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For pension fixes, get with 'The Program'

Since proposed solutions to state pension woes are varied, controversial and stuck in idle, why not try them all?

Pennsylvania senator Jake Corman in Oct. 2011. ( CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-News )
Pennsylvania senator Jake Corman in Oct. 2011. ( CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-News )Read moreCHRISTINE BAKER / The Patriot-News

WHEN IT COMES to Pennsylvania's pension problems, I'm pretty much ready to draw from the playbook of the 1993 football film "The Program."

The defensive strategy: "Kill 'em all, let the paramedics sort 'em out."

That's right. It's come to that.

If you haven't followed the years-long struggle to cut the costs of public pensions and shrink the state's now $50 billion-plus unfunded liability, that's OK.

You can check in any time. Not much changes.

Republicans want to scale back benefits; Democrats don't. Democrats want to borrow to pay down debt. Republicans say, why borrow when you already owe?

And so it goes.

But now things seem headed toward sudden death: for Gov. Wolf's grand plans; for Philly's hopes for lots more money for schools; for property- and/or wage-tax relief; for the whole enchilada of the state budget.


Well, GOP legislative leadership is reasserting its position that there will be no discussion of Wolf's proposals until something's done on pensions.

"There's no other issue to discuss," Republican Senate Leader Jake Corman said this week. "It is the budget. We're not going to budget without it."

Got it. Not budgeting. Not budging.

He then said the GOP is offering legislation next month to put new state employees and teachers into a 401(k)-type pension plan instead of the defined plan they are in now; and return current employees and teachers to benefit levels they had before 2001 when the Legislature hiked benefits.

You might think, yeah, that'll save money.

There are, after all, 104,000-plus active state employees (and no cracks about how active) and 263,000-plus public-school employees now in the system.

So let's see. Cut any costs for 367,000 or so folks and, voila, savings.

(Nobody's talking about cutting bennies for 336,000 retirees.)

Ah, but Wolf doesn't see it that way.

"The governor doesn't support changing the benefit structure," says Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan, because that won't reduce the liability.

Instead, Wolf proposes a $3 billion bond to reduce the liability, and dumping high-cost Wall Street pension-fund managers to save the state "hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars."

In addition, Wolf believes a pension law enacted in 2010 that increased the retirement age five years to 65, doubled the vesting period from five years to 10 years, reduced a benefit-multiplier from 2.5 percent to 2 percent for each year of service for new employees and eliminated lump-sum withdrawals is working fine and just needs time to show real savings.

So here we are, stuck in place with two plans headed in opposite directions.

No GOP pension cuts, no budget?

Wolfies note that Republicans tried and failed before - even with GOP legislative majorities and a GOP governor - to get agreement on pension changes.

Corman notes there now are more Republicans in the Legislature.

And others note that anything touching current benefits ends up in litigation, likely clogging various courts for years.

What to do?

How about we get with "The Program" and do a pension version of "kill 'em all, let the paramedics sort 'em out."

Do Wolf's bond thing to go after the liability. Put new employees and teachers into 401(k) accounts. I mean, come on, how many other workers, including union workers, already made such a shift years ago?

Then, go ahead, revert to pre-2001 benefits levels for current employees.

The most attractive thing about that? When lawmakers voted to increase benefits for state workers and teachers by 25 percent, they increased their own benefits by 50 percent. So what might be lost by workers would be doubly lost by the greed-heads who helped create the pension mess.

So play ball, y'all. It's fourth and long and punting's not an option.