With Pennsylvania facing a state pension crisis, at least 10 Republican lawmakers are refusing pensions that could mean giving up tens of thousands of dollars in retirement, records show.
Rep. Matt Gabler of Clearfield County said he did not “really talk about it” when elected in 2008, but he believes “it’s important to lead by example.”
Most of those declining participation in the pension system were elected to the 253-member General Assembly within the past seven years. They gave varying reasons for their decision: concern about the constitutionality of lawmakers’ pensions, the state’s pension shortfall and an unwillingness to compromise their reputations as reformers. Most would need to serve for 10 years to become fully vested for a pension.
“I don’t expect taxpayers to pay for my retirement,” said freshman Rep. Tom Sankey of Clearfield County. “The system is not solvent. … I am not going to be part of the problem.”
Pensions for some recently retired state lawmakers have ranged from $50,000 to $120,000 a year. The average legislative pension is $31,314, according to figures provided by the state retirement board.
The pension crisis looms large, with $41 billion in unfunded liabilities expected to grow to $65 billion in 2018-19, according to the governor’s budget office. This year’s payment could be $1.5 billion for state and school employees.
“It’s noble they do that,” John Emmons, organizer of a Southeastern Pennsylvania Tea Party group, said about lawmakers refusing pensions. “But I am not sure how realistic it is. It may be more political.”
Emmons questioned whether these legislators might change their minds.
Members of the Legislature can elect to join the state retirement system anytime while in office, said Pam Hile, a retirement board spokeswoman.
Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg reformer who chronicles legislative abuses, said he can recall only one legislator who previously turned down a pension. In the 1980s, then-Rep. John Kennedy, R-Cumberland County, opted out of the pension system. Kennedy now leads Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, which encourages candidates to swear off state pensions as part of a pro-business, pro-taxpayer agenda.
“Sacrifice and leadership are synonymous,” Kennedy said.
With at least lawmakers giving up pensions, “clearly, this is a positive development, assuming the lawmakers become pension-eligible,” Epstein said.
Rep. Stephen Bloom of Carlisle said the public pension crisis and need for comprehensive reform was a key issue for him as a candidate in 2010.
“I vowed to refuse participation in the overly generous legislative pension plan, so as not to compromise my zealous advocacy for reform,” Bloom said.
Other lawmakers said they did not want to accept the benefit when most of their constituents don’t have pensions. Several said they would choose a 401(k)-type plan if it becomes an option. The Legislature is considering whether to offer a defined contribution plan.
Rep. Rick Saccone of Elizabeth Township and Sen. Mike Folmer of Lebanon cited constitutional grounds in refusing pensions.
Article II Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution says state lawmakers are entitled to salary, mileage and “no other compensation.” Saccone said he believes that makes taking a pension unconstitutional.
“I’m not saying everyone has to agree with me,” Folmer said.
Commonwealth Court dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of numerous legislative perks under Article II Section 8. The court ruled plaintiff Eugene Stilp of Harrisburg interpreted the constitution too narrowly.
Other lawmakers not enrolled in the retirement system: Rep. Rosemarie Swanger of Lebanon; Rep. John McGinnis of Altoona; Rep. Justin Simmons of Lehigh County; and Rep. Dan Truitt, Rep. Warren Kampf and Rep. John Lawrence, all of Chester County.
Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, is listed on records as a retirement system member but said he enrolled only to contribute pre-tax money as a savings plan. The state does not contribute to his account, he said, adding, “I’m not going to take a pension.”
Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance, contends Dunbar broke a pledge with the group not to sign up for a pension.
“We’re disappointed,” Knepper said.
Said Dunbar: “I don’t feel I’ve violated anything at all.”