The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Rave

January 11, 2013

New wrinkle is a big one "¨

In the summer of 2009, American investment bankers were spotted in the Middle East, pitching a sovereign wealth fund on the idea of buying the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When the legislature shut that down, the state tried and failed to impose tolls on Interstate 80, figuring to hijack revenue mainly from long-haul truckers who had to bounce across Pennsylvania on a highway no one can afford to maintain.

After that, there was another in a series of attempts to privatize state liquor stores, which ricocheted though old arguments and then, as usual, stopped.

This year, the great Keystone yard sale has Pennsylvania's state lottery on the block to a British firm making billion-dollar promises in order to seed the state with electronic Keno games.

Simultaneously, Gov. Tom Corbett is in court to snatch back $60 million from a fine imposed by the NCAA and to challenge sanctions that wounded Penn State football in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal.

The nearly subterranean arithmetic motivating these moves resides in an actuarial shortfall in Pennsylvania pension promises in the neighborhood of $41 billion.

The problem, long in the making, tracks back to 2001 when pension fund investment did well on Wall Street, persuading state lawmakers (and future pensioners themselves) it was time to ramp up old age benefits for state workers.

Years of weaker investment performance ensued, during which Pennsylvania contributed on average 30 percent toward its pension liability while the national average hovered around 89 percent.

It is not clear that the public appreciates how profoundly troubling Pennsylvania's pension promise problem has become. All that most of us see are elected officials widely regarded as honorable who occasionally are discovered trying to sell state property out the back door, or otherwise scratch more money from liquor sales, gambling and road tolls.

Now the governor wants to recover financial losses and opportunities by going to court to revisit what it means to be a victim of the Penn State Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.

Let's pause and ponder. This is no longer about bets, booze and barter.

Here, we seem to be on the threshold of a new stage in societal development, one the majority of Pennsylvanians may not be inclined to embrace just to see to it that the people who mismanaged state pension funds in the first place can remain comfortable in their retirement.

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