Pennsylvania Rep. rolls eyes at idea that pretax salary violates pledge
The executive director of a conservative government-reform group says he's disappointed that state Rep. George Dunbar is contributing some of his pretax salary to a state-run retirement plan, but Dunbar insists he didn't break the group's pledge not to take a state pension.
Dunbar said he doesn't receive any state matching funds by participating in its deferred-compensation plan, and he maintains that he will not enroll to receive a pension.
Dunbar, 52, had been one of the legislators that the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania touted in the last couple of years on its website for signing its pledge to decline a pension. The Cumberland County-based nonprofit cited the pledge among the reasons it endorsed Dunbar, a Penn Township Republican, for election to a second term in the 56th District last fall.
But Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance, said the group interpreted its pledge to mean that Dunbar and other signers wouldn't accrue time as members of the state retirement system. That accruement is a potential risk to taxpayers as the state wrestles with a pension shortfall of at least $41 billion, he said.
Knepper said Dunbar has “an outstanding voting record” and is “with us on all our issues,” but acknowledged disappointment with Dunbar's participation in the deferred-compensation plan. A recently retired legislator, Tom Creighton of Lancaster County, decided to sign up for a pension after saying he wouldn't, Knepper said.
“I have no reason to doubt Rep. Dunbar's character, but it's just more an issue of I've seen it go bad before,” Knepper said. “There's no bad blood or anything between us. It's just we read the agreement one way, and he read it another way.”
Dunbar said he checked a box on a Citizens Alliance questionnaire in 2010 saying he would decline a pension but also wrote that he would accept a change from a retirement plan that guaranteed a set, annual payment to a 401(k)-style plan such as those in the private sector.
Dunbar said he never approved the group's promotion of his signing the pledge, and he never went out of his way to publicize it. Nonetheless, he said, he doesn't think he violated the pledge.
An accountant by trade, Dunbar said he thinks participating in the state plan is “good tax planning,” but that the interest is only 3 percent or 4 percent a year on the $4,000 to $5,000 he contributes annually.
If he had to do it over again, Dunbar said, he still would have written his explanation about reforming pensions on the questionnaire but not checked the box. Citizens Alliance donated $1,000 to Dunbar's 2010 campaign but didn't contribute to his re-election run.
“I think they have some egg on their face because they put my name on that, so they use me as a scapegoat, but I don't have anything against CAP,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar said he has followed through on a campaign pledge not to accept a per diem for legislative session work in Harrisburg, although he accepts reimbursements for hotel stays while working in the capital.
He said he also doesn't take a state-paid car and refuses the automatic annual salary increases.
“I make a lot of sacrifices, but I feel like, ‘Why do I even have to answer the question (about the pledge)?'” Dunbar said.
Since taking office, Dunbar has advocated moving legislators onto so-called defined contribution plans. He co-sponsored a bill in the last legislative session and has signed on to co-sponsor another bill this year by state Rep. Tim Krieger (R-57).
“The legislature should do it first,” Dunbar said. “We should lead by example.”
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or email@example.com.