State legislators eye pension fix, education funding, budget in 2014

With 2013 coming to an end, Centre County’s state legislators have their sights set on 2014 goals.

After passing a major $2.3 billion transportation bill this year, the elected officials will switch their focus to property taxes, pension reform, education funding and passing another balanced budget.

Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said the General Assembly has a responsibility to look at the problem of increasing pension costs and to make changes before it becomes a bigger budget problem.

He said the current system can’t economically sustain itself and, similar to transportation, the problem will get worse and more expensive if it isn’t addressed.

“One thing we do know is we can’t continue to do what we are doing,” he said.

He said people are working 20 to 25 years, retiring with a sizable pension and living for another 40 years, which puts a strain on the system. He said he doesn’t know which solution he will support, but he won’t want anyone to lose anything that they have paid into.

And Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, said he wouldn’t want any system changes for current employees.

He said the state must find additional funding to keep the current system afloat, while looking for changes going forward.

Conklin proposed a multibill package in May to fund transportation through means other than the eventual gas tax by actions such as closing the so-called Delaware loophole and imposing a natural gas severance fee of 5 cents per 1,000 cubic feet. The Delaware loophole is a strategy for Pennsylvania corporations based out of Delaware to avoid corporate tax.

Those two measures could raise $886 million within a year, he has said.

Though the state passed a bill without those functions included, he said they can still raise that money and put it into other parts of the budget, like pensions and education.

He said education, environmental issues related to gas drilling and job creation will be at the top of his to-do list in the coming year. Conklin wants more funding for programs that re-educate people for the workforce and money for prekindergarten programs that prepare kids for school.

The state also needs to make sure all environmental issues are in order when it comes to natural gas drilling, he said, adding that it’s an important asset, but pollution can’t be undone.

“Once you pollute a stream or once you pollute that ground, you cannot get that back,” he said.

Conklin also said that instead of giving out tax credits to incentivize businesses to grow, he wants to see the state give incentives specifically relating to creating new jobs to put more people back to work.

A 2014 run for governor could also be on the docket for Conklin, who said he is still mulling over the decision and is not ready to make a call either way.

State Sen Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said his No. 1 priority is to pass another balanced budget and that he will be working as Appropriations Committee chairman to get that done.

He said one way to free up some money for senior citizens or other budget stopgaps could be changes to the lottery system to make things run more smoothy.

“We’re looking at ways, not to privatize, but ways to infuse some professional assistance in the lottery to maximize the asset we have,” he said.

Corman also said he personally is hoping for an outcome in his lawsuit with the NCAA to keep the $60 million Penn State fine in Pennsylvania. He said that if the courts rule in his favor on the issue, they can get to work right away creating new programs to prevent child abuse around the state.