This is a series of six questions The York Dispatch asked candidates for Pennsylvania Senate District 13 seats: incumbent Lloyd Smucker (R) and Tom O'Brien (D). The first-term incumbent, Smucker lives in West Lampeter Township. Before taking office in 2009, the 48-year-old owned a commercial construction firm. Tom O'Brien is a 58-year-old Manheim Township resident who works as a buyer for the Rite-Aid Corp. 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?
Smucker: Next to jobs, this is the biggest concern for many area residents. The current situation, with heavy reliance on school property taxes, is pretty much indefensible and probably unsustainable. State legislators must take further action to respond to the widespread public unhappiness with rising property taxes. Where property taxes are too high, or too inequitable due to flawed assessments, the existing cap does not provide enough relief. The chief obstacle to solution remains a disagreement over whether to substantially reduce property taxes or to eliminate them. While the reasons to eliminate property taxes are compelling ones, no plan offered so far contains replacement taxes that meet the two key tests: being politically acceptable and generating sufficient revenue. Elimination of property taxes also requires a constitutional change to prevent a windfall for commercial real estate. That process, which takes several years to complete, can really only begin once a plan is agreed to. The hearings being held and the financial analyses being conducted on the various property tax proposals will hopefully yield a reasonable and responsible approach that could be voted on next year.
O'Brien: Property tax reform is essential if the Commonwealth is to maintain a quality educational system from Pre-K through collegiate and continuing adult education.
Capping a school district's taxing authority has not worked. Decreasing state funding to local school districts has forced an increase in property taxes and reductions in staff and programs. HB 1776/SB 1400, the Property Tax Independence Act, would replace school property taxes with a combination of tax shifts:
-- Increase of sales tax by 1 percent
-- Expansion of the sales tax base
-- Increase of the state's personal income tax to 4 percent
-- Redirection of gambling revenue no longer needed for property tax relief
I am concerned that the proposed tax shifting will not be able to produce adequate revenue for school districts based on the 2009-10 budget. We need to examine the economic impact of increasing the sales tax by 1%, and we need to review a possible income tax hike as well. We definitely must establish a rainy-day fund to make up for lost revenue during recession if we are to use this approach.
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?
Smucker: In shaping the last two state budgets, the priority has been on dealing with substantial deficits through controlling spending, rather than increasing taxes. This is necessary for three reasons: satisfying taxpayer demands; improving the climate for creating, retaining, and attracting jobs; and preparing for future spending obligations by avoiding the risks and disruptions of annual budget crises. Significant state cost-cutting has concededly created difficulty for the schools, counties, and municipalities as they have had to adjust their budgets. The first thing legislators must do is to act on substantial mandate relief, to allow local officials and school leaders the flexibility to explore cost efficiencies, as the state is doing. With all the ways that the changes in the economy have negatively affected families and communities, we simply cannot afford to return to the old days of sizable, automatic spending increases.
Should additional revenues become available, there are places in education and human services where cuts have been detrimental to effective programs, and some restorations should occur in these areas.
O'Brien: I do not support cuts to education and public assistance in this year's budget. Budget cuts over the last two years appear to have created a mini-recession in our state. Decreased funding for public schools and higher education has increased unemployment and decreased revenue. We need to provide education that allows our students to compete in the global economy.
I would restore funding to public education and higher education and those public assistance programs that are much needed.
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?
Smucker: For a decade or more, state government has been doing too much on the job attraction side and not enough to shore up existing jobs. There is a strong case to be made for improving the state tax and regulatory climate to encourage job creation and job retention, instead of relying so heavily on state financial incentives and assistance. State policy is out of whack when existing employers must deal with high taxes and costly regulations at the same time we are subsidizing the location of competitors from outside the state. There clearly is a positive state role to be played in reclaiming historic properties, and in helping to retain manufacturing jobs, such as the case several years ago with the Harley plant. On the retail side, helping to establish grocery stores in underserved urban neighborhoods makes sense; subsidizing yet another suburban megamall does not. There is strong interest in looking at the added costs of mandates such as prevailing wage, where the benefits to taxpayers are questionable. A revitalized transportation improvement program would be a sure economic booster.
