First of two parts

SHAMOKIN - Pension reform and passage of a transportation funding bill are state Rep. Kurt Masser's top priorities when the legislative session resumes Monday following a summer recess.

During a sit-down interview Thursday at The News-Item, the second-term lawmaker said the two issues are of critical importance to Pennsylvanians and must be addressed as soon as possible. But neither will be easy to accomplish, he admitted. Lacking a consensus on these issues, the Legislature adjourned in late June after passing a budget without taking action on either.

The commonwealth's two public pension plans - for state and school employees - have amassed, according to the Governor's Budget Office, a combined shortfall of more than $47 billion which, if not dealt with, could grow to $65 billion in five years. Increased employer contributions to

bolster the funds put a drain on state government and local school districts, Masser noted.

"It (the pension shortfall) drives so much of what we do. We've kicked the can down the road on this long enough," he said.

Masser said the general consensus is that current public pension plans should be scrapped in favor of 401(k) plans, which are now the norm in the private sector. These plans would not affect current retirees, he said. Any attempt to change these retirees' pension arrangements would surely result in lawsuits that the state and school districts would almost certainly lose, he pointed out.

Before voting to approve any specific pension reform bill, however, Masser wants to see specific figures on how muchit would cost to convert the plan.

Masser anticipates a "big push" in Harrisburg this fall to pass a transportation bill. Not only is transportation funding vital to the state's economy, he said, it impacts public safety. A transportation proposal passed the House Transportation Committee, but the House didn't vote on it prior to adjournment, Masser noted.

During a visit Wednesday to Wilkes-Barre, State Transportation Secretary Barry Shoch again urged the legislature to pass a transportation bill, pointing to problems resulting from the growing need to impose weight restrictions on state bridges.

Masser agrees with the importance of improving the state's highway infrastructure, noting concerns about highways and bridges have forced some businesses to relocate.

Passage of the bill is also vital to continued planning for the proposed Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway project. Although the thruway will not be in Masser's district, he views it as a project of regional importance, not only for its economic benefits but for the jobs it will create during the construction phase.

"We'll have to see what comes out of the (transportation) committee," he said. "The chairman of the House committee (Dick Hess) just passed away (Sept. 6), and I'm not sure if that will make it harder.

"There's a lot of 'want' to get the transportation bill done, but it's anyone's guess if it will actually come to a vote," Masser added.

He pointed out that infrastructure problems didn't just happen overnight. "Gov. Rendell called a special session to deal with transportation years ago, but nothing was done then."

Liquor privatization

Masser supported a liquor privatization bill as a member of the House Liquor Control committee and in a vote by the full House. The bill, he said, would have allowed wine to be sold in grocery stores and given beer distributorship the first chance to become one-stop shops for all types of alcohol.

By Masser's reckoning, there is only a 40 percent likelihood the legislature will approve a liquor privatization bill this year. He views privatization as "a philosophical issue" (whether the state should be in the business of selling alcohol) rather than a pocket-book issue, and, as such, not as pressing as the pension and transportation funding problems.

Masser doubts the Legislature will complete action on all three of these major issues - pension, transportation and liquor - this year. In fact, he thinks the legislative session can be considered "successful" if one of the major bills is passed by the end of the year and action is taken on another in early 2014.

Other issues

Masser also weighed in on these state issues and initiatives:

Pennsylvania Lottery - he said he's not sure whether Gov. Corbett's proposal for contracted management will be approved.

Masser said the principal concern should be having the Lottery generate as much revenue as possible to support programs for senior citizens.

He added that he would have preferred that Corbett select a firm from the U.S., or better yet, from Pennsylvania, to manage the Lottery rather than Camelot Global Services, which is based in the United Kingdom.

Medicaid - Masser said he hasn't "dissected (Gov. Corbett's) plan in full," but he fears it will drive up some costs. Masser's main concern is that the federal government may one day reneg on its promised level of coverage.

Education funding - Masser said there is growing interest in reforming the tax structure to allow school districts to replace the regressive property tax with a personal income tax or sales tax. At least two different proposals have been drafted. He acknowledges that this issue has been debated for three decades without success.

AOAA - Masser said he is highly optimistic that an additional request for funding for the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area would receive favorable consideration from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Masser said he believes the AOAA authority is doing an excellent job in planning and developing the facility.

Gun control - Masser believes the circumstances surrounding recent mass shootings in the U.S. show there should be more discussion on mental health issues.

"You can make guns illegal, but that doesn't mean people won't have them," he said, pointing out that, in many cases, firearms used in the shootings were obtained legally. "Are we doing enough to fund mental health services, and are we doing the right things?" he asked. "We need to talk to professionals to see how we can make the mental health system better."

No comment - Masser, a former Northumberland County commissioner, declined comment on the controversial proposal to reduce elected county officials' salaries.

Asked his views on Mount Carmel Area teachers' decision to stage an informational picket, Masser commented the labor dispute at Mount Carmel Area is a "school board matter," not a state issue.