Scott Conklin: Stand by those who protect us

The unseasonably cool June weather is not the only thing that’s having a chilling effect in the Capitol this month. In the next few weeks, the House of Representatives will consider a pension reform proposal that will give a lot more than frostbite to Pennsylvanians who lay their lives on the line daily to ensure the safety of our commonwealth.

The pension reform measure, favored by many in the majority party, will reduce future benefits for employees enrolled in the two state pension systems — the Pennsylvania School Employees’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System- which includes state police and corrections officers.

Under the bill, current state and school workers who were hired prior to the enactment of Act 120 of 2010 will be forced to choose between paying a higher contribution (10.5 percent instead of 7.5 percent for PSERS employees and 8.75 percent instead of 6.25 percent for SERS employees) in order to keep their current retirement benefit, or having their retirement benefit begin to accrue at a lower rate for future years of service. Additionally, new hires will be enrolled in a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan and an accompanying cash balance plan.

Oftentimes, state police and corrections officers are forced to work overtime because of an unexpected incident or — in the case of the Department of Corrections — the need to fill mandatory staffing levels. Under current law, an employee’s retirement benefit is based on an average of his or her final three years’ salary including overtime.

While the blatantly unconstitutional benefits reductions and increased contributions for current employees are already egregious, this bill goes even further to limit the use of overtime hours in calculating the benefits of corrections officers and state troopers. If the measure is enacted, these hardworking, public safety professionals will lose their much deserved retirement benefits that they accrued while working additional time that was necessary to ensure the safety and welfare of Pennsylvania’s citizens.

Recently, I attended a picnic and had the opportunity to speak to two state troopers about this issue. As you may know, this bill inflicts additional harm on state troopers and corrections officers by eliminating disability benefits that are provided under current law. The two troopers informed me that if the bill was enacted, they would fear for the security of their families, especially their children, every time they go on duty. It is important to note that state police and corrections officers are exempt from Social Security, and state troopers have a mandatory retirement age of 60. This measure represents one more hole in their future safety net.

My colleagues in the General Assembly need to take a long look at what the majority party is advocating and the adverse effects it will have in Pennsylvania. While it is being presented as monumental pension reform that will save the commonwealth billions of dollars in the future, to state police and corrections officers, this so-called “reform” measure is nothing more than a flurry of bullets that no Kevlar vest can stop.