State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Ranking senator urges some kind of pension overhaul

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jan 7, 2014 5:45 PM
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The president pro tempore of the state Senate began his eighth year in the position with a call to action for some kind of public pension system overhaul.

Over the past year, Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) has been skeptical about the governor's plans to grapple with rising costs to fund the state's public pension systems. Payments into the two pension funds are scheduled to go skyward in July, putting pressure on the rest of the next fiscal year's state budget and at least partly to blame for a deficit pegged at somewhere between $800 million and $1.4 billion.

This year, on the day he was re-elected unanimously to be Senate president pro tem, Scarnati said lawmakers must grapple with rising public pension costs.

"The choices we need to make will be many but the largest cost and growth in next year's budget will be pension cost and we need to make choices," Scarnati said. "We can simply do nothing, allowing the current, obsolete and unsustainable pension plan in place and just pay the bill."

He framed the issue as similar to transportation funding, which he said he highlighted as the top priority before the Legislature around this time a year ago.

Scarnati said he supports changing benefits for future employees - just one piece of a plan proposed last year by Gov. Corbett. The administration also urged changes to the state's scheduled payments into the pension funds and changes to the benefits of current workers.

But labor unions say changing current workers' pension plans won't survive a legal challenge, and Scarnati echoed that concern.

"I think that gets you into a legal darkness and gray area that isn't easily accounted for when we're working with numbers within the budget," Scarnati said. "How can we book a savings that may ultimately have a legal challenge?"

Movement on pension overhaul fizzled last summer, but Scarnati said he thinks there's a desire in his chamber to do something - even if it's a small bite at the apple, relative to what the governor wanted.

The governor's team has said pension overhaul is still a top priority to his administration, and the issue of most importance to the state budget.

The Republican House Majority Leader, Mike Turzai, told reporters Tuesday he also supports changing benefits for future state and public school employees, but shares Scarnati's concerns about changing benefits for current state workers and school staff. Turzai said he's not sure how much the commonwealth could save if it changed the pension plans only for new employees.

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