Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Interview with Dan Onorato

Dan Onorato is the Democratic candidate for governor. He is currently the Executive of Allegheny County, the second most populous area of the state. Note this from Wikipedia:

The city [Pittsburgh] has redeveloped abandoned industrial sites with new housing, shopping and offices, such as The Waterfront and the SouthSide Works. While Pittsburgh faced an economic crisis in the 1980s as the regional steel industry waned,[16] modern Pittsburgh is economically strong.[17] The housing market is relatively stable despite a national subprime mortgage crisis, and Pittsburgh added jobs in 2008 even as the national economy entered a significant jobs recession.[18]

Mr. Onorato was kind enough to answer some questions recently. Some of the questions are based on the policy statements on his website, others on more standard research. Where possible links are provided so interested readers can find more information.

This is an open race; there is no incumbent.

In your policy on government reform you call for an end to WAMs, those grants legislators bring home to their district for local projects. How are you defining a WAM – is it all grants from the Dept. of Community and Economic Development? All funds from another source? How is a WAM different from any other state funding for recreation, economic development, public / private partnership?

There are plenty of grants that go to good programs – like libraries, community centers and job-training programs. The problem with WAMs is the process. There’s no oversight, no transparency, and no accountability. The Legislature simply approves a pot of money, and a few people control, in secret, how it gets spent – that’s a WAM. We need full transparency. If money is being set aside for a specific group or project, it should receive an up-or-down vote after legislators and the public are able to review it.

On the Eastern side of the state we’ve only heard snippets of news about the North Shore Connector trolley tunnel, cost overages and construction delays. What’s the story on that?

I’m glad you asked, because it’s important to get the facts out there. The North Shore Connector is a project that was put in place long before I took office and was championed by the Republican who I defeated. Plans were started in 1999, and the federal government gave their approval to spend money on it in 2002. I wanted to use the federal funding for a different transportation project, but by the time I took office in January 2004, we had just two choices: either continue the North Shore Connector project or reject the federal funding and see that money – and the jobs it would bring – sent to another region of the country. And ending the project would have actually cost our taxpayers more money, since we would have had to pay back the federal government for everything it spent. I inherited this project, but I’m carrying it out in a way that protects the local taxpayers and makes sure that it helps with the economic revitalization of Pittsburgh’s North Shore.

In several of your policy statements you reference the economic impact of the arts and culture, but also the importance of public / private partnerships. As one example, do you consider the privatization of the National Aviary (formerly Pittsburgh Aviary) to have been successful?

Yes – when I was on Pittsburgh City Council in the 1990’s, we spun-off some of our region’s incredible assets like the Aviary in order to better enable them to raise private funds and market themselves to the world. I’m pleased with the success of the National Aviary and other cultural institutions – they help make the Pittsburgh region a great place to live and a destination spot for tourism.

The cap on electric rates ends at the end of this year. PECO recently said their expected price increase will be about 10%, which is less than expected. Will that change any of your views on energy? (“Peco electric rates to rise less than 10% under settlement,” by Andrew Maykuth, Inquirer 9/01/2010, also policy on sustainability)

As the rate caps have come off throughout the state, many consumers and businesses have faced sharply higher rates – which is a real burden in these tough times. By the time the next Governor takes office, the rate caps will be off everywhere. I want to focus on how we can keep our energy supply affordable and reliable, and at the same time expand our use of alternative and renewable energy. Solar power, wind power and natural gas can play a big role in Pennsylvania’s future along with our traditional energy sources.

If you could create the perfect scenario for state government interaction (such as taxation and regulation) with the Marcellus shale industry, what would it look like?

The Marcellus shale can be a powerful economic engine for the Commonwealth – creating hundreds of thousands of jobs, providing affordable clean energy and spurring new business creation. But it must be done right or we will lose out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Getting it right means two things: We need to make sure Pennsylvanians get the jobs that the industry creates. And we need to protect our communities and the environment.

That’s the difference between me and Tom Corbett. I know that we can – and must – do both, because that is exactly how I’ve run Pennsylvania’s second-largest county. But Tom Corbett sees only one side of the issue: the industry’s side. Tom Corbett thinks these drillers should be allowed to police themselves; I don’t. Tom Corbett thinks the taxpayers should foot the bill to clean up and protect the environment; I think the drillers should pay for it.

That is why I support a competitive severance tax, which I would prioritize for three purposes:
• to create an Impact Fund that provides resources to the local communities that are impacted by Marcellus shale extraction, including to address the wear-and-tear on local infrastructure;
• to reverse the cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection’s operations and to ensure that the agency has adequate resources to effectively and efficiently regulate Marcellus shale development; and
• to fund Growing Greener 3 – an extension of the state’s essential environmental conservation and preservation programs.

