The elections that will be held on November 6th promise to be some of the most significant in recent years. All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election, as well as 35 U.S. Senate seats and 36 governor’s mansions. Additionally, numerous state legislative seats and many local races will be on the ballot. Today we are going to begin a three-part series examining some of the gubernatorial elections in November and how the outcome of those elections could affect public pensions in those states.
We begin with Oregon. There has been a very public debate in that state over the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and its funding. Incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown has been supportive of PERS and has sought innovative ways to pay down the unfunded liability in the system. Her opponent in the gubernatorial election, Republican State Representative Knute Buehler, vocally advocates for converting PERS into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan. Buehler mistakenly claims that his pension “reforms” would direct more than a billion dollars toward education funding.
First of all, there is no connection between harmful pension changes and increased education funding. Oregon legislators could act to increase education funding without gutting retirement security for working families. Second, the experience of other states clearly shows that closing a pension plan and forcing new employees into a 401(k)-style plan increases costs for the state government and taxpayers. Rather than saving money that could potentially be spent on education, Buehler’s plan would be more expensive and would mean less money is available to spend on classroom funding or other public policy priorities.
We continue with Iowa. Incumbent Republican Governor Kim Reynolds became governor following the resignation of former governor Terry Branstad. She faces Democratic nominee Fred Hubbell, a businessman, in the general election. Like Oregon, Iowa has a strong statewide public pension system, the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS). IPERS and its funding are less contentious political issues in Iowa than OPERS is in Oregon. Nevertheless, many public employees and retirees fear that if Gov. Reynolds is elected to her first full term, she will seek to gut IPERS and force public employees into a 401(k)-style plan.
Why would Iowa public employees and retirees fear this? Because Gov. Reynolds said, “We want to do some kind of hybrid, so shift to maybe a defined contribution moving forward.” Anti-pension ideologues have been laying the groundwork for an attack on IPERS for a while. The Reason Foundation offered to do a “free” analysis of IPERS for the Republican-controlled state legislature. Many public employees are also concerned that any potential changes to IPERS could be hurriedly rushed through the legislature the same way they quickly gutted collective bargaining for public employees early in 2017. While Gov. Reynolds and other Republican political leaders did not make any direct attacks on IPERS in 2018, an election year, many in the state fear that the attacks will come quickly and early in 2019 if Gov. Reynolds is re-elected and Republicans maintain control of the state legislature.
We will continue this series next week with profiles of more gubernatorial elections with implications for public pensions. In the meantime, you can find information about voting in your state via Nonprofit VOTE. Your vote matters in this election and every election. When you vote, be sure to vote for candidates who support public pensions and retirement security for working families.