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Monday, August 16, 2010

A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

The usual bunch of the "sky is falling crowd" have awakened from its summer slumber to announce that PERS is in trouble. We have the Oregonian (yesterday) describing the different poisons the legislature and PERS might have to choose from to make the system less expensive, the Register-Guard whining over the conflict of interest that exists because the Legislators and the Judges are all PERS members, and Phil Keisling, new to his bully pulpit at PSU, publishing a shortened version of his PERS "white paper" in the PSU Real Estate Review (god knows, why there?).

Let's face facts. PERS is a very unpopular topic these days. Everyone from Dennis Richardson to Phil Keisling have ideas for further fixing the system. From looking over all the various suggestions, there is only one possible change that could affect a small percentage of retirees. Right now, ALL PERS retirees who worked in the system prior to October 1991 receive a "benefit increment adjustment" to offset the loss of the income tax waiver that PERS members had prior to October 1991. Some are now proposing that people who choose to live out of state should not be getting an adjustment meant to offset Oregon income taxes since they don't pay Oregon income taxes now. This is a very old topic that has been around since HB 3349 was enacted in 1995. Back then, both PERS and the Oregon Department of Revenue argued that they didn't have the resources to be the "residency police". They are worse off today than in 1995, so I'm hard-pressed to see how this bird will fly during the next session. Neither party responsible for enforcing this change wants to do it because it is a giant resource sink. The savings are comparatively small - $72 million *before* overhead. This is likely to net less than $40 million. Other grand ideas include renegotiating the 6% pickup so that employees, not employers pay the bill. This was originally negotiated in lieu of a salary increase; it is only fair then that it be renegotiated and be replaced by a salary increase. Of course, no one wants to do this; it would negate any savings that could be netted from taking away the benefit.

There are a variety of other ideas out there too. They include a forced lowering of the assumed rate. The Oregonian finally gets it that this is a money loser for the system, but it is even worse for PERS actives. This will be a very hard sell with both employers and employees initially aligned together in opposition. Another idea is to change the way PERS interprets the COLA adjustment for new retirees. Basically, what is being suggested is that new retirees not get a COLA for the first year or so after retirement. It is more complicated than this, but it relates to why so many people choose to retire on July 1. This one can be enacted by the PERS Board, but will be entangled in litigation for years if they try it.

Finally, various parties have suggested that health care benefits for actives be less generous by making active employees pay some greater share than they pay now. Again, this is a negotiation item, not a legislative action.

Between the Legislature, a new Governor, a bunch of rabble-rousers, and a hapless PERS Board that capitulates to almost anything the employers want, I can see the next year being brutal on active PERS members and new retirees. It is going to be a difficult contract negotiation for the unions, unclassified employees might find themselves with changes shoved down their throats without any option, and the Legislature could enter the act and inflict new forms of horror on actives and new retirees. A new Governor, elected on a platform of fiscal reform, could be just like our current Governor, perhaps worse, not likely better.

Get out your umbrellas. The hard rain is coming.


Bob said...

In a similar vein, OEBB is considering kicking retirees out of the insurance coverage pool, so we will not burden the active members with our illnesses etc which may raise rates. So I guess, when you retire you are expendable; maybe the Obama plan will provide some alternative to the OEBB rates which will go up for me 30% this fall, unless I can get an individual policy. Of course, I have no vote in our employee group which plan is chosen because I am retired.

harley said...

I think the current rhetoric will finally force PERS retirees to be more proactive in how they work with protect their hard earned benefits. PERS is the first revenue/expenditure item looked at every time there is a shortfall. It causes retirees enormous stress, physical and psychological which they may be able to ameliorate by being more proactive. PERS does a very poor job of advocating for it's active members much less it's retirees.
So, maybe we need to organize..any ideas?d

Thomas said...

If the state is truly short 1 billion this biennium and 2.7 billion next biennium there are going to be some interesting and tough choices the legislature will have to make. The question is will they make them. The Governor had eight years to manage spending but instead chose to grow government rather than save some money and take care of existing employees. His reset group is a pathetic excuse for his inaction.