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Pensions delayed ‘til fall as Corbett reviews budget

Governor Corbett said he’s not done looking over a state budget proposal sent to him Monday night. 

“I spent quite a bit of time yesterday with the staff,” said Corbett. “They continue to do a review of the budget.” The governor made his remarks Wednesday during a press conference – his first since before the spending plan passed. 

Corbett has touted on-time budgets for the past three years of his term as governor, but when lawmakers delivered a $29.1 billion proposal just before the June 30 deadline, he refused to sign it right away, as had been his custom. 

Instead, the governor held out for movement on a public pension overhaul proposal before House lawmakers. 

“I continue to urge the legislature to move forward on pension reform now,” Corbett said. 

His gambit to force action on the plan was foiled Wednesday, when House Republican leaders put off a vote on the measure until September, at the earliest. 

That move was preceded by a parliamentary skirmish. 

The pension bill had been sent to a moderate Republican’s House committee where it was expected to wither, beyond the reach of top House GOP members. 

Thursday afternoon, GOP Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) made a motion to pull the bill back from committee in exchange for a delay of its consideration. 

“We will continue to have further discussions – important discussions – about the substance of that bill and its amendments over the summer and will retake the issue in the fall,” said Turzai. 

The trade worked. Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), chairman of the panel, hastily called a meeting to kick the bill out of his committee and send it back to the full House.

Now, the pension proposal will wither there. Corbett and other House Republicans released written statements commending the move. 

DiGirolamo said he remains against the proposal, and wants to work on another plan to address both short-term and long-term pension costs. The bill before lawmakers, critics argued, did only the latter. 

Corbett had been pushing state lawmakers to advance the proposal changing retirement benefits for future state and school employees. But Republicans couldn’t drum up the votes to pass the measure in either legislative chamber, and Democrats are uniformly opposed to it. 

Corbett blamed public sector unions for blocking the pension overhaul, and noted his disappointment that lawmakers “cannot stand up to the special interests that are out there at this time.”

DiGirolamo rejected the allegation. 

“Look at the actuarial study, not the talking points of the labor unions, and you’ll see that that’s what they say – that this bill did not address any of the problems that we’re looking to solve with the pension problem,” said DiGirolamo. 

The state’s actuary concluded the pension proposal could save $11 billion over a 30-year period, but that the savings would be contingent on investment returns. The same analysis also noted that, even under the proposal, pension costs wouldn’t recede for a few decades. 

The fiscal code

On Thursday, with House action on pension overhaul looking unlikely, Corbett mentioned for the first time his interest in another piece of legislation crucial to the budget’s implementation: the fiscal code. 

The bill acts as the instructions manual accompanying the state spending plan. 

“We certainly want to have that,” said Corbett, “There’s an interplay between the fiscal code and the budget.” 

The governor has never held back a state budget because of a late fiscal code or any other late budget-related legislation. Last year, he signed an on-time budget bill despite not receiving a fiscal code until mid-July. 

This year, the fiscal code is the subject of a tussle between the House and Senate that won’t be settled next week, at the earliest. 

Corbett has 10 days to take action on the proposed budget, or else it goes into effect by default.

He hasn’t specified any particular problem with the budget, though his budget secretary said Wednesday the office never agreed to the final plan negotiated among House and Senate Republicans. The Senate GOP says Corbett’s staff stopped participating in budget talks at some point in late June. 

The governor could also veto the budget in its entirety, or cross out certain funding items. 

“We are looking at it,” said Corbett, “line by line.”

Mary Wilson is the state Capitol reporter for Pennsylvania's public radio stations, including witf in Harrisburg, WHYY in Philadelphia and WESA in Pittsburgh. Mary came to witf after a year being a catch-all staffer for a Maryland politician. Partisanship was a drag, but other things stuck: she has great empathy for those who have spent hours folding sample ballots and building campaign signs. Before that, she was a part-time show host and cub reporter at WFUV-FM in New York City. She covered the closing of the old Yankee stadium and narrated the scene of Harlem on the night of the 2008 presidential election. Mary graduated from Fordham University in the Bronx with majors in history and Italian.
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