Sunday, January 28, 2007

Legislators Forum with Curry, Shapiro, Taylor, and Washington

This past Thursday (Jan. 25th) I attended a Legislative Forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters (Abington/Cheltenham/Jenkintown) and the Eastern Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce at the Abington Township building. This was one of my favorite type of events – a number of candidates or officials attended, it was free, and it was just off a main drag so I could find it.

These are my rough notes. In some places I just have a list of things they discussed. As always, I apologize for any misinterpretations or errors.

Legislators attending from the Pennsylvania House and Senate:

Rep. Larry Curry (D-154)
Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-153)
Rep. Rick Taylor (D-151)
Sen. Leanna Washington (D-04)

The format involved each legislator answering four questions that had been distributed in advance. In some cases the questions provided background information or statistics. If I did not include this data there is an “abridged” note on the question. The audience could submit questions on provided 3x5 cards which would be vetted for duplication, sense, etc. Some personal observations are given at the end.

Q1:The current system for drawing legislative and congressional districts has been described as a system by which representatives select their voters rather than one in which voters select their representatives. For any changes to take effect in time for redistricting after the 2010 census, the process for making the required changes in the Pennsylvania constitution must being in the 2007-08 legislative session. Would you support amending the PA constitution to create a nonpartisan independent redistrict in commission to redraw district lines? How do you think such a commission should be selected? What criteria should it use to draw district lines?

JS: Thanks sponsors and others and the township for hosting. This is one of many reforms needed. It is an exciting and necessary process. Supports a nonpartisan committee. Should be selected from a large pool of retired judges, political science professors, etc., with members randomly selected from this pool. District lines. Should be compact and concise. Respect municipal boundaries, one person one vote, equal number of voters in districts.

LC: [shows a map of the 13th congressional district] We need a commission to do congressional districts. There is a commission for PA House and Senate districts. One man one vote, keep minority communities together, keep communities together, some political input is okay

RT: Thanks emccc and lwv. Congratulates JS on being named deputy speaker of the house. Nothing more important than one person one vote. His district is very diverse. Upper Dublin has four state representatives. Try to make the process as nonpartisan as possible.

LW: Thanks lwv. important that minority votes protected. Nonpartisan bureau. Don’t draw lines to protect incumbents.

Q2: [abridged] Do you think voter verifiable paper audit trails should be required for all voting systems in Pennsylvania? Would you support measures recommended by the governor’s bipartisan Election Reform Task Force to remove barriers to voting including “no excuse necessary” absentee voting and extension of the deadline for returning absentee ballots? Data on voter turnout show greater participation in states that allow Election Day registration. Would you support legislation to allow citizens to register and vote on Election Day?

LC: Paper trail. Signed onto Rep. Dan Frankel’s bill in last legislative session. Even a paper trail may not be sufficient. After Ohio presidential voting problems he is ready to go back to paper ballots only, but can’t get away from computers. Absentee – okay. Need a way to get emergency absentee ballots. At present you can’t get an absentee ballot after the Friday before the Tuesday election. Registration to vote on election day – could support but must use a provisional ballot to avoid voting in a number of places. Also something to be said for the responsibility of the electorate.

JS: yes, yes, and yes. Co-sponsor with Curry on legislation for a paper trail. Absentee – make it easier for people to vote. Yes on registration but more [missed this], more poll workers, something similar to a provisional ballot

RT: Agree with LC and JS. Encourage people to vote. Need a paper trail. In 2004 he was called out of the country on business at the last minute, could not vote.

LW: paper trail and have an independent agency. Thanks voters.

Q3: [abridged] Will you give health care reform a high priority in the new legislative session?

LW: Over a million Pennsylvanians don’t have health insurance. Asked senate to form a commission to study the problem. Waiting list to get into CHIP and Adult BASIC [state programs]. Need for universal care. LW has worked for this since being in the senate. None of the panel has seen the governor’s proposal

LC: went to governor’s briefing on new proposal. Mentions problem of hospital infections. Underutilization of facilities. Do advance planning.

JS: clearly #1 priority in upcoming session. Business costs going into health care not back into the business. [something about companies with fewer than 50 employees]. The governors proposal would cost $130 or $140 per month per employee. Make sure people live healthier. Smoking ban. The governor’s proposal will require 47 bills.

RT: Such an important issue. Health care costs killing businesses. Excited about the governor’s proposal. 47 bills, difficult to pull together. Currently costs $227 per person or $681 per family to cover the costs of the uninsured.

Q4: [abridged] Do you support a dedicated source of funding for public transit in Pennsylvania? How should it be funded?

RT: Absolutely. Dedicated funding is very important. Pennsylvania sees public transportation as important but never put money in it. Loss of federal funding and block grants, stop gap measures. Transportation Reform Commission report – must restructure performance and funding. Streamline funding. Instead of municipal funding have funding system. Look at sales tax and personal income tax as funding sources.

LW: Served on House Transportation Committee. Need to also look at bridges and high volume traveled roads. Dedicated funding for mass transit. Requested Senate Transportation committee to continue working in the issue

LC: 30 years ago as a commissioner worked on this. Don’t put a tax on cigarettes because if people stop smoking we lose revenue. Must sell public transit as important to areas that do not depend on it it.

JS: $760 million shortfall on mass transit funding for state. PA the only state with a major metropolitan transit system without dedicated funding. Must go to the state every year to ask for money. Doesn’t believe in raising taxes. Lease turnpike, invest the money in a low risk account, use revenue to fund mass transit, roads and bridge.

