Reasonableness in government is under siege and citizens who pay attention are reasonably becoming cynical.
At the national level, sequestration was designed to be an unreasonable solution to what all sides agree is a federal budget problem. Across-the-board cuts were meant to be mindless, hurtful, ridiculous, unreasonable. Turns out, the sequester wasn’t unreasonable enough to motivate Congress to devise an alternative. In retrospect, Obama and Boehner should have agreed that lawmakers would have to shave their heads and come to work in bunny costumes. That might have worked.
I blame Newt Gingrich and Richard Hatch. One is an overweight philanderer and tax cheat whose comic villainy captivated Americans with made-for-TV drama. The other appeared on “Survivor.” Both garnered short-term victories by just barely not breaking the rules of the game.
Common sense fell out of favor. Now any balanced solution is derided as soft, caricatured as a “pre-compromise.”
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber can be faulted for his reasonable plan to reform the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Among other things, Kitzhaber wants the thousands of retirees who live out of state to relinquish a 9 percent bonus in their benefits. This boost was put in place in 1989 to offset their Oregon income tax liability, but as non-residents, they don’t pay Oregon income taxes.
Those receiving this “free money” almost certainly will file a lawsuit, claiming that the state is obligated by its contract and cannot retroactively change the terms of that contract.
Adjustments to PERS retirement benefits have failed in court before, because courts are not equipped to favor what’s reasonable in the face of what a law or contract requires. Every first-year law school student has to be reminded that common sense may not necessarily prevail: “You’re in law school now; there’s a reason it’s not called fair school.”
If those benefits bankrupt the state, well, it’s just too bad states cannot declare bankruptcy. And even if the state could, the judges presiding in bankruptcy court are likely to be PERS beneficiaries themselves.
The best strategy for countering crazy is with more crazy. I understand that the retirees in question can insist that they are due the money. I also understand that what seems like a technicality in the abstract is a car payment in the particular. This is not an argument against PERS or against retirees or against the other 49 states. It’s an argument against unreasonableness. It starts with “two can play that game.”
If Kitzhaber and his negotiators really want to alter an unreasonable situation, they would be smarter to begin with an unreasonable solution of their own.
Such as …
OK, technically, our contract requires the state to pay you a nine percent bonus to balance against a liability you do not incur. But there’s nothing in that contract that obligates the state to mail you a check each month. We believe the money spent on postage would be better spent on early education programs.
So we’ll have your money for you, as promised, but you’ll have to come to Salem every month to get it. We will pay your benefits in cash, saving the state the additional cost of printed checks and extra toner cartridges.
If you haven’t heard, times are tough in Oregon right now, so we’re able to devote only one teller to dispensing payments, so the line could get a bit long. We’re sure you’d agree that the state of Oregon must be vigilant against fraudulent payments. Unfortunately, that means you’ll have to arrive in person, with ID, to get paid each month. As they say in business, “we apologize for any inconvenience.”
You may want to bring a private body guard or two, because the capacity of the state penitentiary in Salem has been reduced because of budget cuts. And if you plan to fly here each month to get your money, please be aware that air traffic controllers assigned to Salem are slated for FAA layoffs because of the sequester.
If you arrive for your money wearing a bunny costume, it may not help, but it couldn’t hurt.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs