WARRENTON — State Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell faced a mixed reception at her town hall on Sunday, three days after a controversial vote to reform the state’s pension system.
The state faces an estimated $26 billion in unfunded liability in the Public Employees Retirement System, which serves 176,000 public workers. Mitchell voted Thursday with 30 other Democrats in the state House on a set of changes expected to save an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion per two-year budget cycle.
The changes extend the minimum payment schedule on the debt by eight years, accounting for about three-quarters of the savings. The more controversial portion redirects a percentage of what employees contribute to a supplemental retirement account to help cover pension benefits until the system, about 73% funded, reaches 90% funding.
The legislation leaves pension benefits intact, but trims a 30-year employee’s overall retirement benefits by an estimated 1% to 2% of pay.
Mitchell, a former employee of the state Department of Human Services, quit her job to run for office. Public employee unions heavily backed her campaign, leaving some voters to wonder whether she’d be willing to take action on reforming the pension system.
“I hope people know it was really, really hard for me,” the Astoria Democrat told the crowd gathered in the Warrenton High School cafeteria Sunday. “This is my retirement too.”
Mitchell and others at the town hall agreed that the massive unfunded pension liability is not the fault of public workers. But the unfunded liability, combined with rising retirement contribution costs that could cause staff cuts in local governments and a possible recession, meant the Legislature had to do something, she said.
She cast pension reform as a requirement to getting the support among the business community needed to pass the Student Success Act, a gross receipts tax forecasted to add $1 billion a year to school budgets. She also warned of a possible ballot measure to turn the entire public pension system into a 401(k) retirement plan to save money.
“If you had to look at those options, I would argue that just about every single person in this room would make that same decision,” Mitchell said, eliciting some opposition from the crowd. “That is why I made the decision I made, and I understand there will be people who disagree, but there really was no other way.”
Janelle Wagner, a fourth-grade teacher at Lewis and Clark Elementary School, was one of several who saw Mitchell’s vote as a betrayal.
“We fought to get you in, and we’re feeling basically — and forgive my language — screwed,” she said.
Jacob Van Buskirk, who worked on Mitchell’s campaign, decried the back-room dealing to protect the Student Success Act. Voters are happy to help remove legislators who don’t have their best interests in mind, if only they knew who those people were, he said.
“I want to know who are the Democrats who are my friends, and I don’t know,” he said.
Others at the town hall thanked Mitchell for showing courage in a controversial vote that didn’t align with the priorities of many of her strongest supporters.
Rick Newton, a Warrenton city commissioner, and Tom Brownson, an Astoria city councilor, expressed concerns about how city budgets could face cuts to cover rising retirement costs. The pension debt isn’t the employees’ fault, but everyone needs to work together to fix the problem, Newton said.
Chuck Albright, a third-grade teacher at Gearhart Elementary School, asked Mitchell to back an effort by Democrats to overturn a 2017 law that starting this summer and fall would no longer allow couples who both work in the public sector to get double coverage. The law would also take away an incentive that provides a monthly check if an employee opts out of double coverage. The changes would cost his family about $9,000 a year, Albright said.
Jack Harris, co-owner of Fort George Brewery, and Justin Saydell, a habitat restoration manager for the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce, thanked Mitchell for her support of the Clean Energy Jobs Bill.
The bill, in the state’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, would cap what businesses are allowed to emit and require them to buy offsets for going over the cap, investing the proceeds in efforts to curb climate change. Fort George is part of a coalition of medium and large businesses that signed on in support of the legislation.