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Monday, December 24, 2007

Gimme Some Truth

Sometime last week the PEW Charitable Trust published a document entitled "Promises With A Price: Public Sector Retirement Benefits". The document can be found here. The Oregonian, as well as the website BlueOregon have been touting this document as definitive proof that Oregon's system is the best in the country, and using the PEW findings to emphasize just how much the reforms enacted by the Oregon Legislature in 2003 are working. Here are the facts: Oregon is 110% funded. That means that there is enough money set aside right now in the fund to pay for the retirements of every public employee in the system as well as their beneficiaries and still have a billion or two left over when all is said and done. Of course, we all know that the funding level varies like the weather in response to the workings of the stock market. But the claim that the reforms of 2003 are "doing the trick" are as bogus as a $3 dollar bill. A look at the historical funding levels dispels any claim that Oregon's system was ever in trouble. While the rightwing nutcases along with a couple of democratic nutcases - the Governor and Representative Macpherson - were running around claiming the sky is falling, the worst Oregon was ever funded was in 2002, and its funding level, according to PEW, was at 92%. If you recall the 2003 Legislature, the claims were that Oregon was below 80% and falling like a rock. On this basis, the Legislature argued that it was necessary to reform PERS off the backs of the working stiffs and recent retirees. Consequently, we all took a substantial hit from the legislative reforms and as a result of the reforms, at least 18 lawsuits were filed. Eight of them were consolidated into a single case, the "Strunk". There are several federal cases, as well as cases still pending - Arken, Robinson, Robertson, White, Bell, and several more that haven't reached the filing stage. All this litigation is costly, and PERS hasn't won a single case, although they are acting as though they've completed a trifecta and a slam dunk, while billing retirees for benefits presumed (by PERS) to be paid, "in error". They've been rebuked by the court, they've been slapped with an injunction, and PERS continues to skate over the edges of these and interpret things in a light most favorable to them. They have very expensive outside counsel, whose knowledge of public pension law is, at best, questionable. In fact, a brief look at the Orrick website tells any reader that they don't even have anyone in their firm in "public" or "private" pension law.

So here we are, approaching 5 years after the Legislature's trashing of PERS, and we come to find out that all the numbers that were presented to the Legislature were just plain made up. The real numbers, cited by PEW in its study, make it clear that Oregon was, and continues to be, one of the best public pension systems in the country. If the true numbers had been made public, the level of changes to PERS could have been small, relatively uncontroversial and almost assuredly without all the litigation, uncertainty, and anger that prevails among members, retirees, unions, attorneys, the media, and the public. It took a completely outside agency with absolutely NO agenda to get to the truth. Oregon's system was never broken, and it could have been made more efficient with a few minor changes. But the rightwing wingnuts and some gullible Democrats wanted to "make their bones" off of a gigantic lie. May they now drown in their lies. Ted only has a few years left in his term and he can't run for re-election, and Greg Macpherson has some credible opposition for his run at the Oregon Attorney General's position. He is one politician that I can't wait to see gone. We have the truth now. It speaks louder than any campaign "sound bite". Let's send Greg Macpherson back to his private law practice for good. We don't need politicians who build their reputations on an outright lie.


George said...

Excellent post, Professor, but it points out a communications issue: the side which is correct in this case, ours, has consistently failed to get the correct facts and interpretations of them into the public arena.

We have consistently left the field of battle as victors, but having insufficient ability to convey any sense of that to the real stakeholders here, the Oregon voters.

The first step to winning this battle is to get the fight, and the correct account of it, before the voters, so that the PERS sham becomes a negative point in the records of those who foisted these lies on us and on Oregon.

To paraphrase Rep. Robert Goodloe Harper's famous 6/18/1898 address, we have spent "millions for defense, and not one cent to advertise it."

It's time this changed. The PERS Coalition needs to hire an effective Communications Director, raise a proper Communications budget, and start counteracting the Oregonian's line of bull and the Guvner's wall of silence.

Unless and until we are willing to do that, all our victories in court will be Pyhrric.

I have two candidates in mind. A quick look in the mirror will show you the first, and the second is Jim Dixon, who was the successful Comm. Director for the Federal Retirees Coalition in their ten-year struggle against PERS and the State of Oregon.

mrfearless47 said...

