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Helping PERS

It's not a final fix, but a state board's logical step deserves union support

The state Public Employees Retirement Board made the right move Monday when it voted to scrap outdated life-expectancy tables for calculating pension benefits for government retirees.

Now it's up to the public employee unions to forgo their threat of court challenges and go along with this logical step toward solving the mess that is the Public Employee Retirement System.

By itself, the board's decision won't solve the whole problem. But it's a step in the right direction.

The PERS problem was set in motion when the 1971 Legislature guaranteed public employees that their invested pension funds would earn an 8 percent return regardless of the stock market's actual performance.

Thirty years later, many government retirees are earning as much or more in retirement than they did while working, and the projected cost of paying future retirees has state and local governments looking at huge deficits. Overall, PERS faces a shortfall of &

36;8.5 billion.

A small piece of this crisis is the fact that payments to retirees are calculated based on how long they are expected to live. The mortality tables used to make those calculations were prepared in 1978 ' when life expectancies averaged four years shorter than today.

The result is that retirees are getting larger payments than they would if the money was spread over a longer lifetime. When retirees outlive the life expectancy tables, they still must receive payments.

Updating the tables would save the system about &

36;1.5 billion. But the employee unions are threatening to go to court because the move might reduce some workers' benefits.

The unions ' and their members ' could lose a lot more than a few dollars a month the system isn't fixed. It's time for them to be part of the solution and support this reasonable step.

Save now, test later

It's too bad the state Board of Education felt it necessary suspend part of its standardized testing at the elementary and middle school levels to save money.

But it's a better ploy than, say, laying off teachers. The tests can be reinstated later.

Putting the tests on hold will save &

36;4.5 million. Educators said the decision was especially onerous because the suspended tests are the meatiest parts of the assessment program: mathematics problem solving, a science test and an essay writing exam.

These are key portions of Oregon's push to measure student performance.

Affected by the state board's decision will be third-, fifth- and eighth-graders. They will only take tests in math and reading, multiple-choice tests that meet federal requirements. Tenth-graders will take all of the tests as before.

Because they cannot be scored by machine ' as can multiple choice tests ' the suspended portions are the most expensive to administer and grade.

Again, it's too bad the meatiest parts of the exams must be put on hold. But it makes sense in this time of stretched state budgets. The state board should restore them to the battery of tests as soon as it can afford to.