FILE - PA Garth Everett 2-6-2019

Pennsylvania House State Government Chairman addresses his fellow committee members Feb. 6, 2019.

Employees of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission are not Pennsylvania state employees, even though the vast majority of the commission’s service area is within the state.

They are, however, members of the State Employees Retirement System.

A bill from state Rep. Jim Cox, R-Sinking Spring, that would prevent future commission employees from taking part in SERS was advanced last week along party lines by the House State Government Committee. House Bill 60 allows the commission’s current employees to remain within the state retirement system.

The commission is a multi-state entity that is a partnership between the federal government, Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland to ensure water quality in the region served by the Susquehanna River. The commission currently has 65 employees, according to state Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia. Of that number, Sims said, 64 reside within the state of Pennsylvania and the other commutes from just outside the state to work each day.

Citing a letter from the commission, Democrats on the State Government Committee questioned what the intention was behind HB60 and whether the state would stand to save any money from the action.

“All of those employees are paying into the pension fund,” Sims said. “The reason that these things are underfunded is because of us, as a state, and what we paid in, not because of members of the SRBC are putting in. They are paying their fair share.”

State Government Chairman Garth Everett, R-Muncy, argued that it wasn’t simply about money savings for Pennsylvania, but that it was simply inappropriate for non-state employees to be taking part in SERS. He noted that when a similar piece of legislation was introduced in the last session, the Independent Fiscal Office had judged that removing future commission employees from SERS would have virtually no financial impact for the state.

To Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, allowing the commission to remain part of SERS when Pennsylvania is only one of four entities that support it was crossing a line.

“It's similar to the federal government,” he said. “We're not going to be supporting the pension systems of federal employees. We have absolutely no business supporting the benefits of another entity that is not under the control of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Legislature.”

Given the poor state of Pennsylvania’s public pension system as a whole, Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Palmyra, argued, it only made sense to look for opportunities to winnow individuals who might not belong in the system.

“We have our primary responsibility, in my mind, to take care of those employees of the state who worked for the state and have that responsibility to ensure we can make those obligations,” Ryan said. “This is something that probably should have never happened to begin with, where this kind of thing occurred in the process. There are separate funding mechanisms for the SRBC … and other elements.”

Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Royersford, wanted to know why the SRBC alone was the focus of the legislation when it had been noted that there were other multistate entities that similarly had employees in SERS. To that, Everett said that he’d be happy to consider legislation to address those.

“Yeah, they're still currently on the list of entities that are covered,” Everett said. “And again, they probably shouldn't be, and we probably should have legislation to take them off.”

The vote on HB60 was 15 Republicans in favor, 10 against. It now goes to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

Dave Lemery is the Pennsylvania & New Hampshire News Editor for Watchdog.org. He welcomes your comments. Contact Dave at dlemery@watchdog.org.

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Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.