Oregonians don’t need reminding how much worse slipping into a recession can be when they are loaded up with debt. It’s a bad combination we wouldn’t wish on anybody.
But Oregon’s state government has brought just that sort of combination on to the state’s taxpayers because of the state’s $24 billion Public Employees Retirement System debt.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not something legislators or Gov. Kate Brown anticipated. They can hardly be blamed for that. When they are making the difficult choices to cope with COVID-19, though, those choices will be tougher because of that $24 billion hanging over the state.
Let’s be clear. PERS does provide a valuable service to the state. Since 1945, it’s been providing retirement benefits to state workers. They deserve good retirement benefits. Contrary to what you might have heard, the average annual benefit is about $31,000 a year, and most beneficiaries receive $3,000 a month or less. Yes, there are some crazy payouts of more than $9,000 a month to some recipients — about 1,600 people. And we’d also rather see pension benefits work more like a 401(k) than some parts of the state retirement system.
The $24 billion debt isn’t exactly like a credit card debt. It’s the money the state will have to have to meet its pension obligations in the future that it doesn’t anticipate having.
That unfunded liability is covered in two ways, essentially. The first are payments from employers with PERS employees. For instance, most local school districts make payments to cover the PERS benefits of their employees. Employers are are contributing sizable portions of their payroll.
That’s a big chunk of money, and it may well get bigger. That’s because the other way that unfunded liability is covered is from the performance of state investments. Investment returns provide about 75% of the money to pay PERS benefits. What just happened to the stock market? It plummeted. The PERS board had assumed the rate of return on its investments would be 7.2%.
Will the market come rushing back up? Let’s hope so. Because if investment returns are low, that $24 billion unfunded future liability will grow. School districts, local governments and state governments will have to pay even higher percentages of payroll just to cover PERS benefits. And that will mean less money for school supplies and computers, less money to pave roads and less money to pay state expenses from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The PERS reforms passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Brown in 2019 were a step in the right direction. Those reforms, though, achieved most of their savings by putting off when the PERS debt would be paid.
How bad do things have to get before legislators do more to address the PERS debt? To put the state on better financial footing to handle a crisis? We know Gov. Brown and lawmakers have a more immediate emergency to deal with now. That $24 billion just makes it harder.