HARRISBURG — Could 2017 be the year that pension reform actually gets done?
It’s a big ask, say lawmakers and those who’ve been lobbying for a pension law rewrite, but it’s also a big problem.
State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Blair County, noted that while the state’s spending gap of $1 billion to $2 billion will be front and center early next year, that problem is dwarfed by the challenges facing pensions for retired state workers.
The pension’s earnings haven’t been meeting targets, he said, which means it’s in worse shape than people realize.
“The consequences of pension insolvency are dire, extensive and irreversible,” said McGinnis in a statement.
A clock showing the state’s pension liability on display in the Capitol is ticking close to $70 billion.
The clock was installed by Barry Shutt, who has been staging a pension protest vigil, initially outside the governor’s residence when Tom Corbett was in office.
Corbett, a Republican who’d pushed for pension reform, was ousted by Democrat Tom Wolf in 2014. Shutt took his sit-in to the Capitol as Wolf entered office.
Since then, Republicans have increased their majorities in the state House and Senate, which could give the cause some momentum.
Shutt said he’s had conversations with Republican lawmakers who suggest they would support an increase in the sales or property taxes to deal with the pension.
It’s a tax increase they can justify to constituents as a tactic for dealing with the problem, instead of leaving it for future generations.
With 2018 elections closer than they may appear, potential gubernatorial candidates are jockeying for name recognition and back-room support.
Shutt said he hopes legislators with their eyes on the governor’s residence provide leadership to get pension reform done sooner than later, when the number has grown by $10 billion.
School funding — the other controversy
Pensions by no means are the only drain on tax dollars that will get more scrutiny in 2017.
Charter school rules written in the late 1990s have become so outdated that Auditor General Eugene DePasquale describes them as the worst in the country.
Lawmakers were unable to fix the law in 2016 but hope to try again in the new year, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed.
The charter law covers brick-and-mortar schools and cyber schools. In Philadelphia, brick-and-mortar charters are the most controversial. In rural Pennsylvania, where brick-and-mortar charters are less common, cyber schools are the lightning rods.
Administrators in traditional schools complain that charters often fail to meet the state’s academic standards, while draining tax dollars. Also, tuition payments follow students who enroll in online charters.
For cyber charters, school administrators say less money should follow students out of the school district since the computer-based schools don’t have the same overhead.
Both chambers passed versions of a new law — that would have tinkered with the charter school funding formula temporarily while a new commission developed permanent changes — but no final bill made it across the finish line.
That was in part due to objections from the Pennsylvania School Board Association, which agued that the bill would have made it too easy for charter schools to open additional locations. The group said the legislation was short of reform and “simply perpetuates and expands the system of privatized public schools.”
Heroin crisis persists across the commonwealth
Last summer, almost every member of the House stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the steps in the Capitol rotunda to say that Wolf should convene a joint session of the General Assembly to confront the state’s heroin and opioid crisis.
This amid near-daily headlines about overdose deaths, which made the issue impossible to ignore. In 2015, more than 3,800 people died from drug overdoses in Pennsylvania.
But that special session didn’t happen. Instead, Wolf made a joint address to both chambers in which he laid out fairly modest legislative goals for the fall session.
That leaves plenty of work to be done on the heroin crisis.
One possible front is to compel insurers to cover longer stints in rehab.
Pennsylvania and most other states require insurance companies to cover up to 30 days of in-patient treatment, but state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, said four weeks isn’t enough in many cases. In return for demanding longer stays, Yaw said the state could allow insurers to reduce the number of times one person can get treatment.
With more than 40 pieces of legislation introduced to fight the drug crisis, there will be plenty of competition for lawmakers’ attention.
Governor’s race grabs some early spotlight
It may be a little early to go down this road, considering that in 2013 most people considered Rob McCord the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination to run for governor in 2014.
Didn’t turn out that way. McCord not only lost the primary to Wolf, he was later charged with using his office to get donations to keep pace with Wolf’s campaign spending. So, a lot can happen.
But, state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, has already made it clear he plans to seek the Republican nomination in 2018, and he’s not the only person at the Capitol looking to move into a new office.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and House Majority Leader Dave Reed are all said to be considering a run for governor. Reed, speaking to reporters in the Capitol in early December, punted and said he’s focused on the work of the Legislature.
Elsewhere, U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Lyndora, has told interviewers he’s seriously considering a run for governor, as well.
John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.