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Corbett rolls a rock uphill

The governor, facing significant political and policy challenges, takes on one more tough task.

GOV. CORBETT, with his leadership in question and his job approval in the tank, promises basic societal collapse if he doesn't get his way on pensions.

He argues that unless the Legislature, which helped create the problem, slashes costs for state workers, lawmakers and teachers, well, things could get real ugly.

The picture he painted at a Capitol news conference yesterday?

Painful cuts in police and public safety, health and human services and, of course, education, where, he said, school districts could "be forced to raise taxes and lay off teachers."

I don't know, to me it sounds like any day in Philadelphia.

Anyway, the guv said the current pension path is eating 60 cents of every new state dollar, and the unfunded liability - that would be something north of $47 billion en route to $65 billion in five years - comes to $9,500 per Pennsylvania household.

So, as he has before and as others have before him, he's seeking passage of "reforms" to save pensions, society and maybe even Philadelphia.

"The cost of doing nothing is absolutely staggering," Corbett said.

He's pushing a plan described by its Senate sponsor, Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster County, as "the most comprehensive pension reform package in the United States of America."

It protects current retirees, enrolls new hires in a 401(k)-type employee contribution plan and reduces benefits for current workers by tweaking pension formulas starting in 2015.

It's political heavy lifting, because it cuts benefits to the very people who have to vote to pass it.

Wait, since it impacts lawmakers, make that more like the task of Sisyphus.

And the 2015 time lag is specifically to allow the state Supreme Court to hear arguments then rule on its constitutionality.

Legislative passage is uncertain.

Asked what he thinks of the chances, Corbett said, "I don't get into handicapping."

The constitutionality of cutting current workers' benefits also is uncertain.

While the governor maintains that prior legal tests addressed only retroactive reductions and this one deals with prospective reductions, opponents claim the Corbett effort is certain to be struck down.

Some of those opponents, including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (the state's largest teachers' union) and state Treasurer Rob McCord, quickly slammed the proposal in a conference call.

The three unions together represent more than a million members. McCord, a Democrat, is a potential Corbett opponent next year.

McCord labeled the plan "an inefficient approach" that endangers retirement security because "so far, 401(k)s have failed" to provide sufficient savings.

The pension fix is part of a four-pronged agenda Corbett hopes to push through by the end of June.

He also wants another on-time state budget, at least some level of liquor privatization and a huge expansion in funding for transportation, including for SEPTA.

Any one of these items is a tall order in a short time. But when asked - given the state's history of eschewing big changes while working at tortoise speed - if he has a top priority, Corbett said, "I think we need all four."

There are those thinking at least he does.

Not only does a new Daily News/Franklin & Marshall College Poll show just 25 percent of registered voters think Corbett deserves re-election, observers such as the Cook Political Report and the New York Times' Nate Silver see Corbett at risk.

Cook rates the 2014 election here a "toss-up." Silver ranks Corbett the fifth-most vulnerable governor among 32 facing voters next year.

Corbett deserves kudos for taking on public pensions and seeking to lower public costs. But he should have done so sooner. When he had political capital. And when he wasn't asking for three other things.