This is a series of six questions The York Dispatch asked the candidates for Pennsylvania Senate District 15 seats: John McNally (R) and Rob Teplitz (D). John McNally, 49, is a Harrisburg attorney. Rob Teplitz, 41, is the chief counsel and policy director for state Auditor General Jack Wagner. Write-in candidate and Democrat Alvin Q. Taylor is a former chaplain who runs a counseling business. He was a late entry into the race. Below are answers from the two men listed on ballot. They were asked to limit responses 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?
McNally: Property taxes have been an issue in the Commonwealth for centuries, but thanks to the leadership of people like Seth Grove we are now beginning to have a substantive conversation about how to fund our schools. The property tax cap was a strong first step in the reform process. For too long, school boards have been able to raise taxes without taking taxpayers, especially seniors living on a fixed income, into consideration. That has changed with the cap, and school districts will need to make their case directly to taxpayers for any increase.
One step that we should take is to allow school districts to opt out of the prevailing wage requirements for construction. This move alone would help districts save hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used to reduce property taxes.
Whatever the solution, it will need to be a bipartisan effort that both sides can agree to. Removing partisan politics from the equation is the only way to get a monumental change like this enacted, and I will work with Republicans and Democrats to get it done.
Teplitz: Property tax reform is still necessary for one very simple reason - families are still struggling. Unlike my opponent, I oppose increasing the personal income tax as a solution to high property taxes. That approach does not solve the fundamental problem. The fact is that the Corbett administration's draconian cuts to state funding for public education have directly led to property tax increases at the local level. As State Senator, I will fight to ensure that the Commonwealth fulfills its responsibility to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality public education.
I have spent most of my career promoting fiscal responsibility and exposing the waste, fraud, and abuse of public funds. I will use my experience to reduce the cost of government and direct the resulting savings to other areas in order to keep your taxes as low as possible. I will also continue to fight to ensure that Pennsylvania homeowners receive the property tax relief that you were promised when casino gambling was legalized in Pennsylvania.
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?
McNally: We cannot afford to cut public education. I believe that education is the foundation of everything we want to accomplish for the commonwealth and future generations, and therefore we must prioritize our spending to reflect this. That is why, I would advocate adding money back to the basic education subsidy.
As our State Senator, I will stand up to leadership in both parties to demand an increased investment in public education.
Too often we only talk about the amount of money that we plan to spend. The truth is we also must talk about the quality of the product. Our system needs structural reforms that give parents more options and also ensures that every child has access to a quality education.
I support common sense reforms like a teacher evaluation system recently passed by the general assembly as well as pending charter school reform that increases transparency and accountability.
Teplitz: I am outraged by the Corbett administration's approach to education and will vigorously oppose it as State Senator. Every public school should have the resources needed to provide an opportunity for the best possible education, and those resources must be viewed as what they are - investments in our collective future, not mere expenses to be tolerated. I will fight for targeted investments in proven reforms like early childhood education, smaller class sizes, tutoring, and before- and after-school programs. I will also pursue a program to provide college scholarships for Pennsylvania students who attend institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania.
The Corbett administration has also shredded the social safety net. This is not only a moral issue, although it reflects poorly on whether Pennsylvania is still a true "Common-wealth." It is also an important fiscal issue. It is in the state's long-term financial interest to help our fellow citizens who are in need get back on their feet, so that they can become productive members of society. Yet, again, the failure to invest in our own people is short-sighted and will increase the cost to the taxpayers in the areas such as public assistance and state prisons.
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?
McNally: Government doesn't create jobs; the private sector creates jobs. Too often, government stands in the way of job creation. Government should help lead the way to job creation by providing a welcoming and hospitable climate to economic development.
As our state senator, I will put to use my career-long experience in helping small business and working families succeed. One of the first things I will do is fight to put our fiscal house in order. Wasteful spending and excessive borrowing are a strain on our economy, and I will work to limit both. I will also support tax relief for small business so that they can invest in their workers and community, creating good jobs with healthcare benefits. Education is a foundational investment and a key to economic development and that is why I will fight to invest more in public education.
Pennsylvania businesses bear one of the heaviest tax burdens in the nation.
We provide incentives for companies to locate here, to create jobs here, simply by reducing this burden and making Pennsylvania more job friendly.
Teplitz: The state has an important role in supporting the creation and retention of high quality, family-sustaining jobs. But it has spent billions of dollars on so-called "economic development" programs, attempting to choose between job-creating winners and losers. This approach hasn't worked over the long term. I'll fight to redirect those funds towards the creation of a better job climate overall, with strategic investments in education and training, infrastructure, transportation, and tax relief. To the extent that direct state financial assistance continues, I will set a priority on developing and nurturing small, locally owned businesses. I'll also make sure that the recipients create and retain the jobs they promised - and pay back our money if they don't.
