Throughout 2013, the Oregonian's editorial board fought a valiant battle to get state lawmakers to address the Beaver State's staggering public worker pension liabilities. The effort failed primarily due to staunch opposition from the state's Big Labor leaders, who argued there was no pension crisis, at least not one that required any serious reform.
On Monday, the Pulitzer Prize board vindicated the editorial writers by granting them their annual award. The board praised the paper for its "its lucid editorials that explain the urgent but complex issue of rising pension costs, notably engaging readers and driving home the link between necessary solutions and their impact on everyday lives."
The 2013 series made a point of saying that the program's unfunded liabilities, estimated that year at $16 billion, had to be contained. Not reforming the system was draining money from elsewhere in the state. It noted a 2012 hike in taxpayer contribution rates to offset part of the liabilities resulted in $14 million less for Portland Public Schools alone -- money that could have paid for a lot of teachers.
The editorial board noted that, relative to the size of the state's economy, Oregon has one of the most generous pension systems in the nation -- it just cannot afford it. In effect, a "Prius economy" is towing a "yacht," it said.
The paper's advice was blunt: "The costs of the state's pension system must be better controlled, and there's only one way to do it: Pay beneficiaries less than they'd get otherwise. Lawmakers must cut as painlessly as they can, but cut they must."
This was staunchly opposed by a coalition of organized labor groups. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, which represents many of the pension recipients, helped lead the effort. In a March 2013 statement it maintained that there was no need for reform.
The state's Public Employees Retirement System "is structurally sound, and ... any current 'problems' are directly attributable to the 2008 stock market crash ... huge overhauls of PERS are not necessary. This is not a system on the verge of collapse, as many have tried to paint it," said AFSCME lobbyist Mary Botkin.
Unsurprisingly, when the Oregonian's editorial board met with Ken Allen, the union's executive director, in January 2013, they found little common ground. In its report on the meeting, the board noted the union was opposed even to small, seemingly obvious changes to end abuses of the program.
And what about the state's practice of using taxpayers' money to compensate out-of-state retirees for an expense they don't incur? You can't stop this practice, says Allen, because those who'd be affected have planned their retirements with the assumption that the undeserved reimbursement would be available. That's right: Oregonians have to keep making improper payments because doing the responsible thing would be bad for those who receive the money.
The Oregonian summed up Allen's position as "forget about trimming costs and hide the problem instead."
One of hallmarks of good journalism is to shine a light on problems that would otherwise by shunted aside by self-interested parties. The Pulitzer board did well by honoring the Oregonian's work here.