One of Oregon’s leading business organizations, the Oregon Business Council, is poised to go where the Legislature won’t. Members of the council, which includes leadership of some of the state’s largest businesses, are talking seriously about a 2020 ballot measure designed to cut the $27 billion unfunded liability in the state’s Public Employees Retirement System.

It may be dirty work, but somebody has to do it, and so far most lawmakers have preferred to ignore the problem. It cannot be ignored much longer.

Consider: This biennium PERS benefits will add up to about 25.23 percent of public agency payroll costs, according to the council. The average over the next biennium, which begins in just two years, is expected to amount to 31.6 percent of payroll cost. That’s money that won’t be available for fixing potholes, improving schools, hiring more police or anything else.

Put another way, unless something changes, PERS costs from 2016-17 through 2021-22 will have jumped by $3.2 billion, half again as much as Gov. Kate Brown hopes to give schools in new money.

The council is very clear about one thing: What’s been promised must be paid on benefits earned to date. The state Supreme Court was specific about that in its Moro decision of 2015. That doesn’t mean, however, that no change can be made on future earnings. And while it has yet to complete work on a proposal, the council has said it wants something that is fair, legal, flexible and better that what we have now.

It’s a tall order, but worth the effort. As things now stand PERS will eat up state dollars that could better be spent on a host of other things. And the more PERS costs, the less the state and its municipalities have to spend on everything else.

The Bend Bulletin

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