Week in Review: Talks on PA budget, pensions and paycheck protection march on

By PA Independent Staff

HARRISBURG, Pa. — It’s Friday, and that means it’s time for our usual week in review.

Don’t let that fool you, though. This week is far from over.

State lawmakers are on their fifth of eight straight scheduled session days, a legislative marathon running up to Monday’s deadline to finish a state budget.

Gov. Tom Corbett still is pushing for pension reform, lawmakers still must decide whether they have a real thirst to revamp the way alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania, and the state Senate still could vote on historic legislation that aims to reduce the size of the state Legislature.

So yeah, there’s still a lot that could happen during the weekend. For now, let’s take a glance back at what’s happened so far.

House approves budget, but relies on iffy liquor privatization

The Republican-led state House OK’d a $29.1-billion spending plan Wednesday, but it banks on $380 million from privatizing the state’s liquor system. That’s no sure thing, especially with the state Senate reluctant when it comes to selling off state stores.

LOOKING BACK: Pennsylvania state lawmakers spent much of this week on budget negotiations and are expected to continue their slog through the weekend.

State Rep. Joe Markosek, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said “if by some miracle” liquor privatization becomes law, the governor’s own study noted it would take years to transition from the current system.

“The time has come when we must choose whether we are willing to accept a budget that is held together with nothing more than tape and rubber bands,” Markosek said.

Among other proposals, the House budget also relies on suspending some tax credits, escheat reform and $226 million in one-time transfers to help fill a revenue shortfall. It’s sure to be revised in the state Senate.

“This is not the end of the discussion,” state Rep. William Adolph, Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said before it passed. “I’m sure our friends in the other chamber will make some changes to this plan, but this is an important first step forward to getting a fourth on-time budget.”

Corbett still waiting for action on pensions

Senate Republicans say there is “a lot of support” for pension reform that would move all future hires into a 401(k)-style retirement system, but the week is drawing to a close without any action on the pension front.

The state House saw a pension overhaul effort similarly stall earlier this week.

Corbett, however, continues to press the issue. He told reporters on Thursday that he was standing by his earlier threat to avoid signing a state budget unless a pension bill reaches his desk.

As of Friday morning, the most likely proposal seemed to be one from state Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster, that essentially would close the existing pension systems to new hires. But the state Senate pulled the bill from an expected committee vote on Thursday and there is still no timetable for when it might reach the floor.

Likewise, there is little indication that the state House has enough votes to pass the bill if it got that far.

And if Republicans can’t come up with the votes on their own, there won’t be any help from Democrats who unanimously oppose changes to the state pension system.

Lawmakers plan to work through the weekend in Harrisburg, and pensions will be at or near the center of many discussions.

Paycheck protection legislation gets a facelift

After months of idling, controversial legislation that would force public-sector labor unions to collect their own dues, fair-share fees and political money moved this week, but not without some changes.

Amendments made in state House and Senate committees relaxed the original legislation slightly by allowing fair-share fees — which pay for representation in collective bargaining, arbitration and legal matters regardless if the employee is a full-fledged union member — to be automatically deducted from paychecks.

While bill sponsor state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, called it a “true compromise,” the change did nothing to alleviate the tension that’s built between conservatives and labor union officials when it comes to paycheck protection.

Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, scoffed at the idea the change is a “compromise.” He said it was “fraught” with First Amendment issues.

“It’s actually even worse,” he said. “It’s really Big Brother deciding what you can and can’t do with your paycheck.”

Report finds faults in Sandusky investigation, but no evidence of politics

To borrow from Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s 2012 campaign mantra, it looks like Corbett was a prosecutor, not a politician — at least when it came to investigating now-convicted child predator Jerry Sandusky.

A report commissioned by Kane and released Monday found no direct evidence electoral politics played a part in the three-year-long investigation that began when Corbett was attorney general, continued as he ran for governor and gained momentum after he was elected in November 2010.

Kane’s office, however, did say “the investigation took too long because of crucial missteps and inexplicable delays in bringing a serial child molester to justice.”

Even so, Kane will take some political lumps after she made campaign-trail statements that she thought politics “probably” played a part in the delay to charge Sandusky, the longtime assistant under iconic Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

On Monday, she sidestepped questions of whether she still believed that.

“The buck always stops with the leader, but in this case, don’t forget: There was no direct evidence, there was no email, there was no confession, there was no statement that indicated that the attorney general at the time did it for political reasons,” Kane said. “What it appeared to be is that there was a lack of urgency on the part of leadership. Why? We don’t know that. That’s going to be up to the public to decide.”

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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