MERCER – The Republican Party controls the Pennsylvania General Assembly, but a Democrat, Tom Wolf, still occupies the governor’s mansion.
With revenues falling behind projections in the current budget year, people already are asking whether the state is heading for another stalemate like it experienced two years ago, during which funding was cut for a time to many agencies, causing forced reductions in services or outright closures.
“The big thing’s going to be the budget,” said newly re-elected state Rep. Tedd Nesbit, who serves the 8th District, which includes the eastern part of Mercer County, when asked about his legislative priorities for the new year.
“I’m hopeful we can (pass a budget) together and can get stuff done,” the Republican said. “I don’t think anyone wants another year like that. I think we have some philosophical differences.”
Nesbit’s philosophy includes not supporting a hike in a “broad-based” tax such as sales or income tax – “I don’t think my constituents can afford it,” he said – but not making a blanket statement concerning other taxes.
The budget is the legislature’s number one priority in any year, said Rep. Parke Wentling, the 17th District Republican whose district includes central Mercer County.
“A lot of the things we do tie into that,” said Wentling, who, like Nesbit, fended off a Democratic challenger in the recent election.
The budget process is complex because there actually are five groups that play into it – the party caucuses in the Senate and the House and the governor – and the individual House and Senate members don’t necessarily act as party leaders suggest, Wentling said.
“Compromise is to be had,” he said.
Compromise was not had two years ago because the governor and many legislators were new to their jobs, said the lone Democrat representing Mercer at the state level, Rep. Mark Longietti. He hopes that experience has developed into wisdom among those involved.
“Nobody wins when you have a budget impasse,” said Longietti, whose 7th District covers most of the western part of the county. “The people don’t win. The public officials don’t win, either.”
However, the issues behind the budget problems are not easy to solve, he said. Lawmakers have to come to grips with changing demographics and how they affect tax receipts. Pennsylvania doesn’t tax Social Security, pensions and individual retirement accounts, and has a liberal tax forgiveness policy, which means it does not collect some taxes that other states do, he said. Yet, long-term care is “one of our cost drivers,” Longietti said.
Local reps say they want to boost the revenue side of the budget by setting policies that promote job growth.
“I plan on continuing to partner with local economic groups and legislators to maximize the ability to strengthen our area with more jobs as well as retaining the jobs and businesses we currently have,” said state Sen. Michele Brooks, a Republican. “In my efforts to do this, I invited the Secretary for the Department of Economic and Community Development to tour our area and local businesses so that he could see firsthand our strengths and the great work force we have.”
“I’m also continuing my efforts to phase out the inheritance tax and reduce mandates and regulations that place undue burdens on our farmers, businesses, families and schools,” she said. “The staff and I will continue to be accessible and provide strong constituent services.”
Wentling, a former Wilmington School District shop teacher, talks along the same lines, noting his bill – signed into law earlier this year – to relax the time frame for continuing education requirements placed on schools “provides some relief” on an arguably onerous mandate.
He also will continue efforts to support a pro-life agenda, such as supporting a bill to roll back the time frame for elective abortions from 6 months to 5, and outlaw dismemberment abortions.
Longietti is co-chairman of the early childhood caucus and said he will continue to push for funding for programs to stimulate the youngest minds with the hopes of eventually creating workers ready to meet the demands of the higher technology work force of the future.
Even though funding increased by $30 million this year for early childhood initiatives, “Right now, we’re only reaching 20 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in Pennsylvania,” Longietti said.
His jobs approach is very much geared to Mercer County, supporting work force development, job training, the efforts of Penn Northwest Development Corp., the county’s lead economic development agency, and local developments such as Ellwood Crankshaft’s expansion in Sharon and Keystone Blind Association’s consolidation project in Hermitage, he said.
Longietti also said he will support efforts to address the opioid epidemic – opening detox centers, loosening privacy rules so medical facilities and treatment centers can talk to each other – and improve the quality of life for Mercer Countians through library and recreation and parks projects.
Nesbit said he plans to reintroduce some bills that timed out before they could be acted on in the last session, including a bill to reform the state’s arbitration process concerning contract disputes and bring it in line with national standards. Issues that would be reformed include time frames and the choice of an arbiter, he said.
Nesbit also wants to pass a student data privacy bill that would alert parents how data concerning their children’s school lunch information is handled, and a school construction bill that promotes the sharing of information and designs between districts.
“It’s more of a way to save money for the school districts so we can share designs across the state, instead of every school designing its own building,” Nesbit said. “If they’re getting money from the state, why won’t we share information in ways to save the state money?”