By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
PORTLAND – Oregon taxpayers need to be able to easily see how much debt the state is incurring through its Public Employees Retirement System, says a local lawmaker who is pushing for increased transparency .
State Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, is asking the state’s Transparency Oregon Advisory Commission to approve a request to put PERS data on the state’s Oregon Transparency website. The advisory committee is responsible for recommending to the state’s Department of Administrative Services what content to include on the transparency website. Adding the information, which link to the data now found on the state’s PERS site, would not cost anything.
“The big picture is transparency,” Whisnant said. “Taxpayers in this age of technology should be able to look up what is the real number, how much we are in debt.”
Whisnant, who sponsored legislation in 2009 that created the transparency website, said he wants people to have access to the debt information because conflicting reports show the state’s unfunded liability ranging from $10.8 billion to $42 billion. PERS Board Executive Director Paul Cleary estimates the unfunded liability at about $16 billion but said the number changes year to year, depending on financial markets.
Whisnant wants to give taxpayers a chance to see the financial obligation for themselves. The lawmaker said taxpayers should be able to see unfunded liabilities for:
- The state.
- All cities.
- All counties.
- All school districts
- Employer contribution rates.
The state has 900 PERS employers, Cleary said.
Whisnant said voters considering a bond referendum to pay for schools should know how much of that money might be going to pay down the pension debt.
“People should be able to look, ‘if I live in a school district, how much is my school in debt for.’”
The representative tried during the previous 35-day session in February to pass legislation, but legislative leadership wouldn’t allow it because of the short session and the fact that lawmakers previously agreed to not address the PERS issue.
Whisnant said after working with Cleary, the request now just has to go before the Transparency Oregon Advisory Commission in December and should not require legislation. He said he tried to get it before the commission for next week’s legislative days, which runs from Wednesday through Sept. 14 in Salem, but said there isn’t sufficient time.
Whisnant said he expects it to pass without opposition. The transparency website also does not cost the state money but is a barebones site with links to state documents and information.
“It’s not the Cadillac. It’s sort of an old Chevrolet that were’ using,” Whisnant said of the online site. “It’s what we’ve got.”
Cleary said the more people who benefit from access to the PERS data the better.
“We pay the actuary a lot to develop it.”
Although the information already is on the PERS site, it’s somewhat cumbersome and average taxpayers who are not computer savvy may not be making frequent trips to that site, Cleary’s communications director David Crosley said.
“I think this will make it easier for people,” he added.