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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Still Crazy After All These Years

Or at least months. Betsy Hammond and the Oregonian have both claimed their places in my private vision of hell - a place shared with driving through Beaverton at rush hour, and accompanied by the overstuffed sacks of mouse turds, Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Nye, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Billy Dalto, Wayne Scott, and Karen Minnis. Steve Law's article on PERS in yesterday's Salem Statesman Journal was picked up by the AP and reprinted in the Eugene Register Guard and the Seattle Times. It is pretty pathetic when the Oregonian ignores an opportunity to undo some of their past damage, while the Seattle Times finds it newsworthy enough to report. Apparently some people are too biased or stubborn to learn from their mistakes, or too stupid to recognize they've made them in the first place.

P.S. PERS has a new summary study of Replacement Ratios posted at their website today. I'm sure Betsy and the Oregonian will find some way to use this document to villify more PERS retirees. I can hardly wait to see what kind of "picking and choosing" will take place with these data. After all, we don't seem to be getting poorer fast enough.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Waiting on the World to Change

Or at least for Betsy Hammond and the Oregonian to change. It seems that the Salem Statesman Journal has found religion and has decided to report on the PERS situation as it is now, not as it was once upon a time. Steve Law's piece in today's Statesman-Journal does an excellent job of summarizing all the recent data PERS has compiled on the effects of the various changes brought about by the 2003 reform legislation, the litigation, and the settlement agreement in the City of Eugene case. As I've been trying to explain to Betsy Hammond and the Oregonian, the lame canards of the past are no longer germane to any report on the state of PERS today. I challenge Betsy Hammond and the Oregonian to get off their collective nasty, biased, a**es and write a fair piece about the current state of PERS and recent PERS retirees. Moreover, I want to see such an article NOT repeat any "used to be" stories and partial truths. But if she does, at least put it in a relevant context, such as that which Steve Law does. Otherwise, we've heard it all before and it is no more relevant today than it was when the Oregonian first reported it years ago. The Oregonian needs to stop resting on its Pulitzers and get back to the job that won those awards - first rate reporting, accurately and fairly! You don't need to be the anti-government hacks your absentee East Coast owners seem to expect. Be independent. Get some intelligence. Give people the NEWS, not your biased opinion. Oh, and in case you want to read some enlightened reporting, you can read Mr. Law's piece here.

We'll be watching you Ms. Hammond. Will you be a mensch and report fairly, or will you continue to massage the data into another anti-public employee screed, or will you simply ignore the topic altogether because it doesn't conform to your biased world-view?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

American Idiot

As observant readers may have noted, I have taken a special dislike to Betsy Hammond, the Oregonian reporter currently assigned to cover PERS stories. I've never met Ms. Hammond, nor do I want to, but her "over-the-top" coverage of PERS issues has particularly infuriated me. Rarely have we witnessed such blatant examples of media bias than reading Ms. Hammond's recent articles. While Ms. Hammond may not write the headlines to these articles, the articles persist in repeating old canards, distorted choices of "facts", and overall loathing of public employees and their unions. At the same time, she gives a free-pass to public employers who contributed more to the unfunded actuarial liability (UAL) that led to the "crisis" of 2003 than anything done by unions, retirees, or active members. By Ms. Hammond's own admission, the 1991 - 1999 employer rates were artificially low and contributed significantly to the system's shortfall that emerged when the stock market boom turned into a bust in mid-2000. This fact has been carefully omitted from any of the hit pieces done on public employees; apparently, the Public Employers have managed to get the Oregonian to drink the Kool-Aid and the Oregonian's sympathies are obviously with the employers, not the employees. Ms. Hammond (as well as her prececessors) fails to report this crucial detail in any of her recent pieces, but she gleefully repeats the fact that some PERS members retired at more than their pre-retirement income. At this point, who the f*ck cares? It's no longer relevant. Employers have successfully played both sides of the street from the middle - victors and victim simultaneously. Not bad if you can do it. And it is especially sweet if you can get the local newspaper to pimp for you.

Despite repeated complaints (not by me) to Ms. Hammond and to all cognizant Oregonian editors and to the publisher, Ms. Hammond has yet to write a piece that honestly reports how specifically the stock market returns, the reform legislation, the settlement of the City of Eugene case, and all the litigation have dramatically changed the picture of PERS' finances and those of past and recent retirees. Tom Grimsley, a PERS Board member, has protested this persistence of misleading information in an OP-ED piece in the Eugene Register Guard a few weeks ago. I've repeated that in its entirety in an earlier blog entry. In addition, PERS itself just released the 2006 update to its invaluable "PERS: By the Numbers", which you can read for yourself here.

If, in the face of all this updated information, the Oregonian, in general, and Ms. Hammond, in particular, fails to report on this very newsworthy document, it merely underscores its own bias, and earns Ms. Hammond a special place in my "American Idiot" Hall of Fame.

