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Bend or break

cascades RANDY
West of
the Cascades

Politics – in the campaigning end of it, that is – is full of people “stand firm”, who are resolute, who have the backbone to stick fiercely to their principles.

Most of this is garbage, of course. Effective political people know that blind adherence to points of view often generates either little accomplishment or, sometimes, deep defeat. For a politician, it can put you at risk. For an organization, too.

Which brings me to two widely disparate kinds of groups with similar problems: The National Rifle Association, and Oregon’s public sector unions.

After the Sandy Hook shootings late last year, my thought about what the NRA ought to do, as a matter of self-preservation and in the real interests of its membership, was simple: Compromise. Give in a bit on some of the ideas, such as universal background checks, that even President Wayne LaPierre strongly supported only a decade ago. A few such modest moves would be enough to position the NRA, and by extension many gun owners, as well within the mainstream, without giving up anything very important to their interests. Politically, that was the smart move.

As we know, they didn’t do that. Short term, this may not matter, but long term, after a few more mass shootings (which as we all know will happen), this will be an over-stiff branch that rather than bending with the wind may be broken by it.

Similar point, and the real subject today, applies to Oregon’s public section labor unions.

The topic of the day for them is singular, but in-state significant: What to do about the heavily escalating cost of PERS, the public employee retirement system, which is one of the most generous in the country.

The costs of paying for those obligations is cutting deeply into budget for public schools and almost everything else, and probably only a sliver of people in Oregon would argue that costs ought to be trimmed. That could be done with no substantial damage to retirees, as part of an overall budget and revenue package. The Oregon school boards association has proposed a PERS change that might in fact bear down in some retirees, but Governor John Kitzhaber has proposed one that seems to hit a sweet spot – saving quite a large chunk of money but impacting retirees only very lightly or, in most cases, not at all. Proposed in his state of the state, it would objectively seem easy to support.

But the public sector unions have a great deal of clout among the Democrats who have the majority in Oregon’s legislature, and they are resisting any changes at all. The co-chairs of the budget committee, Senator Richard Devlin of Tualatin and Peter Buckley of Ashland, last week delivered a PERS proposal that sits about halfway between “nothing” and the Kitzhaber. Reports suggest it will be jammed through soon.

Even that seems to be too much give for the unions.

As a whole, Oregon is fairly labor-friendly and there’s not the kind of widely-trafficked animus against public employees you might find in, say, Idaho. But that’s not immutable. Imagine this scenario: The co-chairs’ PERS plan or something even more watery passes the legislature (and Kitzhaber has said that if the co-chairs’ plan is what passes, he’ll sign it). In response, someone (not hard to come up with prospects) develops a ballot issue to impose much tough changes on PERS, and argues that the choice is between either a big payday for a fraction of the retirees, or more teachers in the schools. And Republicans running for the legislature lash themselves to those ballot issues – and run with the argument that it became necessary only because majority Democrats are too beholden to the public sector unions.

In that scenario, both the PERS benefits (in anything like their current form) and the Democratic majorities in the legislature (which are thin) would be at risk.

This risk may not be this year, or even necessarily next. But eventually.

Bend or break.

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