Unions, environmental groups take aim at Oregon PERS package

SALEM — Critics are mobilizing against a package of bills aimed at cutting Oregon public-employee pensions, revising the tax code and limiting local regulation of genetically modified crops.

The deal, hashed out by Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislative leaders, comes before lawmakers in a special legislative session on Monday. Supporters, including business groups and education advocates, say it would lower costs for state and local governments and free up more money for schools.

Environmental groups, unions and others who oppose the plan contend lawmakers are looking in the wrong place for ways to improve schools.

To make the package more appealing to Republicans and moderate Democrats, legislative leaders agreed to include a measure that would prohibit local governments from regulating seeds and seed products.

The measure is aimed at blocking efforts to create new restrictions on genetically modified crops, which farmers and agricultural companies say would create a patchwork of laws that would be difficult to comply with.

Organic farmers worry that pollen from genetically modified plants will pollinate their crops. They say they're seeking local regulations because state agriculture officials have not created statewide regulations on genetically modified organisms.

"It's a blunt instrument," said Ivan Maluski, director of Friends of Family Farmers. "It was put forward by groups closely aligned with out-of-state agrichemical interests, and it hasn't been vetted."

The efforts to cut annual cost-of-living increases are being targeted by public-employee unions.

"These changes attack the lowest wage retirees — the janitors, the clerical workers and other low-wage workers and seniors — and we feel like the proposals remain illegal," said Arthur Towers, political director for the Service Employees International Union Local 503, which represents thousands of state employees.

Even the tax plan, which was supposed to appease Democratic lawmakers weary of cutting benefits for pensioners, has come under fire because it includes a tax break for certain businesses. Some liberal groups fear the tax break — worth $38 million in the first two-year budget — will balloon in future years and erase revenue gains from increases on other taxpayers.

Any teachers hired with the additional revenue would have to be laid off later, Towers said.

"We only represent a few hundred school employees around the state, but our members' kids and grandkids go to public school," Towers said. "We need teachers, not temps."

The package does have the support of cities, counties and school groups, including Stand for Children and the Oregon School Boards Association. Eleven influential business and agriculture groups also wrote a letter Wednesday urging lawmakers to support it.

The public will be able to weigh in during hearings at the Capitol on Thursday and Friday.

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