By LaKeshia Knarr
LOCK HAVEN – Area legislators descended on Lock Haven for an annual Legislative Luncheon today, where they shared opinions on a variety of issues, most of which centered on the state budget and property tax reform, with one stating the latter is a “dicey issue at best because it is raising taxes to eliminate taxes.”
Those words from state Sen. Joseph Scarnati, R-Brockway, were said during his answer to a question about the status of a bill calling for property tax elimination. Scarnati said the Senate last year took up the issue and it tied, with Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack voting against and killing the measure. (In the 2015-16 session he supported SB76, which would eliminate property taxes and fund public education through earned income or sales taxes.) He said they will look at it again this year. It’s a dicey issue, he indicated, because individuals have to evaluate how the change in taxation will affect them individually and that causes a lot of initial wariness.
Briefly talking about property tax reform, Rep. Mike Hanna, D- Lock Haven, said there are a number of proposals out there currently. The state House passed a measure to reduce property taxes by $4.1 billion across the state last legislative session, he said, but it didn’t pass the state Senate. Sending a bill on the issue back to the House is on the state Senate’s agenda this session, with Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman indicating it as a priority, Hanna added.
Hanna, who represents the state House 76th District and serves as minority whip, said Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s budget proposal does not increase sales or income taxes. The governor’s proposal looks at various cost-saving measures, Hanna said, including the closing of the State Correctional Institute at Pittsburgh, which is projected to save $80 million or more; the consolidation of four state agencies into one; closing of the “Delaware Loophole” (used by corporations with subsidiaries in the state to avoid certain taxes); and collection of the Marcellus Shale tax.
Hanna said the budget includes about a 2 percent increase for special education funding, 1 percent increase in funding for basic education, and 2 percent increase for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
Scarnati, who is in his 17th year representing the 25th state Senate District and serves as president pro tempore, said the number one issue for people in his district over the last 20 years has been jobs and the economy. Pointing to national economic growth in recent years, Scarnati asked what is keeping Pennsylvania from seeing similar growth. He said PA trades good-paying manufacturing jobs for service-sector jobs that don’t pay as well; corporations haven’t been investing in Pennsylvania; raising taxes on job creators drives the economy “in a downward spiral”; and online shopping is causing less revenue from sales taxes, and the closing of small businesses and brick-and-mortar shops.
“We have to get things on track here,” he said. “It’s easier to do business in other states and it’s less costly.”
Scarnati also discussed the state’s budget deficit, saying the costs for pensions, human services, and corrections are on the rise. The state has a pension liability of over $60 billion and legislators cannot keep talking about raising taxes until they fix pensions, long-term care and corrections, he said.
“Pennsylvania is headed for bankruptcy. We’ll be no better than a Third World Nation is we cannot get these costs under control,” he said.
Questioned about charter school funding and the state law, Scarnati said charter and cyber-charter schools provide choice for families and reforming the funding model is debated constantly. Asked if he believes legalization of recreational marijuana could help close the budget deficit, Scarnati said he does believe it would help with the budget deficit; however, he is not in favor of the use of recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana, he said, was “a no-brainer,” but he would rather focus on getting alcohol in grocery stores before worrying about recreational marijuana.
Both legislators were asked about what programs they would consider eliminating.
Scarnati said it comes down to what the state should be in the business of doing. The state should be in the business of public safety, infrastructure and education, he said. He questioned government’s role in liquor and lottery industries, and also said perhaps partnerships on things like roadwork could represent innovative ways to save money.
Hanna pointed to the governor’s proposals to consolidate criminal justice agencies and consolidation of four agencies that were overlapping in areas, including Human Services, Aging, Health and Drug & Alcohol agencies. In addition, Hanna referenced the state’s role in growing correctional costs: mandatory minimum sentences drove costs up but didn’t solve crime. Since that is no longer being enforced, he said, prison population is declining.
Hosted by the Clinton County Economic Partnership, the event took place at the Moose Family Center and was sponsored by Dominion Energy. Over 100 people filled the room. The luncheon provides an opportunity for constituents to pose questions to their representatives and hear more about the government officials’ perspectives on pending legislation.