Questions from the audience

Q: lawsuit abuse, money going to lawyers not plantiffs, tort reform

JS: stem frivolous lawsuits but protect workers, etc. supported Fair Share Act – if 20% at fault, pay 20%, if 80% at fault, pay 80%. Also protect businesses and doctors.

LW: frivolous lawsuit issue important but also look at victims

LC: At the governor’s health care briefing the governor said take care of other things first, ease burden on doctors. LC introduced an amendment to have a commission [committee?] review cases before going to court. The PA Health Association didn’t like it.

Q: malpractice attorneys and HMOs making money but doctors leaving the state

LW: tough issues. We are paying attention but a tough issue

Q: municipal / local police able to use rader?

LC: experimental program. 7 community police departments will have radar for 2 years. Volunteered Cheltenham and hopes they are one of departments chosen for the experiment.

JS: supports. Hears a lot about speeding through neighborhoods. Got a grant ($10K?) to help police stop speeding. Traffic tickets not intended to raise revenue

RT: State roads use radar. Local roads don’t. Supports local use.

Q: reduce gun violence

LW: 2 pieces of legislation introduced last year. 1 gun / month / buyer (so married couples could buy two a month). People from other states come here to buy guns. Also 1 handgun / month for 1st class cities [this would be Philadelphia], but other cities can buy in. Controlling guns not the complete answer but part of it.

LC: member of Dwight Evans’ gun control caucus. NRA and others misreading the 2nd amendment

JS: mentions the Inquirer’s homicide counter. Kudos to LW for her work. 16, 18 year old kids, drop outs not taught right and wrong. Why do they think it is okay to shoot? Where did that thought process start? Must stop it. Abington police have DARE program in elementary schools. Youth aid panels, CAPT [Citizens and Police Together], PAL [Police Athletic League] help along with parents. Anger = guns = killing. Try to make sure they don’t have guns. Enforce gun laws. #1 responsibility legislature is to make sure the homeland and homes are safe.

Q: Because of state restrictions on increases of school budgets, some schools may be forced to cut things like art and music

JS: dollars and cents, pay teachers, schools funded, onerous federal mandates. When Gov. Rendell took office, the state paid an average of $0.30 per child, it is now $0.45, but in Abington the state only pays $0.12 per child. Most of Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware counties in a similar situation. He is working to make it more equitable. The rest of the money is coming from higher property taxes.

LC: Arts already being cut in some Philadelphia charter schools. PSSA – teaching to the test. Federal funding for special education is only 12% of what is needed. Growing cost.

Q: Statewide restaurant smoking ban

LW: supports PA being a smoke free state. People have a right to smoke in their own home.

LC: support

Q: Given the link between libraries and lifelong learning, do you support full funding for libraries?

JS: yes

LW: yes

RT: Libraries made a difference in his life, but still trying to learn the state budget
Q: lower greenhouse emissions

JS: legislation to catalog greenhouse gas emissions. Higher auto emission standards in PA. reduce mercury. Where gasses are coming from in PA.

RT: co-sponsored this legislation. Also improve at home. Walkable communities, public transit, biking, hiking

LC: co-sponsor of this bill, too. Both Gov. Rendell and Sec. McGinty worked on the mercury issue.

Q: legislative reforms

LW: Senate doesn’t have proxy [ghost] voting. New young leadership in the senate, GOP, but must work together

JS: co-chair of reform commission, LC also on commission. Do away with proxy voting. Let public see legislation before legislators vote on it. Empower rank and file legislators. Will offer new House rules in March.

RT: Ran on openness and transparency

LW: Discussion in Senate on reforms also

LC: David Steil wants to lesson control of Rules committee.

Q: lobbying and lobbyist budget disclosure

JS: passed into law in last session

Q: Democratic majority in house House but a Republican speaker

JS: [provides a history of how this happened. Blogger’s synopsis – D’s could not get enough votes on a D so Bill DeWeese, leading Democrat stepped aside and JS suggested Dennis O’Brien, a Republican representative from Philadelphia who did get elected]

LW: applauds JS for the job he did. A force to be watched

Closing statements

RT: Taking care of families. Affordable college. Property tax relief. Taking care of elderly parents. Environment.

LC: Early childhood education for kids with disabilities. Insurance for certain diseases. Transportation. Crime and violence

JS: Thanks everyone and LW for kind words. Able to come together, Republicans and Democrats, to accomplish things. Build bridges and bring people together. Tackle problems.

LW: Chair of Youth and Aging committee. Nurses, certified nursing assistants, nursing care facilities. Transportation. Wants to hear from voters.

Personal observations: I have seen all of these legislators speak at least one other time but this may have been the best performance that I have heard for all of them. Certainly Shapiro seemed very comfortable and statesmanlike. Of all four he seemed most knowledgeable on the issues. However, Shapiro saying he will be brief is like Rendell saying he will be on time; don’t count on it. The moderator prodded the timekeeper more than once to keep Shapiro within time limits. Fortunately Shapiro is informative and not simply long-winded. He provides good background and context for issues and situations. Taylor has only been in office for three weeks. He did not try to pretend experience he doesn’t have, but did speak up on issues and situations he had immediate knowledge of. Curry was referred to as the “dean” of the group. Washington is in her first full term in the senate. She won a special election to fill the remainder of Allyson Schwartz’s term when Schwartz was elected to the Congress. They all seemed genuinely pleased to be there and sincere in wanting to answer questions from the electorate.

Many thanks to the sponsoring organizations and the elected officials for having this type of event.

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