Gov. Tom Corbett returned Monday to the place his political career began, connecting the dots between pensions and property taxes, as he struggles against a potential premature end to that career.
Mr. Corbett appeared with state Sen. Randy Vulakovich at a news conference at the Shaler Township Municipal Building, where he once served as a township commissioner, repeating his call for legislative action to address the state’s rising pension costs.
Days after the Republican incumbent sparked a confrontation with the Legislature’s GOP leadership by vetoing a portion of its funding, there was no immediate path in sight to progress on an issue that Mr. Corbett characterized as a threat to the future of the state, its school districts and its taxpayers.
Mr. Corbett expressed optimism that the House and Senate would take up pension legislation, but he acknowledged that while there had been contacts at the staff level, he had not talked with any of the legislative leaders since the dueling news conferences and statements last week, when he denounced the lawmakers for failure to act on pensions, and they in turn criticized him for failing to provide leadership.
Mr. Corbett started his day with a campaign rally at the Banksville headquarters of Boilermakers Local 154, where he called for action on the pension issue. Later, he crossed the rivers to the Shaler event, where local and school officials and taxpayers joined him in front of a banner that proclaimed, “Pension Reform = Property Tax Relief.”
His schedule calls for a series of similar bully pulpit appearances throughout the week as he seeks legislative action and a revival of his reelection campaign .
“We’re trying to shine a light on the problem,” he said, noting that politicians of both parties had been content in the past to “kick the can down the road.”
“The longer we do that the more difficult we make it,” he added.
The difficulty of moving forward on the issue was evident, however, in the varying prescriptions offered to address it.
Mr. Vulakovich, in contrast to some of his GOP colleagues, praised Mr. Corbett for showcasing the issue, but the senator said the best bet for incremental progress was for the House to act on a measure he supports that would move the Legislature, the courts and the senior executive branch outside of the current defined contribution system.
Mr. Corbett, on the other hand, pointed to a House measure Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuykill, crafted that would create a hybrid pension system for new employees in which the first $50,000 of salary would continue to support a defined benefit system, and any salary greater than that would be paired with a 401(k)-style defined contribution system.
The governor framed his argument for the pension change in terms of property tax relief, but he acknowledged that the Tobash measure would represent only a partial solution to the long-range pension challenge.
“It’s not going to be relief right away, [but] it’s a start,” he said.
At the Boilermakers event, Mr. Corbett criticized his Democratic opponent for denying that the state faced a pension crisis. York businessman Tom Wolf has said that the state faces a pension problem but doesn’t characterize it as a “crisis.”
The Wolf campaign has had the luxury over the past few days of being a virtual bystander to battles between Republicans while the Democrats issued a statement criticizing the Corbett rhetoric on school taxes.
“Tom Corbett’s $1 billion in education cuts have caused schools throughout Pennsylvania to raise property taxes while forcing over 20,000 layoffs and the elimination of valuable programs,” said Katie McGinty, chairwoman of Mr. Wolf’s campaign committee. “While our schools and families struggle, Tom Corbett refuses to institute a severance tax on big oil and gas that would provide much-needed public funding for our schools.”
In his earlier appearance, Mr. Corbett had denounced the Democrats’ frequent criticisms of his education funding cuts as “the big lie.”
He maintains that schools lost funding at the outset of his administration because of the expiration of federal stimulus funding. Since then, the amount of state dollars devoted to education, including pension costs, has reached record levels, he argues.
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.