Thursday, April 22, 2010

119th forum recap

As promissed here is the report from Gort42 Special Correspondent Austin Smith Ford who attended the LWV forum with the 3 Democratic hopefuls for the 119th State Represenative seat being vacated by John Yudichak.

His report:

The League of Women Voters hosted a debate last night between the three Democratic candidates for State Representative from the 119th district. Gort knew I would be going and would have a lot to say so he asked me to prepare a guest post.

The candidates are Gary Zingaretti, Bob Morgan and Gerald Mullery. I had reached out to each of them as soon as I realized that John Yudichak would not be running for the seat again. Eventually I volunteered briefly for Justin Behrens before he dropped out of this race. I have friends who are supporting Morgan, my grandmother has a Zingaretti sign in her yard and at one point I thought I would vote for Mullery on a friend’s recommendation. So I was there without a horse in the race.

One thing that surprised me was that the candidates all took care to position themselves to the right. It was as if they were apologizing for having a “D” after their names, claiming it is mostly because their parents were doing it. I wonder if they realize that this district has one of the highest percentages of Democrats outside of Philadelphia. No matter who wins this seat, they leave themselves open to a challenge from a populist progressive. Especially if that challenger can expand the electorate by speaking to issues that traditional media isn’t covering.

Before the candidates got there I wrote a question about taxation. It stated that property and sales taxes are regressive and a burden to working class families so what, if anything, can be done about it?

Morgan was the only one to answer correctly, that we need a more progressive income tax even if it takes an amendment to our constitution. He added that we can eventually eliminate property tax.

Zingaretti believes that, to lower property tax, we must have economic development first. That we should expand the number of items that sales tax applies to and bring it lower than 6%. With the working poor loosing almost a third of their income on taxes, I believe economic development is dependent on reducing property tax.

Mullery wants to know where the gaming revenue is that was supposedly going to lower our property tax. Yeah where the hell is that money anyway? We gave those casinos low taxes and plenty of incentive to make a killing suckering us out of money and didn’t get our tax relief. I think we threw good money after bad.

Mullery also stated that progressive tax is unfair. That is real bad news for the poorer 98% of us. If our federal government agreed with him we would be paying much higher tax rates and getting much less from our government.

Often, it is mentioned that, our state’s constitution bars a progressive tax with its uniformity clause. But the federal government and other states that have graduated taxes have similar clauses. Uniformity requires that the law applies the same way regardless of geographic location among other things but if they wanted a flat tax to be part of our constitution why didn’t they say so? What we are left with is that the working class people are paying a higher percentage of their income into property tax and sales tax than our very rich.

But less about what they didn’t talk about and more about what they did.

The issue of the state pension crisis came up at several points and I think all of the candidates had real solutions to it. Mullery noted that we should start by not hiring one more person under the current system. Morgan went a step further in saying that we need to role back the pension for legislators but not for teachers or state employees. Zingaretti agreed and pointed out that taking the new pension plan away from teachers would result in an uphill legal battle so it is out of the question.

He feels that we need to move away from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. This sounds pretty smart to me. Instead of guaranteeing a pension we promise a certain amount that the state will contribute. Again this is all for people that we hire going forward and wont effect anyone already teaching or working for the state.

On library funding Morgan and Zingaretti both see it as part of our commitment to education whereas Mullery expressed his support for libraries but qualified it with something to the effect of, only when our state can afford it.

Public education is the best investment our state can make. A national study showed that we get back 17 dollars for every 1 we put into educating. That is only a ten year turn around too. A similar, more recent, one in New York State showed that their return is closer to 27 dollars. If these numbers hold up at all, we need to be pumping cash hand over fist into our schools not waiting till we can afford it.

On another topic Mullery supports term limits and serious campaign finance reform. He even supported a limit on how much money can be spent for a campaign. Hells yeah, this would help force candidates to get out and talk to people more about specific policies instead of raising more money for TV adds that make you look like a nice guy but don’t reveal any of your ideology.

Morgan mentioned that we need more controls on lobbyists. He said we have legislators getting paid to lobby the governor. I didn’t know that but I did know we have some of the weakest campaign finance reporting laws in the country.

When they were asked about the budget impasse they all had some ideas on the budget. I didn’t take notes on the impasse part because as ridiculous as the delay was it is still more important that the thing works, which for the most part, it doesn’t.

Mullery believes that we need to cut way more than the 1% of spending like we did with the most recent budget. He talked about the 20% of our budget that is reserved for discretionary like he couldn’t wait to find stuff to cut. The other 80% is the money they have a more specific plan for when they write the budget. He believes we need “sheer fiscal responsibility.” I don’t see how his brand of fiscal conservatism is responsible and I argue that it has led to this state to conserving more problems than cash in the past.

Zingaretti pointed out that much of the discretionary spending is used to keep our kids in school and that makes us money in the long run (DING!). He believes the state should ask its agencies to prepare budgets, not based on how much money they got last year, but a 10% cut.