So, Ms. Hammond, are you going to take up the challenge of reporting up-to-date and accurate information about the fiscal status of PERS and the status of retirees since 2003? Or, are you going to keep your anti-public employee chip on your shoulder? Between Bob Caldwell's single-minded decision to have the Oregonian endorse Ron Saxton, and your continued assassination of public employees, it is little wonder that the Oregonian's paid circulation has one of the largest declines of large metro newspapers in the country. Clue: it ain't just the Internet contributing to the Oregonian's decline. Look in the mirror.

P.S. I hope all my readers have a wonderful Thanksgiving. I'm cooking for a big crowd of friends and family and will be taking time off from my anti-Oregonian crusade until Thanksgiving. But, have no fear. As Ahhhnold says in The Terminator - "I'll be back".

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Donkey Town

Lots of reasons to call Portland "Donkey Town" (in a deliberately pejorative sense). The Oregonian and its lead PERS donkey, Betsy Hammond, really do suffer from an incredible bias, which is shown every time Ms. Hammond writes anything about PERS. Compare the Oregonian headline (from today's edition) "Schools' 2007-08 rates for PERS at record high", with the Salem Statesman Journal's headline for the identical subject "Lower PERS rates mean most public agencies will see savings". Ms. Hammond always focuses on the "half empty" glass, while others seem to see the "half-full". Now, just to prove that it isn't just the headline that is biased, consider a couple of internal quotes in the Oregonian article: "This is great news", quoting Mike Pittman, PERS Board chair, and "Overall, those two developments [huge returns, court upheld reforms] mean that state, local school districts and local governments are saving a collective $600 million or more per year...", and finally "Portland Public Schools will pay almost nothing in retirement costs apart from debt payments it must make on pension bonds it sold". I'm having a hard time reconciling the unfathomly biased headline with the actual news reported. Of course, Ms. Hammond manages to find a way to stick the knife in yet again - as if she has some sort of weird defect that causes her to repeat this same fact again and again regardless of the context - that *some* (about 4.5% of ALL) retirees from 2000 - 2004 managed to retire at more than their pre-retirement income. News flash to Betsy: "no shit Sherlock. Your investigative reporter skills are just awesome, dudette!".

Oh well, we really can't expect much better from the Oregonian. With few exceptions, their reporters repeatedly demonstrate that the concept of "journalistic bias" is axiomatic. No wonder the common nicknames for the Oregonian are the BOregonian and, better still, the WHOregonian. Richly deserved for Donkey Town's asinine "newspaper".

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Little Help from My Friends

For the past several weeks leading up to today's election, there has been a media blitz from reporters and op-ed writers to remind voters that "PERS is a mess". My complaints about the Oregonian's Betsy Hammond are well-known by now, but on October 30th, the Eugene Register Guard published an Op-Ed piece by Fred Starkey, reputedly a former muckity muck with Shearson Loeb on Wall Street. The piece was about as factually out-dated as one could find and many of us wrung our hands in despair as we contemplated how we could turn the anti-PERS media tide around. How could we get the message out that the "PERS Problem" was non-existent now - between the "reforms" and the great stock returns in the past three years, PERS had righted itself, employer rates were dropping, and the system was fully solvent. Mr. Starkey managed to turn that message on its head using outdated as well as incorrect statistics from god-knows-where. Thankfully, PERS Board Member Tom Grimsley published his own reply to Mr. Starkey's misinformation in yesterday's Eugene Register Guard. I repeat Mr. Grimsley's piece here in its entirety:

After reforms, state retirement system on sound financial footing
By Thomas Grimsley
Published: Monday, November 6, 2006

Fred Starkey's Oct. 30 guest viewpoint, "Just say no to PERS
disaster," does a disservice to taxpayers and voters with outdated,
incorrect or misleading information.

The Oregon Public Employees Retirement System is on firm financial
footing, and costs to school districts, local governments and the
state are declining. Public employers are paying less as a result of
PERS reform and good investment earnings. Reform alone has saved
Oregon taxpayers close to $1 billion in the last three years.

It's true that in 2003, PERS faced financial difficulty and had a
significant gap in funding to provide the pensions promised to public
employees. However, PERS reforms approved in 2003, good investment
returns and employer pension obligation bonds dramatically
strengthened the system. Unlike Starkey's dire portrayal, the facts
show a system that is financially stable - as recently confirmed by
the system's independent actuary, Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

Starkey fails to mention that PERS is currently funded at 104 percent
when counting employer pension obligation bonds (compared to a
national average funding level of 85 percent for all public pension
systems). Even without counting employer pension obligation bonds,
PERS has banked 91 cents of every dollar needed to fund member
retirement benefits.

Employer contribution rates for PERS members will average less than 15
percent of payroll beginning July 1, 2007. Rates for many employers
will be about half that amount due to the investment leveraging effect
of their pension obligation bonds and advance deposits.

