By David Loomis
INDIANA – Four white guys running for seats in the state legislature to represent Indiana County debated on an Oct. 15 webcast sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. Lincoln-Douglas it wasn’t. Neither was it Trump-Biden.
It was a rare opportunity to see and hear the local candidates before the Nov. 3 election. Another opportunity will air on WCCS-1160 AM and 101.1 FM, the Fox radio stations carried locally on Renda Broadcasting. Senate candidates were scheduled to debate this morning, Thursday, Oct. 22, 10-11 a.m., and House candidates are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 28, 10-11 a.m. Pre-submitted audience questions are invited before airtime by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Video will be posted on the stations’ website, a radio station staffer said.
During last week’s Chamber of Commerce event, Republican incumbents won on appearances. Switch off the sound, and the GOP incumbents looked more commanding, gazing directly into the camera without reference to notes. Their closing summaries were more polished. Their Democratic challengers exhibited less command and eye contact, the House challenger more so than the Senate challenger.
On substance, however, it was a more balanced performance. Republican incumbents were more detailed and wonky and Democratic challengers more broad-brush.
In two, 45-minute, back-to-back live debates, two candidates each for the 62nd State House District seat and for the 41st State Senate District seat responded to questions pre-screened by representatives of the two local political parties and by the sponsoring local business lobby. All four candidates had 90 seconds to respond to each of the same nine or so moderated questions, not including personal intros and outros. Cross-exams and follow-up questions were prohibited. No studio audience was seen or heard. A recording of the full program can be viewed here.
The candidates in the Nov. 3 election are:
— incumbents: Republican Sen. Joseph A. “Joe” Pittman, 41st Senate District, and Republican Rep. James B. “Jim” Struzzi II, 62nd House District
— challengers: Democrat Anthony “Tony” DeLoreto, Indiana restaurant owner and candidate for the 41st Senate District seat; and Democrat Dennis “Denny” Semsick, retired from PennDOT and candidate for the 62nd House District seat.
The questions included, in order:
- property tax relief
- unemployment, economic development
- Indiana University of Pennsylvania downsizing and viability
- Covid-19 effects on local mental health, addiction, domestic violence, etc.
- the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and your plans to prevent a resurgence
- broadband internet service
- how to sustain the energy industry in the state and the region
- how to ensure clean air, soil and water in this area
- legalization of personal use of recreational marijuana for adults
Following is a citizen’s review of the candidates’ responses, with added commentary. The summary follows the order of the questions. It is not a transcript.
Question 1: property tax relief
Act 76, a property-tax repeal bill stalled in the legislature, would provide a big tax break to the wealthy. Instead, Semsick would eliminate school property taxes only on primary residences, small businesses and farms, allowing leeway for lawmakers to find sources of revenue lost to property-tax cuts.
Action on Act 76 has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The bill needs tweaking because “we also need to look at how we are funding education…. I vow to continue to push for property tax elimination.”
Credit Semsick. He mentions Act 76’s biggest shortcoming – how to pay for public education, if not by property taxation. The widely criticized levy has endured in Pennsylvania since at least the 1830s because it is reliable and effective at fulfilling a critical public purpose. Elsewhere, the National Association of State Legislatures reports that no state has abandoned the property tax as a source to pay for public schools.
“We need to find $12 billion to find those taxes… It’s easy to say you want to eliminate a tax. It’s a much [more] difficult discussion to say how you’re going to replace the tax to raise the revenue…. Because of the pandemic, we are now faced with fiscal limitations that make eliminating the property tax even more difficult.”
Pittman proposed handing off the property-tax question to voters on a future ballot referendum.
Eliminate the property tax on primary residence and working farms, increase the sales tax on everything except WIC, increase income tax, consider legalization of marijuana. Revenues will allow Pennsylvania to “invest heavily in education” because “it’s under attack and we need to protect education, and that’s the way to pay for it and eliminate the property tax for primary residence.”
Sen. Pittman makes a significant change in position on the school property tax since he campaigned for his seat in 2019.
