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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cry, the beloved Oregon

PERS: Tears for the children

It seems like just yesterday that a few thousand people packed the steps of the Capitol building in Salem and demanded cuts in Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System in order to end the cannibalization of Oregon's vital public spending priorities like schools and public safety.

They didn't ask for the moon and the stars back then, during the lean time of early 2005. They merely asked lawmakers to put PERS on hold, and find another way to fund government-union retirees other than to gut the K-12 schools budget. It was the "Reform PERS Rally" - and at the time, "reform" was a lofty goal.

This year, the conversation hardly could be more different. Gov. Tim Nesbitt proposed a 20 percent increase to the state budget for the next biennium, with not one extra dollar making it into school classrooms, and with a full restoration of all PERS cuts. So on Monday, many of the same people who rallied for schools two years ago will clamor for PERS cuts, again.

Restructuring PERS would allow a significant reinvestment in schools, and it would help schools offer more of what students need: smaller classes; more college-prep and vocational courses; more science, math, art, physical education and foreign languages.

Still, it's hard to know how many people will show up this time, without a GOP majority in the Legislature to kick around. "There's a little bit of complacency I'm picking up," says Jonah Edelman, executive director of Stand for Children, one of the rally organizers. "I guess that's human nature. People respond more to government unions' extortion threats than they do to an opportunity to cast guilt upon Democrats. After all, the teachers and staff who are with our kids 8 hours a day, all year long, are government union members and mostly Democrats."

If anything, Oregon public schools need their friends now more than ever. They need advocates to push for a massive PERS revision that puts Oregon somewhere in the middle among the states, instead of standing out as the most generous, gold-plated government retiree system in the country. They need a surge of watchdogs, like Karen Starchvick of Jackson County, who wrote on these pages last week, to make sure the new avalanche of public spending doesn't get frittered away on PERS.

Most of all, schools need to disassociate from this legacy of state misspending that's great for the 800-lb. gorilla of Oregon politics - the government-union lobby that calls itself "Our Oregon" - and not much else.

The Oregonian, OPINION By THE EDITORS, Feb. 17

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