Parlor Tricks, Public Policy, and PERS

Paul Evans

PERS is NOT the Antichrist; Public Employees are NOT the Devil.

The Oregon Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is a framework for compensation that has evolved over time. Like any policy it reflects the ideals of the men and women that established it, and it functions as a bureaucracy: with outcomes both bad and good - mostly good.

PERS is NOT the Antichrist; Public Employees are NOT the Devil.

Though it has become fashionable in the press to highlight a few cases where people will reap extraordinary benefits from the program, these instances misrepresent the larger truth.

Public Employees - those that work for the public good - are people that often opted for stronger benefits as compensation, in lieu of pay.

Private Employees - thost that work for private enterprise (and also for the public good) - are people that often opted for more "competitive pay," in lieu of benefits.

Sadly, the weakened economy has impacted workers across the board: for public employees "furloughs" went from the history books to a monthly reality. And for private and public employees alike, there are fewer jobs (and worse pay).

And there is a case for a thoughtful review of the PERS structure/system in order to adjust to the economic exigencies of our times. But we must stop allowing the PERS issue to divide us.

Employees - those of us that work for a living - have a lot in common:

We do not have Swiss Accounts.

We do not have foreign reserves shielded from taxes.

We do not benefit when a company takes jobs overseas.

And we are all mutually dependent upon a complex economic network that rewards creativity, hard work, and sustainability.

Measures 5 and 47/50 set into motion a downward spiral of government capabilities and discontent. It was the means and the ends for Sizemore, McIntyre, Parks, and their supporters.

Since then a cottage industry has sustained an unrelenting (and often, ill-informed) war upon the government.

Government is not inherently bad, nor is it inherently good: it is an instrument reflective of the people willing to make it function.

Since the 1990s, governments have done what they could within the available constraints of law and resources and we are now consuming the seed corn at an alarming rate.

Private sector workers and public sector workers are partners: government does the things that cannot (or should not make a profit), so that private industry can.

Oregon is strongest when employment is high in both sectors: we are weakest when we fight over the scraps left on the table by the folks that benefit regardless of economic conditions.

This election recognize the parlor tricks for what they are: if we fight over stupid things, those pitting us against each other can advance a different, opposing agenda.

In simplest terms, while we fight over the color of the drapes our real adversaries can rob the money from our matresses and steal us blind.

PERS needs thoughtful reforms - fine.

But we do not, and must not demonize the public employees in the process.

How many of us really know the kind of tasks our family and friends working for the cities, counties, and state perform?

Let us push for leaders that will fix the problems, not the blame.

Let us push for leaders that understand how a robust public sector is empowering to an innovative private sector.

And let us stand up to the lies and mischaracterizations spread by those that seek a weaker, less free Oregon.

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    I like your article. However, I would push back and say that private employees don't work for a public good. Private sector serves a private good. In the case of large companies that is to turn a profit for shareholders. For smaller companies that means wages for workers and overhead expenses. There is nothing wrong with the private sector serving a private good, it is their mission, but let us not confuse that with the public sector and the public good.

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    The lack of portability for PERS and other public pension plans creates problems for people moving in and out of the private sector. Both private and public employers benefit from this, but even the most recent version of PERS is geared heavily towards career public service. PERS is not evil, but we should acknowledge its shortcomings and reform it so that it is both transparent and portable.

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      Sal - Thank you for the kind words. And I agree that we need a thoughtful, rational, transparent reform process. In the wake of the Great Recession we must all work together as we adjust the various threads of the social safety net. I appreciate the comments and look forward to more discussion on this issue.

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    PERS is the frozen flagpole of Democratic party politics. Stiok your tongue out at your own risk.

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    Paul, thanks for a thoughful, respectful article. If every stakeholder came to the table with the same attitude, I don't doubt consensus could be reached on solutions that satisfy most. However, when I see or read bashing like the one above demonizing SEIU for looking out for its members, or members who would LIKE to have a pension, it does not help. SEIU does the same as any other "special interest" group (NRA, Planned Parenthood, Right to Life, etc,) in trying to look out for the interests and priorities of its members. People want a voice in their democracy and banding together under the banner of a union is one option. Actually, it seems more and more like you have NO voice if you have no $ and no strength of numbers behind you. No one wants to take you seriously or give you the time of day. If it comes down to a system where you can't have a voice because you want an outcome that benefits your group or point of view, then there should not be ANY lobbyists allowed in Salem. I would add that participation in PERS is mandatory and PERS participants have zero say in who is on the PERS Board or the OIC. Voting for the state treasurer is one option to have some voice, but beyond that, PERS particpants are shut out.

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    Astounding. Far too often conversations about "Dat Gubernment" seem to imply that it is something 'other', perhaps some invader from another planet sent to attack us and drain away our freedoms or something.

    Government. Is. Us.

    And yes, some things go wrong. PERS did take on insane commitments that should have raised red flags back then. But it didn't, and now we have to figure out the mess. We. The people.

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    I would like to point out that the guaranteed 8% return disappeared for employees hired somewhere around the year 2000. We are tier 2 employees. The guaranteed 8% return was foolish public policy.

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    The guaranteed 8% return is also something that privatizers like to point out as the historical returns of the market. Big funds like PERS can bridge the dips and surges of the markets better than individual funds would. But also keep in mind that the "private sector" alternatives return worse rates with more fees. So in order to sustain the competitive compensation provided by PERS, the state would have to spend much more money.

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