On gas drilling it was Morgan’s turn to answer first and he feels it will be a boon to our economy but that we must do it right to protect the environment. He and Zingaretti agreed we need higher standards than we had with coal mining back in the day. Zingaretti again offered some operational specifics like properly staffing DEP agents at the well locations and charging those costs to gas companies who are making a profit.

It is a great idea to internalize the costs, but I wish there was someone on stage to rail against the privatizing of this effort. If we are going to rape our land in a risky move to pick up a few bucks can’t we put all of the profits into our state instead of a portion? We could still involve the free market but it would be subservient to our democracy instead of vise versa.

Mullery is opposed to a moratorium on drilling because we need the jobs so desperately. If I can light the water in my tub on fire, I’m moving. I don’t care how awesome my job is.

There was a question about infrastructure and some of the candidates talked about the proposal to toll I80. Mullery did not. He said we should maintain our current budget and infrastructure. Which is impossible, over 20% of our bridges are in substandard conditions and at the current rate we will still be over 20% in five years. PennDot did a study and said they need $400 million to ensure we don’t have a collapse.

Morgan wants 40% of the money from gas drilling in Marcellus Shale to go towards infrastructure in the communities affected by it. Zingaretti would not move forward with another proposal to tax I80 and would also use money from gas drilling. He believes we need to privatize our interstate highway system (facepalm).

All of the candidates noted that Pennsylvania’s small businesses are paying a tax of 9.9%. That is good for second highest in the nation. In post game questioning Morgan noted that 71% of companies doing business here are not paying that tax. Many of them achieve this by incorporating in Delaware where it is easy and cheap. I didn’t realize it was that bad.

There were some opening and closing arguments, wherein the candidates touted their experience and reputation. There are some differences in experience but I don’t think it would be a big factor in their overall performance as a legislator. They all seem like great members of their communities.

I was very pleased that we heard some distinctly different policies and some new viewpoints. There were a bunch of people covering it and if there papers hit their mark, the voters will probably know a bit more about these candidates then they usually do when there isn’t an incumbent. In that regard the evening was a win for everyone.

I am surprised to report I might vote for Morgan. I tore him up in his last effort to become controller for what I felt was a conflict of interest. Zingaretti and I had a great, although quick, conversation about local government reforms including the forthcoming home rule charter and we saw eye to eye on a lot of them. He is hesitant to fight for a more fair system income tax though and that is a big issue to me. Regardless I will tell my grandmother to keep the red sign in her yard and I will probably not endorse anyone to my friends. They will be shocked.

Another big issue for me is healthcare. Nobody mentioned tonight that there are a couple million people in this state without care. That the states are more empowered to deal with it even considering the restrictions in the recent federal bill. We will either fight like hell for a real solution or continue to see our care decline in quality and rise in costs.

I also had a chance to speak with Rick Arnold the lone Republican in this race. I asked him about how the Democratic candidates are talking up their conservative credentials and asked if he was impressed. He avoids the labels and says that in this district we are cut from the same cloth of traditional values and real character. “It is about the people not the party.”

About our income tax he feels replacing it with a progressive one would be unconstitutional. He wants to cut wasteful spending and create a better business environment. That we have a huge amount of red tape and fat to cut although he wouldn’t be casual about supporting the elimination of state employee jobs.

He seems like a pretty genuine guy who I happen to disagree with on everything he said. I wonder if he will give on of our conservadem candidates a run for their money.

The CV and TL covered the event

119th Democrats find middle ground

As three Democrats sought to separate themselves in the chase for the 119th Legislative District seat, a longtime finance man embraced business, another called himself a Blue Dog Democrat and a third declared himself "quasi-Republican" when considering economic development.

House hopefuls talk issues

Morgan, Mullery and Zingaretti are scheduled to debate again during the Meet The Candidates Night hosted by the South Valley Chamber of Commerce at 7 p.m. May 10 at the Luzerne County Community College’s Educational Conference Center.

I chatted with and exchanged emails with Jerry Mullery a few days ago. I said I was disapointed with him and he thought it had to do with his CV interview about a teachers union questionnaire that he refused to answer. That wasn't it. I was talking about the Taxpayer Protection Pledge promoted by Grover Norquist.

He emailed: So, I've received literally dozens of questionairres from just about every PAC, special interest group and lobbyist you could name and I've told them all to "go to hell I'm not for sale" and the one I sign causes you disappointment. That, in and of itself, is disappointing.

I suppose I could make like every other pol in the mix and continue to make promises I know we cant keep. I've chosen to be honest. I also know that the people I've spoken with when I've gone door-to-door are taxed out. That is why I signed the Pledge.

As I told the voice and as I'm telling you now, I will represent all the taxpayers if elected. What better way to show that then to sign a pledge protecting them.

On the phone I asked him if he knew anything about Norquist and his association with the Club for Growth. He admitted he didn't know anything about him but signed the pledge anyway.

