Governor Kitzhaber has been a longtime Oregon public official. He was first elected to the Oregon legislature in 1979. He served one term as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives and was then elected to the Oregon Senate where he served three terms, from 1981 through January 10, 1993. From 1985 through 1992, he was the President of the Oregon Senate. He was first elected Oregon’s Governor in 1995 and served two consecutive terms. In 2011, he began his third term as Oregon’s Governor. His current term expires in January, 2015.
When Governor Kitzhaber joined the legislature in 1979, he did not elect to become a PERS member. PERS records also show that he was not a PERS member in 1983. As a legislator, however, was very supportive of PERS benefit enhancements. Among the many PERS bills he voted for was the creation of the PERS Pick Up in 1979 and the 1981 law that made the PERS Pick Up permanent.
Generally, an Oregon public employee automatically become PERS members after six months of service with a PERS participating employer. The primary exception to this rule is for a person who is elected to office or who is appointed to an office with a fixed term, except for judges. If an elected or appointed official other than judge wants to join PERS, that person must make an election within 30 days of taking office. Judges automatically become PERS members the instant they take office for the first time, unless they are over 72 years old on that date.
No persons other than legislators have ever been allowed to retroactively join PERS. When PERS was first created in 1945 through 1970, legislators were not permitted to join. That changed in 1971, when the Oregon Attorney General withdrew a prior opinion and ruled that legislators could join PERS. Thereafter, the legislature passed two laws that gave its members short windows of time in which to retroactively join PERS. The deadlines for retroactive joining of PERS under both of those laws has run, so both are now inapplicable.
The first retroactive law for legislators was passed in 1975. That law applied to persons who were both legislators and PERS members and to persons who were not legislators but who had been legislators before January 13, 1975. Under this law, a person to whom it applied could retroactively join PERS by paying the employee contributions that the person would have paid during the retroactive period before July 1, 1977. This law was passed with an Emergency Clause and became effective July 1, 1975. The Emergency Clause stated that this law was necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety. Apparently, the legislators believed that if they did not permitted themselves to retroactively join PERS either they would start rioting or the people of Oregon would start rioting or maybe both. What a battle that would have been and it was one that probable should have taken place.
The second law that gave retroactive PERS membership rights to legislators was passed in 1987, when John Kitzhaber was the President of the Oregon Senate. He was first elected to the legislature in 1979 and he had not joined PERS, so there no way that he could join PERS, let alone join it retroactively, in January, 1987. So, he did the only thing that he could do to benefit from his past efforts to improve the PERS laws. He worked with a majority of the other legislators and passed a law that made two specific, short-term changes to the law that allowed him to retroactively join PERS.
- The first change was to allow anyone who was a legislator between September 13, 1975 and December 31, 1987 to join PERS by giving written notice to the PERS Board before January 1, 1988. Senator Kitzhaber qualified to join PERS under this provision and he did.
- The second change was to allow anyone who was both a member of the legislature and a PERS member to join PERS retroactively back to the first day they became a legislator if, before July 1, 1989, they paid all of the employee contributions that they would have paid during the retroactive period. Since Senator Kitzhaber joined PERS under the first change he was now eligible under the second change to join PERS retroactively and he did.
This law was also passed with an Emergency Clause and it became effective July 1, 1987.
This proves that the old adage “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is especially true for legislators. It will be interesting to see how much money Governor Kitzhaber makes from his 1987 votes that allowed him to retroactively join PERS. Those change gave him 14 years of PERS service as a legislator that he would not have otherwise had but for the 1987 changes. One thing, though, is certain. By including his 14 years as a legislator into his total years as a PERS members, his PERS retirement benefit will be significantly higher than would have been if he had not been able to retroactively join PERS as a legislator.