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Capital Chatter: Let's talk about PERS

There appears to be little appetite for taking on the public employee unions again after the 2019 Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown approved modest changes in PERS.

Speaking of PERS …

Oops, we weren't. I can't find the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System on the discussion agenda for Monday's Oregon Leadership Summit in Portland. Hundreds of politicians, civic leaders, lobbyists, businesspeople and others attend the annual event, and last year's summit included significant ideas for reforming PERS.

Meanwhile, several related ballot measures with those PERS reforms quietly have been withdrawn.

There appears to be little appetite for taking on the public employee unions again after the 2019 Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown approved modest changes in PERS. You might recall that the controversial legislation barely passed the House after time stood still during the vote and some backdoor convincing apparently unfolded (what laypeople might describe as political arm-twisting). Politics is political, after all.

Labor unions threaten to withhold campaign support from lawmakers who supported the legislation. Unions would have spent heavily to defeat any ballot measures, whereas it likely would been difficult for backers to raise money in 2020. The political climate already is polarized. Each interest group has only so much money and must choose the most productive issues or candidates to spend that decide where the most productive place to spend that money.

In defense of taking PERS off the political table, some people say it's worth seeing whether the legislative changes and the current economy sufficiently boost the PERS reserves. That is the issue — not having sufficient money in the bank.

Like every PERS change, the 2019 ones are being challenged in court. It would seem to make sense for the Legislature to simply pass every realistic reform and ask the Oregon Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of each one, instead of continuing a year-by-year piecemeal approach. But what do I know? That has not gained traction in the Oregon Capitol.

One idea that did become law was allowing some public employees at retirement age to continue working and also draw their pension. They benefit by collecting both forms of compensation. Their employer benefits by keeping them on the job instead of losing their expertise. And instead of putting money into the employee's PERS account, the employer devotes an equivalent amount into paying down the unfunded PERS liability.

Though complicated to explain, the arrangement sounds like a decent deal for everyone, including taxpayers. School districts have led its implementation, while the state is holding back. Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District in Pendleton, helped come up with the idea.

The Salem-Keizer School District is the state's second-largest, and this week the school board allowed that change. The board amended Superintendent Christy Perry's 2019-2021 contract so she could retire but continue to work, if she decides to do so at some point.

Also running for Congress: Knute Buehler campaigned as a moderate Republican for governor against liberal Democrat Brown. He has joined the race for Oregon's 2nd Congressional District, presenting himself as a conservative Republican and but still taking on Brown and Portland liberals. He served as a state representative from Bend and also ran for secretary of state against Brown.

"Emboldened by their wins last cycle, the arrogance of Kate Brown and the liberal extremists has only grown. Too often, the voices of those of us in Central, Eastern and Southern Oregon are disrespected or ignored — left behind and left out by Portland liberals and D.C. elites," he wrote in a campaign announcement.

The solidly conservative district does cover Eastern, Central and much of Southern Oregon. The winning candidate will espouse views that are anathema to "Portland liberals."

Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, introduced himself this week to voters by saying in part, "Recently, Bentz played a major role in the 2019 'Republican Walkout' – denying a quorum and killing legislation that would have violated our Second Amendment rights, and a cap-and-trade bill that would have crippled our economy."

The other leading Republican in the race is former state legislator Jason Atkinson of Central Point, a self-described leader, filmmaker, writer and public servant. He and Bentz also are avid cyclists.

As of Thursday, 10 candidates have filed for the seat being vacated by Rep. Greg Walden.

Portland liberal: After wrestling with whether to retire, Sen. Michael Dembrow has decided to seek re-election next year for a final four-year term. He described the 2019 Legislature as a "Jekyll & Hyde" session with much accomplished and much remaining to be done.

Political perks: State Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, was an avid cheerleader for In-N-Out Burgers, even though – if I recall correctly – the Keizer Station location is just outside his legislative district. The restaurant formally opened Thursday to long, long, long lines. Post was among the first customers for the soft opening Wednesday evening.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.