Pennsylvania House suspends debate on pension overhaul bill backed by governor


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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A long-awaited debate on a pension overhaul bill backed by Gov. Tom Corbett was abruptly halted Tuesday when a majority of members of the state House of Representatives voted to send the proposal back to committee.

The 107-96 vote came on a motion by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo to return the bill to the Human Services Committee, despite a plea by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai to continue floor debate and put the Republican-crafted bill to a vote.

"What's the rush? Why are we doing this now?" asked DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, who chairs the committee and opposes the legislation. "I think there are too many unanswered questions."

In a surprise move Monday night, Corbett refused to immediately sign the $29.1 billion state budget bill approved by both chambers of the Legislature on the last day of the fiscal year, saying he was concerned about the absence of any pension changes.

Corbett supports a bill to replace the current traditional pension system with a hybrid system for newly hired state and school employees. It would combine a scaled-down pension with a 401(k)-style plan in which employees make their own investment decisions.

Leaders of the GOP majorities in both houses have said they were unable to round up enough votes to pass the bill — a fact underscored by Tuesday's vote to suspend House debate. Fifteen Republicans joined all 92 Democrats in sending the bill back to committee.

The Senate on Monday night approved a much more modest pension bill that would change the rules only for certain elected officials — state lawmakers, judges and five executive branch officeholders — when they are elected, re-elected or retained. Starting next year, those officials would be shifted from the current defined-benefit system into a 401(k)-style system.

DiGirolamo said various proposals for reining in the explosive costs of Pennsylvania's two major public pension plans need to be fully aired with involvement by not only the state government but unions representing hundreds of thousands of state and school employees.

"They've got as much stake in fixing this problem as anyone else," he said, adding that the review could take place this summer and legislation introduced this fall.

The sponsor of the main bill, Rep. Mike Tobash, said it would preserve pension benefits promised to current employees, help reduce an unfunded liability that is approaching $50 billion and protect the state's bond rating.

"The plan is sustainable and attractive to new members because of its affordability and the ability of members to benefit from investment gains in the market," said Tobash, R-Schuylkill.

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