In 1974 the people of Oregon adopted the Oregon Ethics Code which had been referred to them by the Oregon legislature. The very first provision of the Code declared that a public office was a public trust. That declaration recognized that a public office holder, including a legislator, was acting as a representative of the people when carrying out the people’s business. The Code went on to specifically prohibit a public official from using his or her official position or office to obtain personal financial gain other than official salary, honoraria or expense reimbursement. The Ethics Code became effective in 1975.
1975 was also the year that the legislators passed a law which allowed them and anyone else who had ever served in the legislature to retroactively join the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). In passing that law, the legislators who joined PERS used their official position to obtain a personal financial gain for themselves. I have found nothing in the legislative history of that law which suggests the legislators gave any consideration to the Ethics Code when they passed it by a vote of 26 to 3 in the Senate and 40 to 14 in the House. Passing that law appears to have been a clear violation of the Ethics Code by each legislator who voted for it and then joined PERS.
PERS retirement benefits can not be classified as “salary” because salary is compensation for services. The salary of legislators is set by statute and each legislator receives the same salary except for the Senate and House leaders. Joining PERS is an option for legislators, it is not mandatory and, therefore, it can not be classified as salary.
Part 2 of this topic will discuss laws passed by the legislature after the majority of legislators joined PERS. Each one of those laws resulted in a direct personal financial gain for the PERS legislators.