T  here's a lot not to appreciate about Gov. Tom Corbett, I guess.

Depending on where one stands philosophically and/or politically, there's probably a lot for some people to like about him, too.

It's probably one of those 50/50 deals -- as many people love him as hate him. And I'm guessing that depends on the day of the week.

But I'm thinking Corbett picked up a lot of Brownie points with taxpayers Tuesday, when it was announced he might try for a late-course correction -- 11 years after passage by the state General Assembly -- on the extremely generous public employee pensions in this state.

There are two pensions -- the PSERS (teachers) and the State Employee Retirement System -- that have been hitting taxpayers like a ton of bricks and will continue to bombard taxpayers for years -- decades, is more like it -- to come.

The General Assembly did taxpayers no favors when it approved in 2001 -- in the best of economic times -- pension increases to lawmakers, state employees and teachers that now threaten to break the bank.

How so? Well, our well-paid state lawmakers adjusted their own pensions upward by an unbelievable 50 percent, and gave remaining state workers and teachers a 25 percent increase.


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They did it, of course, in the middle of the night, when then-Gov. Tom Ridge negotiated a budget compromise with leaders of the General Assembly, telling them he'd approve a pension increase for them if they went along with his budget requests.

In the blink of a greedy eye, it was a done deal.

And taxpayers have been suffering every day since.

Worse, the General Assembly did its dirty deed despite the warnings of a few state officials and lawmakers -- including York County's own Steve Nichols, former Republican state representative from the Hanover area -- who tried to spread the alarm, but were ignored.

As it stands right now, there is a $41 billion unfunded pension liability stretching as far into the future as most of us can see. It cost about $1.7 billion this fiscal year, and will increase to more than $6.2 billion in five years, a jump of about 260 percent. By 2035, the state's obligation will be more than $10 billion a year just for pensions.

Then add another $2 billion per year for school districts.

Just to give you a clear picture of how severe this mess is -- in 2002-03, the state's pension obligations consumed less than one-half of 1 percent of the overall budget. In five years, they're going to take 12 percent of the total budget or more.

So yes, I'm thrilled by Corbett's interest in what I consider the most pressing issue in state government over the past 10 years. More important, actually, than property tax reform. And that's saying a lot.

Hallelujah, I say, an elected state official finally has found the guts to at least consider the possibility of rolling back the present pension system to something taxpayers can live with.

That is, indeed, a breath of fresh air.

Can it be done? That's questionable. For 10 years, amid screams from taxpayers that the pension increases absolutely must be revoked, officials at the state level have persistently said it could not legally be done.

Case law, they said, would prevent any attempts to nip the pension increases in the bud. The General Assembly had approved it, Gov. Ridge had signed the bill into law and forever more it is cast in stone.

No alterations are possible. It'd be against the state constitution.

Now we learn that might not be the case.

A 19-page report seems to indicate the governor is willing to poke the unions in the eye to see if anything can be changed, because to do otherwise would be financial disaster for the state, school districts and taxpayers.

I'm not expecting a miracle here. Honestly, I'm not.

But I recall writing 10 years ago that nothing ventured is nothing gained if we don't challenge the right of state lawmakers to stick taxpayers with this pension mess. And I haven't changed my mind on that.

There must be a way around it. Or through it.

So let's have at it.

For a change, let's fight the good fight on behalf of taxpayers and taxpayer interests.

And if the fight is lost?

So what.

At least the effort was made.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.