HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – House speaker Keith McCall canceled planned postelection voting sessions Friday, only to be urged by Gov. Ed Rendell to reconsider so that lawmakers have an opportunity to pass a bill to blunt an expected spike in public pension costs that he called "too important to delay."
Rendell wrote to House leaders of both parties to say the House should send the pension bill to his desk before the Legislature's two-year session ends Nov. 30.
The bill, which would delay and slightly reduce a projected multibillion-dollar spike in Pennsylvania's largest public pension systems, "is too important to delay it for any length of time. It's got to be put into operation and it should be put into operation now," the Democratic governor said at a news conference.
Earlier Friday, House Speaker McCall issued a memo announcing that the House would not have the lame-duck voting sessions later this month that were previously scheduled. Since Senate leaders have ruled out any votes after the election, the decision meant the death of several pieces of legislation, including the pension bill.
If the House is called back into session, its lawmaking options would be limited to approving bills previously approved by the Senate or allow them to die.
House Majority Whip Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said he argued against the decision to cancel the remaining session days when he discussed it with McCall and Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne.
"I thought it was the wrong approach, that we should go back and that we ought to address a couple issues, the pension issue, among others," said Dermody, who is running for Democratic floor leader in the coming session.
Dermody said other House Democrats have told him they wanted to return for more votes on Senate-passed measures that could be sent to Rendell's desk if the House approves. He mentioned bills regarding farm issues, food safety and wind energy.
During a teleconference with reporters, Eachus said there were many bills on the House calendar but the pension bill was paramount.
"Frankly, without the ability to do that, the other issues just don't rise to that same level of intensity and the same budget impact," Eachus said.
McCall is retiring at the end of the month, and Eachus lost re-election. McCall's memo did not say why he decided not to call members back for additional votes. A message seeking comment from McCall spokesman Bob Caton was not immediately returned.
Taxpayers are contributing almost $700 million this year to the two public-sector pension systems that serve more than 675,000 current and retired state government and public school employees, according to the governor's office.
While the bill would not affect the pensions of people currently in the system, it would reduce benefits and increase the retirement age for newly hired state workers, teachers and other school employees. In the near term, it would significantly lower how much the state needs to pay into the systems, giving policymakers breathing room as they attempt to deal with the state's budget during a time of weak tax collections.
Dermody said the overriding factor in McCall's decision was opposition to establishment of a legislative fiscal office, which is a provision of the Senate-passed pension bill pending in the House. He called it an unfunded mandate, but said he would vote for the pension bill even if it contains the new office.
A main opponent of the fiscal office has been Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia.
His spokeswoman Johnna Pro said Friday that the pension bill does not pass constitutional muster because it contains the fiscal office, citing an Oct. 14 ruling by the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau that the legislation violates the state's constitutional requirement that laws may not address multiple, unrelated topics.
"We're talking about creating a $4 million legislative agency with three dozen employees," Pro said. "We just don't agree with that."