“The best way to address the issue is just to eliminate the tax,” Mr. Pittman said to applause last year. “The property tax, particularly the school property tax, is an archaic, subjective way of taxation. It doesn’t belong in our form of government anymore. It should be eliminated.”
Question 2: unemployment, economic development
The past president of the local Chamber of Commerce criticized taxes and regulations on business generally, including the county’s struggling fossil-fuel industry specifically. He made his first of several “big picture” shifts to frame the issue as a statewide concern. “Our corporate net income tax rate is one of the highest in the country. Businesses see that. They go elsewhere.”
“We have to get the virus under control. Anything short of that, you’re wasting your time. People won’t come out unless it’s safe.”
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the county’s largest employer, has been suffering from the legislature’s underfunding for decades.
Economic development can help, but beware of “putting all those eggs in one basket.”
“Our salvation is taking industry we have here, let them know how valuable they are to us, work with them, encourage them to increase salaries.”
Struzzi is correct: Pennsylvania is a high-tax state. But Pennsylvania’s corporate tax rates are comparable to neighboring states’. Moreover, Donald Trump’s 2017 tax-cut bill slashed corporate tax rates to 21 percent from 35 percent. And higher corporate profits tend to be associated with offshoring of American jobs.
Semsick alluded to Indiana County’s decline from a mining and manufacturing mecca to a notch in the Rust Belt. The muted but timely local issue he is raising is sustainable versus traditional economic development.
“We need to be creative. Our district needs an identity in this district…. We have been decimated. For the last 20 years, we’ve lost FMC, Halliburton, Fisher Scientific, Gorell — everything’s gone away.”
He cited the recent arrival of Urban Outfitters warehouse and the recent purchase of WyoTech’s campus. He also mentioned efforts to bring broadband internet service to underserved rural areas of the county.
DeLoreto, like Semsick, is suggesting that the county’s economic development efforts have failed to restore lost jobs, recent URBN and WyoTech developments notwithstanding.
Question 3: The State System of Higher Education’s restructuring and IUP’s viability
IUP’s tuition increases stem from the state’s lack of support. “That’s hurt us.”
IUP’s Oct. 14 announcement to lay off 128 professors represents “another hit on our economy.”
A demographic “enrollment cliff staring us in the face” is projected to arrive in 2025, the university’s 150th anniversary. “We’re going to be looking at another crisis… We should be ready for that.”
How? Increase funding, reduce cost, increase enrollment.
He emphasized his co-sponsorship of legislation to authorize restructuring of the state system. “We cannot allow it to fail.”
He again framed the question as a state issue. “This is not only IUP, this is a state issue. We need to work together to right-size the state system to protect as many local jobs as we can and bring more students in.”
How? “To advocate for appropriations to allow the state system to lower tuition rates, as it was intended to do.”
In fundamentally reforming the state system of higher education, “We specifically protected West Chester [University] and IUP, the two largest and most stable institutions within the state system.”
He described downsizing as “difficult but in large part necessary…. And while we have some significant short-term pain here as a result of the pandemic and our demographic changes, I do believe the long-term future of IUP is very bright.”
“Much more affordable freshman housing on campus” will be key to that future. Pittman pitched a plan to reduce rents for on-campus residential housing.
He suggested eliminating administrators’ positions at IUP before furloughing professors. He blamed the legislature for IUP’s financial straits.
“We have to stop the state legislature from not investing in higher education. We have taken away from middle-class working families the ability to pay for education in the state of Pennsylvania…. We have to do something to start increasing enrollment, make it more affordable … and support the Indiana community.”
Credit Semsick for focusing on the future so that IUP’s sesquicentennial can be worth celebrating.
Struzzi is correct, it’s a state issue. But as former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously noted, all politics is local. The loss of a significant fraction of IUP’s workforce –128 of 602 professors, not to mention staffers and administrators – portends significant economic, social and public health dislocations in Indiana borough and Indiana County.
