Week in review: Pension reform, revenue woes and fake bribes

By PA Independent Staff

This week, the last before lawmakers return to Harrisburg to tackle next year’s budget, brought more disappointing fiscal news but also a plan that could save the state a huge chunk of change over the next three decades.

And, as usual, there were more calls for elected officials to institute reforms, with most of the attention on banning lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists and others looking to influence government.

Here’s a look back at the week:

Pension overhaul could save billions

An actuarial analysis released this week estimated the state could save $11 billion over the next 30 years by adopting a pension overhaul plan offered by state Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill.

LOOKING BACK: Actuaries say a pension overhaul could save the state $11 billion over the next three decades.

That’s welcome news for Pennsylvania, which is facing nearly $50 billion in public pension debt.

But most of the savings in Tobash’s plan wouldn’t be realized for at least a decade or more. His proposal would not change benefits for existing employees or retirees, but would put future hires into a new pension system that combines elements of the current pension plan and 401(K)-style retirement accounts seen more often in the private sector.

If there is going to be any movement on the pension issue this year, Tobash’s bill seems the most likely vehicle.

But Democrats and unions are unlikely to support the Republican-led effort. They said this week Tobash’s plan wouldn’t save enough money and would erode retirement security for state workers and public school teachers.

Lawmakers: May revenue numbers bleak

Official revenue numbers for May won’t arrive until next week, but the chairmen of the state House and Senate appropriations committees said this week that collections could be lagging by $100 million.

That would mean year-to-date revenue could trail expectations by more than $600 million after adjusting for an early transfer of state liquor store profits.

That’s bad news for Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2014-15 budget, which includes a proposal to bolster spending on education.

“It’s a very serious problem that we’re going to be working on,” said state Rep. William Adolph, a Delaware County Republican and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, “and I’m open to all suggestions and looking to make sure that we get a balanced budget — a sustainable budget — done by June 30.”

Reformers hand out ‘bribes’ in hopes of landing gift ban

If you can’t beat ’em, bribe ’em.

That was the tongue-in-cheek mantra for a trio of reformers who doled out mock bribes during a Tuesday visit to the state Capitol. Their hope was to coerce the General Assembly to institute a total gift ban to help reduce the influence lobbyists and others can have on elected officials.

Joined by Dennis Baylor, Gene Stilp and Eric Epstein spent the lunch hour delivering “Corbucks” — named in honor of Corbett — to the governor’s office and the offices of legislative leaders. The $1,000 bills proudly displayed the motto of “IN GRAFT WE TRUST” and were marked “illegal tender.”

“Eric, I never thought we’d stoop so low as to use bribery to get a bill passed,” Stilp, a regular reform advocate at the state Capitol and a candidate for a state House seat, said to Epstein, founder of the good-government group Rock the Capital.

Prohibiting elected officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists isn’t a hard concept, Epstein said, but it has stalled because of a “culture of corruption,” which resists change and is left unpunished at the polls.

“You’re dealing with a Legislature that couldn’t pass gas at a frat party,” he said.

Legislation to trim Legislature gets second life

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, wants to resurrect legislation that would trim the number of state lawmakers.

The House late last year passed legislation sponsored by House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, to reduce the General Assembly’s ranks by about 25 percent, but it seemingly fell into hibernation when it reached the Senate.

Smucker said Thursday it’s time to revive the effort to cut one of the most expensive legislatures in the country. The Senate State Government Committee, which Smucker chairs, will consider proposals to reduce the number of lawmakers, he said.

Smith’s legislation reduces the House from 203 to 153 members and the state Senate from 50 to 38 members. Smucker indicated his committee would consider an amendment that would reduce the Senate by five members.

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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