The Oregon Legislature has been in session for two full weeks now. Not one of the 23 PERS-related bills have yet been scheduled for a hearing. Rules devised by the split leadership in the House may be contributing to the slow pace of these bills. For a bill to be heard, both co-chairs of the House Business and Labor Committee (Mike Schauffler and Bill Kennemer) have to agree. For a bill to leave the committee, at least two members of each party must vote for the bill's movement. This puts a fairly high barrier to these bills and probably works to the advantage of members and retirees hanging by a thread right now waiting for the Legislature to move. Recent reports in the media have included brief quotations from various House members that make it appear that PERS bills may be difficult to move this session. There is nearly unanimous agreement amongst the movers and shakers of the Legislature that they do not want to pass any bills that will be struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court. At a minimum, this takes a few of the bill categories off the table as they would run into "contract" challenges from the Court. Adding to this is Governor Kitzhaber's desire to negotiate with the unions to "solve" some of the issues in bargaining rather than legislation. By bargaining, there is no possibility of a legal challenge. Legislation always carries a legal challenge.
If we put all this together, I'm beginning to think that there may be lots of work going on behind the scenes to consolidate some of the bills together, to drop the duplicate bills, and to bring forward only one or two larger bills that have excised some of the legal barriers.
This is no cause for celebration. PERS members *will* pay for changes somehow. I can predict what some of them will be, but it is too early to offer my comments, believe it or not. The changes will be ones that can be made without triggering a legal challenge, are permissible without triggering heat, and will demonstrate that the Legislature is trying to solve the problem. The bottom line is that PERS is actually nowhere near a trouble point that media makes it out to be. There are only a few systems nationally better funded than PERS. The latest earnings for 2010 and the fast start for 2011 PERS at nearly the 90% funded level. Most actuaries would simply yawn at that number.
This is also no reason to take your eyes off the Legislature. In fact, I'd be watching it closer than ever. But I'd also be watching the union negotiations, and the Governor's decision regarding future leadership of PERS (watch the news next week to see whether Mr. Cleary remains as the Executive Director of PERS).