You call for an independent commission to redraw legislative districts after the 2010 census. What factors do you think should be taken into account when redistricting and how would you form that commission?

I support a Constitutional amendment that establishes an independent commission for redistricting in order to get politics out of the process. District boundaries should be compact and contiguous – instead of the gerrymandered seats that too often simply protect incumbents from competition. There are several good idea for how to form the commission and I will work with longtime supporters of the idea on how to structure it. For me, the most important factors are that the members have complete independence and represent a diverse set of backgrounds and viewpoints.

You are quoted as saying you’d like to cut the cost of the state house by 20%. How would like to see those cuts made and would you want to see the state senate make similar cuts?

I’ve called for cutting the size and the cost of the Legislature to achieve a 20% reduction in their operating costs. That target applies to the House and the Senate combined. There are many ways to achieve that goal and I’m open to any of them. What’s most important is that we end our status as the most expensive Legislature in the country and restore the confidence of our citizens.

You eliminated 500 county jobs in 2004, most through a buyout or attrition but some through layoffs, and another 200 jobs in 2007, again primarily through buyouts or attrition but some layoffs (“County to cut 79 workers by Jan. 1,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 7, 2007). Do you plan to take similar action with state workers if you are elected governor?

When I took office as Allegheny County Executive, we were facing a deficit and had to make county government live within its means. I made the tough decisions necessary to balance the budget without raising taxes, which included consolidating services and reducing our payroll. As Governor, I will make state government more efficient and consider all the opportunities for saving money so we can balance the budget. As I’ve often said, we should start by eliminating the Legislature’s $200 million surplus and putting that money back in the budget.

In your first campaign for city council in Pittsburgh in 1990 you talked about reviewing taxes that discourage development. In this campaign you have also talked about business taxes. Being an accountant and having studied this issue for about 20 years, what do you think is the optimal structure for corporate taxes?

The biggest challenge we face on business taxes is that Pennsylvania’s Corporate Net Income Tax is the second-highest in the nation. That is a red flag that prevents companies from deciding to invest in Pennsylvania and hire our workers. I’ve proposed a business tax reform plan that would reduce that rate, make other reforms to modernize the tax structure, and pay for these changes by closing business tax loopholes.

Your first executive order as County Executive was to direct all departments to make diversity a priority. (Source: “Onorato exec order makes diversity priority,” by Sonya M. Toler New Pittsburgh Courier. May 09, 2004) You’ve also included creating an inclusive environment in the workplace (economic development policy) and expanding the political pipeline by appointing more women and minorities to boards and commission (government reform policy). Do you see this as more of an economic issue or a social issue?

It’s both an economic issue and simply the right way to govern. I’m proud to run the most diverse administration in Allegheny County history. When all of our citizens have their voices heard by government, we can be most effective in meeting the needs of our constituents and ensuring that government is truly serving their interests. In the business world, we know that most new hires come from small businesses, and women- and minority-owned firms make up the fastest-growing segment of small business owners. When those firms succeed, it means more jobs and more economic opportunity for all Pennsylvanians.

How do you balance the need for funding public mass transit in urban areas, the cost of new technologies like high speed rail, and the need to repair aging infrastructure, especially bridges?

We need to look at the big picture and have a comprehensive approach to infrastructure that addresses all of those issues. That is what I’ve supported as Allegheny County Executive, and as Governor I will work to make sure we’re using all of our existing transportation funds efficiently, pursue public-private partnerships and consider dedicated funding – including trying to increase federal resources for Pennsylvania transportation projects.

The governor can’t rule by fiat, how would you persuade the state house and senate to go along with your ideas?

I’m the only candidate who has experience running a government and working with a legislative body to accomplish my goals. I’ve gotten six balanced budgets passed through County Council without ever raising property taxes, and I was successful in winning approval of my reform plan to consolidate 10 elected row offices into four. I’m calling for a lot of tough changes, and I will use the bully pulpit to help win approval of my plans. Most importantly, I have the voters on my side and I know that together we can convince the Legislature.

There are several very detailed policy statements on your website. How did the campaign develop those? Did you sketch out your views and have someone else write the full policy?

I’ve been dealing with a lot of these issues for a long time through my experience in city and county government and as a certified public accountant and lawyer, all of which have helped me develop my priorities and views. As a candidate, I’ve also had the benefit of traveling the state and meeting great people from various backgrounds and professions who have provided input into my policy statements.

As a husband and father, how do you balance the demands of public life with the demands of family?

What I enjoy most is spending time with my family. If I’m not working, you’re likely to find me at one of my children’s sports events or with my extended family. We’re a very close family, and while I truly enjoy campaigning, the hardest part is that I’m away from home more frequently. We’re able to stay in constant touch thanks to all the technology at our fingertips.

My thanks to Mr. Onorato for taking the time to answer these questions.

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