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Oregon Public Employees Paint Dire Picture As PERS Comes Up For Debate


In this May 20, 2011, file photo, thousands of state workers protest cuts to the state pension system outside the Capitol in Salem, Oregon. Possible cuts to the system, known as PERS, are back on the table for the 2017 legislative session as the government looks to close a $1.8 billion budget shortfall.

In this May 20, 2011, file photo, thousands of state workers protest cuts to the state pension system outside the Capitol in Salem, Oregon. Possible cuts to the system, known as PERS, are back on the table for the 2017 legislative session as the government looks to close a $1.8 billion budget shortfall.

Rick Bowmer/AP

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 say 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. I think I would just have to die in my cubicle,” Walsh said.

Supporters of making changes to public worker retirement benefits say 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.

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