Legislators in Harrisburg face a momentous choice today: push Philadelphia's sagging finances closer to the brink or allow the city to go forward with a plan to plug its budget gap.
Ideally, the legislature would have approved a simple bill by now to provide $700 million in revenue by allowing the city to raise the sales tax by 1 percentage point and defer pension payments. The Democrat-controlled House approved such a bill weeks ago.
The Republican-led Senate had other ideas. It approved the requested relief measures for Philadelphia, but sent the bill back to the House with amendments that would require the state to take over distressed pension funds, freeze current pension benefits, and reduce benefits for new workers in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
The timing of the Senate's action was bad for Philadelphia, but it's hard to argue with the merits of it. Pension systems statewide are critically underfunded, and reform is needed.
"What the Senate did is basically sound," Gov. Rendell said in an interview with The Inquirer Editorial Board on Tuesday. "It's very, very difficult to oppose it."
Labor unions have been opposing it, loudly, with their Democratic patrons in the House. The pressure by organized labor appears to have convinced House Democratic leaders to water down the Senate bill in a vote tentatively scheduled for today.
If the House alters the Senate bill too dramatically, the result could be disastrous for the city. Prolonged back-and-forth with the Senate would further delay relief for the city, forcing Mayor Nutter to lay off up to 3,000 workers by Oct. 2, as well as shutter libraries and reduce trash collection.
Unions argue that the Senate's pension reforms undermine their collective-bargaining rights. But in an economy that is forcing sacrifices on many fronts, public employee unions must recognize they are not exempt.
Do they really expect, in this climate, to boost their already generous pension benefits either through bargaining or arbitration?
And in the city's case, it's preferable to curtail pension growth rather than to lay off thousands of current workers. Do the unions want that? Ask people who've already lost jobs how difficult it is in this market to find work again at comparable pay.
Further delay also distracts legislators from their other alleged job - approving a state budget.
That task is now more than two months overdue, and Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation without a budget. It's an embarrassment that is hurting many other workers and their families statewide.
Many House legislators recognize the need for pension reforms. They might not like the timing, but the proposed solutions are sensible.