Pennsylvania troopers union warns of ‘mass exodus’ if pension reform bill passes
HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania State Police could lose 1,000 retirement-eligible troopers if a Senate bill reforming the public pension system goes through, a union president warned Tuesday.
A “mass exodus” of troopers, whether immediately or gradually, could jeopardize public safety, said Joseph Kovel with the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. He wants lawmakers to exempt the state police from Senate Bill 1. The agency employs 4,365 troopers.
With much at stake for taxpayers in the pension debate, the bill to curb pension costs won Senate approval last month. It is due for scrutiny in the House State Government Committee when a hearing resumes Thursday.
“We don’t believe there is anything in this bill that would justify any mass exodus of state troopers,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County.
In testimony Tuesday to the House committee, Kovel addressed what he considers the bill’s limitations on disability pension benefits and overtime earnings. Kovel said the “drastic effects” of such a bill could make 1,000 retirement-eligible officers leave the force.
“It’s not a threat; it’s a reality,” Kovel said. “… A mass exodus of our most experienced and senior troopers will have a long-term and immediately devastating impact on our ability to sustain even the most rudimentary public safety services.”
Even if the agency could recruit 1,000 replacement troopers, Kovel said, it couldn’t train them fast enough. And if gradual retirements occur, the slimmed-down benefits might make it harder to attract people to the force. The state police association is in the middle of a five-year contract that expires June 30, 2017.
Taxpayers will pay an additional $1 billion in the 2015-16 state budget if pension costs for state and school employees go unaddressed, Kocher said. The spiraling pension debt has prompted lawmakers to look at remedies, including Senate Bill 1.
Pennsylvania has more than $47 billion in unfunded pension liability — one of the highest amounts next to New Jersey, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.
Pennsylvania’s pension funds for school and state employees had a combined $79 billion in assets under management in 2013, according to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts.
To improve education quality across the state, “we must address the elephant in the room: public-sector pension costs,” said Jon S. DeArment, president of a hand-tool company in Meadville and school board member in Crawford Central.
“Rising pension costs make it harder to balance the budget each year without raising property taxes,” DeArment testified.
Staunchly opposed by Democrats, Senate Bill 1 would curb benefits for existing employees and provide a 401(k)-style plan for new employees.
It’s a critical component of budget negotiations between the GOP-controlled Legislature and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. Pension reform is the top Republican Senate priority.
Wolf would let a 2010 law continue to reduce costs and borrow $3 billion to pay the unfunded liability. He would shut down what he says are exorbitant fees paid to Wall Street.
“Respectfully, Gov. Wolf’s proposed budget largely ignores the pension problem,” DeArment told the committee. He expressed support for Senate Bill 1.
Roy Pinto, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said officers should be exempt from the bill. Corrections officers, because of “unique stresses,” can retire at 55 without penalty. Under the bill, officers would work into their late 60s and 70s to “enhance their pensions,” Pinto said.
“Over time, one of the consequences of S.B. 1 will be an aging workforce within our prisons,” Pinto said. He opposes the bill’s provision to eliminate overtime from earnings considered to calculate pensions.
House Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said he has talked to many members and reached consensus that “the problem with the pension system lies at the structure of it as a (guaranteed) benefit plan that can be manipulated by political forces.” He said the bill won’t affect benefits earned by current employees but would change benefits “going forward, which I think is legitimate.”
Madison Russ is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.