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 reelection to the state House of Representatives?
For the same reason as in 2010: to get certain things done. Though I am satisfied with my first term’s accomplishments, one term is not enough. I didn’t run for the salary or title or as a stepping-stone to another position. I thought government lacked common sense; I wanted to introduce some ideas that are now working their way into Harrisburg.
Many things take a while; it takes 10 or 12 years to work up to being a committee chair. When I started, I put about 50 ideas on a spreadsheet; some were already in the hopper, such as the measure, introduced by Curt Schroder, that if no budget has passed by July 1, we start with 95% of the previous year until we do have a new budget. This would ensure that funds continue to flow to organizations that are dependent upon them – like senior centers.
I have introduced 15 bills, and others are being drafted, such as the PA Safe Schools Act to reduce bullying; a bill to limit the amount of non-taxable property in a municipality to something like 30 or 35%; and one to reduce paperwork by allowing businesses to pay employee taxes to the state quarterly, on a rotating schedule, rather than with every pay check cycle.
Do you find running for office to be quite a sacrifice of time and energy?
Yes, huge. It’s worth it if done right. It makes me better at the job. Talking with voters at their door or at an event is an opportunity to listen as well as let them know where I stand. What are people interested in? Job creation is first on their minds.
Do you enjoy politics?
That depends on your definition. I like the legislative side: how the House works is fascinating and I like meeting people. I hate the game aspect and don’t like partisanship.
I didn‘t get into politics to change social issues. I was fed up with government stealing kids’ money—that is, borrowing against the future–and wasting it.
You and your opponent both have backgrounds as small business owners; is that a good background for office and does it give you anything in common?
It’s a good background, especially now that the priority is job creation. I understand how business works. I’m not sure how much we share because I don’t know how much my opponent is involved with day-to-day business operations. I did accounting and payroll; did he? Coincidentally, I once considered buying a bowling alley too.
Your profession is as an engineer; how does that profession influence you in office and are there enough engineers in Harrisburg?
There are only 3 engineers in the House; we need more! In the party caucus, I make my cases based on hard numbers and logic; the lawyers argue from case histories, teachers from classroom experience, and contractors from their construction background. We need a balance of perspectives. The owner of a trucking business can say how a measure would affect him. On issues like education vouchers, we need to act from hard numbers, not surface arguments.
Your campaign motto is “Leading by Example”—why?
It’s a statement against hypocrisy in politics–for example, the legislators’ pension plan. Only 9 of us are not in it. In 2010 I didn’t count on opting out, but I did after the election. In November 2010, not yet in office, I witnessed a vote to kick the pension problem down the road for 2 more years—which extended the vesting period and imposed other restrictions for new legislators but not for those voting. They all seemed in it for themselves.
I am about to introduce a bill to ban per diems. I don’t take them; we need to be consistent. It costs me $32 to take the train to Harrisburg and back; should I get an extra $130 a day? No. There’s also another bill in not to end but to modify per diems.
What do you think about the decisions being made in Harrisburg the last couple of years?
Better than earlier, but there’s a long way to go to reach true representation of constituents. Under Gov. Ridge legislators started, and continued under Gov. Rendell, not putting state money into pension funds—that was bad. The 2011-12 budget could have added funds from surplus, but that would have done damage because of the subsequent revenue shortfall. We are budgeting more cautiously; the revenue for the first 2 months of this year is on target.
What are your 3 or 4 most important issues?
1. Create jobs and spark economic growth
2. Cut government spending to reduce our taxes
3. Reform Harrisburg to save us money
4. Reduce our property taxes
Why is creating jobs and sparking economic growth your leading issue?
We lack the resources to do all we would like, leading to painful debates. Education, the disabled, and environment would be good reasons for expenditures if we had unlimited money. Everyone says education is the top priority; but we can’t neglect other priorities. Creating jobs is basic because it increases revenue.
Why is cutting government spending to reduce taxes such an important issue for you?
Pennsylvania has the highest business taxes in the world, adding together US and PA corporate taxes. Only one state has a higher top rate but the PA has the highest flat rate. Fortunately, the state has resumed phasing out its capital stock and franchise tax (a type of additional property tax on business) after Gov, Rendell froze the phase-out.
In incentives to new businesses, PA has moved up… to 49th place. Marcellus Shale is helping keep unemployment below the national average. Our location helps too, between NYC and DC. I would like lower rates with a wider base, that is, more businesses actually paying.
The state should not waste money on stupid things like heating assistance to people who have died! We should also reduce spending on corrections. Why lock up non-violent offenders? They should be working if they don’t need to be separated from society.
Reforming Harrisburg to save taxpayers money is your 3rd most important issue; could you please explain your views?
We should lead by example. When other state departments are cut, the legislature should do the same. For example, I haven’t introduced any resolutions marking anniversaries and other occasions. Those cost the state about $1,000 each and can even lead to trouble.
For example, the House voted 2012 the Year of the Bible—which accomplished nothing. No one can vote against something like that, and it was bundled with other measures that no one could vote against. No good came out of it and it needlessly irritated atheists.
I am co-sponsoring House Bill 153 to reduce the size of the legislature. I also voted for turning the House into 400 part-time legislators. We need to change the mind set and represent the citizens, not special interests,
Your 4th most important issue is reducing property taxes; could you please explain?
Property taxes are the worst; they are regressive. You can earn nothing and still have to pay this tax or give up your property. Some seniors pay as much property tax every year as they paid for the property itself 40 years ago.
