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Perception counts

Taking lawmakers out of PERS removes the appearance of a conflict

A bill approved last week by a state House committee won't fix the looming deficit in the Public Employees Retirement System. It won't even make a dent in the state budget shortfall.

But HB 2407 will go a long way toward removing a perception among the public that state legislators have a conflict of interest when it comes to PERS reform.

The bill would remove lawmakers from PERS and place them in a 401(k)-style plan instead. The state would contribute 7 percent of lawmakers' salaries to accounts with a mix of investments chosen by the legislator.

The amount of money involved is a pittance. The bill is estimated to save &

36;202,000 in the 2003-'05 budget. And retired legislators are hardly getting rich on their pension payments. Legislators make &

36;15,396 a year, and most end up drawing PERS benefits of &

36;100 to &

36;150 a month.

But that's not the point. Lawmakers who are expected to reform PERS should not be beneficiaries ' even minor beneficiaries ' of the system they seek to change.

— It's also worth noting that some former lawmakers make out quite well in retirement, because they move into full-time state or local government jobs after leaving office, greatly boosting their PERS benefits when they retire for good.

Regardless of the details, removing any appearance of a conflict of interest can only help restore some confidence among voters that their representatives in Salem are not enriching themselves at taxpayer expense.

Nice, but not vital

It's unfortunate that the Master Gardener program may fall victim to budget cuts to the Oregon State University Extension Service. But it's not the end of the world.

The program trains and certifies Master Gardeners, who then teach the public about horticulture and home gardening. Locally, the program's 1,800 graduates provide thousands of hours of community service at no cost to the taxpayer.

Gardening is immensely popular in Southern Oregon, and for good reason. Our mild climate, generous rain and long growing season make this one of the best places in the region to grow just about anything.

Yes, it would be a shame to lose the Master Gardener program. But it is hard to argue that it is essential ' it's nice to have when we can afford it, but something we can do without when money is tight.

In the larger scheme of things, when the state must reduce spending, what makes more sense: doing without a popular but nonessential program, or cutting medical benefits to elderly and disabled Oregonians?

No, the &

36;7.5 million the Extension Service must cut statewide won't be enough to restore vital services elsewhere in state government. But that doesn't mean the state should pay for nonessentials when necessities go begging.