By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Mercer County’s state lawmakers offered up their opinions Friday on everything from what ought to be done to improve funding for public education, to how to get the most tax revenue from the soon-to-be booming oil and gas drilling industry, to changing the way the state counts electoral votes.
Three of the county’s four voices in Harrisburg -- Rep. Dick Stevenson, Grove City, R-8th District; Rep. Mark Longietti, Hermitage, D-7th District; and Sen. Robert Robbins, Salem Township, R-50th District -- spoke at the League of Women Voters of Mercer County’s annual legislative luncheon.
State Rep. Michele Brooks, Jamestown, R-17th District, was out of town.
The lawmakers fielded questions posed by the league and some generated from the audience of about 50 people, touching on some high profile topics and their own legislative priorities.
Much of the discussion centered on budget issues and financial constraints that roll down to local schools and agencies.
Longietti said he would like to see a higher tax placed on the oil and gas companies that have begun drilling in Mercer County. That increased revenue, he said, could be included in the state budget to offset some areas that are getting less money.
One of his chief concerns, he said, is that the impact fees that municipalities where drilling occurs collects is not “robust” enough to offset the actual impact that is occurring. He cited as an example the “hundreds” of big trucks that go in and out of Sharpsville hauling the materials used at drilling sites in other parts of the state and in Ohio. “Although I know there is one well going in Mercer County there are impacts in places where there aren’t wells,” he said. “We are blessed with this resource and don’t want to limit our economic opportunities,” he said.
His colleagues weren’t quick to agree with his idea. Robbins said legislators have to be “careful” not to drive the oil and gas industry “over to Ohio” by placing a larger tax burden on them. He explained that Pennsylvania’s business taxes are structured differently than in other states and said the current money collected is “already more than projected.”
Stevenson agreed with Robbins and said the oil and gas companies are already paying a lot in taxes and considers it “unfair” to tax those companies who are extracting gas when a tax was never levied on those who have been extracting coal and oil and other minerals from the ground for years. “I think there is an inherent unfairness in that,” he said.
And jobs remained the focus for many of the questions, particularly when asked about funding for social service programs designed to help low-income families, unemployed workers, the disabled and those with mental health issues.
Robbins said it is important to remember that much work has already been done in those areas, particularly for job training for displaced workers and said it isn’t up to the government to make sure that people take advantage of those opportunities.
“The best social program is a good-paying job. Our focus is doing what we can to enhance the economy and increase the opportunity for jobs. They’ve had 12 years of public education. Why didn’t they take advantage of that? Why didn’t they reach out to those programs that are already in place?” Robbins said.
Longietti said the “safety net” that has been in place for the middle- and low-income families is disappearing as the recession continues. He offered several tax loopholes he thought could be closed for a short-term solution, but said it is important to make investments in the education system that will create a “world-class workforce” that will draw higher wages and tax revenue to local coffers.
Other topics covered in the panel discussion included:
ä Dealing with a deficit in the pension funding by limiting benefits to newly hired workers. Longietti pointed out that a similar situation occurred in the 1980s and once market conditions changed, the problem was self-correcting. “In fact, at one time back in 2001 we offered enhanced benefits,” he said. He also said $52 million is spent annually in Mercer County from pension benefits.
ä Gun control was a subject where the representatives offered little in the way of new information. “We all decry the gun violence, but there isn’t one identifiable cause. I don’t think guns caused the violence and I would be reluctant to change the gun control laws,” said Stevenson. “It’s a breakdown of society, changes in the movie and video world that promotes violence, the family structure is not what it was 50 years ago. I think increased gun control is a short-sighted move,” he added. Longietti said he favored “well-thought-out” solutions and pointed to a proposed select committee on school safety as a way to find them.
ä All three said they saw no reason to change the state’s “winner-take-all” electoral vote system. Legislation has been introduced to divide up the state’s 20 electoral votes based on the winner of the presidential race in each congressional district with the two statewide votes going to the winner of the popular vote. “It’s worked for 200 years,” Stevenson said. The idea is being pushed by Republicans in several states.