Harrisburg Happenings: SB 1 and SB 3
State Senate draws clear party lines on one bill while unifying in bipartisan celebration over the other.
As the General Assembly enters into the month of June, the Commonwealth budget process begins to ramp up. Thirty days has September, April, June, and November. Thirty days to land upon a responsible budget worth more than 29 billion in tax dollars.
The Governor's bold plan is being reviewed with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, and hand-in-hand with that process, the General Assembly is tackling additional major challenges. Earlier this May, the Senate passed, along party lines, a pension reform bill, Senate Bill 1, as introduced by Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre). Corman cited the need to address the public pension system in the Commonwealth as priority number one. I agree with Corman, but where my agreement ends is how to tackle a reorganization of that system. SB 1 is not the right answer as indicated by my negative vote on May 13.
My biggest criticism of SB 1 is that it does nothing to address the unfunded liability the Commonwealth is currently facing, further pushing down the road the responsibility of shouldering those costs. How much longer is the General Assembly going to delay, and at what point will we finally say enough's enough? We have criticized previous administrations for neglecting their duty to address this liability for the last 17 or so years, and yet SB 1, as written, subscribes to the very same philosophies. Unacceptable.
SB 1 targets employee benefits instead of addressing the unfunded liability. The new benefit offered to employees is substandard at best by providing a 20 percent replacement of salary for workers who have been employed for 25 years, far short of the national standard of between 60-70 percent. Additionally, pension benefits have been defined by the courts as "deferred compensation for services rendered," therefore making pension benefits part of the contract between an employer (in this case, the Commonwealth) and an employee, thus protected by the state constitution. The fact that SB 1 changes the terms of that existing contract puts it in direct opposition to constitutional protections. Therefore, if SB 1 does pass the House and is signed by the Governor, those potential future savings generated by the change in formulas, etc., may never materialize because of the pending constitutional challenges.
SB 1 is more than 400-pages long, a document that my colleagues and I saw for the very first time late on Friday afternoon May 8 when it was first made public. By that next Monday morning, the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee voted the bill out of committee along party lines. Tuesday morning saw a quick review by the Pennsylvania Employee Retirement Commission (as required by statute) that spit out a hasty actuarial note – the same note that was then provided to my colleagues and me on the Appropriations Committee that same morning.
We asked to table the bill, to delay the vote, but were denied. The very next day, the floor of the Senate saw more than four hours of heated banter, with accusations and indictments hurled across the aisle, and a final vote to pass SB 1.
SB 1 took more than five months to craft, but garnered only 72 hours worth of review and consideration by the Senate. How does that speak to openness and transparency? How does that speak to good government? How does that speak to dispelling the color of cynicism and of skepticism of government in general?
I contrast the aforementioned situation with an example of bipartisanship at its finest. Only one day prior on May 12, the Senate came together united in an effort to move forward legislation to allow the medicinal use of cannabis in the Commonwealth. Senate Bill 3, as offered by Senators Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery), outlines a solid plan for access to treatment and a critical step forward in improving the lives of thousands of Pennsylvanians who endure serious medical conditions. By voting 40-7 in favor of SB 3, the Senate moved the bill to the House for further consideration, where the House has until the end of the 2015-2016 regular session to take it up.
The week of May 11 ran the gamut of emotion, from flying high in bipartisan celebration to drawing a firm line in the sand affixed with a keep-out sign. I am hopeful that sign will not hang there for the rest of our deliberations in the 30 coming days.
Senator Sean D. Wiley can be contacted at SenatorWiley@PaSenate.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @SenatorWiley.