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Workers aren't to blame for PERS, but they shouldn't fight reforms

A story in Friday's Mail Tribune explained that only a tiny fraction of state retirees receive more in retirement benefits than they earned while working. We hope that fact brings an end to the newly popular sport of bashing teachers and others covered by the Public Employees Retirement System.

As the story explained, just 2.5 percent of new retirees earned 105 percent of their working pay in retirement. The average monthly benefit among PERS retirees was &

36;2,072 in 2001.

That's hardly unreasonable. And it's hardly fair to blame state employees for collecting pensions they earned over a lifetime of work, to which they are entitled and under a system they did not create.

Still, there is no question that the system is broken and must be fixed. And just as we would like to see taxpayers take it easy on state workers and retirees, we'd like to see current and former state employees accept some of the changes that will be necessary to fix the system.

The Legislature and the governor have made a start.

First, Gov. Ted Kulongoski last month signed a bill to cap PERS benefits at 8 percent. That move will prevent the state and local governments from having to match double-digit stock market returns on PERS contributions and will trim &

36;1 billion from the projected &

36;15 billion shortfall.

The second step is a bill introduced last week to update mortality tables used to calculate monthly benefits to retirees based on their life expectancy. The system is still using tables created in 1978, when life expectancy was four years shorter than it is today.

That means workers who retire now should be receiving smaller monthly payments because they will collect them for four more years. Updating the tables will save &

36;1.5 billion.

Lawmakers carefully crafted this bill so that it would not affect existing retirees' benefits, only those who retire after June 30. Still, lawsuits are expected to challenge the move.

That's a futile gesture, and not one that will improve public attitudes toward state workers.

Lawmakers stress that these two measures are only a start. More steps will be needed to fix the system for the long haul, and the success of those steps depends on the cooperation of state workers and the organizations that represent them.

State workers deserve fair pensions, and taxpayers deserve a state pension system that won't bankrupt government. All sides need to work together to accomplish both.