The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 2, 2012

Tough road ahead on pension crisis

Governor summons Tribune, others for update

The Tribune-Democrat

— There was good news and bad news out of Harrisburg this past week regarding what Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration calls the “Pennsylvania Pension Crisis.”

We were hopeful when the governor’s office requested the presence of members of The Tribune-Democrat’s editorial board, as well as those from other Pennsylvania publications owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., that it would be to an-nounce some real progress in easing the pension pains.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. But the good news is that the issue is on the front burner.

The session was more of an informational meeting with Corbett and the state’s secretary of the budget, Charles Zogby.

Zogby discussed the Keystone Pension Report, which was released that day, and the numbers were sobering.

Pennsylvania’s two public pension systems – the State Employees’ Retirement System and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System – are woefully underfunded.

They have a combined unfunded liability of $41 billion, meaning that the future retirement benefits to be paid to employees exceed the total assets of the plan by that amount.

Corbett and Zogby each stressed the need to quit “kicking the can forward” and make real changes to the state’s pension system.

Zogby noted that 45 states have embarked upon pension reform and 36 have chosen more than one strategy to change their systems.

Most concentrate on structural changes to the systems and changes   to employee benefits as well as increased ages for retirement.

None provided a blueprint for how Pennsylvania should handle its problems.

“I don’t know that there is a silver bullet for any state,” Zogby said.

“I guess you could say ‘Thank God we’re not Illinois or California,’ ” Zogby said, referring to states that are facing even bigger pension deficits.

Not surprisingly, the Pennsylvania State Education Association doesn’t see things the same way as Corbett.

The state’s largest school employee union said in a press release that the report “sets up false choices and doesn’t solve the problem.”

PSEA President Mike Crossey said the blame lies not with employees, but employers.

“To blame Pennsylvania’s budget problems on debts employers owe to the pension systems is to make a scapegoat of working people who have contributed to their pensions – year in and year out,” Crossey said.

“It was employers that paid nearly nothing into the pension systems for a decade.”

That kind of response doesn’t make us optimistic that any solution to the pension crisis will be found in the near future.

Corbett, speaking before the release by the PSEA, refused to put a timeline on easing the pension pitfall.

“I’d like to get it done sooner rather than later, but with the Legislature, it’s hard to predict,” Corbett said.

“Will it get done in the next two years? That remains to be seen.”

For Corbett, who will be up for re-election in 2014, his political future could depend on it.

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