In addition, the new Marcellus Shale energy resources present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build an industry that will create thousands of good jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, while, at the same time, helping to address our state's multi-billion-dollar budget deficit. Unfortunately, the politicians are letting this opportunity slip away. I will make the out-of-state gas companies pay to address the effects of drilling on our environment and infrastructure, while maximizing the job creation possibilities that this new industry offers.
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?
McNally: The debate about this issue too often focuses on the wrong sorts of things. What we should be talking about are two central issues - is operating liquor stores a core function of government and are consumers being served best by this current structure. I believe the answer to both of those questions is no, and that is why I support the privatization of the liquor stores.
There are practical hurdles to getting the sale done - the chief amongst them being that until recently it didn't look like the votes were there to accomplish this goal. If that is the case, we should immediately look for ways to modernize the liquor stores so that they are more efficient and consumer friendly.
Teplitz: We must modernize, not privatize, the state liquor store system. I oppose privatization not for ideological reasons, but based on simple math. Selling the liquor store system would be a huge money-loser for the Commonwealth and result in higher costs to customers. No privatization proposal has ever been able to show how we would replace the hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue that the state depends on each year from the system. Instead of cutting off our nose to spite our face, let's solve the real problem with the current system. We must modernize it by expanding store hours, enhancing the inventory, and improving customer service. I want to emphasize that I am no defender of the status quo; I played a key role in exposing the technological and financial deficiencies of the Liquor Control Board's disastrous wine kiosk experiment. I just see no point in getting rid of one of the few areas of state government that makes money and helps keep taxes from going up.
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?
McNally: We need real leadership when it comes to the situation in Harrisburg City Government. The city of Harrisburg is the hub of our regional economy, and we need to have a strong city in order for our regional economy to thrive.
Too many leaders in the middle of this debate have the same old "solutions" to the city's problem - higher taxes. Whether it be higher property taxes or even taxes on those who commute to the city from the suburbs, all of them are ineffective ways to start the conversation.
Instead of immediately looking to make middle class families pay more of their hard earned money to bail out the failed leaders in the city, why don't we look at the types of things we can do to grow the city's economy and attract a vibrant tax base back into the city? All you have to do is take a walk through mid-town, where I used to live, or Olde Uptown to see what is possible in the city.
Teplitz: I have been following with much interest the current debate over whether to preserve Valley Green Golf Course as Newberry Township's only officially designated open space.
As State Senator, I will fight for state policies that promote and incentivize "smart growth" at the local level - in other words, finding an appropriate balance between open space and development. Both are crucial parts of creating vibrant, livable communities.
In addition, I will work hard to solve the City of Harrisburg's fiscal crisis. Harrisburg is both the core of this region and the center of state government. If the city goes down, it will drag this region and the entire Commonwealth down with it. So even if you live in York County, these are your problems too. I have presented detailed plans to unite all of the stakeholders - officials from city, county, and state government; the business and non-profit communities; and the city's bondholders - towards the common purpose of addressing the city's financial challenges. I would roll up my sleeves and do that as State Senator.
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?
McNally: We need to reform state government and put the taxpayers of this commonwealth first. Ever since the 2005 pay raise, voters have paid more and more attention to what is going on in Harrisburg, and that is positive. Now is the time to elect people from outside of government to carry out the mission of changing the culture in the Capitol.
A lot of candidates running for office talk about reforming the state - but it is clear that it will take a group of outsiders to actually get the job done for the people of Pennsylvania. Back in the Spring I released a plan for reforming state government. I will post online each month expenses, along with receipts, that I incur each month. I will fight to shrink the size of the legislature, reform our pension system to reflect the private sector, and reign in out of control government spending. Because I believe actions speak louder than words, I also released 5 years of my tax records to be as transparent as I can be as a candidate for office. I have challenged my opponents to do the same.
Teplitz: Government reform. I am the only candidate in this race who has fought for transparency, accountability, and reform in all areas of government. Unfortunately, my experience as taught me that how politics happens drives what policies happen. Fundamental reforms in state government are needed if we are ever to make progress on critical issues like creating good-paying jobs and strengthening our schools. That's why I released a comprehensive government reform plan covering the following categories: the structure and inner workings of the General Assembly; legislative perks and compensation; public involvement in lawmaking; voting and ballot access; and campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics reform. My plan also includes strengthening the role of independent government watchdogs, and changing state law to require annual independent audits of the multimillion-dollar legislative slush fund that led to the recent Bonusgate scandals. In order to ensure that these and other reforms are enacted into law, I will also pursue a state constitutional convention and directly involve the public in the process of designing their state government. Pennsylvania families and taxpayers deserve a government that is ready, willing, and able to serve their interests. We can - and must - deliver it.