Norquist is best known for this quote, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years," he says, "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." He's also a good friend of Jack Abramoff, even helping him with his work for some Indian tribes' that landed him in jail.

I asked him how he would close the budget gap next year if he would handcuff himself by ruling out tax increases. He railed about the the size of the legislature and the associated cost. I pointed out that cutting the legislature would not close the budget gap and would take years to implement anyway and asked him "what programs or agency's would you eliminate to close next years gap? He said he would get back to me. To be fair no politician I have ever talked to, Republican or Democrat, has ever answered that question.

He later sent me an email:

You asked how we close the deficit gap. I will go through each line of the proposed budget before Tuesday's debate, but I am certain it can be done. After the 101 day budget impasse and all the fighting, we cut spending a whopping 1%. 1%. I repeat ... 1%. We can do much, much better. And, we have to (the $2+ Billion in federal funding is gone next year and the "fiscal tsunami" is coming the year after).

Government waste must be stopped.

On gas drilling Mullery supports a moratorium on drilling in state parks and has a family connection to Moon Lake Park so he doesn't want the place destroyed.

Morgan claims he is only "Real Democrat" in the race

Bob Morgan only candidate defending Democratic principles

Bob Morgan, Democratic candidate for the 119th District State House Seat, left the House Candidate's Debate the only Democrat in the race. At the debate held Tuesday April 20 held at King's College, one opponent said he was “often accused of bring a Republican” and yet another declared himself “quasi-Republican.”

Morgan, Fairview Twp, was the only candidate who stood up for Democratic principles and repeatedly pledged to put the people of the 119th District ahead of partisan politics.

In the debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters, Morgan was the only candidate committed to dramatically altering the state’s tax system. Morgan said that he would work toward eliminating the use of property taxes as the major funding source for schools and local communities in Pennsylvania. He also expressed support for a Constitutional Convention to deal with fixing the Pennsylvania personal income tax to create a graduated income tax similar to the Federal system. Morgan said “For too long we have created a tax structure that penalizes part-time employees, students and working seniors while preserving a tax structure that benefits corporations. One of my opponents has proposed cutting the corporate tax, while I have advocated restructuring the income tax and property tax systems to benefit the great majority of our citizens.”

Morgan also addressed the upcoming pension funding crisis and placed the blame squarely on the State Legislature for the 2001 pay hike and 50% pension increase. “We must remember that the Legislature voted to increase their own pay and benefits at 2 a.m. in the hopes we wouldn’t notice. We now have to solve that crisis.

“It is time to remember we serve the people when we are in Harrisburg, not the powerful. For too long our citizens have felt their elected representatives do not work for them, to that end I have pledged to be a full-time representative, I will not have any outside business interests. ” said Morgan. The remaining candidates chose not to make this commitment.

In addition Morgan expressed strong support for increased education funding for our schools and libraries.


Austin said...

I guess Mullery only supports a moratorium on drilling in parks? Because he offered that he does not support a moratorium at the debate.

Jerry Mullery said...

Not quite acurate Austin. I said a five year moratorium was too long and our government must get to work establishing reasonable regulation in short order.

Not Bill Fitz said...

Great Job Austin, I am conservative and agree with you on the constitutionality of the "progressive tax"

You cannot have different tax rates for different people with different incomes, like someone who makes 20 grand pays 2% and someone makes 21 grand pays 4%, but you can tax the first 20 grand everyone makes at 2% the enxt 20 grand at 4% and so on.

I am with Bob

Anonymous said...

How can Mullery say that he is against special interests? He represents the insurance companies with his law firm.

He could take their money personally, and represents companies that want to dole out as little as possible to people...
but distance himself in a campaign?

And how could you call working teachers or laborers special interests?

Big Dan said...

The best talk radio show host bar none, Thom Hartmann, tells Grover Norquist to his face that he's a "shill for the rich":

Grover Norquist - We've been shills for the rich

Anyone can listen to Thom Hartmann instead of WILK FOX "news" Jr.

Big Dan said...

Norquist gained notoriety as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's right hand in the mid-1990s--helping to design the 1994 Contract With America and rallying the right's grassroots to go to the polls that year, a drive he chronicled in his book Rock the House. When Newt crashed and burned, Norquist survived to become an ally of Gingrich successors, including Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, and Dick Armey, the majority leader. And since late 1998 Norquist has been George W. Bush's unofficial liaison to so-called movement conservatives.

Grover Norquist: 'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan

Big Dan said...

That's Dick Armey...who is NOW astroturfing the Tea Party Express via "Freedom Works".

PoorRichard said...

Hey, just for the record, I want Bob Morgan to take a pizza to Harrisburg and show the farmer's what good chow is all about. Bob, I'll be in touch with you before you go to Harrisburg to be sworn in and maybe we can serve some super pizza under the dome. Bob gets free pizza.