed that they have to make decisions about bills to move to work sessions within the “…next three weeks”.  But complicating (or not, depending on your viewpoint) their decisions are some hard political realities.  After 2013, the Democrats don’t want to be tarred with another failed attempt to reform PERS.  In 2013, they sold their souls to the devils, Kitzhaber and the Rs in the Legislature, to achieve two different objectives - reforming PERS and providing small business tax cuts.  The Ds favored the former; the Rs the latter.  The “Grand Bargain” was struck when those two pieces secured enough opposition votes to pass both.  Unfortunately, the PERS cuts were largely overturned by the Supreme Court, while the latter quietly got lost in the shuffle and now add to the state’s growing deficit.  The Ds learned their lesson from that experience, and aren’t likely to agree to more PERS cuts without the Rs coming along with them on measures to raise revenue (some sort of Corporate tax), and also a transportation package to fix Oregon’s crumbling roads and highways.   The PERS bills are all R bills this time; they can’t pass without a couple of Ds going along.  To get out of committee, SB 560 needs all Rs and at least one D.  To pass in the House, all the Rs have to go along, and at least 4 (or 5) Ds have to go along, as well as the Governor.  But, those votes won’t come without R cooperation on the two big D objectives this session.  There will be a lot of back room deals being cut.  The reason for this extended sojourn into the political theatre, is to underscore how hard it will be to handicap the likelihood of PERS reform passing in the absence of these other pieces.  Thus, if you think you are going to retire under Money Match (remember, this isn’t YOUR choice; PERS chooses the best outcome for you), you may want to give serious consideration about going no later than May 1, 2017 (right now potential FF retirees aren’t protected under the current version of the 560-3 amendment, but we are optimistic this will change once Rodeman and LC get involved with the committee) because of the possibility that SB 560 will pass into law between May 1 and July 8 (no predictions offered there; you are on your own).  If you KNOW you aren’t going to retire under Money Match, then it is probably safe to wait until after the Legislature adjourns but not any longer than December 1, 2017.  If you are in doubt, be sure to do, at least, the PERS online estimator.  You might be surprised.  (It goes without saying that the PERS Coalition intends to litigate any changes; but this will present somewhat of a generational conflict, since many of the changes will affect younger OPSRP workers much harder than the “lame duck” Tier 1 and Tier 2 members).

To cap this epistle, I recall a line uttered by Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson (D) when she remarked that “…I guess the best thing would be for Tier 1's to die”.  She regretted it the moment it came out, but it is an unspoken truth, so those of you who are Tier 1 (retired or otherwise) now know how the Legislature really feels about you.  And I say, longevity and health are the best revenge.  Or in the words of Chris Smither, “hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”.

 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

You Want It Darker

Just a quick post to note that SB 560 (a cornucopia of crap) and SB 913 (another capsule of crap, slightly different from SB 560) will have their first public hearing on Wednesday March 15 at 3 p.m. before the Senate Workforce Committee.  These two bills together contain an obnoxious amount of damage for potential PERS retirees and each strike in a slightly different way.  If SB 560 isn’t to your liking, try SB 913.  Both cover similar turf, although SB 913 contains a really ugly piece that isn’t a part of SB 560.  That ugliness takes the form of a decoupling of the actuarially assumed interest rate (used for valuing the fund, setting employer rates, determining Tier 1 earnings), and the annuity rate, used for setting benefit levels for retirees over a large class of individuals.  It would be good if affected, or potentially affected, individuals showed up for the hearing.  You won’t be able to testify on the 15th because it is invited testimony only from the experts at PERS, State Lawyers, and probably PERS Coalition Lawyers who will try to sort out the probably illegal from the possibly legal aspects of each of these bills.  We already know that the 6% redirection isn’t likely to fly, but I’ve already heard rumors that the bills principal Sponsor, Senator Tim Knopp, has at least half a dozen amendments ready for SB 560, the more “benign” version of the two bills.  It is only benign because it gives members until December 1, 2017 to get out before being affected; SB 913 takes effect on passage, which means that you’d probably need to be out of the system (i.e. retired) by absolutely no later than May 1, 2017 (preferably April 1 to be certain).

