By SARAH ZIMMERMAN Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Senate sent the House a short-term pension fix Thursday cutting public employee retirement benefits, a politically difficult vote for Democrats who say they were forced to choose between slashing benefits or letting employer interest rates rise.
"Public employees as a group already work for less than they could get elsewhere, in order to do work they value. That sacrifice for our community is ignored by Oregon’s business associations, and by much of our media." #orleg #orpol #NoOnSB1049https://t.co/xCo7mYltwn— Keep Oregons Promise (@oregonspromise) May 15, 2019
Ultimately, some who were originally against the proposal reluctantly came around, saying higher interest rates would eat into budgets and lead to layoffs in the public sector.
"My heart is broken today because my back is against the wall," said Sen. James Manning, Jr., a Democrat who voted yes after signaling his opposition earlier this week. "I have two worlds that are colliding today — how do I respond?"
The plan, which the Senate approved by a 16 to 12 vote Thursday, essentially refinances the $25 billion in debt incurred from the Public Employee Retirement System, known as PERS. It extends the state's repayment period from 20 to 22 years, which is meant to shield employers from an impending interest rate hike in the upcoming years.
More controversially, the measure also redirects 2.5% of employee salary toward PERS. That translates to a 7 to 12% cut to employees' secondary retirement account, which is a 401(k) type plan meant to supplement the public pension.
Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican, stressed this "is not a permanent solution," and there needs to be more legislative action if the state wants to substantially pay down the debt.
Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., who was the public face of a Republican walkout over perceived Democratic inaction on PERS, voted against the measure but said in a statement that it was the "first step to remedying the unfunded liability that has been a detriment to our state."
The plan garnered fierce opposition from unions, who have bashed the idea of cutting benefits since the plan was publicly released a few weeks ago.
"The Oregon Senate has voted to reduce the retirement security and compensation for educators, firefighters and all public employees," said John Larson, President of the Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union. "These unfair and illegal reductions are a betrayal of Oregon values."
Some Democrats against the measure echoed those comments on the floor, saying that PERS employees — which include teachers, firefighters and child welfare workers — don't have a large enough salary to weather more cuts.
Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis, said refinancing the debt only "kicks the can down the road" and that all residents of the state should be responsible for this problem since everyone benefits from public services.
"We should not put that debt on a small group of people," said Gelser. "It's not a fair solution, it's not a real solution."