by John L. Micek, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
September 21, 2022

With the clock running down on this year’s legislative session, two Pennsylvania Senate Democrats are crafting bills that would hand the commonwealth’s retired teachers and state employees the first cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions in years.

State Sens. Katie Muth, of Montgomery County, and John Kane, of Chester County, sent out a pair of memos on Monday seeking co-sponsors for their proposals.

The Republican-controlled state House and Senate each have a handful of voting sessions remaining on their respective calendars before the curtain comes down on this year’s legislative session in November.

That makes the chances of a bill getting through both chambers, and onto Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, before the deadline remote at best. But those close to the matter suggested Tuesday that there still could be a last-minute push to get a bill over the goal line before the end of session.

Majority Senate Republicans could not immediately comment on Muth’s and Kane’s proposals, which have yet to be translated into legislative language.

In a text message, House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman said that “any legislation received from the Senate will be reviewed and considered in accordance with our normal legislative procedure.”

The sheer scale and size of such an increase in benefits may have something to do with the House GOP’s aggressive neutrality.

An analysis by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office, attached to a bill currently before the state House, indicates that enacting a COLA hike for tens of thousands of retired teachers and state employees would cost hundreds of millions of dollars spread out over a decade.

In a statement, PSERS spokesperson Evelyn Williams said the teachers’ pension system was “aware of the issuance of a COLA memo and press release” by the two lawmakers, and “will closely monitor the legislation when it is introduced.

“We stand ready to assist he senators, other policymakers, and the Independent Fiscal Office with actuarial and administrative cost studies of any pension-related bills,” Williams said in the agency’s statement. (Getty Images).

But even with all that, lawmakers are in a political pickle, one veteran observer suggested Tuesday.

Because of inflation, lawmakers are set to receive a massive, automatic salary hike, that could put legislative base pay above $100,000 next year, according to the investigative news site Spotlight PA, which cited previous reporting by The Caucus/LNP.

Failing to enact a COLA for teachers and public employee retirees, even as legislators line their own pensions, could prove politically toxic for lawmakers, who would face the rage of powerful and influential public employee unions, which historically have supported Democrats.

And in a year where control of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office is on the line, the repercussions could be severe, the observer suggested.

Current state law also requires “the General Assembly to enact legislation in order to give a raise to retired public school employees,” Muth and Kane wrote in the memo supporting the hike for teachers, who received a COLA boost roughly every 2-1/2 years between 1967 and 2001.

“While  inflation has been a recent hot topic, these retired educators and school personnel have not received a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 20 years,” they continued. “This is obviously problematic because several measures show a cumulative rate of inflation of more than 50 percent from 2002 to 2022.”

The two lawmakers offered a similar sentiment when it came to state employees, noting that they had “spoken to many retirees in our Senate districts who have asked for a retirement COLA.

“Our hard working and dedicated retired state workers have not received a pension COLA in 20 years,” they continued. “The cost of most goods and services have risen in the past twenty years. Our legislation will provide a COLA to help our state retirees particularly long-time state retirees restore their purchasing power, which will help our economy.”

The State Employees Retirement System, which oversees retirement benefits for state employees, provides retirement annuities to 134,360 former state employees, who receive an average monthly payment of a little more than $2,000, for an average of $24,226 in pension payments annually, according to Kane and Muth.

“Everyone deserves to live and to retire with dignity and financial security. Retired teachers and school employees across our Commonwealth worked their entire lives and contributed so much to our communities and to our children only to struggle with the steady increases in cost-of-living since 2002,” Muth, a member of the PSERS Board of Trustees, said in a statement. “It is time that our Legislature stands up for public school employees and our retirees.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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