In any case, while there is no reason to hit the panic button yet, if you are already thinking about retiring during 2017, you might want to give some thought to how you might manage an April 1 or May 1 retirement.  While I continue to hear rumors that the Ds aren’t willing to support any of the bills dropped by the Rs, the problem remains that there is a $1.6 billion (or $1.7 or $1.8 depending on day of week and who is quoting the figure) shortfall between budget needs and revenue, there is a desperate need for a transportation package, and the Ds don’t have a strong enough majority to pass any revenue increases without buy-in from at least 3 or 4 Rs.  So, there is the dark version of this year’s legislature in a nutshell.

You’ve been warned.  At the very least, be sure to watch the recording of the meeting on March 15.  The Legislature posts the feed shortly after the committee adjourns.  Then you will have more information than I can provide you here. 

This site will go dark next week for a short while as I will be out of town and unable to post.

 

 

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Rough God Goes Riding

This is just a quick note to alert affected PERS members that SB 913 has dropped.  This bill, introduced by one of the dynamic trio (Moe, Curly, and Larry)  of Central and Eastern Oregon legislators, attempts to throw just about everything against the wall to see what sticks.  In addition to duplicating HB 3013 on the assumed interest rate, this bill goes after issues related to vesting and inactive membership, and just to put the icing on the cake, makes some changes to OUS Optional Retirement Plan that makes sure that the pain is shared amongst all eligible public employees.  I haven’t had time to analyze this bill closely.  I’ve read it briefly, and the Warren Zevon line:  “…send lawyers, guns and money, the shit has hit the fan” is apt once again.  Warren anticipated just about every circumstance (except for Send in the Freaks, which is a Was/Was Not epistle).  All I can say to people is that most of the cards are out on the table.  If you stay voluntarily past April 1, 2017, you are taking a chance.  Don’t say you haven’t been warned.  The Rs in the Legislature are doing a full-court press on the Ds, and the Ds don’t have the votes to override a Governor’s veto.  So, be afraid, very afraid. (There is some confusion over this statement.  Consider this primarily in the context that the Ds also don’t have enough votes to pass any revenue measure without Republican support, and the quid pro quo for that support might be support for a or some PERS measures.  Hence, the problem with a Governor veto).  For those of you stuck past April 1, 2017, you have my sympathy, and hope that you will work really hard to help the Legislature understand that Ballot Measure 5 (1990) is the REAL ENEMY here, having given citizens one of the highest personal income taxes in the nation, a mediocre property tax, and businesses a nearly 30-year holiday against paying their own way in this state.  I’m hoping that our rough god does his work on Don McIntire (already deceased) and Bill Sizemore (one can hope), for gifting this state with the biggest, smelliest turd ever.  I pray nightly that their souls will burn in hell for eternity.  They’ve given Oregon the gift that keeps on taking and taking and taking.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Gentle On My Mind

There seems to be some confusion about the recent spate of posts about proposed changes to PERS.  To gentle the minds of those already retired, none of these bills propose to do anything to anyone already retired, or to anyone retiring before any of these bills are enacted (if at all).  So those of you already retired can spare your anguish, and return to your (hopefully) relaxing retirement.  All these bills target those still working and those not working for a PERS agency, but not yet retired.  While I think that targeting the next generation to pay for our retirements, it really is no different than Social Security.  It isn’t fair, but it is life.  I oppose it on principle, and will fight like hell to keep any of these obnoxious bills from taking effect, but the reality is that there is no other way to pay for PERS without a general tax increase aimed at businesses that have gotten away with tax murder since the passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990.  As far as I can tell, payback for those businesses is a bitch, but it is necessary.