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The Politics of PERS

And other quandaries facing the Legislature

Everyone knows Salem is the official site of the Hot Air Society, and currently all 90 members, both chambers, meet at the state Capitol building. However, Eugene has its own version, called HASSLES, the Hot Air Society of South Lane, Eugene and Springfield. It began in 1806 when two geezers, I mean pioneers — Floyd Frank Prozanski, a former Texas A&M Aggie, and Dr. Paul Kaplan, a semi-retired frontier gynecologist — began their search for the cheapest happy hour beer in Lane County. Once they discovered Cornucopia at 17th and Lincoln, the wagon train never left the station.

Our local Hot Air Society unfortunately, has very low membership standards. It includes doctors, lawyers, architects, a cranky farmer, a national child development expert, nurse practitioners, the Huckleberry fence guy, software engineers, all the way down to a couple of local legislators and a few union goons. We have a longstanding ritual — begun I believe in 1865 when Kaplan returned from the original Civil War: We toast bad people! Bill Sizemore was our hero for years before he went to prison and became irrelevant. Dennis Richardson, the House Republican point man on public employee attacks, is a current favorite. We toasted him recently for wanting to arm teachers. We think the bill has a lot of promise with just a few tweaks, so we’ve proposed amendments to allow teachers to be armed only during labor negotiations and to require a teacher in every gun shop.

Speaking of guns and Newtown and Clackamas — I’m glad we have our own Lane County star, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee where these gun bills will be heard. Prozanski rightly points out that laws banning high-capacity gun magazines and semiautomatic rifles need to be passed by Congress in order to prevent state-by-state evasion of such bans. Floyd will focus instead on state issues like preventing concealed weapons on school grounds and in the state Capitol building, for Christ’s sake! Who wants mentally unhinged elected officials who think the right to bare arms is a male fashion statement to be roaming the halls in Salem? Unless, of course, it’s a Republican House or Senate caucus meeting, then it’s OK. None of those nanny-style, overly protective guv’ment regulations for them boys and girls!

 So, maybe the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot on their Second Amendment yap and their schizoid attitude toward public safety: Lock ’em all up, throw away the key, and do it for free. But the Democrats have a 600-pound gorilla as well: PERS.  

No sooner had the Legislature convened than dueling legal opinions emerged on the governor’s  proposals to create $850 million in PERS savings. I can only remind folks this same phenomenon happened in 2003 and the lawyers for both sides of the dispute are the same guys making the same arguments they made back then. We did five major reforms in 2003. Justice Brewer organized all the lawsuits into addressing those five reforms. Greg Hartman, the lawyer for the public sector unions, told everyone that none of those five reforms could withstand judicial scrutiny. He was wrong: Four of the five passed judicial muster. The only reform that failed, the 8 percent lifetime guarantee, was the masterpiece of another attorney, who formerly served on the Oregon Supreme Court, and therefore felt like he knew how the court might treat this measure. He was then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

PERS will be the major challenge for House Speaker Kotek and Lane County’s newest star, House Majority Leader Val Hoyle. In only her second election cycle, Val has assumed a higher leadership position than any Lane County Democrat since Grattan Kerans was speaker of the house and Ed Fadeley was Senate president in the late 1980s. This is a tribute to her political skills and her hard work. There will be plenty of PERS measures up for consideration, ranging from Kitzhaber’s $850 million proposal to a harsh $1.9 billion proposal from the Oregon Business Coalition. 

Certainly Democrats in Oregon have the teachers and public employees to thank for moving into their slim majorities in both chambers. And, yes, those Democrats also have a responsibility to protect the pensions of public employees. But Kitzhaber’s proposals on means-testing the cost of living adjustments and changing the treatment of out-of-state retirees’ taxation deserve a look. As Wally Carson, former Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, used to say: “The governor proposes, the Legislature disposes and the Supreme Court settles their hash!”