Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series.
State Representative Matt Gabler, R-Elk/Clearfield, and Democratic state House candidate Frank Straub laid out their respective plans for the area during a Monday evening debate hosted by the Elk County Tea Party. The two men are vying for the state House seat in the 75th Legislative District currently occupied by Gabler. The candidates answered questions submitted by members of the Tea Party and the public at the event.
A moderator wanted to know how the candidates would stem population loss in the state due to lack of economic opportunity and the high cost of living, and bring the state back from what he called “the brink of bankruptcy.”
“Pennsylvania is doing a deplorable job,” Gabler said, adding that state spending has increased 40 percent over the past eight years. He said Pennsylvania ranks in the lowest 10 states as far as economic growth and has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the U.S.
“The entire problem is the inability of elected officials to be disciplined in spending and getting taxes in line to where they need to be,” Gabler said. “This is very disappointing. We need to do a better job with the money we have.”
Straub answered that the state needs more and better jobs.
“We need to invest in small businesses and have more state grants and loan guarantees available to them,” Straub said.
Throughout the debate, Straub reiterated the need to close what is called the “Delaware loophole.” He explained that more than 70 percent of corporations who conduct business within the state avoid paying state taxes by using a Delaware mailing address, therefore operating their business for free in Pa. As a result, other Pa. businesses end up paying the bill. Closing this loophole, Straub said, would lower corporate taxes and ease the burden on Pa. companies who are following the rules.
“There should be a tax credit for companies to hire Pennsylvania workers for the Marcellus Shale. It’s a common-sense thing. They would get a better quality of worker and people who know the area,” Straub said.
Gabler replied that rather than focus specifically on closing the Delaware loophole, the state needs to look at reform across the tax system.
Candidates were asked how they would plan to create jobs in Pennsylvania, and what type of jobs they would be.
Straub provided a list, including closing the Delaware loophole for businesses, offering perks or enticements to those willing to manufacture solar energy components, instituting a Marcellus Shale tax credit and increasing spending on education to “make sure our workers continue to be the best quality in the nation.”
“As I’ve been traveling the district and speaking with people, one theme has emerged and that is that our government does more to detract from the job environment than anything,” Gabler said. “It’s time to get government off our backs, work on streamlining the red tape, look at what other states are doing and make sure we welcome employers with open arms.”
Straub added that in some cases the government does need to step in and provide a level playing field. He cited the Cash 4 Clunkers program, in which the federal government provided financial rebates for trading in older cars poor gas mileage. He said this benefited the auto industry, which in turn benefited local powdered metal plants, because the program kept production up and prevented a significant decrease in business.
“Sometimes government has to stand up,” he added.
Gabler opined that when government intervenes too early, referencing the Cash 4 Clunkers program, then they end up making the wrong choice.
Freedom of religion
The next question pertained to how candidates propose to eliminate government prohibiting the free exercise of religion, particularly as it relates to Christianity.
“Separation between church and state does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. The First Amendment exists to protect our freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” Gabler said. “This is our country and we need to claim it back. The idea that we changed this idea is reprehensible and is a sad commentary of our country.”
Straub agreed, stating citizens should celebrate our country’s religious heritage, not sanitize it.
The candidates were asked what the single most important piece of legislation they would author and push for would be during their first six months in office.
“Dealing with Pa. jobs, specifically reforming the Delaware loophole, which would do a lot to create jobs by making sure businesses can be competitive in Pennsylvania,” Straub said.
Gabler said it’s important to control government spending and get people back to work, and cited reforming the welfare and tax systems as necessary changes.
In addition, Gabler said that “getting government off our backs” is also key. He used as an example his efforts as the prime author of a bill which would address the stormwater management ordinance, which he said is being pushed through the Legislature. The bill would require residents to submit an engineering study and stormwater mitigation plan to DEP for minor changes to their property, such as putting in a shed, driveway, etc.
“These are the kind of out-of-control regulations we have to go after that deter people and businesses,” Gabler said.
Straub emphasized that, “We need to make sure jobs are our number-one priority.”
Among the questions posed during the debate, one of the most popular topics was the Marcellus Shale. The candidates were asked how they would address the issue if the decision rested on their shoulders as to whether to pursue drilling, as well as any potential consequences.
Gabler emphasized that the state needs to both protect the environment and sustain local jobs at the same time, and that this decision must be made based on true facts and science, not hearsay and rumors.
He added that he endorses increased regulations, and recently signed a letter to the DEP on the issue. He noted that it’s important to point out that Straub has frequently said the DEP has only one inspector assigned to every 1,200 wells, but in actuality there are 167 DEP inspectors.
Straub replied that all wells, including legacy wells, need increased inspections.
“We need better regulations in place. The state’s current gas drilling laws were written years ago. We can’t let these old laws stand,” Straub said.
“It’s important to point out that we have been drilling wells in Pennsylvania for 151 years,” Gabler said. “We need to move forward with responsible regulations.”
According to Gabler, there have currently been 5,532 well permits applied for and 31,177 wells drilled since 2000, including both shallow and Marcellus wells.
Another topic of concern among area residents is unemployment. Candidates were asked how they would change the unemployment compensation situation, which encourages laid-off employees to seek extensions and avoid seeking employment, even when positions are available, or be forced to take what the questioner termed “artificial education,” meaning requirements to return to school for training when it is unnecessary for finding a new job.
“Growing up and knowing people in this area, I believe the people around here want to go back to work. That just doesn’t represent the character of our area,” Straub answered. “The system needs reformed. Job retention is a huge part.”
Straub added that education has to be a part of unemployment in order to train people for the jobs of tomorrow.
Gabler answered that when he toured a local plant in February 2009, the manager said he was having problems hiring employees, despite the high unemployment in the area.
“We need to address the cost of unemployment, get the burden off the employers,” he said.
A question was posed to the candidates regarding the new federal healthcare plan and its impact on private business, specifically what businesses will be the big winners and losers and why.
“When government takes things over, costs go up and quality goes down,” Gabler said. “Consumers are the losers because the government is trying to mandate (that) they purchase something. There are plenty of ways to fix this system.”
Straub answered that the big winner is the insurance industry, as voters are going to be forced to buy insurance. He noted that seniors will see the most impact and the healthcare bill needs a lot of work.
One of the questions submitted by an audience member asked the candidates’ opinion of the possible redistricting of the 75th Legislative District. Redistricting means changing geographical lines that comprise Pa. legislative districts in response to population changes. The process, which is controlled by legislative leaders in the four caucuses in the state House and Senate, occurs every 10 years.
Gabler said this is an issue which the district will face between now and 2012. He noted the concern is losing population in the area, which may result in the district being made bigger to compensate for the loss.
“I’m looking forward to serving the 75th either way,” Gabler said.
“Elk County has been a continuous unit and I will do everything in my power to see that Elk County never gets split up and will fight to make sure Elk County stays whole,” Straub said.