Tame pension beast

Pennsylvania Senate President Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, hopes this is the year that the General Assembly corrals the commonwealth’s pension-funding beast.

An article in the Jan. 12 Mirror reported that, due to the state’s continuing financial difficulties, pension-reform action might finally become the Legislature’s top priority, after two years of failure on that front.

In that article, Scarnati talked about “restoring taxpayers’ trust in our ability to deal with this financial nightmare.”

But it isn’t a nightmare that “just” evolved. Scarnati was careful not to affix blame for the situation because, had he done so, he would have had to blame Republican lawmakers and former GOP Gov. Tom Ridge.

They were the culprits behind the shortsighted pension action of 2001 that, amid a booming stock market providing generous earnings to the state’s coffers, gave lawmakers and others in state government big pension increases – irresponsible increases. Then a short time later the same culprits authorized similarly irresponsible pension hikes for teachers.

Soon after, the stock market tanked, setting the stage for the pension situation currently at hand.

And, that’s only part of the bad picture.

That 2001 pension hike for teachers is what’s now at the heart of school districts’ budget problems. Many taxpayers, angry about steadily increasing property taxes, don’t understand that, as state government officials like Scarnati continue not to tell the full story.

In the Jan. 12 article, Scarnati is quoted as saying, “The largest cost and growth in next year’s [state] budget will be pension costs. To pay the bill will mean that we are forced to flat-fund or reduce-fund many areas of the budget that have already been cut close to the bone.”

The question becomes how many options lawmakers have to tame the pension beast that is expected to consume $2 billion of the state’s 2014-15 budget; the 2013-14 pension obligation totals $1.4 billion.

State officials also know that they’ll have to deal with an estimated $800 million 2014-15 budget hole during the coming fiscal year.

Yet no one in Harrisburg is talking openly about the need for an income tax increase, increasing taxes for the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry, as well as closing tax loopholes from which many in government no doubt reap substantial benefits.

It’s long past due for Harrisburg to stop living in the land of nonexistent money trees and face the fact that bold action is necessary.

Kicking the can down the road to another year isn’t the right solution.

Gov. Tom Corbett will be delivering his annual budget address in a couple of weeks. That speech should depict the real world with specific proposals, not be built upon shallow jargon like that delivered by Scarnati on Jan. 7 after being re-elected to head the Senate for an eighth consecutive year – comments referenced in the Jan. 12 article.

Many people won’t be happy with the measures needed to tame the pension beast, but they’ll be more unhappy in the future if the beast is allowed to continue running uncontrolled in the 2014-15 budget year.

As a Senate leader, it’s Scarnati’s responsibility to deliver results, not empty rhetoric.