The politics of pensions = annoyance

Posted: July 24, 2014

KNOW WHAT'S annoying about the politics of pensions?

Everything.

Gov. Corbett is in week two of a race around the state - scheduled in Trevose, Bucks County, today; Dresher, Montco, tomorrow - browbeating the Legislature for not passing pension "reform."

Everywhere he goes he cites "a pension crisis" causing property taxes to rise.

And he pretends his mostly small-town tour has nothing to do with his re-election effort because, after all, that would be wrong since he put people in prison for using taxpayer resources for political campaigns.

So that's annoying.

It's also annoying that this "crisis" has been with us for years, as have rising property taxes, and if this stuff is so important, why didn't Corbett push this hard three years ago?

I guess leadership late in the game is better than never at all. But it does sort of make one question the motive, no?

(There's a Corbett campaign Web ad attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf for saying there is no pension "crisis.")

The public doesn't understand the complexities of public pensions or what it would take to change them.

Nor does it much seem to care. A 2013 Quinnipiac University poll on top state problems found voters listing the economy, unemployment, education and taxes. A 2014 Franklin & Marshall College poll listed top problems as education, unemployment, government/politicians and taxes.

No mention of a "pension crisis."

But at the simplest level, the public understands most private-sector workers lost employer-paid pension plans years ago and are in 401(k)-type employee-contribution plans, if in any plan at all.

And many folks wonder (as do I) why a Republican governor with a Republican House and Senate, especially in an election year, can't get something as seemingly easy (and popular with most voters) as starting only new public employees on contribution plans.

You don't think the fact unions opposing this idea give generously to campaigns and candidates of both parties has anything to do with it?

Nah. That would mean our elected leaders put their own long-term interests ahead of the state's. It would mean knowingly allowing a "crisis" to raise taxes on their own constituents.

I mean, if that's the case, that's especially annoying.

So is reaction on this issue.

Corbett and many Republicans call for change in at least future public pensions; Democrats mostly want to keep the current system and suggest borrowing obligation bonds to pay down its large liability.

So when big bond-rating agencies downgrade Pennsylvania's credit, as Moody's did earlier this week, fur flies.

Wolf issued a statement blaming the downgrade on "Tom Corbett's gimmick-filled budget, weak economy and failed leadership."

Corbett's campaign issued a statement blaming the downgrade on pension costs. It carried a headline saying it's time for Wolf to "stop denying Pennsylvania's pension crisis."

Various surrogates weighed in with nearly identical (read: annoying) language.

What tends to get forgotten is that long before Corbett and Wolf, a Republican governor (Tom Ridge) and a Republican Legislature voted overwhelmingly to increase lawmakers' pensions 50 percent and state workers'/teachers' pensions 25 percent.

They did this in 2001 without debate and with plenty of Democratic support. They did it in May so it could take effect in July. They did it because they can do anything.

Still can. Like finding money to pass a balanced budget this year after saying there was no money for a balanced budget.

Like using millions in tax dollars to fund legislative reserve accounts. Like using billions in tax dollars to fund school district reserve accounts.

If they wanted, they could find money to fix pensions, more fairly fund schools and cut property taxes.

But they're on summer break, resting up to be annoying again.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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