Similar impacts have moved Struzzi – and Pittman – aggressively to protect jobs at the county’s coal-fired power plants at risk from political, corporate and regulatory decisions prompted by a looming climate crisis. Lost jobs at IUP – the county’s largest employer — should be of no less concern to the local legislative delegation.
Lower tuition is a goal, but Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom of all 50 states on most measures of support for higher education after failing to adequately invest in it during largely Republican legislative control over the past two decades. Parsimonious public support for public higher education produced rampant tuition and fee hikes (at IUP and at other state-system campuses) to compensate for the lost legislative funding.
Pittman’s description of IUP as one of the most stable institutions in the state system comes two weeks after the system’s chancellor described it as “financially unstable.”
The presidential election may help boost IUP’s financial future before the state legislature does. Democrat Joe Biden pledges to make community college and public universities (like IUP) free for students from families earning less than $125,000 a year. The cost? It would more than pay for itself. A new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce calculates that within a decade the yearly tax revenue from a more educated workforce would exceed the annual cost of covering tuition.
Question 4: Covid-19’s effects on local mental health, addiction, domestic violence, etc.
To do: Restart Pennsylvania, get people back to work, “feeling good about themselves.”
“These human services crises” are a failure of state government. “If you are going to shut down the state, you better have a way to provide for those people. And that did not occur.”
Rep. Struzzi “downplayed the seriousness of this virus the whole time by not wearing a mask up front. After a rally in Indiana, he was quoted in the paper saying, no one will make us wear a mask. That was during the governor’s pandemic [order], and that’s a law. I think he was encouraging others to follow him…. Now we got people that are rebelling, they’re not concerned at all about the health issues. It got away from us.… This is all science-driven…. When people feel safe, things will get better, and we can open everything up and start addressing all these issues that are developing because of [people] stuck in the homes.”
If Republicans succeed in getting rid of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), that will make the problem “10 times worse.”
“It’s a consequence of shutting our schools and shutting our economy.”
Struzzi once again resists cutting the governor slack for a Solomonic effort to save lives without cratering the state’s economy. The way to do that, public health experts agree, is to promote mask wearing, contact tracing and social distancing. Struzzi has allied himself with anti-maskers.
Struzzi’s concern for constituents harmed by the pandemic should be directed to Washington, where a second wave of relief is stalled by a fickle president and a feckless Senate.
Pittman’s implicit criticism of Gov. Tom Wolf for shutting school and “shutting the economy” overlooks the public-health necessity of his emergency actions, all supported by the state constitution and state and federal judicial review.
Question 5: Evaluate the state’s response to the pandemic, and describe what the legislature should do to prevent a resurgence.
The governor worked hard to save lives, despite “harassment” he received.
“My opponent has submitted seven bills, all opening the economy, regardless of the science…. That’s irresponsible…. I am afraid we are going to go back into a resurgence…. If we had just bit the bullet and all of us wear a mask, we would not be in this situation today. This would be behind us. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.”
“I do not find the legislative response laughable in any way. We reacted in cooperation with the governor…. We flattened the curve…. However,… we do not want the cure to be worse than the pandemic, and that is what is occurring now.”
“I have never once said mask-wearing was not the right thing to do. I walked in here today with a mask. And you’ll find numerous pictures of me with a mask. I follow CDC guidelines. I don’t want to get into that debate tonight. I’d rather focus on the issues….”
“The benefit of hindsight is 20/20,” but “the governor’s efforts were very incoherent, and his strategy was deeply flawed.”
“The next person who can explain to me why the 700 Shop and Luxenberg’s had to be closed but Lowe’s and Walmart were allowed to remain open will be the first.”
“There is no playbook on this, and it’s easy to be a Monday-morning armchair quarterback, as many were….. If everybody woulda worn their mask in the beginning, [my restaurant] would be at 100 percent occupancy right now, and not 50 percent. That was a lack of leadership at the national level.”
“Did the governor make every decision perfectly? No. But who can?”
“I would much rather say, ‘Hey, we didn’t really have to do that,’ than say, ‘Whoa, we shoulda done that.”
