Pensions 'gift' keeps on giving
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The 2001 pension grab will continue to hit Pennsylvania taxpayers' wallets indefinitely.
That's the view of activist Eric Epstein, who recently compiled a study of state pensions collected by lawmakers who voted for and against the 2001 measure. That vote raised pensions for legislators by 50 percent and teachers by 25 percent.
While a Wall Street tailspin crushed the investments of two state pension boards, the 2001 pension boost clearly played a role in an ongoing pension crisis, Epstein says.
The top three House members voting “yes” walked away with tidy retirement pay:
• $286,118 for former Rep. Frank Oliver, a Philadelphia Democrat
• $130,896 for the late Rep. Elinor Z. Taylor, a Chester County Republican
• $120,261 for former Rep. Merle Philips, R-Northumberland County
And in the Senate, convicted felon and ex-Sen. Robert Mellow, a Scranton Democrat, topped out at $138,959. He is appealing the loss of his pension while sitting in federal prison.
Ex-Sen. Raphael Musto, a Luzerne County Democrat, collects $127,033 despite an indictment on corruption charges.
Former Sen. Allen Kukovich, a Westmoreland Democrat, was third with $98,951, according to Epstein's research.
The vote in the House was 176-23. In the Senate, the pension grab won 41-8.
Lawmakers can start collecting benefits at age 50, an age where most Pennsylvanians are looking at 15 or more years of work before they can afford to retire. But these folks who voted for larger pensions are not necessarily retired.
Of the eight Senate no votes, former state Sen. Allyson Schwartz, a Montgomery County Democrat running for governor, is collecting an $18,340 state pension along with a $174,000 congressional salary.
Another “no” vote, former Sen. Charlie Dent, R-Lehigh County, gets $16,439 on top of his congressional pay.
Another member of Congress, former Sen. Jim Gerlach, a Chester County Republican who voted for the pension grab, collects an additional $15,441 on top of his congressional salary.
Those figures were part of a report by Harrisburg's ABC/27 TV.
Legislators also can walk away with lump-sum payments based on what they paid into the pension system plus interest. Oliver was king of the hill with $416,000. In the Senate, Richard Tilghman, of Montgomery County, was highest at $394,809. Mellow, who now faces additional charges of corruption stemming from a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission scandal, took $331,025, according to Epstein's report for his organization, Rock the Capital.
His report also has some interesting nuggets on the pension-vote crowd:
• Seven lawmakers earned post-graduate degrees, the majority law degrees, while serving in the “full-time” Legislature.
• Twenty current or former lawmakers also served on state financial boards including pension panels — a sure sign that substantive pension reform is unlikely, Epstein says.
• Fifteen former lawmakers now work or worked in “government relations” (i.e., lobbying), some of them collecting pensions.
• Nine current and former lawmakers have Harrisburg residences, presumably paid with $160 per diems. That figure varied over the years.
• Eleven ex-lawmakers have been convicted of crimes; three of the convictions are under appeal.
Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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