We should also break the link between a school district’s health and the property tax. A school district shouldn’t go down with property values. The state should provide 100% of public school costs; all kids should have equal opportunity.
What are the most defining differences between you and your opponent and are there issues on which you agree?
I’m not sure of his views. I’m not sure if he really operates a small business. We both value education, but I’m not sure of his strategy to make Pennsylvania treat it as a priority. I only heard his April WCHE interview.
He talks about environment. I have good credentials in environmental protection and have installed solar and geothermal at home. I am big on recycling. My engineering background gives me practical background on the environment. I believe what the Boy Scouts say: leave no trace–leave things the same or better.
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?
It’s an important issue; inequality creates divisiveness, unrest, and a lack of civility. We need to provide opportunities to succeed, especially for children, including an education that will enable them to compete in a global workforce. People need to be responsible for their own results.
It’s hard for us to compete with other countries that have low labor pay rates and that accept pollution; to compete, we need more productivity, derived from better education. Regulation is more a federal than a state matter. More regulation wouldn’t hurt Wall Street; they know the game better than anyone.
Schools should teach more subjects; economics should be mandatory, and time management, and personal finance. Credit card companies will descend on 18-year-olds, who need to understand long-term impacts and the need for good credit.
Are you out canvassing a lot and do you enjoy it?
It’s important; outreach is half of doing the job and I try to roll them together and give people the opportunity to tell me what they think. I enjoy actual canvassing except that it eats up time.
How important should a party label be to voters?
Voters should not consider it at all. I grew up with one Republican and one Democratic parent. No party is always right or wrong. Voters should pay attention to a candidate’s background and ideas; they should not be surprised at stances on issues like environment. I never vote the straight party option; I always go down the list one by one.
However, some voters need to refer to a party label. For example, my version of the non-partisan school board bill allows candidates to have their political affiliation printed on the general election ballot if they wish. Party label can also counteract the effects of ballot position.
Are you getting much help from the state Republican party?
Not at this point. I prefer to have the campaign in my control. My wife is my campaign manager and my father is my treasurer. I hope not to need help from Harrisburg, but the party decides what it does.
The 156th seat was occupied by two women from 1977 to 2010; how does that reflect the district?
The 156th desires representation by someone who understands the plight of the family: education, kids, health, opportunities. On such issues, I suspect that voters find it easier to take a woman seriously.
You have said on your 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 you ran and are still running today as an “outsider.” Have you followed through on those ideas?
Absolutely! I take the train both ways to Harrisburg every day; I don’t stay overnight and hang out with legislators and lobbyists. I’d rather be with my family. This could hurt on getting legislation passed; I don’t get sucked into the Harrisburg scene. Early on, I saw how the dinners went[This was Barb Smith’s position about the effect of the dinners on reform efforts. I learned that they were just lobbying events]. I’ve been to only 6 to 8 Harrisburg dinners in 2 years because I quickly learned that they were all funded and attended by lobbyists. Lobbyists can come to my office but not be my buddies.
People would be surprised at what goes on in Harrisburg. It’s not the individuals—they are decent people—but the process. Not all resist the conflicts of interests. Each House member represents 63,000 people. Legislators have their own beliefs, family, friends, party leaders; there are lobbies and the realities of legislation. But they need to listen to their constituents.
I hope my personal views are in line with the district and don’t require me to choose between them. The liquor store debate is a clear example. We need to listen to what the liquor store distributors think but we don’t have to do what they say, when 70% of the public wants privatization.
Your opponent’s web site has 4 issues sections:
Are those goals compatible with each other, and do you share them?
Education is key in preserving long-term economic health, though short-term, we need to create jobs faster. Education and economy are in line with each other.
The environment often conflicts with promoting jobs. The CFO at Herr’s in Nottingham wanted to get into a joint venture for a warehouse but planning and getting permits has been going on for 4 years. Balance is needed.
Voter rights are unrelated to the other issues. Yes, they need protecting. But questioning others’ motives is a mean-spirited and divisive way to go about it. Do we have a problem? If so, we should solve it. I agree with my opponent that we should not let abuse happen. We should block fraudulent votes.
Gov. Corbett currently has a low popularity in the state. To what extent are you running with him and what he stands for?
I’m not running with or against him. I am my own person and have my own ideas; I wasn’t part of the machine. I’ve voted many times against the Republican positions. I vote my conscience and district, and I haven’t drawn grief for it. I disagree with the Governor on some issues and agree on others. He should explain Republican views more effectively in public.
If it is claimed that I “vote 95% with the Governor,” or something to that effect, that’s including procedural votes. I was the only Republican to vote against a bill by Stan Saylor, and against another one to exempt aircraft parts and service from sales tax ; and was one of only about 8 Republicans to vote for one amendment to the voter ID bill. I evaluate measures on their merits; I decide which bills to cosponsor based on content. Some bills I don’t trust to stay the same. About 15% of the first 100 bills I cosponsored were put forward by Democrats.
Are there issues where you differ with other Republicans today?
Yes. I am, like the 156th district, further left on education and environment than most Republicans. Most people in the 156th are fiscally conservative and socially moderate. I have a libertarian streak. The Republican party includes a religious faction that cares most about social issues and a Tea Party faction (which, like libertarians, doesn’t care that much about social issues).
Will the presidential race affect your race?
Of course. I expect to beat Romney’s number in my district, but there are limits.
Are there a couple of other questions we should have discussed?
Community involvement. A state rep represents 63,000 people, who should ask: what is the connection between a candidate and the community? I am connected to Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, guest lectured at the charter school, and offered to do the same in the West Chester Area School District.