“As far as taking that decision power away from the governor, I mean, the state legislature can’t make a decision in 10 years, let alone make a decision that’s going to affect lives right now.”
Pittman surely has seen the governor’s emergency order issued in March that allowed businesses to stay open only if they sold or made “life-sustaining” products, such as food, medicine and materials needed for other essentials. Jewelry and menswear were not deemed life-sustaining.
However, as the state auditor general recently detailed, and as Pittman accurately asserted, the governor’s efforts were “fraught with problems.”
DeLoreto’s defense of the governor reflects other more positive evaluations. A report card issued by the Allentown Morning Call in April gave him an overall grade of C-plus.
“Wolf has led calmly and decisively,” the evaluation reported. “Mandates issued under his watch (wearing masks, stay-at-home order) have helped to keep coronavirus cases manageable for the health care system.”
In June, the Centers for Disease Control recognized Wolf’s largely effective efforts.
In July, a poll of Pennsylvanians found majority support for face masks and for the governor’s pandemic performance.
Question 6: What would you do to expand broadband internet service?
Both Struzzi and Semsick support broadband expansion, especially in underserved rural areas of the county.
“It’s the future. We really need to take it to the next level.”
Pole-attachment permits, and Public Utilities Commission and Federal Communications Commission regulations were among the policy details covered by the incumbent. Federal pandemic relief funds have been slotted to local broadband efforts. And a state broadband bill is awaiting the governor’s signature, Pittman said.
Broadband is mom-and-apple-pie. Support is bipartisan.
But, as Pittman suggested, broadband service providers lack incentives to expedite improvements. Translation: Don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, broadband is in a space race. Several high-tech competitors, including American billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are preparing to roll out low-earth-orbit satellite service to provide public high-speed broadband to the northern United States and southern Canada as soon as late this year, by some estimates.
Question 7: What would you do to sustain the energy industry in the state and the region?
“We should be taxing Marcellus shale.” The industry won’t leave the state. There’s so much resource here. Gas companies themselves estimate 30 percent growth by 2040. “They’re all doing super.”
That’s thanks in part to a heavy lobbying effort in Harrisburg, where 203 gas-industry reps lobby all 203 members of the state House.
“The last thing you want to do is tax a struggling industry.” They are not making profits in Pennsylvania right now. They are leaving Pennsylvania.
“The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative will kill our energy industry in Pennsylvania. It will raise your electric bills at home. It will force manufacturers to leave Pennsylvania.”
“We already assess an impact fee on natural gas that provides very, very important dollars for our one resource that we have here below our feet.”
With RGGI, “The governor has proposed a $300 million electricity tax on emission of carbon. This will be far and away the most hard-hit area in the commonwealth.”
Climate change? “I welcome that discussion.”
“What the governor has proposed is not a solution. The coal-fired power plants in West Virginia and Ohio are in the process of renovating and re-powering …. Because they are licking their lips , waiting for our coal-fired generation to close here in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We are an energy exporter. We need to maintain that status.”
“The governor has very little concern for the economic crisis that he plans to inflict on the people that we [including Rep. Struzzi] represent.”
We need to help coal miners and workers at coal-fired power plants “built in the 1960s with a 30-year life expectancy. It’s well past twice that life expectancy.”
“Pennsylvania needs to be a leader in renewable energy. That’s the future.”
Renewable and sustainable energy has bipartisan support in Indiana County. DeLoreto reflects that.
Pittman describes the governor’s RGGI effort as a “$300 million electricity tax” on ratepayers. However, a study by researchers at the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania found that RGGI could reduce electricity rates. Indeed, electric rates in the Northeast’s RGGI states fell 5.7 percent while they rose by 8.6 percent in the rest of the country, according to the Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit and non-partisan Inside Climate News.
If Pennsylvania electric rates were to increase, revenues raised by RGGI could be applied to electric-rate reduction – or to invest in energy efficiency and clean energy. These energy sources are above our feet, increasingly cheaper to produce, and a promising successor to the region’s legacy of resource extraction.
