WILKES-BARRE – Issues, with a side of bacon and eggs.
The League of Women Voters of the Wilkes-Barre Area hosted eight state lawmakers Saturday morning for its annual Legislative Breakfast. State Sens. Lisa Baker, John Yudichak and John Blake and state Reps. Eddie Day Pashinski, Gerald Mullery, Phyllis Mundy, Mike Carroll and Tarah Toohil gave opinions on a host of statewide issues, including healthcare, reducing the size of the state government, the budget, tax reform and the minimum wage.
Yudichak, D-Nanticoke, said he supported Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act. He said it will help over a 500,000 state residents get quality healthcare.
Additionally, he said the impact to the state and local economy would be substantial. He noted healthcare industry is the largest employer in the region. He pointed to a new Geisinger facility in Nanticoke and Lehigh Valley Hospital merging with Hazleton General which could bring a $150 million investment in a new hospital in Greater Hazleton.
Mundy, D-Kingston, who is participating in her final such forum because she is retiring, called the healthcare expansion a “moral responsibility” for the state.
“These are the working poor,” Mundy said. “These are people who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but too rich to qualify for subsidies on the healthcare exchange. They’re caught in the middle and we need to cover them.”
Carroll, D-Avoca, co-sponsored a bill that would reduce the size of general assembly from 203 members to 153.
“I think we can do the job with less than 203,” Carroll said. But he added the change must be made to the state constitution and he’d like to see redistricting and campaign finance reform be added to the measure.
“We absolutely have to take a look at the redistricting process as well,” Carroll said. “Imagine a scenario where we have fewer members in the house and senate and the districts are drawn in such a way that you could have even more weird-shaped districts that defy logic.”
The lawmakers generally supported but had many reservations about House Bill 76, which eliminates property taxes and raises personal income tax from 3.07 to 4.34 percent and sales tax from 6 to 7 percent.
Pashinski took issue with the bill because it relied on sales.
“When sales are up, things are great,” Pashinski said. “But when things are down, where do you fill in that gap.”
He said he proposed an amendment to require a substantial fund balance over $800 million. “So when sales go down, you’ll have money to draw from.”
And he said multi-billion dollar corporations, such as Wal-Mart would end up paying nothing because property taxes for business would be eliminated as well.
Mullery, D-Newport Township, said he voted in favor of the measure, got a copy of the roll call and had copies laminated to keep at his Nanticoke and Harrisburg offices.
“I don’t go 48 hours without hearing from a constituent about property tax reform,” Mullery said. “So when they come in to see me, I show them how I voted. And I tell them I’ll keep voting for it.”
He said businesses should also reap the benefit of property tax reform.
Toohil, R-Butler Township, said something needs to be done.
“We have little old ladies whose husbands pass away and they’re losing the house that they’ve lived in for 50 years,” she said. “And you never own your own home because when your mortgage is paid off and you’re counting your pills and you can barely afford food at the end of your life, you’re also up to losing your home for not paying property taxes.”
As Gov. Tom Corbett readies his new budget, the panel was asked about ways to generate new revenue for the state.
Blake, D-Archbald, said the Medicaid expansion would bring $400 million to the state budget. Another $125 million could come from the modernization of the state liquor system. He said another $85 million could be realized if a pension/charter school loophole is fixed. Managed care at skilled nursing and long-term care facilities could raise several hundred million dollars.
“We can do better in terms of efficiency and savings and policy adjustments without any broad-based tax increase,” Blake said.
But the primary item each Democratic lawmaker brought to the table was a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drilling.
“Every other state that has a gas plate has a severance tax,” Blake said. “We don’t get a dollar for any for any volume of gas that’s extracted from our state. Not a dollar. All we get is a dollar for the number of holes that are drilled. And that’s not right.”
Carroll agreed, saying such a severance tax could help in the state’s pension crisis.
“The skyrocketing contribution the commonwealth and the school districts will have to make over the next 20 years is unsustainable,” Carroll said. “There’s no way that the school districts especially could meet that obligation.”
Panelists differed on a proposal to raise the state minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. Gov. Tom Corbett has opposed the measure, saying a such an increase could slow down the state’s economic recovery.
Blake said anyone who works full time in Pennsylvania should not live in poverty, but Baker, D-Lehman Township, took issue with the proposal.
“We’re bumping up the floor, but we’re not bumping up the entire scale of wages,” Baker said. “We have to be careful about how to pay for that gap between skilled workers and those who are lesser skilled.”
Baker said many small business are concerned, as well.
Toohil said she would like to see more information on how an increase would impact employers.
“If an employer, say McDonald’s, is going to have to raise the minimum wage for 40-50 employees, how is that then going to affect the business?,” Toohil said. “Are you going to have to start laying people off, are you going to have less employees because someone is going to have to bear that burden?”
Mundy said she is outraged as a taxpayer in Pennsylvania.
“I am literally subsidizing the corporate profits of McDonald’s because their employees are so poorly paid that they qualify for food stamps and Medicaid,” Mundy said. “There’s something wrong with that.”