The need to reform Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System is becoming more desperate by the day.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Bruce Cuff, of Marion County, and Knute Buehler, a state representative from Bend, shared this concern Thursday afternoon during presentations at a meeting of the Union County Republican Central Committee at the Flying J Travel Plaza.

“We have to fix our (Oregon’s) runaway pension system,” said Buehler, a physician who was elected to the House in 2014.

Buehler was referring to the unfunded liability of the Public Employees Retirement System, which state employers, school districts, cities and others with employees on PERS now pay more than a
$100 million a year into it to keep it solvent so that it can fund pension payments. This dollar figure number is expected to rise significantly in the future according to state officials.

Buehler and Cuff agree that the PERS problem is robbing the state of money needed to help schools and the less fortunate in our society, including those with mental health issues.

Buehler said that although the Legislature boosted school funding by $630 million for the 2017-19 biennium, most of the money will not be used to improve education in the classroom.

“Fifty-five percent of it went to (PERS) retirement accounts,” the gubernatorial candidate said.

He said if he were elected governor, PERS would be one of the first things he would address.

“I would not sign any additional spending bills until a PERS reform bill was on my desk,” Buehler said.

Cuff said one way to address the PERS issue would be not to have new state employees be part of it.

“New (state employee) hires should instead get a 401(k) (retirement account),” he said.

Cuff said another solution would be to promote school choice by having the state issue vouchers to parents who put their children in private schools. By boosting the enrollment in private schools, the number of teachers in public schools would fall, reducing the total number of teachers on PERS.

The candidate for governor said a big roadblock to fixing the PERS systems is that those who could enact reforms, legislators and judges, all benefit from PERS.

“Why do elected judges rule on PERS when they are in it?” he said. “We should get elected officials out of PERS.”

Cuff, a lifelong Oregonian, lives in Mehama, 24 miles southeast of Salem. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Willamette University and has worked as a Realtor since 2001.

Buehler, a native Oregonian who grew up in Roseburg, has a degree in microbiology from Oregon State University and a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. He has been a state representative since 2015 and a physician for the past 25 years.

Buehler and Cuff both said they believe Eastern Oregon has unlocked economic potential.

Cuff said Oregon is suffering economically because natural resources such as timber can not be accessed. He said as governor, he would strive to open more areas to logging.

“We need to boost natural resources business in Oregon,” he said.

Buehler echoed this sentiment.

“Natural resources in this region have been badly mismanaged. There is enormous potential in rural Oregon that is not being used,” he said. “I’m optimistic about Oregon’s potential because so many resources are not being fully used in the state.”

Cuff, like Buehler, said allowing more timber to be taken in Oregon would boost the state’s economy.

“It would create more manufacturing jobs, which would have huge impact on Oregon,” Cuff said.

Buehler and Cuff are seeking the Republican nomination for governor and the opportunity to take on Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, in her bid for reelection in the Nov. 6 general election. Both Republican candidates spoke out against Brown Thursday, criticizing her support of additional taxes, which they both said they oppose.

See complete story in Friday's Observer