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”.