In the past few weeks I interviewed PA House district 156 Democratic challenger Bret Binder and incumbent Republican representative Dan Truitt (in that order). I am grateful to both of them for their time and willingness to be interviewed in the interest of helping bring their concrete positions and views to the attention of voters; my own views are not relevant here. The questions were basically the same for both, with the needed changes for background, party identification, and priorities. I took notes and render the answers below to the best of my ability; no one else was present and no recordings were made. Both were given a chance to modify my write-ups to clarify and correct as needed, but not to add material that was not in the interview. Neither has seen the interview with the other as of the moment of posting. For the other interview in the 156th, see here.
Why are you running for the state House of Representatives?
I’m running because I know I can do a better job for the citizens of Pennsylvania in general and Chester County in particular. I want to help restore Pennsylvania’s commitment to adequately funding public education, preserving the environment, expanding open space, and improving the state economy.
Do you find running for office to be quite a sacrifice of time and energy?
Yes. But it is worth it. I appreciate being able to talk to people about the issues that they care most about, and which are also on my mind, starting with education. It’s a rewarding experience to be able to do good for Pennsylvanians.
Do you enjoy politics?
Yes. I enjoy meeting with experts in various fields, learning about their interests, having new experiences, planning to make a difference. I don’t like fundraising, though.
You and the incumbent both have backgrounds as small business owners; is that a good background for office and does it give you anything in common?
He ran as a small business owner, meaning as far as I can tell, himself. To my knowledge, he has no employees. I have a law firm employing 4 attorneys, I am part owner of a bowling alley, and I owned part of a gourmet pudding business. Small businesses like those drive the economy. As a lawyer, I advise small businesses every day, and my small business background helps me to do that job well. It also informs my view on how to help the state economy.
Your full-time job is as a lawyer; how would that profession influence you in office and are more lawyers needed in Harrisburg?
Pennsylvania’s legislature has one of the lowest percentages of attorneys–17%–in the country. Of course it shouldn’t be all attorneys; it is the “House of the People.” But lawyers in the House can help the legislature at large to understand the effects of legislation.
For example, the majority in Harrisburg included an unconstitutional provision stripping away municipalities’ right to manage their own zoning in Act 13, the 2012 law on natural gas fracking. The PA Commonwealth Court recently struck down that provision as unconstitutional.
The original 2012 redistricting plan, which I fought against, was also unconstitutional, as the state Supreme Court ruled. I am convinced that current proposals like those on educational vouchers for private schools are also unconstitutional.
I firmly believe in the Pennsylvania constitution. Legislators should not tinker with it. They should not be constantly testing the bounds of what the judiciary will let them get away with at a given point in time.
Your campaign motto is “Integrity, Innovation, Impact”—why?
The legislature needs advice in integrity. Their Cost of Living adjustment of 3% last December as well as adding about $7,000 a year in medical benefits to their own pay in the State House, for example, show a lack of integrity, especially at a time when other Pennsylvanians are suffering.
Innovation: I am known as a creative problem solver in legal circles. In particular I will look for creative solutions for the Marcellus Shale situation and for the future of education.
Impact: I’m not afraid to argue and initiate change. I’m told I’m a natural born attorney: I like a vigorous debate.
What do you think about the decisions being made in Harrisburg the last couple of years?
Many of those decisions are short-sighted and ill-conceived. The legislature has been selling out to special interests, such as the gas and oil industry. The opportunity to make excessive profits generates self-interest.
We need alternative energy. Solar energy incentives expired, but the gas and oil industries are still receiving state subsidies, including $1,600,000,000 for a “cracking” plant in the western part of the state, which my opponent voted for. I would have voted against that. It created some 7,000 jobs but at enormous cost, for a plant that was coming to PA anyway.
What are your 3 or 4 most important issues?
3) economy and job growth
4) civil rights and women’s rights, which are currently under attack
Why is education such an important issue for you?
Education is opportunity. Historically Americans have had a chance to raise themselves up through education. Current generations are losing that chance. Education is the future of PA and the US.
Funding has been cut for K-12 education, even though every $1 cut costs $7 to $17 later in social services, unemployment costs, crime, and lost business. I favor any quality education, but public education has been the great equalizer of opportunity in our society.
How do you and your opponent differ on education vouchers?
