This editorial was published in the Bend Bulletin discussing the great battle to restore a basic fairness to the PERS system. We have the right to independent judges to decide PERS cases but if we are not willing to demand that right, the PERS bosses will take it away from us. I won’t let the do that, though, without one heck of a fight.
Bend lawyer is determined to open door to PERS overhaul
Published: March 16. 2012 4:00AM PST
Bend lawyer Dan Re is either one of the smartest guys around or one of the most quixotic. Either way, he’s tackling a problem head-on that many Oregonians believe is unsolvable.
Re is convinced that the state’s Public Employee Retirement System is in a peck of trouble, and there’s ample evidence to support his view. School districts, cities and government agencies across Oregon are being forced to put an ever bigger chunk of their money into PERS so that it can pay out benefits to those who have retired from public employment. In the Redmond school district, as one example, PERS costs are expected to rise by $400,000 next year, with bigger increases to follow.
While stories of benefits paid to some retirees are enough to curl your hair, don’t make the mistake of assuming that — because some have remarkably sweet retirement deals — they’re greedy folks somehow gaming the system. They’re not. At the same time, the huge PERS payouts make clear just how broken the system remains.
No doubt the most shocking tale of PERS largess is that of the pension paid to former Oregon football coach Mike Belloti. Belloti receives about $41,000 per month from PERS — roughly $500,000 per year. In his early 60s today, Belloti can expect to collect at least $10 million from the state if he lives to be 80. Meanwhile, UO’s interim president receives nearly $115,000 annually in PERS payments, while a former Oregon State University professor will collect about $214,000 this year.
Belloti’s is an unusual case, to be sure. His benefits are calculated not only on his salary at UO, but on money earned from endorsements, ticket sales and other things not available to the average public worker in Oregon. Still, it’s safe to say PERS has been very, very good to many former public workers in this state.
Yet real changes to the system do not come easily, and the courts haven’t helped much. Re would tell you that’s in part because they’re PERS beneficiaries themselves, and, as such, it’s impossible to divorce their rulings from their own finances — much as they strive to do so.
That’s a problem in Re’s view. Even if you work hard to acknowledge and set aside your self-interest in something like a case limiting retirement benefits — as Oregon’s judges do — you know down deep that what you decide will have an impact not only on thousands of retirees you’ve never met, but on you and your family.
Re believes the only solution is to bring in non-PERS judges to hear PERS cases. Though doing so is no slam dunk, he makes a good case for trying. He offers two paths to that independence, one through state Supreme Court action and a second through making a federal case of the matter if state courts refuse to act.
To that end, he filed suit in the Oregon Court of Appeals against PERS a few months back. It’s a case that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — one of the largest unions in the state — says will go nowhere, and even Re admits the union is probably right.
That’s OK, he says, for if it goes nowhere it gives him a shot at having the whole thing moved into federal court, where the judges hearing it would have no possible stake in the outcome. If they were to uphold Re, the state would find it easier to get PERS under control. Gone would be the argument that the courts would overturn reform, that they’ve already decided the matter, and that the outcome of any new lawsuits is a foregone conclusion.
I don’t know if Re will succeed, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. PERS is a subject to which he’s given more than a little thought, and he’s plenty willing to keep trying. If he’s successful, a cause that to some looks like mere tilting at windmills will have become something else entirely.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin.