As Gov. Tom Corbett crisscrosses Pennsylvania to gin up support for public pension reform while lawmakers break for the summer, there’s ample opportunity to explore what has held up legislation that could save the state $11 billion over 30 years.
In recent weeks, that focus has shifted to the General Assembly’s less-conservative Republican lawmakers — many of them from southeastern Pennsylvania — and the labor unions who back them. Together they’ve formed a virtual political blockade for issues near and dear to conservatives, such as paycheck protection, liquor privatization and pension reform.
State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, addressed that issue directly in a PennLive op-ed that questioned why a GOP majority can’t push conservative causes such as pension reform into the end zone.
“I’m angry that a small number of liberal Republicans joined with Democrats to prevent us from enacting common-sense reforms to protect Pennsylvania taxpayers and preserve our state’s financial future,” Knowles wrote. “The truth is, common sense can’t even be heard above the voices of the union leaders and special interests.”
The spotlight on some Republicans lawmakers and their union support only grew after the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the state, released its endorsements about a week ago.
While backing the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf and an entire slate of Democratic candidates for Congress, the AFL-CIO’s list sprouted some political diversity in the General Assembly.
The AFL-CIO endorsed five Republican candidates for state Senate and 19 Republican state House candidates, including state Rep. Mike Fleck — a Republican who lost his party’s nomination but won the Democratic nod in the May primary.
Of the lawmakers who drew AFL-CIO support, 13 were among the 15 Republican House members who joined Democratic lawmakers earlier this month to send a pension reform bill back to committee, where some thought it would languish or die altogether.
State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), who runs the union-funded Good Jobs PA PAC, is perhaps the most notable Republican included in that group. DiGirolamo made the motion to send the bill to his Human Services Committee, after arguing the pension issue deserved more study.
DiGirolamo didn’t return messages seeking comment but made his point in floor remarks earlier this month.
“I pose the question: What’s the rush? Why are we doing this now?” he said before making his motion to recommit the bill, which later was voted out of the committee but saw no immediate action.
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said that while the recommit vote was important, it “wasn’t a litmus test” for the endorsement.
Instead, the support was based on legislators’ session and cumulative voting record, he said, while pointing out the labor group backed state Rep. Jim Marshall, a Republican who opposed sending the pension bill back to committee.
“Our motto has always been, 'If you’re for us, we’re for you, regardless of party,' ” Bloomingdale said.
The overlap wasn’t lost on David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, which supports a plan to move newly hired state workers and teachers into a hybrid retirement plan that includes elements of a traditional pensions and a 401(k).
The Public Employee Retirement Commission has said the proposal could save $11 billion over three decades, with most of that coming in later years, but it’s lacked the necessary support in both the GOP-controlled House and Senate.
While not every lawmaker who opposed the pension overhaul did so at the behest of unions, some have been bowing to pressure from organized labor, Patti said. Even so, he wouldn’t call the union influence “undue.”
“But what I would argue is that it’s not necessarily in the public interest,” Patti said. “I think that if they took a long-term view with the state and for their members, they would recognize that some compromise would make some sense.”
While Pennsylvania is facing a $50 billion unfunded pension liability — a debt expected to grow even larger in coming years — the hybrid proposal wouldn’t address that issue, a sticking point for some lawmakers. It also doesn’t provide immediate budget relief.
Bloomingdale contends the legislation would put new hires into the “poorhouse” and leave them with more volatile retirement plans.
“Our idea of pension reform is getting pensions for everybody,” he said.
For now, unions have been able to count the lack of pension reform as a win in a year that has seen plenty of jousting between conservatives and organized labor, especially as the prospect of liquor sales reform began bouncing around the Capitol again.
Unions have a strong grassroots presence, bolstered in part by the ability to have their dues and political money collected via a state payroll system, said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.
Hardline conservatives have been trying to tackle that issue with paycheck protection legislation, but that’s also been stymied this year, along with liquor sales reform. For now, the pension status quo remains, to the chagrin of those like Barr.
“Taxpayers are footing the bill, again, for a benefit that the overwhelming majority of taxpayers cannot ever hope to have,” Barr said.
Barring a special legislative session, nothing is likely to happen on pensions until mid-September. Even then, pension reform will be a heavy lift, considering it’s an election year and many lawmakers are counting on support from organized labor.
That’s especially the case for lawmakers in the southeastern portion of the state, where unions have greater influence than other parts of the state, said James Broussard, an expert on Republican politics and a professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College.
Even if pushing pension reform might give the beleaguered Corbett a boost heading into the election, less-conservative Republican lawmakers are likely afraid that would “doom them,” Broussard said.
Yet Broussard doesn’t view those members of the GOP as the biggest stumbling block for pension reform. The bigger blockade, he said, has been the refusal of any Democratic lawmaker to lend support to the proposal.
“That’s the real roadblock,” Broussard said. “When one party lines up unanimously against any policy, it forces the other party to be virtually unanimous as well. And that’s very tough if your members are elected from a rather diverse group of districts.”
Ultimately, it’s may not even be a Democratic or Republican problem, as Corbett has been arguing as he travels across the state and chides the Legislature for failing to act on pensions.
“It doesn’t matter if Corbett wins or Wolf wins,” Patti said. “Pensions are going to drive the budget for the next 30 years if we don’t get a handle on them.”
Andrew Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.