This is a series of six questions The York Dispatch asked the candidates for Pennsylvania House District 47 seats: incumbent Keith Gillespie (R) and Sarah Speed (D). Gillespie, 60, of Hellam Township, is seeking his sixth term. Speed, 29, is the state director of the Humane Society of the United States and is a licensed attorney. Below are their answers, which we asked them to limit to 200 words.
1. Several bills in the state Legislature propose methods of property tax reform, with some calling for a shift from property taxes to earned or personal income tax. Is property tax reform necessary given restrictions that have already capped tax increases from school districts? Which, if any, of the proposed bills do you support and why?
Gillespie: Though the enactment of caps has helped a little, until the out of balance and inequitable funding formula is rectified reform is absolutely necessary. I have co-sponsored and voted on several bills including HB 1776 to address this issue as well as preparing legislation of my own to eliminate homestead and farmstead property taxes that will be introduced soon. I believe that a shift to a blend of consumption and income tax are in many ways fairer then taxing one's shelter with the potential risk of losing that shelter from an inability to pay property taxes. I have joined in the lawsuit to correct this tremendously unfair disparity with the funding formula as this will give us another avenue and opportunity to get the share of education dollars from the Commonwealth back to our districts in York County that we not only deserve but are entitled to. This was frozen in 1991 and has resulted in funding going to other parts of the state where in many cases they have far less students now then what they had in 1991 yet continue to get the same amount or more funding then our local schools that have grown significantly.
Speed: The present bills attempt to lower property taxes but all have fatal flaws. They do not address the root cause of high property taxes, which is spiraling costs - especially for school districts. Gov. Corbett has stated his fervent opposition to any legislation that will raise any taxes at any level, therefore proposals which seek to replace property taxes with an increase in statewide sales tax are mere political posturing. Creating a county option will place businesses, especially small businesses, at a disadvantage if they happen to be in a county that enacts a sales tax while neighboring counties do not. (I find it interesting that the same legislators who decry Pennsylvania as being uncompetitive because of tax rates higher than neighboring states would want to create the same issue for counties!) Shifting from property tax to wage and consumer tax bases creates an uncertain funding base for municipalities and school districts that will make it more difficult for them to access cash flow loans or favorable bond ratings during an economic downturn. We need to address cost containment, efficiency, and improved "circuit breakers" such as the property tax rebate program as the most meaningful way to hold down property taxes.
2. State budget cuts to education and social services have drawn the ire of school boards and county commissioners. Do you support cuts made as part of the 2012-13 budget? Why or why not? If there's an opportunity to restore some of that funding in the next budget, what should be the top priorities and why?
Gillespie: This past budget restored and allocated the most funding to basic education ever. The ending of the one time, two cycle Federal stimulus program to schools was just that - an ending - not a cut. Additionally, colleges were restored significantly from the first budget proposal.
Regarding social programs - initial projection was for a 20 percent reduction of which I did not support. Through a cooperative effort with my colleagues, we were successful in getting that restored by 50 percent. Not unlike the situation we face with our local school funding formula and getting our equitable share, the same disparity applies to some of the social services particularly mental health. Reductions in other parts of the Commonwealth do not have the same impact that they have locally due to the formula. Because of the stance we took we were able to get a great part of this restored plus the assurance from the administration that a consideration for a remedy would be part of next year's appropriations. I believe that the fix is in the funding formula and I will continue to fight vigorously for that and hold them to their promise of looking for a remedy.
Speed: One of the most important fundamental aspects of a sound economy is education. Cost containment is important, but arbitrary cuts to proven initiatives, like Accountability Block Grants and Pre-K Counts, which are targeted toward early childhood programs and full-day kindergarten, make no sense. It should be a priority to immerse children in learning as soon as possible and restoring full funding to early education is one of my priorities. Trimming redundant school administration and controlling health-care costs could create savings without affecting the success of future generations.
Likewise, much of our social service safety net is already very cost effective. Anyone who has any experience with our social services community would never conclude, as our governor and my opponent did, that this is a system that needs less money. The Aging Options program and the Human Services Development Fund were designed to keep vulnerable seniors out of nursing homes and mentally disabled adults out of prison by treating addiction and chronic homelessness before they create other costly social ills. It is the right thing to do and the most cost effective way of doing it.
3. What role should the state have in job creation? Do you support large tax breaks to draw companies to your district or the state? What other methods should the state use to improve its economic climate?
Speed: There is no body of evidence that providing large tax breaks to large corporations to attract them into any state results in long term economic stability. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that the corporations that took advantage of the tax-free zones created by the legislature some years ago are beginning to move on, looking for the next big tax break, as the tax-free zone limits begin to expire. Long-term economic stability is the result of an educated workforce, a modern transportation infrastructure and targeted investment in new technology. All of these areas have suffered under the current administration and its singular focus on helping multi-national gas and oil companies make more profit. York County workers and businesses are seeing no boom from the tax giveaway to Shell, Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy; it's our water supply, however, that will see the result of the "streamlined" process of accountability and oversight.
4. Do you support the privatization of the state liquor stores? Why or why not? Are there other changes that should be made to liquor laws in Pennsylvania?
Speed: The Pennsylvania State Store system serves several key functions for the Commonwealth. Most importantly, during this difficult economic time it provides 5,000 family-sustaining jobs and nearly $500 million to the state general fund. The state store system collects and remits 100% of the taxes due to Pennsylvania. No private system can make that claim.
Secondly, the state store system provides selection and location that is unmatched in privatized systems. Because it is one system, the profitable urban stores can help to underwrite the cost of operating a smaller store in a more rural area and still maintain selection. A private system will cost thousands of jobs, add immeasurable costs in enforcement, and turn the retail liquor system into something similar to our bars and restaurants, where some neighborhoods enjoy the variety that comes with competition and others are forced to deal with increased crime, vandalism, and public nuisances.
5. Can you pinpoint a specific area, project or need - specific to your district - that you would like to address if you win the election in November?
Speed: As an emergency responder, I have witnessed the need to modernize and synchronize our fire, police, and other emergency responder communications system. Every failure in that system is not simply a waste of money and resources; it places life and property at risk. There is no more important issue for my district as well as all of York county and Pennsylvania than public safety. Emergency responders working at the site of the World Trade Center disaster on 9/11 were hampered by communications equipment that was not integrated. They pleaded through television for donations of compatible integrated equipment. Working with PEMA and other state resources to improve emergency responder communications for the many paid and volunteer responders in the 47th District and all of Pennsylvania will be a priority for me.
6. What issue - other than the ones addressed in previous questions - would you like to tackle if elected? What would you like to accomplish in regard to that issue and why do you consider it so important?
Speed: It's not a matter of what I would like to do. It's a matter of what must be done. The current General Assembly has avoided problems that have now emerged as crises.
We have more structurally deficient bridges and crumbling roads than any other state, Pennsylvania's bond rating has been downgraded because of our failure to address problems created when the legislature passed its own disastrous pension increase, and we have taken a dramatic drop in national ranking for job creation in the past two years.
During that time, the General Assembly has focused on interfering with women's health care, fixing voting problems that don't exist, and "streamlining" environmental enforcement so giant oil corporations find a friendly atmosphere. My and Pennsylvania's biggest challenge is to change the focus and fortitude of the General Assembly to force it to deal with real problems and real people.