Democratic candidates denounce Corbett's pension plan

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HERSHEY, Pa. -- On a week when Gov. Tom Corbett had called again for changes in the state's troubled pension systems, the Democrats vying to replace him denounced his plans as an abdication of the state's commitment to its employees.

"It doesn't seem he can encounter any problem he can't make worse," state Treasurer Rob McCord said of the governor as he parried questions alongside six other contenders for the Democratic nomination for governor at a forum sponsored by the women's caucus of the Democratic state committee.

On that as on other questions, there was broad agreement among the challengers. They echoed one another's calls to uphold pension pledges to state employees while offering only vague details on how they would fully fund the state's pension obligation.

Mr. Corbett, who ran on a pledge against raising taxes, has consistently maintained that the state's rising pension obligations are unsustainable. Last year, he issued an ambitious overhaul plan that would have changed the calculation of benefits earned in future years by state and public school workers while diverting new workers into 401(k)-style plans. Such changes would justify reducing the state's planned payment into the systems, the administration said.

But labor leaders promised to challenge any changes for current workers in court, and although legislators discussed the proposal for new hires, they adjourned for the summer without taking action.

In his annual budget address Tuesday, Mr. Corbett again called for pension reform, though his focus has narrowed to new hires, and his budget secretary said the administration is now considering a hybrid plan that combines aspects of traditional pensions and defined-contribution plans. Again, the administration says enacting such a change would allow it to reduce the scheduled increase in employer pension contributions.

In part, the lack of an in-depth answers to that and other questions was a result of the crowded field on stage at the Hershey Hotel. That produced a perhaps inevitably unwieldy format with brief answers rotating among the candidates. The need to accommodate such a big cast of characters left little time for nuanced answers or any real interplay among the candidates.

They also showed general agreement on subjects including gay rights, the need for more funding for education and the faults of the Corbett administration's voter ID law.

Max Myers, a Cumberland County minister and political neophyte, said he was the only candidate with a specific blueprint for shoring up the government pensions, pointing to his proposal for a new tax on financial transactions. Tom Wolf, a York County businessman, said he would consider a pension obligation bond to inject money into the system. But all the candidates were in agreement that whatever solution emerges, it should not impinge on the benefits of the current workforce.

John Hanger, a former state environmental secretary, said any solution, "probably means [that we] stop kicking the can down the road and come up with new revenue to pay for pensions."

He suggested that some of that might come from diverting revenue that now goes to substandard charter schools.

While renewing their party's assault on the voter ID law declared unconstitutional by Commonwealth Court last month, the candidates joined in supporting procedures to make it easier to vote, such as early voting, same day registration and voting by mail.

Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Montgomery, argued that the Corbett approach was part of a national Republican agenda to make voting more difficult. Her candidacy, she said, would overturn the "stale culture of Harrisburg."

Katie McGinty, another former DEP secretary, said her priorities in office would include restoring funding cuts for education and raising the minimum wage.

Jo Ellen Litz, a Lebanon County commissioner, pointed to job growth in her county and said that similar successes could be replicated across the state.

The Hershey forum was a prelude to a Democratic State Committee meeting today where the elected party officials will consider whether to endorse one of the contenders.

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562. Karen Langley:, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. First Published February 7, 2014 8:44 PM

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