Gov. Tom Corbett’s approval rating with voters continues to drop. The latest results from the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute show that only 36 percent of voters approve of the governor’s performance midway through his first term. A bare majority – 52 percent – of his own party approve of the job the Republican is doing.
And Corbett’s agenda for this year is not going to make him any more popular. He’s already made many enemies in trying to move liquor and wine sales to the private sector, and now he’s even been talking about pushing Pennsylvania into the 21st century by allowing beer to be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, just like it is in 48 other states. But his initiatives on transportation and state pensions are what most likely will deflate his poll numbers even further.
No one doubts that the state needs to address its deteriorating infrastructure, particularly its roads and bridges. This costs billions of dollars, and those billions have to come from somewhere. Corbett has proposed privatizing the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and increasing fees and the gasoline tax to pay for the program has been speculated, even though he was elected on a pledge he would not raise taxes. What the administration might propose is an increase in the oil company franchise tax – a tax on the businesses that sell gasoline, that would likely be passed along to motorists.
Though the state pension crisis is old news and talked about less and less these days, it’s still as dangerous to the viability of government as it ever was. Unless changes are made in the design of pensions for state employees, we’ll be pumping $5 billion a year of our tax dollars into the system within five years.
Budget Secretary Charles Zogby, in outlining the Corbett administration’s proposals, said the plan would not affect retirees’ pensions or benefits current employees have already earned, but active workers covered by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System and the state Employees’ Retirement System would see changes in how their pensions are earned and calculated going forward. Options include reducing the multiplier, a percentage applied to an employee’s years of service and final average salary; reducing or eliminating credit for overtime pay; and reducing future annuities for workers who withdraw their own contributions when they retire. We would hope that the state also abandons the defined-benefit pension entirely for new hires, replacing it with a defined contribution plan.
Brace yourself for the outrage and the inevitable legal battle.
The governor’s approval ratings will sink even further as he pursues these initiatives, even though they may be sensible, necessary and in the best interest of all commonwealth citizens. If we want our roads to be passable, our bridges safe and public transportation available, we have to pay the price of maintaining them. If we don’t want to slash funding for education, for the poor and disabled, for police and environmental protection, we can’t continue to offer state employees the generous pensions that have become unaffordable, simply because the employees who came before them enjoyed those benefits.
We face the same sort of taxpayer denial at the national level. Many folks are offended by attempts to make any changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, even when there is no doubt that staying the course will lead to economic catastrophe.
The governor would do best to ignore his polling numbers – and his no-new-taxes pledge – and concentrate on what Pennsylvania needs and how to pay for it.