Gov. Tom Corbett couldn't persuade the state Legislature to support pension reform. So now he's trying to persuade you and your neighbors to do it for him.
At his latest stop on a statewide tour, Corbett spoke at the Lower Macungie Township Community Center on Wednesday and told residents to connect the dots between school districts' rising pension costs and homeowners' soaring tax bills.
"The pension crisis affects everyone — everyone in Pennsylvania," Corbett said. "It does create real problems for many families of all economic income levels, and it leads to property tax increases."
What does Corbett suggest that residents do about it?
"If you have a Democrat legislator or you know a Democrat legislator, call on them," Corbett said. "Ask them why they think there's not a pension crisis, because you're paying for it. You're paying for it every time you pay an increase in your property taxes."
Trailing Democratic candidate Tom Wolf by 22 points in the polls, Corbett is trying to simplify a complicated issue and generate support from frustrated homeowners. Unless the state passes pension reform, Pennsylvania residents could have to fix their old car instead of buying a new one and might not be able to buy that home they dreamed of owning, he said.
As an example, he introduced Patricia Felix, a 72-year-old retired Bethlehem woman who is a registered Republican and was once president of the Bethlehem GOP.
Felix said she will have to dip into her own 401(k) to pay for the Bethlehem Area School District's 5 percent tax increase. That isn't fair, Felix said, which is why she supports Corbett's plans for pension reform.
"This is about making life better for the people and the homeowners of Pennsylvania," Corbett said.
Flanked by state and local government officials, local residents and a Boy Scout, Corbett spoke next to a visual aid displaying Lehigh County school districts' rising pension costs.
Over the past decade, pension payments at the county's nine school districts have ballooned by $31 million, or about 356 percent, Corbett said. Statewide pension costs during that time have increased by $1.9 billion, or about 280 percent, he said. He noted those skyrocketing expenses have forced school districts to raise taxes on homeowners and business owners.
The governor's presentation was on point, said Jack Silva, the Bethlehem Area School District's chief academic officer.
"I'm no expert, and I don't know what the best solution is," Silva said in a phone interview, "but I do know that without a solution there is going to be a continuation of what we've seen."
Corbett did not explain what pension reform means for state and public school employees until he was asked during a question-and-answer session.
He supports a proposal by Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill, allowing new employees to apply the first $50,000 of their salaries toward benefits guaranteed by a traditional pension system. Any salary above that would be covered by a 401(k)-style private plan estimated to save taxpayers $15 billion over 30 years.
Current employees and retirees would not see their benefits changed.
Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-Lehigh, also spoke, saying they support Corbett and pension reform.
Before the event began, the Campaign for a Fresh Start, the political action committee founded by Wolf, released a statement saying the governor continues to mislead voters about his failed record.
The statement blamed Corbett's previous budget cuts for higher school taxes, and criticized his resistance to instituting a severance tax on oil and gas companies — which Wolf favors — to cover the growing pension costs.
Wolf's PAC also pointed to Corbett's previous statement that pension reform will not result in immediate substantial savings.
As Corbett struggles to win over the Legislature on the need to promptly pass significant pension reforms, he's facing an even tougher battle in his bid for a second term amid meager poll numbers and the beginnings of a negative ad war.
After the pension event, the Republican incumbent brought in a little GOP star power to help bolster his campaign coffers. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal joined him at fundraiser Wednesday evening at the North Whitehall Township home of David and Jackie Jaindl, the turkey farm magnates and residential and commercial land developers.
Jindal said in a phone interview before the fundraiser that as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he's not concerned by Corbett's poll numbers. The state's lower unemployment rate and Corbett's spending cuts are signs that he made tough but necessary choices, Jindal said.
"I think Tom shows that he doesn't govern based on polls," said Jindal, who is mulling a 2016 presidential run. "He knows that it's about following your principles."
The 200-person fundraiser was anticipated to be the governor's largest in the Lehigh Valley during this election cycle. Corbett campaign spokesman Billy Pitman confirmed that the event raised $350,000.
While it was a private event, some Lehigh Valley drivers may have caught a glimpse of Jindal anyway. To greet the two Republican governors, the Jaindls bought a digital billboard ad along Route 22, featuring head shots of the two men.