GLENSHAW, Pa. - Gov. Tom Corbett is plunging into a public fight for legislation to curb rising public employee pension costs, using both the resources of his campaign and his official office to broadcast his warning of rising school property taxes and further pressure on classroom funding.
The effort comes amid a feud between Corbett and his fellow Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Legislature just four months before the Nov. 4 election decides Corbett's bid for second term and 228 of 253 legislative seats.
Over the weekend, Corbett's re-election campaign issued robocalls, with some Republican lawmakers reporting that it went to residents in their districts.
In it, he pounded lawmakers, just four days after he used his power of a line-item veto to strike $65 million from the Legislature's own appropriations and $7.2 million more in earmarks and other spending items picked by lawmakers in the state's $29 billion budget that he signed.
"The legislators sent me a budget that was loaded with perks and earmarks," he said in the recorded phone message.
Cutting "those excesses, though, have made some legislators angry ... They may get angrier. I'm asking them to come back and deal with pension reform to avoid massive property tax increases and trouble for future education funding."
At an official stop Monday near his home in suburban Pittsburgh, Corbett was less combative toward lawmakers, but no less insistent that rising pension costs are an issue of utmost importance to property taxpayers.
He said he needed three more senators and eight more House members to pass a bill that is projected to save more than $10 billion over 30 years by combining a limited pension with a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan to provide a smaller benefit than current state government and public school employees receive.
"We need homeowners to pick up the phone" and call their representatives, Corbett told a couple dozen people at the Shaler Township Municipal Building.
The state's projected debt in its two major pension funds is $50 billion, with payments rising steeply over the next few years. All told, payments by school districts and all agencies of the state government into the two funds are on course to rise from $750 million in 2009 to well over $6 billion in 2018, in part because of previous decisions by state policymakers to delay the pain of pension contributions.
Democrats oppose the Corbett-backed bill because its only savings arise from cuts in benefits and they accuse Corbett's school funding policies of precipitating rising property taxes. Some Republicans question the value of the bill, since it would not relieve any immediate pressure on school district budgets.
Corbett acknowledged that the bill he supports means no immediate savings. He dropped an element of his initial plan - to temporarily slash its legally required pension payments - after House Republican leaders opposed it.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, on Monday said the state will have to come up with money if it is going to ease the continuing spike in payments.
"We're going to have to try to get the pension systems some extra cash and hopefully that will give our school districts some relief," Adolph said.
Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, and Sen. John Blake, D-Lackawanna, each floated plans that rely on about $9 billion in borrowing to help provide immediate budget savings, while Democratic lawmakers pressed for tax increases on the booming natural gas drilling industry and sales of tobacco products.