A one-man sit-in for pension reform in Harrisburg

    Barry Shutt has a simple routine when he comes to the Pennsylvania Capitol. He heads for the cafeteria entrance, opens his folding chair next to a pillar, and sets up his sign.

    “Pension reform,” the sign begins. “Borrowing money is not a fix. It kicks the can down the road and steals from our children and grandchildren.”

    About two days a week, most every week, Shutt is here, by his pillar, talking to anyone who will listen about the urgency of paying down the state’s $53 billion debt to its two retirement funds — and doing so without borrowing more money.

    “I just kind of got frustrated, and said, well, no one’s talking about what has to be done,” said Shutt, 67, a resident of Dauphin County. He tried a couple different spots before he settled on the Capitol cafeteria. Last September, he sat outside the governor’s residence, several blocks away from the Capitol complex, catching the attention of a few obscene motorists and then-First Lady Susan Corbett.

    “She came out with her state trooper,” said Shutt. “She said, ‘We had a lot of protesters out here, but none as quiet as you.’”

    Shutt isn’t much of a protester. He’s more like the Venus flytrap of lawmakers. When conservative Republicans held a press conference next to his outpost to decry the tax increases proposed in the new governor’s budget, Shutt joined the media gaggle and stayed after to argue with an Allegheny County representative (at one point in the collegial but passionate discussion, Shutt could be heard saying, “a pox on both your houses”).

    “I’ve talked to, I bet you, two dozen legislators about this,” Shutt said. On his list of grievances: inaction on the state’s pension debt, past failings that contributed to the debt’s rise, and proposed solutions he can’t stomach. Shutt is a retired state employee, so he benefits from the General Assembly’s 2001 pension boost, a move he criticizes.

    “They can roll it back. I’ll be fine,” said Shutt.

    It’s an empty threat. No one expects a judge to approve cutting benefits for retirees.

    “But that doesn’t prevent the unions from sitting down and saying, ‘OK, let’s figure out how we can make this a more reasonable pension plan going forward,’” said Shutt.

    State officials have talked for years about the money owed to the two pension funds (one for state workers, another for public school employees). The debt grew when the state sweetened retirement benefits, skipped payments, and saw the funds’ investments take a dive during the Great Recession. Now the bills are coming due, and threatening to eat up larger and larger chunks of the state budget.

    Lawmakers have proposed various fixes, like borrowing money to pay down a small piece of the overall debt, or closing the pension system to future employees.

    Few people propose simply paying down the debt, which is what Shutt wants to see.  

    “That’s probably going to mean new revenues,” Shutt said. “Come up with the taxes, dedicated, to fund this pension problem until it’s brought current.”

    The good news for Shutt: the Republicans who control the state Senate want to make public pensions a top priority.

    The bad news for Shutt: those senators don’t seem to share any of Shutt’s ideas.

    Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh) chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. He said he’ll introduce pension reforms this month.

    “As someone who has been doing this for a long time, I am very serious about the need to do this,” Browne said. He voted to outlaw borrowing for the sake of the pension funds in 2010. “This is not something I’ve ever been a flash in the pan on,” Browne added.

    But doing more to address the pension debt has been a top concern among Republicans who have controlled the state Legislature for several years now. Despite that, neither the House nor the Senate has even voted on a potential fix.  

    Shutt is hopeful. He just got invited to a press conference — a relatively new House member, Rep. John McGinnis (R-Blair County) is proposing to pay off the entire pension debt over 20 years (he does not specify how that payment schedule should be met, though he acknowledges it would likely be some combination of spending cuts and tax increases).

    McGinnis himself called the bill a long shot. But Shutt doesn’t mind. It’s a start.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.