As PA budget deadline nears, Corbett still waiting on pension reform

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Sweeping pension reform? Nope.

Getting the state out of the liquor business? Uh-uh.

Neither of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s legislative priorities were addressed Sunday, as next year’s spending plan got closer to his desk. In fact, it’s looking more as if Corbett’s only victory could be an on-time spending plan — the one thing he was willing to bend on even after making a punctual budget a hallmark of his first three years in office.

CORBETT’S CRUSADE: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has been stumping for pension reform, but state lawmakers still haven’t delivered for him as the budget deadline nears.

While the state Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would shift the state’s elected officials into a 401(k) style retirement plan upon re-election, saving $690 million over 38 years, Corbett wants broader reform for future state employees.

But while Corbett repeated that he’s willing to work beyond Monday’s budget deadline to finish pension reform, the governor still left open the possibility he would sign the budget even without it.

“We will take a look at it and see if it’s something that I can live with,” Corbett said.

For now, that means considering the $29.1 billion spending plan that Republicans on the Senate Appropriations Committee approved Monday night. It relies upon rosier revenue projections and $246.6 million of one-transfers to balance the budget, $20 million more than House Republicans used.

And it counts on $95 million from expanded gas drilling in state parks and forests, as opposed to the $75 million the House and Corbett anticipated. State Sen. Jake Corman, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said “new information” from discussions with the industry prompted the larger estimate.

In one big but expected change, the state Senate isn’t banking on increased revenue from privatizing the state’s system of liquor stores. It also salvages $48 million in tax credits the House wanted to suspend for two years and continues to phase out the state’s capital stock and franchise tax.

It didn’t take long, though, for some lawmakers to question whether revenue expectations were sweetened.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, argued the budget bill depends on funding unlikely to materialize, such as money that would come if the federal government approves Corbett’s Healthy PA Medicaid reform plan. State Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, wasn’t so diplomatic.

“It’s a sham. We all know it,” he said.

Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, warned that the next governor — whether it be a re-elected Corbett or Democratic challenger Tom Wolf in his first term — would have to take “corrective action.”

Corman acknowledged a budget freeze could be in play if revenue fails to pan out. But, he said, while budgets usually aren’t everything lawmakers want them to be, the one that cleared the committee keeps government running without a tax increase.

“Only time will tell over the next 12 months whether that estimate is correct or not,” he said.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the budget bill Monday. The House could consider it after that, setting up a scenario in which it gets to Corbett’s desk just in time for the midnight deadline.

While the Senate restored some funding for Corbett’s educational block grants — stripped in the House — the governor is still waiting for pension reform. In his latest plea Sunday evening, he urged Democratic lawmakers from Philadelphia to support pension reform, which, he said, could lead to a cigarette tax hike that would pump millions into the city’s school district.

“It’s in their hands,” Corbett said.

The proposed deal wasn’t well-received by Democratic lawmakers, with state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, saying the governor should be “ashamed” of tying together the issues.

Besides, Hughes said, one of Corbett’s priorities is a longshot anyway.

“The pension concept is dead, over and done with,” Hughes said, “and it’s been like that for a long time.”

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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