Pennsylvania House fails to act on pensions for school, state workers

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HARRISBURG — The House of Representatives left town for the week Wednesday without a vote on a Republican plan to alter the retirement benefits of future school and state workers.

Republican leadership had indicated the pension proposal, backed by Gov. Tom Corbett, was on the agenda Tuesday, and members discussed the bill in private meetings. But they declined to call a vote that day or the next.

“It’s a complex issue, and it just takes a little extra discussion to get people comfortable that it addresses whatever their concerns are,” House Speaker Sam Smith said after the House adjourned. “We’re a little slower this week than I probably would have liked, but we’re still moving forward and hope to get a pension bill passed by the House in the near future.”

The Republican-backed proposal is in the form of an amendment to existing legislation, so the House would have to approve the language and then vote again to send the bill to the Senate.

Mr. Corbett on Tuesday reaffirmed his demand for the legislation, telling reporters he would only consider plugging the shortfall in the upcoming state budget with a revenue-raising tax, like one on natural gas drilling, if legislators send him a pension bill.

“If we can’t get pensions done, I’m not open to anything,” the governor said. “They’ve got to move.”

The legislation in question would close the traditional pensions of the Public School Employees’ Retirement System and State Employees’ Retirement System to most new hires and enroll those workers in a combination of limited defined-benefit pensions along with 401(k)-style accounts.

Such a change would transfer a portion of investment risk to future workers and provide those employees with a lesser benefit, while saving employers $11 billion over 30 years, according to an actuarial analysis prepared for the Public Employee Retirement Commission, which reviews proposals to change the plans.

Democrats are united in opposition, said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, who serves as caucus chairman. He said the changes would harm the existing pension plans by forcing them to make lesser-earning investments, and that women would be particularly affected by a clause that would enroll current workers in the new retirement plan after a break in service.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster, said he will ask Monday for the Senate to take action on its own pension bill.

“It was the Senate’s desire to see the House move on pensions,” he said. “Watching the House not be able to lift a pension bill over the last two days makes me believe the right thing to do is to move Senate Bill 922 out of the Senate.”

Labor leaders say the plan would slash benefits for future workers while doing little to reduce the unfunded liability owed by school districts and the state.

The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill, looked ahead after the House adjourned: “Monday’s a new day, and hope springs eternal. I’m optimistic that we’ll get something done next week.”

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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