A September 2020 poll of Indiana County adults found 73 percent of respondents support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, 50 percent support imposing strict limits on carbon emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, and 63 percent support a requirement that fossil-fuel companies pay a carbon tax. The survey was conducted by a Yale University county-by-county climate-survey project.
Sen. Pittman welcomes discussion of climate change. End of discussion — although he has mentioned carbon-capture sequestration as mitigation, a strategy experts say is no silver bullet.
Question 8: What will you do to ensure we have clean air, soil and water in this area?
We should have a diversified energy portfolio to fund our grids – coal, natural gas, solar and green renewable energies. “But we should not subsidize one energy source over another.”
RGGI: “I’m not fighting that based on any opinion on climate change or global warming.”
Struzzi restated his opposition to RGGI. (See response to Question 7, on energy, above.)
“I believe in climate change.”
“I refuse to accept either/or…. I don’t want to close power plants down. I don’t want to see people lose jobs. But I do want clean air.
“I will not support any legislation that will harm our economy or our tax base. But power plants … we want clean air. I refuse to accept either/or.”
The question was not asked.
Struzzi’s fair-handed statement on energy subsidies overlooks a conservative 2019 estimate that U.S. subsidies to the fossil fuel industry amounted to roughly $20 billion a year, with 20 percent for coal and 80 percent for natural gas and crude oil. A 2011 estimate put Pennsylvania fossil-fuel subsidies at about $2.9 million a year.
It may be worth noting what former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, recently wrote about his party and the environment:
“The Republican Party has largely abandoned environmental issues — to its great detriment politically,” Ridge wrote.
Question 9: Do you support legalization of personal use of recreational marijuana for adults?
I support it. A majority of Pennsylvanians support it. It will create jobs, stimulate the economy and bolster the tax base. Opposition is driven by Republicans.
Opposition is driven by law enforcement, not GOP.
“The last thing you want to do is legalize marijuana at a time when our businesses can’t find employees who can pass a drug test.”
Increased revenue? Perhaps. But In Colorado, they created new problems for themselves by legalizing recreational marijuana.
Drug overdose rates in Indiana County have doubled in the past six months. DUI crashes, domestic issues, all kinds of additional burdens on human-services budgets.
“Think about it: The last thing I want to do is have my four children go down the street and see someone smoking a joint on a park bench. That’s not a world I want to live in. I’m for individual freedom, but right now, with the condition our county and Pennsylvania are in, this is a bad idea, and I oppose it.”
“What the lieutenant governor is proposing we need to pay attention to.”
The state is reaping benefits from taxes on gambling. Legalizing marijuana likewise will help fund education. We have to be creative to pay for important things like education.
It’s an easy choice to stimulate the economy. We can begin to fix our criminal justice system by legalizing marijuana.
“Marijuana is not a gateway drug. Cigarettes are a gateway drug.”
Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level.
For medical marijuana, I supported implementation, but it has been “an absolute failure.”
“I can’t support recreational marijuana when we can’t get it right with medical marijuana.”
The Republican candidates’ opposition does not reflect public opinion. Following a crowded April 2019 public forum at the Kovalchick Center moderated by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, 70 percent of audience members indicated support for legalization of adult recreational marijuana, according to a Fetterman staff member who videotaped the show of hands and counted them for the record.
Such supermajorities are reflected in public opinion surveys that report broad and growing support for decriminalization or legalization – a “full Colorado.” The majorities are national and statewide.
Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, who represents Indiana County in Congress, has endorsed “safe banking” legislation to protect banks and the state’s legalized medical-marijuana industry.
Struzzi’s opposition to recreational weed is interesting in light of Chamber of Commerce support in 2017 for a proposed medical marijuana dispensary in Indiana County. Supporters of the project pitched it as a positive response to the opioid epidemic sweeping the region.
“Our support of Agrimed Industries is shared by community leaders throughout Indiana County, including law enforcement agencies, drug and alcohol prevention and care professionals and the Chamber of Commerce,” county commissioners wrote in their 2017 letter of support.
Struzzi was president of the Chamber at the time.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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