Governor Kitzhaber has consistently stated that he is against “bashing” public employees. He often raises this point when the topic of PERS reform is discussed. One of his latest statements regarding this appeared in an Oregonian story on November 17, 2012 by Ted Sickinger. In that story the Governor is quoted as saying “If this gets ugly, if people try to make this into something about public employee “bashing”, I’m gone,” Kitzhaber said. “I’m not going to do it.” While the Governor has expressed his opposition to public employee “bashing” for a long time, he has never explained what he means by “bashing”.
It can be assumed, however, that whatever the Governor means by “bashing”, it is something bad. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “bashing”, when used as a verb, can mean to strike violently; to injure or damage by striking; to attack physically or verbally. And the Governor is right. No matter what he means when he uses the word “bashing”, Oregon’s rank and file public employees should not be subject to “bashing” regarding PERS. They are not the cause of the PERS problem.
The PERS problem was created solely by legislators after the Oregon Attorney General ruled they could join PERS in 1971, 25 years after PERS was created. Most of the legislators did join PERS and they quickly and aggressively increased PERS benefits. They then forced Oregon’s judges into PERS and made PERS funding Oregon’s highest financial priority. It is those legislators who are solely responsible for the PERS problem and they have no exemption from verbal “bashing” for what they did.
In evaluating the Governor’s position on ” bashing” public employees regarding PERS, it is important to know that the Governor is a PERS member. In fact, in 1987, while he was President of the Oregon Senate, he voted for a bill that allowed him and a few other legislators to retroactively join PERS. By doing that, he personally gained eight years of PERS service credit that he never earned. Those eight years of fictional service will significantly increase his final PERS retirement benefit. The Governor’s position on “bashing” may be based on his concern that when the people of Oregon learn of the PERS shenanigans he has been involved in they may want to verbally “bash” him. That would certainly explain his aversion to it.
It is also interesting to note that the Governor’s position on “bashing” is not universal. He only seems to be concerned about “bashing” the public employees who receive PERS benefits. I have never seen any statement in which he has opposed or even expressed concern about the “bashing” that non-PERS Oregonians have been subjected to when it comes to PERS. When people recently expressed their concern about how PERS funding was hurting the education of their children, the Governor told them that the problem was their fault because they did not vote to raise taxes.
Oregon has a population of about 3,800,000 people. Out of that number, there are around 330,000 active and retired public employees. Not all of the retired public employees live in Oregon but, if they did, that would mean the active and retired public employees make up about 8.5% of the state’s population. The Governor helped pass a law in 1987 that allowed him to retroactively become a PERS member. That made him part of the 8.5% group of public employees that he is dedicated to protecting against “bashing”. But what about the other 91.5% of the people who are not PERS members? For this group, the Governor has expressed no opinion on “bashing”. Not only has this group been “bashed” by PERS for a long time but the Governor, during his long tenure as a PERS legislator and governor, has served as one of their primary “bashers”.
When the Governor cries out against “bashing” public employees over PERS his cry rings hallow. To me, it seems that he is simply trying his best to use his official position to protect the PERS benefits that he has worked so hard to create for himself and the other PERS members. Anyone who challenges what he is done is a “basher” and he will have nothing to do with them.