Pa. pension debate oozes into summer campaign season

    After weeks of lying low during the state budget process, Gov. Tom Corbett is packing his schedule with visits across Pennsylvania to call for an overhaul of public pensions.



    His message is no different than it was two weeks ago, at the height of the typical late-June legislative frenzy. The pension proposal at the heart of Corbett’s plea has not changed. But short of a legislative success to hawk, the governor is taking his frustration to the voters, and blaming the measure’s failure on lawmakers.

    Rapport isn’t great between the administration and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, who rebuked the governor for vetoing about 20 percent of their annual funding and other proposed programs last week. Corbett said he used the line-item veto to underscore his displeasure that lawmakers began their summer break without passing a pension bill.

    Corbett’s latest move gives him a new argument to take to voters during his campaign for reelection this fall, said pollster Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College.

    “It could help Gov. Corbett,” said Madonna, “if he can somehow change the narrative away from ‘the governor cut education spending … to, ‘I have a plan, if we can get pension reform done, your school districts will have lower property taxes and more money to spend on kids in the classroom.'”

    The governor has been dogged by low poll numbers for more than a year. His Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf, has campaigned for greater education funding from levying a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers. And Wolf says he opposes changing public pension benefits.

    Corbett’s office hastily booked several visits across the state this week to talk about public pensions though, as of Monday morning, three appearances still didn’t have set locations.

    The governor’s line-item veto was followed by swift and severe reactions from Republican legislative leaders. Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called the move “troubling.” Top-ranking Senate Republicans accused the governor of playing games.

    “We are disappointed that the governor has not, to date, been able to work effectively with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to address important fiscal issues impacting our state,” said the Senate GOP leadership in a written statement.

    In years past, the governor’s legislative priorities have put the House and Senate Republicans leaders at odds with one another. The success of the governor’s agenda, said Wilkes University political science professor Thomas Baldino, would appear to hinge on bringing the two chambers together

    “If anything now, whatever differences the Republicans may have had, they can all agree that they don’t like what the governor’s done,” said Baldino.

    The bickering doesn’t directly affect voters, nor do they tend to care, according to pollsters. But Baldino pointed out that legislative gridlock and discord affects schools, public pension funds, and other government services that voters do notice, if only eventually.

    “They will feel the effect of these differences and then they’ll be wondering … why couldn’t the governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature fix this?” said Baldino. “They’re the same party. Why aren’t they fixing these things?”

    Madonna said Corbett’s latest actions are a prelude to running against the Legislature in an effort to shore up his low approval ratings among voters from his own party.

    “His first task: Unite Republicans, get Republicans behind him, get them motivated,” said Madonna. “And if he has to rumple a few feathers among legislative leaders, so be it.”

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