Oregon Supreme Court Hears First Round of Arguments Over Pension Reforms

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Did Oregon break its contractual obligation with public workers when the state cut pension COLAs? That’s what the Oregon Supreme Court will eventually have to decide.

On Tuesday, the court heard the first round of arguments from lawyers representing the state and public employees, respectively. From the Associated Press:

Attorneys representing public employees told the Oregon Supreme Court on Tuesday that a contract is a contract, and the justices should reject the Legislature’s attempt to reduce annual cost-of-living increases for retired workers.

But lawyers arguing on behalf of state and local governments told the justices during oral arguments there’s no evidence that lawmakers four decades ago intended cost-of-living adjustments for retirees to be a contractual obligation.

Keith Kutler, a state Department of Justice lawyer, described the cost-of-living adjustment as a gift or add-on for workers who were already retired in 1971. Because they were already retired, they could not have accepted contract terms, he said.


Greg Hartman, an attorney for the public employees, said what governments are seeking this time around amounts to a “full-scale assault” on Strunk and other prior rulings.

It is one thing, he said, to make changes to a pension system for workers who have yet to start their careers. It’s another to alter the terms of a deal for workers who agreed to provide service under certain expectations.

“If your promise is ‘we’ll get back to you on what that promise is,’ that’s not much of a contract,” Hartman said.

A few justices pressed government attorneys on the fairness issue. Justice Virginia Linder questioned why the 1971 Legislature was concerned about the future fiscal impact of the COLA if it was not intended to be a long-term contractual obligation.

Bill Gary, another attorney representing governments, countered that actuaries at the time could not determine the cost.

Some background on the pension reforms under the microscope in this case, from the AP:

State and local governments sought the pension cuts last year to avoid steep increases in their contributions to the Public Employees Retirement System. The action reduced employer contributions to the pension by roughly $800 million during the current two-year budget cycle. It’s unknown when the court will rule, but a decision is expected in time for the 2015 Legislature to deal with any fallout.

If the court upholds the changes, retired workers will see their pensions grow at a slower pace. Since the early 1970s, retirees have received an annual cost-of-living increase of 2 percent. Gov. John Kitz­haber and the Legislature reduced the annual adjustment (widely known as a COLA) to 1.25 percent on benefit amounts up to $60,000 and 0.15 on benefits exceeding $60,000.

The public employees may have precedent on their side. In 2003, the state Supreme Court struck down a law that suspended COLAs. The court said at the time that COLAs were part of the contract between the state and retirees.

Controversy Follows New Oregon PERS Director

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The Oregon Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) has informed current deputy director Steve Rodeman that he will move into the fund’s top job when executive director Paul Cleary retires in December.

Rodeman has been the fund’s second-in-command since 2008. But his tenure hasn’t been without controversy – last year, there were complaints of harassment and discrimination in the workplace under Rodeman’s watch.

Reported by the Oregonian:

In July 2013, the former director of Human Resources at PERS, Helen Bamford, asked the Department of Justice to investigate employee complaints of discrimination, harassment and a hostile work environment against a group of managers, principally Rodeman, after her efforts to address the complaints internally were unsuccessful.

The DOJ investigation was resolved without a finding, but Bamford subsequently filed a whistleblower and discrimination complaint with the state Employee Relations Board and a tort claim against the state after being forced out of PERS “for the good of the agency.”

Bamford is currently working for the Oregon State Board of Nursing but still officially a PERS employee. She signed a settlement agreement last week with the state, which will pay her $30,000. Neither side admitted fault.

Board members said Friday they were aware of the complaints, but didn’t deal with them directly or discuss them as a board.

“Personnel matters don’t come before the board,” said Pat West, a retired Salem firefighter who sits on the board. “It’s not an issue we would deal with.”

Rodeman did not respond to a request for comment.

Rodeman will be paid an annual salary of $168,000 in his new position.

Oregon PERS Chooses Next Executive Director

NOW HIRINGPaul Cleary, who for ten years has sat at the helm of the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System, announced this summer that he would retire in December.

Since then, the Oregon PERS has searched for its next executive director. They’ve now announced their decision to promote from within: the next executive director will be Steve Rodeman, who currently serves as the fund’s deputy director.

The move comes on the heels of a push to move more of the fund’s investments in-house. From Chief Investment Officer:

Steve Rodeman, the deputy director of Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), has been chosen as the pension’s new executive director.

On Friday, the PERS board voted unanimously to elect the 13-year veteran to the post, local news website oregonlive.com reported.

In March, state lawmakers and public pension representatives pushed for legislative reform to align fiduciary responsibility and bring risk and portfolio management in-house.

Under current governance policy, the treasurer has authority over investment and personnel oversight and cash management via the Oregon Investment Council (OIC). As a result of this structure, the state has had to outsource much of its risk and portfolio management to Wall Street money managers.

Although Rodeman has been with PERS for more than a decade, his role has been on the operational rather than investment side of the organisation.

No official comment had been made by Oregon PERS at the time of going to press.

PERS considered 30 applicants for the job.

Rodeman will be paid an annual salary of $168,000.


 Photo by Nathan Stephens via Flickr CC License