HARRISBURG — A row of cameras, an ensemble of bystanders and a small table draped with blue cloth on Monday provided the backdrop for Gov. Wolf to sign what he called a "historic" pension reform into law.
The measure, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, reconstructs the state's current pension system for future state employees and public school teachers, replacing the current generous retirement benefit with three new options that rely partially or entirely on a 401(k)-style plan.
The goal of the new law, which takes effect in 2019, is to reduce the burden on taxpayers, now on the hook for guaranteeing public-sector pension benefits, regardless of how markets perform. Current employees, including sitting legislators and judges, already vested in the pension system could opt into one of the new plans, but will not be required to do so.
During Monday's bill signing, the governor showed a photo-op-friendly side as he huddled and shook hands with lawmakers and, later, answered press questions. Bipartisan efforts and a push by Wolf, a Democrat, were heavily attributed to the bill's passing after years of disagreement on the issue.
"This is real and meaningful pension reform," Wolf said. "Today is another example of how we can work across party lines … This is a win for taxpayers."
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R,, Centre) said he felt "like a Cubs fan," finally seeing a law put on the books after years of talking about the need for reform.
"I'm not sure what I'm going to talk about tomorrow," he quipped.
Corman said legislators who were standing behind him did not create the state's pension problems, which have resulted in a combined $62 billion debt for the state's two largest funds, one for state workers and the other for public school teachers.
"Most of these people inherited this problem," Corman said of the lawmakers who had gathered on the steps inside the Capitol rotunda for the event. "This will never, ever happen again."
Some pension-reform advocates aren't so optimistic. Barry Shutt, with the advocacy group Grandparents for Pension Reform in PA, says the efforts could be in vain.
"The problem is that if they don't take the next step of paying off that debt, this (reform) is going be wiped out immediately," Shutt said.
"If you don't start paying at least $2 billion more per year on that pension debt, it's not going to get paid off. By the time this bill goes into effect, the debt's going to be $90 billion at this rate," he added.
Despite those concerns, House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) savored the moment of legislative page-turning. On to the next tough issue, he said.
"This isn't the only thing we need to complete," Dermody said. "The next step is a balanced budget."
It is due June 30.