Bend attorney fights PERS
Published: February 22. 2011 4:00AM PST
Many bills this legislative session take on Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System, or PERS. One would reduce what’s called the 6 percent pickup — that is, the state “picking up” the 6 percent employee contribution to PERS.
Eliminating the pickup would save the state more than $360 million a year. That would eliminate a significant hunk of Oregon’s $3.5 billion two-year budget shortfall. Even Gov. John Kitzhaber has said the 6 percent pickup needs to be part of the discussion.
We don’t know how much appetite there is going to be for PERS reforms or for unions to negotiate. But there is another fight over PERS in Oregon’s courts that may be critical in any future battles over PERS.
Bend attorney Daniel Re has a case before the Oregon Tax Court. It highlights that many lawmakers and judges are members of PERS. Re believes that’s a conflict. To understand his case, remember that Oregonians passed Ballot Measure 8 in 1994. In part, Measure 8 eliminated the 6 percent pickup for future PERS members. The Oregon Supreme Court struck it down in 1996.
What Re has done is file for a property tax refund in Oregon Tax Court for the taxes he paid in 2010 that will go to the 6 percent pickup. Re argues that the decision on Measure 8 was conducted improperly, because the justices — being PERS members — had a financial interest in the case.
After applying for his refund, Re asked the Oregon Tax Court judge to remove himself from the case because he is a PERS member. And Re also has asked the Oregon Supreme Court to disqualify the judge and to disqualify themselves because they are also PERS members. Re believes the court should find a way to appoint independent judges or to declare that judges should not be members of PERS.
Oregon’s Code of Judicial Conduct states that judges shall disqualify themselves in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality reasonably may be questioned, including when the judge has a financial interest. And it would be hard to argue that in this case the judges’ relationship is immaterial or that the judges’ financial interest is insubstantial.
Do we believe the tax court judge or Oregon Supreme Court judges would allow their legal judgment to be swayed by their PERS benefits?
The question should not even come up. Oregon’s judges must have high standards of conduct to preserve public confidence. It’s not enough for judges to wriggle around it and say all judges are PERS judges and so PERS judges must rule on PERS cases.