I oppose vouchers because they are unconstitutional and ill-conceived. The argument in favor of the voucher proposals is that students in failing school districts should have the option of attending schools in better school districts. I agree that vouchers could give some students a better education. However, under the present funding formula, removing students would also reduce funding and make struggling school districts worse. Such an outcome is unconscionable.
Under the state constitution, no public education funds should go to religious schools. To the extent that proposed voucher programs allow public subsidies to go to religious schools, they are unconstitutional.
In addition, the Pennsylvania business Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), given to businesses whose donations fund scholarships for lower-income families in a failing school district so that the family may send their child to a different school, reduces the revenue received by Harrisburg – approximately 90% of the contribution made by a business is returned to the business as a state tax credit. To the extent that EITC funds are used to go to private schools, this program is designed to do an end-run around the constitutional prohibition on direct state funding of parochial schools.
Moreover, the EITC program, under the proposed formulation, would be limited to only approved schools, and admission would depend on a lottery. This is contrary to the idea and principle of the Pennsylvania constitution, whatever courts may be induced to accept.
How do you and your opponent differ on charter schools?
He is pro-charter school. I understand that charters exist for a valid reason: to try out innovative ways of educating, in schools freed from some of the usual state mandates. However, that innovation isn’t happening as anticipated. Furthermore, charters are at the forefront of the movement to break public employee unions, and I am strongly in favor of public employee unions.
In addition, the funding formula is broken. Public money should not be flowing to investors. Charters have little transparency. Auditor General Jack Wagner reported that PA pays 30% more than the US average to charters per student, meaning that many charters are turning the excess over to management companies. And this is even more so for cyber charters, which have lower costs. Charter reimbursement should be based on the actual cost of education. There needs to be a $ cap to prevent abuse. AG Jack Wagner estimated that there could be $315 million in annual savings by fixing the formulas.
Half of charters perform worse than their traditional public school counterpart, 25% are better, and 25% are about equal. If charters get the students who are easier to teach, they will send the difficult ones back to regular public schools.
Why is environment, including Marcellus Shale issues, among your leading issues?
I live and work in Chester County. Environmental issues are very important to us. The state government has sold out the state’s environmental interests to special interest groups. Fracking shale has long-term detrimental effects but doesn’t create as many jobs as one would hope. Many workers are imported from other states. The state should have required training for Pennsylvanians to take those jobs.
Taxing gas extraction responsibly would provide big benefits to the state but would not cost jobs. There is $1,000,000,000,000 worth of gas in PA; it isn’t going away. The gas extraction tax or fee, currently around 2%, should be 6 or 7%.
Drilling companies say Pennsylvania has a relatively high business tax but most of them avoid paying it. One of their strategies is through the Delaware tax loophole: a Texas company can drill under a Pennsylvania entity but funnel the profits through a shell corporation in Delaware. Pennsylvania should be taxing any profits derived from Pennsylvania. It could then reduce its business tax rate for all businesses if all businesses actually paid it.
Governor Corbett has cut the state Department of Environmental Protection budget by 1/3 and reduced regulatory ability. The fracking bill unconstitutionally eroded local water protection and buffer zones.
The Governor also cut funding on open space, even though that resource enhances life in Chester County and elsewhere. The state wants to lease out state forests.
The company constructing gas pipelines wants to cross the Brandywine on the bottom of the streambed rather than digging to a proper depth. And where is the gas going? Largely to China, via Wilmington or Philadelphia.
The state doesn’t regulate all leaks or required reporting of leaks, and the fracking bill is full of exemptions. No one knows how much gas is already leaking.
Another leading issue for you is economy; could you please explain your views?
Here are some of my plans for the economy and job growth: We should expand the Keystone Opportunity Zones to create jobs. Those Zones have revitalized some areas. We need to push alternative energy development. Pennsylvania should allow rapid depreciation of assets to encourage business investment much as the federal government did as part of the stimulus.
The other day you spoke at a “Women Are Watching” rally—why is that issue important to you?
An attack on women is going on, against their right to choose and in another attempt to do an end run around the constitution and existing case law. Denying women prenatal health care is economically short-sighted. Studies show that $1 spent in pregnancy planning saves $4 later on. Planned Parenthood spends only about 4-5% of its budget on abortions; I can’t understand why the Republicans would use that to shut down all the services.
