GOP leaders look for sustainable, robust PERS reforms

GOP leaders look for sustainable, robust PERS reforms
Republican House Minority Leader Mike McLane, left, and Republican Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli discuss on Thursday, June 6, 2013 in the House Chamber, Oregon's budget, PERS reforms and the negotiations at the governor's mansion. Democratic leaders House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney were invited to participate in the taping of KATU's political show, "Your Voice, Your Vote" but declined.

SALEM, Ore. – Reforming the state's pension system has taken center stage this legislative session and it has become the central issue in budget negotiations as Session 2013 nears its end.

Republican Senate and House leaders said Thursday they are aiming for a plan that makes PERS sustainable and one that can take savings from a reformed system and use it to fund schools and other services like public safety.

House Minority Leader Mike McLane and Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli made their comments Thursday during a taping of KATU's political show, "Your Voice, Your Vote," which will air this Sunday, June 9 at 9 a.m.

Democratic leaders Sen. Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek were also invited to participate but declined to appear on the show.

In a statement to KATU, Courtney's office said the negotiations have been "respectful" and hopes they can be continued. But it doesn't "believe Sunday morning TV is the place for them to take place."

Courtney, the Senate president, also doesn't want to negotiate the budget through the press.

Kotek's office said the speaker needed to focus on "delivering the priorities of Oregonians" and also couldn't make it.

Both Kotek and Courtney also declined interviews for this story through their spokespeople. A spokesman for Kotek said she was booked in meetings. Additionally, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber's spokesman didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

The House Chamber will be the backdrop for Sunday's show and McLane, of Powell Butte, and Ferrioli, of John Day, were interviewed by the show's host, KATU anchor Steve Dunn in the gallery, overlooking the House floor.

Budget negotiations among the Republican and Democratic leaders and Kitzhaber stalled out earlier this week during two days of closed-door meetings at the governor's mansion, Mahonia Hall.

A proposal that was discussed at the meetings and first reported by The Oregonian on Thursday would give schools about $7 billion in funding in exchange for steeper PERS reforms – specifically by reducing its unfunded liability by $5 billion over two decades.

Ferrioli said the $7 billion for schools is an achievable goal.

"The thing that makes it possible is robust PERS reform," he said, adding that that kind of funding would help put more teachers back in the classroom and reduce class sizes.

McLane said one goal is to make the pension system sustainable.

"Certainly, it was never the expectation that we would have defined benefit plans that had exceeded salary levels and continue on for such longevity," he said. "The goal is to bring it back to where it meets the goal, originally, and that was 60 to 70 percent of final salaries."

That also means having a system where entities such as city and county governments can pay for PERS and continue to provide services, he said.

Both Republican leaders described the meeting at Mahonia Hall in productive terms. McLane said there was a whiteboard and each person took turns using it. They described it as a relaxed environment and informal. But Ferrioli said there also was tension and emotions were running high.

The Oregonian reported that Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, who wasn't in the meetings, posted on his Facebook page that Kotek "walked out of the meeting." He said he had "heard it from a source."

But Ferrioli, without ever mentioning Kotek, said he wouldn't describe it as a "walk out."

"I think we had come to a conclusion and somebody made a summation and simply was the first one to leave," he said.

Kitzhaber has been pushing for PERS reforms this session, and the Legislature did pass Senate Bill 822, which cut about $460 million from the pension system. But the governor later pitched a plan to save about $900 million. The Republicans countered with a $1.4 billion offer, which they called a compromise.

But in a statement at the time, Kotek said it wasn't a compromise.

"This is far outside the middle ground the governor proposed and Democrats agreed to in order to make an historic investment in education," she said.

Lawmakers have until June 30 to hammer out a budget; otherwise, they would need to pass continuing resolutions. Oregon's Constitution requires they end the session July 13.

Watch the entire "Your Voice, Your Vote" show that aired Sunday, June 9 at 9 a.m. to hear more from the Republican leaders and their thoughts on the legality of PERS reforms and other issues.