Former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Michael "Mick" Gillette has injected some momentum into Gov. John Kitzhaber's quest to reduce public employee pension benefits by hundreds of millions of dollars during this legislative session.
The back story: the big driver of Kitzhaber's proposed cuts is a plan to reduce cost-of-living increases on pension benefit that exceed $24,000 annually. Public employees and House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) have raised questions about whether limiting COLAs would survive a court challenge, citing rulings made after the last round of big changes to pension benefits, pushed through in 2003 by then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
Earlier in the session, Kotek obtained a letter from the legislative counsel saying that cutting COLAs probably would not stand up in court. For his part, Kitzhaber obtained a memo from the Oregon Department of Justice that gave a more optimistic reading of the legality of the COLA cuts.
Now, at the request of the League of Oregon Cities, Gillette, who served on the Oregon Supreme Court from 1986 through 2010—service which included ruling on the 2003 PERs changes—has weighed in.
Gillette, now in private practice at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in Portland, hedged his bets but in the main, his opinion (PDF), which may provide some insight into how his former colleagues at the Supreme Court might rule, favors Kitzhaber.
"I am more persuaded by the DOJ memorandum," Gillette wrote in a Feb. 26 letter to the League of Cities. "Because it appears to address the PERS system and its COLA aspect in a more comprehensive way."