I support the Paycheck Fairness Act, a federal statute that would make it easier for women to sue on the ground of pay discrimination. Women earn 77% of men’s salary for the same job. The House of Representatives passed the measure but this summer Senate Republicans blocked it.
How do you feel about senate candidate Todd Akin’s remarks on the relation between abortion and rape, which have been in the news?
Akin should have resigned. What he said was abominable, lacking in sympathy and human decency. Akin is different from most legislators but part of a growing group. Can a rape victim be forced to give birth to a rapist’s child? I think not but my opponent seems to think so, since he has said that “punishing” that child would be a second wrong to avenge the first wrong. I believe it is wrong for a politician to legislate a woman’s ability to choose.
What do you think about the voter ID issue?
The law passed in Harrisburg this year is unconstitutional. I was extremely disappointed and surprised by the Commonwealth Court judge’s recent opinion upholding that law. The state is spending $11,000,000 or more on a problem that doesn’t exist. And Judges of Elections aren’t even getting clear guidance.
What are the most defining differences between you and your opponent and are there issues on which you agree?
Our biggest disagreements are on education, the environment, the need for voter IDs, and women’s rights.
We agree about reducing the size of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and opposing legislators’ per diem allowance, paid without any proof or receipts.
We do disagree about Cost of Living increases for legislators, which he accepted, and which I would not have accepted under the circumstances.
There is a lot of evidence that inequality has been growing in our society for the past 30 years; how important is that for you and can Harrisburg do anything about it?
Education can reduce inequality. The state should finance infrastructure projects. Harrisburg should invest in business, as when it brought in the pharmaceutical industry. The state should invest in renewable energy; but instead, it dropped solar subsidies. The “cracker plant” the Governor insisted on funding costs the taxpayers too much; there are better investments for the state.
Are you out canvassing a lot and do you enjoy it?
Yes and yes. I like talking to people about the issues that concern them.
How important should a party label be to voters?
Party labels are a good guideline to views but voters should look at individuals.
Are you getting much help from the state Democratic party?
The 156th seat was occupied by two women from 1977 to 2010; how does that reflect the district?
The 156th is a progressive district; it has switched between Republican and Democratic representatives; voters have shown they are willing not to vote along straight party lines.
The incumbent has said on his web site, “For too long, the insiders, politicians and bureaucrats in Harrisburg have forgotten that they work for us…. Too much of what is done in Harrisburg is done behind closed doors.” In 2010 he ran and is still running today as an “outsider.” Has he followed through on those ideas?
No, he has not. He has voted with Corbett on almost all major bills. Either he voted wrong or he voted as an insider. He has furthered fluffy sentiment but hasn’t broken from his party. I will vote for what I see to be in the best interest of the people.
His campaign web site has 4 issues sections:
Cut Government Spending to Reduce our Taxes
Create Jobs and Spark Economic Growth
Reduce Our Property Taxes
Reform Harrisburg to Save Us Money
Are those goals compatible with each other, has he implemented them, and do you share them?
He hasn’t followed them. He voted to reduce state education funding, forcing a rise in our property taxes. He accepted an increase in legislators’ benefits. He cut needed programs, and that will cost us later.
The Governor’s budget handled education budgeting using “Enron accounting”: moving around expenses to lump pensions and transportation in with actual educational expenses. The state’s total allocation for educating students has fallen for two years now.
Gov. Corbett currently has a low popularity in the state. To what extent are you running against him and what he stands for?
I am running flat out against Governor Corbett, because I disagree completely with his policies. Also, in the 156th, I can run against Corbett because my opponent votes in lockstep with him. He could repudiate the Governor if he wishes, but he hasn’t.
Are there issues where you differ with other Democrats today?
It depends which Democrats. For example, some Democrats want a moratorium on fracking. I agree with that in Bucks and Montgomery Counties (and in Chester County), but it’s not feasible overall in the state.
Will the presidential race affect your race?
Democratic turnout is generally higher in a presidential year. Therefore, I am anticipating that President Obama will bring out Democrats to vote.
Are there a couple of other questions we should have discussed?
Republicans had no primary in the 156th this year, but Democrats did. It was a good, friendly exchange, and helped my name recognition and heightened my awareness of what people think on the issues. My opponent in the primary, West Chester councilwoman Cassandra Jones, has endorsed me and is helping me.