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Public Employees Paint Dire Picture As Pensions Come Under Debate In Salem

File photo of the Senate Chamber at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon.
File photo of the Senate Chamber at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon.

The future of Oregon's public pension system is up for debate at the state Capitol. A Senate panel kicked off a series of public hearings Monday on a proposal to rein in costs.

The Public Employee Retirement System, or PERS, is responsible for an increasingly larger slice of the budget pie at both the state and local government level. But workers said they shouldn't have to bear the brunt of any cuts to PERS.

Barbara Walsh works at an Oregon Department of Human Services office in Medford. She's in her 60s, and told reporters at a state Capitol press conference organized by union groups that she's hoping to retire in the next 10 years.

"If my PERS were to be cut, retirement would not be an option,” Walsh said. “I think I would just have to die in my cubicle."

Supporters of making changes to public worker retirement benefits said the current bills, which scale back future benefits, are only a starting point for the discussion that's expected to last the entire legislative session.

Lawmakers must fill a $1.8 billion budget gap this session, and PERS costs are expected to continue to rise in coming years.

If lawmakers do reach an agreement, it would have to be able to withstand a court challenge. Most of the last major changes made to PERS, in 2013, were later thrown out by the Oregon Supreme Court. The court has ruled on several occasions that benefits already promised to workers cannot be touched. Any changes would generally have to affect benefits accrued after the bill takes effect.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman covers the Oregon state capitol for JPR as part of the Northwest News Network, a group of 12 Northwest public radio organizations which collaborate on regional news coverage. Chris graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He began his career producing arts features for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana and has been a reporter/announcer for NPR station WNIJ in DeKalb, Illinois. Chris has also reported from overseas, filing stories from Iraq, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.