CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
A pension reform plan unveiled by lawmakers on Tuesday mirrors the plan described by Gov. Tom Corbett in his budget address.
The only change from Corbett’s plan is that the most contentious part of the proposal – tinkering with existing employees’ benefits – will not take effect until 2015. That way, the courts will have an opportunity to decide whether the changes to the benefit calculations are legal without holding up the other pension reforms, said Rep. Chris Ross, R-Chester, chairman of the House commerce committee.
But the push for pension reform is just one front in an unfolding battle to rein in the public cost of government employees and contractors.
Last week, a group of conservative lawmakers – including Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union, and Rep. Bradley Roae, R-Crawford – quietly introduced bills that would weaken unions, including the powerful public sector unions that represent 300,000 government employees in Pennsylvania. That conflict comes as the state struggles against challenges led by unions to efforts involving pension reform, lottery and liquor privatization.
One measure would bar arrangements that require union membership to get a job. Another bill would outlaw “fair share payments” that are collected by unions from employees who refuse to join the union.
Five thousand teachers pay “fair share fees” rather than union dues in Pennsylvania, a study by the Commonwealth Foundation determined. The teachers union is by far the largest public sector union – with three times the number of members as the next largest union.
Roae said the bills would not prevent people from joining unions.
“Nobody should be prevented from joining a union if they want to join and nobody should be forced to join a union they do not want to join,” Roae said. “People should not be forced to pay partial union dues to a union they do not want to join.”
Keller said that he doesn’t view the bills as an attack on unions.
But, he added that labor organizations should not benefit from government requirements that force people to give them money.
“If the product is valuable, they ought to be able to sell it (to prospective union members),” Keller said.
Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the legislation would essentially create “free-riders” because the union is required to represent all teachers whether they are union members or not.
“If a nonmember employee is discharged unfairly the union has to provide legal representation that runs into thousands of dollars to defend them,” said Anne Lohr, president of the union local in the North Star School District in Somerset County, where there are 96 union members and two fair-share employees.
In addition, nonunion members still enjoy the same contract benefits of other teachers.
“The services of expert negotiators, research staff, lawyers and other administrative staff are often required, thereby adding to the costs. These are the costs that are covered by fair-share fees,” said Lohr, a math teacher at North Star High School.
Lohr said that targeting fair-share fees is a bid to “divide and conquer” government employees.
The pension reform push has been Corbett’s focus since last fall, and advocates say that the time to act is now.
“Failing to address the public pension problem will only make it worse,” Roae said.
The two main public sector unions together face an unfunded liability of $47 billion. That unfunded liability is expected to jump to more than $65 billion by 2018. The state currently contributes approximately $1.5 billion combined to the pension systems.
Without action, that contribution is expected to nearly triple to $4.3 billion by 2016, Roae said.
School districts currently contribute a combined $1 billion per year to PSERS. That would double to approximately $2 billion by 2018 if no action is taken, he said.
“The current pension system is unsustainable,” Roae said.
Keller said he will hold town hall meetings in his district in an attempt to overcome resistance to the reforms.
“People didn’t send me to Harrisburg to point fingers. I am interested in working on solutions and making the system secure,” Keller said.
It is far from clear which, if any, of the measures will have the momentum to become law, said Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Mercer.
“I don’t know how likely (pension reform) is to happen,” Stevenson said.
“We have to have a solution to the unfunded liability. I’m not sure what it will be or whether it will happen this spring,” Stevenson said.
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