KVAL: Former governor, state senator take aim at Oregon PERS challenge via initiative petition

EUGENE, Ore. – Voters could see measures on the 2020 ballot that attempt to reform Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System.

Former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat; and former state Sen. Chris Telfer, a Bend Republican, are leading the charge.

But the director of a public employees union disagrees on whether the proposals will lead to any solutions.

This is the latest effort in Oregon to try to rein in the runaway costs of the PERS system.


Telfer said those costs have risen to about $1,500 a year per household in Oregon, as state and local governments scramble to pay their obligations to current and future retirees.

“In another few years at 2025 it’s going to be $2,200,” she said, “so we just kind of have to stop the bleeding.”

The initiatives propose to transfer some of the costs to public employees themselves.

One measure gives new hires the option of going with a 401K-type of plan where employees contribute 6 percent, or join the regular pension system.

The second would have the legislature study the 401K option and mandate employee cost sharing become part of the system.

The proposals already face opposition from public employee union leadership.

“Both of these ballot measures, they don’t solve the real problem,” said Stacy Chamberlain, executive director of Oregon AFSCME. “They don’t bring down the unfunded liability.”

That unfunded liability is nearly $27 billion, a rising tab for school districts and other public employers – as well as taxpayers.

“Many of those dollars go to fund that PERS unfunded liability,” Telfer said, “and they’re not getting into the classroom.”

Absent these 2 initiatives that may or may not make the ballot, what can lawmakers do to attack this huge unfunded liability?

“I think that the first thing to do is really treat it as a debt,” Chamberlain with AFSCME said.

The state also needs to get more entities to pay their fair share, she added.

“We have corporations in the state that pay zero dollars in taxes,” the union leader said, “and we believe that corporations, good corporations, need to invest in our communities.”

Initiative petitioners have until July 2020 to collect enough signatures to put one or both ballots on the November 2020 ballot.