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State reps., senators talk shop at town hall

Just weeks after a widely praised three-day special session of the Oregon Legislature, state Sens. Ginny Burdick and Richard Devlin and state Reps. Margaret Doherty, Chris Garrett and Jennifer Williamson con- vened for a town hall meeting with their Southwest Portland constituents the evening of Oct. 15 at Wilson High School.

Discussion topics ranged from the likelihood of a statewide sales tax to genetically modified foods, but the bulk of the evening focused on educa- tion funding and changes to the public employee pension system.

Funding for education

Wilson was by all accounts a fitting meeting place. Burdick said she walked there from her house in Hillsdale, and Garrett, who served as the evening’s master of ceremonies, noted that he, Burdick and Doherty all called the school their alma mater. And one thing seemed to be on the minds of all four legislators: education.

“My first full session in the Legislature was quite a ride,” Williamson said. “I felt like I got a lot of things done there. ... We were able, in this last special session, to freeze tuition rates at our community colleges and higher ed — and not just freeze them, but to give them enough funding so that it’s not just a flip this year, but rolled into universities and community colleges.”

Doherty said that positive progress had been made for education during the 2013 regular session as well.

“To give a billion dollars more for schools is huge,” she said, “and I think it was some- thing where we put our money into areas that are going to help Oregon’s economy and help our kids.”

Changes to PERS

Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System, aka PERS, is the statewide pension system for all public service workers, funded by periodic contributions from about 900 employers including the university system and the largest employer, school districts. Senate Bill 861, passed during the special session, caps the yearly cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) at 1.25 percent on the first $60,000 of a yearly benefit and 0.15 percent on amounts of $60,000 and provides a supplemental, one-time payment of 0.25 percent of their yearly benefit to all benefit recipients of no more than $150.

When asked to justify cutting the PERS COLA more given that the consumer price index shows that the old 2 percent COLA was adequate only five of the last 25 years, Devlin said, “The changes that are being discussed in the Legislature have ... very much to do with was 2008.”

In 2008, Devlin said, the state pension system lost $17 billion in assets — or 27 percent of the assets. The PERS board faced raising costs to employers by 12 percent of payroll.

“The reality is, there’s no way with this state and the economy that it’s in that it can afford a 12 percent increase,” Devlin said. “What it actually needs is about 12 percent of payroll costs. About 5 percent will come from reduced benefits in the future, and about 7 percent of payroll will still go into increases in payroll costs, rather than getting up to about 3.7 billion in costs — about 2.6 (billion) or 2.7 billion in the coming biennium.

“Not an easy decision for anybody to make, but we didn’t elect people always to make easy decisions or to make popular decisions; sometimes, you have to make difficult ones.”

Doherty expressed concern that cutting PERS benefits to increase education funding was something of a roller coaster — with funding for education going up and plummeting again “since the day that I didn’t have to dye my hair,” she said. “We have got to get off this roller coaster. I’m thoroughly convinced that the courts are going to go through and overturn (SB 861), and I just don’t want to see this.”

Other Oregon issues

Burdick — a longtime lawmaker — and Williamson, a relative newcomer, fielded questions on the topic of gun control.

“With strong, strong support from this district, which in- cludes many gun owners — there are many gun owners right here tonight, if this is a typical audience at all — basically my focus has always been keeping guns out of the wrong hands and out of the wrong places,” Burdick said, “and most of all, away from kids.”

Williamson agreed. “I have been supportive of gun safety measures,” she said, “and in my first session, co-sponsored bills with Sen. Burdick. I’m really interested in ... looking at the way we deal with cigarettes and other inherently hazardous materials — if that’s a way to get at the same issue without some people (thinking we’re) going after a Second Amendment right.”

Throughout the evening, the legislators commented on a myriad of other matters, including the infamous Columbia River Crossing, genetically modified foods and whether the state might ever have a consumption tax.

When the hourlong town hall meeting wrapped up, some audience members were left with more questions than answers. While Burdick, Devlin, Doherty and Garrett agreed to stay behind to talk one-on-one with constituents, it was clear that the dialogue — that evening and beyond — was far from over.

Drew Dakessian can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and at 503-636-1281, ext. 108.