Veto, special session studied by Corbett to push Pa. pension reform

Brad Bumsted
| Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 10:48 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is strongly considering using his veto power on Thursday to strike funding for the Legislature and calling a special session on pension reform, sources close to the governor say.

The legislature's operating budget would be $280 million in the 2014-15 budget. There's $50 million in proposed funding for legislative agencies and up to $153 million in a so-called legislative surplus. All three are in play as Corbett considers vetoing budget line items, sources told the Tribune-Review.

The governor has a constitutional obligation to sign a balanced budget.

Lawmakers failed to act on Corbett's request to address the cost of public employee pensions before recessing for summer. They're scheduled to return in mid-September.

Cutting the Legislature's money and calling lawmakers back into session could be an attractive move to a governor seeking re-election and trailing in public opinion polls. Yet analysts who know Corbett aren't sure he'll do so. He could sign or veto the entire $29.1 billion budget.

If Corbett signs the budget — or most of it — no general tax increases would result. It would raise spending by $502 million, or 1.8 percent. The governor's office said he plans to make an announcement Thursday.

Legislative leaders urged Corbett to sign the budget. A budget-related bill approved this week helps keep the budget in balance, supporters contend.

“We think the governor needs to sign the budget and move forward,” House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, said, calling it a “responsible product.” He said the House is close to agreement on pension reform.

A full veto would affect many stakeholders, though most employees would get paid. It potentially could delay money for groups receiving millions of dollars from the state, particularly social services such as day care providers hit hard in 2009 during a 101-day budget impasse under ex-Gov. Ed Rendell.

If lawmakers don't find a solution to what Corbett calls a pension crisis, costs will steadily rise for taxpayers. Pennsylvania will raise payments into the state's pension systems by $600 million in the new budget year. The state has $47 billion in unfunded liability in pension obligations.

The Legislature's surplus account was established by its leaders to keep the legislature running if a governor vetoes its funds. They started to build it when former Gov. Dick Thornburgh vetoed legislative funding.

There's no question many lawmakers would be angry if Corbett cuts legislative funding, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester. Leckrone said he doesn't believe vetoing legislative funding “would resonate with Pennsylvanians.”

Corbett would have a better shot at achieving pension reform by signing the budget and not axing legislative funds, Leckrone said.

But if Corbett takes on lawmakers' spending, it will attract news coverage in the “dog days” of summer as he prepares to take on Democrat Tom Wolf, a York businessman, in November. Wolf led by 22 points in a Franklin & Marshall College poll last week.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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