Starkey asserts, "25 percent to 30 percent of the budget for each
Oregon government entity is spent on pension costs." Not so. PERS
costs represent less than 5 percent of total state and local spending
in Oregon.

Starkey stated that PERS costs for the city of Springfield's Police
Department equal 42 percent of its budget. Springfield currently pays
less than 13 percent of the city's covered payroll, which is just a
portion of its entire budget. The Rainbow Water District's employer
rate is likewise less than 15 percent of payroll. The Eugene Water &
Electric Board's employer rate is currently higher because of unique
factors related to that entity, and not to the PERS system in general.

Starkey correctly recognizes the importance of earnings to PERS' financial
stability. But here again, his opinions are not supported by facts.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the PERS actuary, the expected
long-term investment return on PERS assets should average 8 percent,
which is the amount needed to cover costs. This expectation is not out
of line with other U.S.-based pension systems.

Moreover, PERS investment returns have averaged about 11 percent per
year over the past 35 years through a fully diversified portfolio
managed by the Oregon Investment Council.

For readers who are interested in facts rather than opinions, the PERS
Web site - http://oregon.gov/PERS - has a document titled "PERS by the
Numbers" that accurately reflects the system's funded status and
benefit levels as of last year. PERS will be updating this document
shortly with information from the most recent actuarial valuation.

Thomas Grimsley of Eugene is a member of the PERS Board of Trustees.
He has taught in the Bethel School District since 1981, and has served
as a member of the district's Joint Benefits and Insurance Committee
for the past 17 years.

Copyright © 2006 — The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA RSS

On behalf of thousands of PERS members and retirees, thank you Mr. Grimsley for taking the time to provide this important and refreshing antidote to the constant media pummelling we've been taking for the past half dozen years. Now if some investigative reporters would do their job and publish the straight facts, unselectively, perhaps the wider Oregon public might get the message.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Bottom of the Barrel

Thank god we're in the final weekend of the 2006 political campaign. If I have to see/hear/read another political ad I'm gonna barf. Politicians have no shame; they are the bottom of the barrel and deserve whatever befalls them. That said, I hope that all of you have taken the time to read your ballots carefully, mark them, and SEND THEM IN. They have to be in the hands of your local voter registrar by 8 p.m. Tuesday (November 7, 2006) night. NOT POSTMARKED but IN THEIR HANDS.

I try to stay apolitical on this blog, except for matters related to PERS. This election presented me with a bit of a challenge as I tried NOT to let PERS be the ONLY issue influencing my vote. In the end, I pulled the lever for Ted. I never considered Ron Saxton as he represented the absolute bottom of the barrel, tell them what they want to hear, beat up on public employees, make your rich friends richer, kind of candidate that I loathe and despise. Another tough call was for Supreme Court Justice. Given the judiciary's role in furthering the rape of PERS retirees, I spent a lot of time before pressing the lever for Virginia Linder. Jack Roberts has a lot of political experience, but his legal experience seemed a bit sparse for someone sitting on the Supreme Court. I'm not enamored of voting for a career judge to occupy the highest judicial seat in Oregon, but I'm less enamored of a career politician sitting anywhere, especially on the Supreme Court. I've read a few of Virginia Linder's decisions and they are well-written, well-reasoned, and take positions that I'm comfortable with. I also polled many of my friends in the legal community whose opinions I value. To a person they all recommended Linder over Roberts. That was enough for me. On the ballot measures I mostly voted no on everything. I simply do not trust the law of unintended consequences. The ballot measures may sound reasonable -- and they may be -- but I've been in Oregon long enough now to see how well-intentioned measures, ENSHRINED IN THE OREGON CONSTITUTION, are hijacked by malign interests. Constitutional amendments have too high a threshhold to get removed if they turn out to be bad public policy. Moreover, I do not think that any public policy matter should be placed in the Oregon Constitution. Statutory changes are sufficient for these and require a much lower threshhold for removing if they turn out to be "wolves in sheeps clothing." I didn't have much choice in my state representatives. I live in Richard Devlin's Senate district, and Greg MacPherson's House district. Devlin has done a good job, and he voted the right way on PERS matters. No problem there. MacPherson has done a good job too, EXCEPT for his role as the Governor's water-carrier on the House PERS Committee in 2003. The opposition was weak (was there any?), and so, absent any plausible choice, I voted for MacPherson anyway. MacPherson knows I'm still mad at his involvement in the PERS reforms. I've told him via email and in person, and continue to remind him when I run across him around my district. But, basically, his heart is in the right place. He's a bright guy and his other legislative work is really stellar.

The PERS media firestorm has calmed down a bit, although some loony Eugene writer contributed another anti-PERS screed to the Register Guard. Watch the Register-Guard for responses to this hit piece of mis- and disinformation.

Off for the premiere of Borat tonight. I need something to distract me from the malaise of election season sensory overload.