O'Brien: I do not support large corporate welfare such as the huge $1.7 billion give-away for the Shell cracker plant in Western PA that will only produce an estimated 400 permanent jobs. Historically, small and mid-sized businesses drive employment. Taxing policy for business should reward job creators who provide a living wage and benefits for their employees. We must support business entrepreneurs who are entering the market and those who want to expand their businesses.
To break the cycle of unemployment and decreasing revenues, state government must take the lead in creating jobs. Repairing our aging and at-risk infrastructure is the key. A $1 billion bond issue aimed at fixing our roads and bridges and replacing our deteriorating water and sewage systems should produce 25,000 to 30,000 new jobs within two years. Money will never be cheaper than it is today. The need for infrastructure improvements is imminent, and increased employment will produce increased revenue.
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?
Smucker: An essential aspect of spending control is looking at areas where state government is involved that should properly be done by the private sector, or where the state is unfairly and unwisely competing with private businesses. Certainly such a review should include the state liquor monopoly. The system Pennsylvania has is clearly out of step with the rest of the nation. There is ongoing debate over which functions to free up and which to maintain as state responsibilities. As the history of failed plans demonstrates, it is difficult to satisfactorily address public concerns about underage access to alcohol, adequate enforcement to cover additional outlets, and generation of sufficient replacement revenues without driving up consumer costs.
O'Brien: I do not support privatization of the state liquor stores. Pennsylvania's state liquor stores provide good jobs and state revenue. I am concerned about making liquor available in a less controlled environment.
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?
Smucker: Continuing to push for pieces of an urban recovery agenda that will assist Lancaster, York, and other hard-pressed communities. Cities face rising costs and demands for services, from public safety to infrastructure replacement. The standard remedies - more federal and state funding, municipal consolidation - are not economically or politically acceptable. Mandate relief can help with the spending side, but residential and commercial development must be encouraged to help with the revenue side. The process began with approval of a state historic tax credit earlier this year.
O'Brien: The state should expand funding for community and economic development projects with the goals of aiding local economies and creating family sustaining jobs. We must concentrate on redevelopment of our cities, boroughs, and townships and preserve as much of our farmland as possible. Community development projects can create jobs in a specific area. But besides creating a boom to a local economy in the short-term, these projects can have a lasting effect by improving infrastructure and, therefore, business climate. Residential areas benefit from added security and livability. Community development projects increase business opportunity and residential property values.
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?
Smucker: Encourage greater innovation in education, which will come about through wider cooperation rather than another round of underfunded mandates. I strongly support locally generated initiatives such as the open campus plan being implemented by three Lancaster County school districts. Sharing of technology and services opens up opportunities for students and saves money for schools. Areas of endeavor for policy fixes must be across-the-board: special-education services and funding; charter school approval, accountability, and funding; and teacher preparation and evaluation. There needs to be a better balance struck between measuring student performance and providing a well-rounded education. We must concentrate on finding ways to better accomplish this most important of our responsibilities.
O'Brien: Marcellus Shale: The first priority of our energy policy in Pennsylvania should be renewable-energy development.
The Legislature must pass stringent environmental and health and human safety regulations. And it must fund the Department of Environmental Protection adequately so that regulations can be rigorously enforced.
An adequate extraction tax, site licensing fee and bonding fee are essential. A portion of any extraction tax should be devoted solely to renewable-energy projects.
Delaware Tax Loophole: This loophole costs the taxpayers of Pennsylvania hundreds of millions of dollars each year. This money could be used for infrastructure, education, health care, protecting our environment, and helping working families.
However, a sizable portion of tax revenue recovered by closing the loophole should be devoted to the development of small businesses, which are the job creators.
Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. But if you own a small business, you pay a much, much higher percentage of your business income than big corporate enterprises do. The entire business tax policy in the Commonwealth must be revised to bring tax equity between larger and smaller businesses and to assure that Pennsylvania's businesses are competitive.