Wolf administration tries to give bloody nose to Senate GOP pension bill



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Gov. Tom Wolf's administration fired a new volley Monday against a Senate Republican bill to overhaul benefits in Pennsylvania's two big public employee pension systems, saying that they voted to line their own pockets.

A Senate Republican spokeswoman countered that the administration is using a selective, salary-based argument. The bill gives lawmakers no special treatment, and actually reduces their benefits, the Senate GOP insisted.

A labor leader, David Fillman, executive director of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the bill "stinks" and he opposes it, but he said he did not view the bill as a giveaway to lawmakers. He said he believes it would force the same reductions on lawmakers that it would impose on the state employees his union represents.

Asked about it Monday evening, Wolf, a Democrat, did not appear to be familiar with his administration's new attack on the bill. Instead, he reiterated his position that he believes his approach to lowering pension debt is fairer because it would not penalize employees. He said he did not know what had motivated lawmakers to vote for the Senate GOP bill.

Overall, the bill would end the traditional pension benefit for future employees. Today's retirees would be unaffected, while Democrats say the bill's key money-saving provision — requiring many current employees to pay a higher portion of their paychecks to keep their current benefit level — is unconstitutional.

In a speech Monday at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon, Wolf's chief of staff, Katie McGinty, lambasted the Senate GOP bill.

"It is a huge and, I'm sure to taxpayers, unacceptable, lavish payout to legislators," McGinty said. "The legislators who voted for this voted to line their own retirement pocket with a payout that is 2.5 times the pension benefit that will be earned by the average Joe, the average employee."

Based on information provided by the administration, the criticism appeared to be predicated on lawmakers receiving a higher salary — a base salary of about $85,300 in 2015 — that is well above the average salary of a state government or public school employee.

The bill, McGinty added, allowed lawmakers to avoid a key, money-saving concession that many of the 370,000 current state government and public school employees will be asked to make. That simply is not true, the Senate GOP responded, saying the Wolf administration is trying to portray the plan as bad for rank-and-file union members and good for lawmakers.

"It's the same plan for both employees and legislators," spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. "The administration can't have it both ways."

Lawmakers have a history of giving themselves a cushier pension benefit, but Democrats and labor unions, who oppose the bill, did not echo the Wolf administration's latest criticism.

Kocher said the bill would immediately shave down the traditional pension benefit for lawmakers to the lower benefit accrual rate of 2 percent — or 2.5 percent with a higher employee contribution — allowed under a 2010 law. Once a lawmaker is elected or re-elected, they would enter a new benefit scheme, earning a 4 percent employer contribution into a 401(k)-style plan, as would newly hired state government employees. Newly hired public school employees would enter a 401(k)-style plan with a 2.6 percent employer contribution.

The Senate Republicans' bill passed last Wednesday. It is scheduled for a June 4 hearing in front of the House State Government Committee.

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