Starting toward a PERS fix?

Written by Baker City Herald Editorial Board August 06, 2012 09:19 am

Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler is wading into the murky swamp of the state’s Public Employees Retirement System.

For taking the risk that he’ll step into a patch of political quicksand, Wheeler deserves credit.

As a Democrat in a state that elects Republicans to statewide offices about once a generation, Wheeler would be on perfectly stable ground by simply going about his duties and leaving PERS to the Legislature.

We don’t mean to imply, though, that Wheeler has discovered a PERS panacea.

In a recent letter to the PERS board of directors, Wheeler suggested a few modest changes that might at least curb the retirement system’s voracious appetite for public dollars that otherwise could keep police officers, firefighters and teachers, among other local, county and state employees, on the job.

Incremental changes might be the best we can hope for.

The truly insidious aspect of PERS is that some of its more expensive benefits — for instance, guaranteeing annual returns of 8 percent on pension accounts for PERS members hired before 1996 — were negotiated as parts of legally binding contracts.

The Legislature can’t simply say, “sorry, we changed our mind.” 

But as Wheeler noted in his letter, the Legislature could trim annual cost-of-living adjustments and do away with an overly generous benefit for retirees who move to another state.

With cities, counties and school districts facing another major increase in their PERS bills next July, Wheeler’s colleagues in Salem are obligated to support his effort to save as much money as possible.