I would partly disagree with your assertion that we have failed to get the correct facts out into the public. I have spent more than 5 years trying to correct the record. Greg Hartman has been trying to correct the record. The PERS Coalition has been trying to correct the record. The problem that we've found is that no one seems willing to listen. The media has its own agenda and the facts are an inconvenient obstacle which must be ignored if they are fulfill their agenda. Same with Legislators. Same with blogs. I just spent 5 posts about this study on the progressive web site "BlueOregon" and if you go over there, not one response was directed to me, not one response recognized that my facts and those of the PEW study ended the entire discussion. Facts are boring. Facts trip up agendas. I don't think the voters care about the truth. What they care about, and if BlueOregon is a sample of public opinion it is scary out there, is how much PERS is costing THEM personally in increased taxes and fees, and how much better PERS is that their own retirement systems. PERS has its defenders, to be sure, but the vast majority of people I've discussed this with, including members of the Fourth Estate simply do not want to be bothered with actual facts. Did you see anything change when PERS started putting out its annual "PERS By The Numbers"? Any sentient being could see from that annual document that virtually all of the information out in the public is a pack of lies. PERS issues these annually with a press release. Have you ever seen an article about these numbers and how they conflict with the misinformation in the wild. What we need is to somehow get a plant into the Oregon media and get this information out via TV and newspapers. Anything coming from those with a vested interest is suspect immediately. I'm game for any idea that can put this information out widely. I'm trying hard, but my little blog doesn't attract the right readers. I need some Michael Jackson dirt, or some naughty pictures up Brittney's dress or something to liven it up, get those "others" reading my information. Otherwise the blog remains a single, central source for PERS information, but it is almost entirely preaching to the choir.

rock2it said...

I have to agree that there are a lot of agendas ou there. Newspaper and TV stations only sell with negative stories about government and public employees at every level. Just look at the Statesman Journal (a perfect example of Rupert Murdoch journalism - left no fact stand in the way of a good negative story) and it's coverage of state and local governemnts.

In todays "me" generation, the truth does not matter if it gets in the way of me getting mine before you get yours.

The choir indeed knew that PERS wasn't broken and that the numbers have and will always be influenced by Wall Street. But the Guv and McFraud saw a way to be bi-partisan and score points for future political gain.

Thanks for the blog.

Robert G. Gourley said...

"Otherwise the blog remains a single, central source for PERS information, but it is almost entirely preaching to the choir."

I belong to an organization, SEIU Local 503, half of which has no retirement plan at all. While the 2003 gutting of PERS remains an issue with us, we look at the broader issue of retirement security for all.

mrfearless47 said...


Is the reason why half the SEIU members don't have retirement plans at all because they aren't public employees?

I'm just as concerned as you about retirement security for all, but I'm a bit more selfish about my particular approach. I can't do anything for that half of your membership. I'm powerless. Unions are supposed to help all their members and I applaud SEIU for its service in trying to help out that portion of its membership without decent benefits and decent salary. I don't expect SEIU to drop everything and focus completely on the gutting of PERS. That's why the PERS Coalition exists, so that unions with a significant or total membership can participate in ongoing litigation, while retaining autonomy to pursue other agendas.

Robert G. Gourley said...

"Is the reason why half the SEIU members don't have retirement plans at all because they aren't public employees?"

Define public employee. Many among our membership work at jobs subsidized by tax dollars.

Are Blackwater workers public employees?

The previously bright line between public and private sector workers is blurring.

mrfearless47 said...


"Are Blackwater employees public employees?"

No, not any more than Safeway public employees are. Instead of being so damn into playing word and guessing games, why don't you just give us an example of who you are talking about? Home health care workers taking care of Oregon Health Plan patients? Cleaning staff at Portland Public Schools? Who?

Robert G. Gourley said...

"Instead of being so damn into playing word and guessing games, why don't you just give us an example of who you are talking about?"

As anyone who has ever been seriously involved in determining terms of employment could tell, these are not "damn word games."

There's a serious trend involved here, more and more previously called "public work" is being contracted out to the so-called "private sector" where little accountability of how tax dollars are spent is the norm. The era of the privateer is returning with a new twist. The public needs to reclaim it's own work, or see worse in the days ahead.

Frequently workers are caught in the squeeze between greedy folks and the demands of the job when "care" is the issue. We represent only a small portion of the total, more are beyond our ranks. We represent home care workers, child care workers, nursing home workers, and adult foster care workers. Such workers are not well served by "damn word games."

mrfearless47 said...

Gourley writes:

"We represent only a small portion of the total, more are beyond our ranks. We represent home care workers, child care workers, nursing home workers, and adult foster care workers. Such workers are not well served by "damn word games.""

If you had simply answered the original question, we wouldn't have been engaged in this pissing contest. I'm just as concerned about those caught on the fringes as you are. I'm just not in a position to do anything about it. So, I write about topics I can have an effect on. You write about those you can effect. We both do good things.

Robert G. Gourley said...

"If you had simply answered the original question, we wouldn't have been engaged in this pissing contest."

I concede victory to the best pisser!

There's a point in life where that's a victory to cherish.

Meanwhile though, the state of unions continues to slide,