- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Republican-penned legislation to make sweeping changes to benefits in Pennsylvania’s big public pension systems stalled again Wednesday night, amid opposition from Democrats, labor unions and some members of the House GOP majority.

It was the fourth straight year that the effort failed, after Republican lawmakers made it a top priority to respond to Pennsylvania’s massive pension debt by reducing the traditional pension benefit that has been guaranteed to public school employees and state government workers.

House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said no Democrats in his chamber had supported the latest bill, and not enough Republicans were backing it, leaving him three votes short of the 102 votes necessary.

“Look, we gave it our best shot on pensions,” Reed said late Wednesday after he left the House floor. “We came up short.”

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he did not expect the bill to be revived. Reed said pension reform will be a priority again next year.

The recently unveiled legislation had been prepared for up-or-down votes as the two-year legislative session wound down. But the House adjourned Wednesday night without a vote on the bill, to return Thursday. The legislative session ends Nov. 30, and the Senate has scheduled no more voting days.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had been noncommittal on whether he would sign the bill, drawing criticism from Reed and Corman who said that Wolf had not done enough to whip Democratic votes for it.

Labor unions opposed it, and Democratic lawmakers complained that they had been frozen out of the negotiations that produced the bill. Previous versions of the pension legislation under Wolf had stalled amid disputes between the House and Senate Republican majorities and, in a statement late Wednesday, Wolf’s office noted that he had committed to signing those versions and remained committed to working on the issue.

“Over the past year and a half, Governor Wolf has worked to try and reach a compromise agreement on comprehensive pension reform and the governor remains committed to achieving this,” Wolf’s office said.

The proposal primarily would have affected newly hired public school teachers and state government workers, reducing the traditional pension benefit and offering new 401(k)-style benefit options.

Sitting lawmakers had exempted themselves from those benefit changes, along with future state troopers and future state correctional officers.

The bill would produce no short-term savings for the state or school districts on pension obligation payments, and long-term savings were projected to be relatively minor. Analysts clashed over the extent to which it would reduce benefits for future pensioners.

But supporters had touted the bill as a way to help insulate the state and school districts from rolling up pension debt when their investments perform poorly. The state’s pension debt is projected at approximately $60 billion.

The bill’s benefits changes would have reduced pension obligation payments by the state and school districts by about $2.6 billion over 32 years, according to an analysis by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office. Over that period, total payments are projected to amount to about $200 billion.

It had been projected to turn a small pension debt into a small surplus after that 32-year period. The proposal also would have increased the retirement age from 65 to 67.

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