Pileggi/Howard forum: sparks fly over debt, reform

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League of Women Voters event at Crosslands shows stark difference in state Senate primary battle

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

Roger Howard (left) and state Sen. Dominic Pileggi traded barbs — and showed vastly differing visions for Pennsylvania during a League of Women Voters forum Thursday night.

PENNSBURY — In more than an hour of sometimes testy exchanges, the two Republican candidates for state Senate from the 9th District showed very different visions both in terms of the reality of governing as well as philosophy, during a League of Women Voters forum Thursday night.

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-9), facing a primary challenge from Roger Howard of East Marlborough, spent much of the evening trading barbs with his opponent in front of a packed room at Crosslands, estimated to be well over 200 people.

Howard, who enjoys support from local Tea Party groups, argued for less government, lowering state debt and ending government subsidies to business and special interests, while Pileggi, who also serves as Majority Leader of the state Senate, argued his opponent’s positions amounted to “great sound bites” but lacked the reality required for governing the commonwealth.

Both candidates answered questions from the audience on topics from pensions to property taxes.

Right from the start, Howard was on the attack, calling Pileggi “one of the major obstacles to reform” in Harrisburg, despite voters having sent an all GOP legislature to work with a new GOP governor, Tom Corbett in 2010. He also criticized Pileggi for spending on corporations that give money to the senator and other Harrisburg power players, and a series of scandals by Republicans and Democrats charged with using legislative staff for campaign purposes.

Pileggi, battling laryngitis, aggressively defended his record, citing his battle to curtail spending under former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“Pennsylvania was going to become another California, if we didn’t step in,” he said, referring to himself and other Republican leaders in Harrisburg.

Howard countered that he questioned Pileggi’s claim at fiscal conservancy, with the commonwealth increasing spending from $41 billion in 2002 when he took office to nearly $61 billion — numbers he says have been hidden by borrowing money to pay for maintenance projects, he said.

Pileggi defended the current budget, saying cuts had been made and that likely budget coming out of Harrisburg this June would again be lower than the year before, for the second straight year and again would feature lowered franchise taxes and no tax increases. He added that reductions can’t just be made to the budget in a random fashion, but have to be done in a “disciplined” way.

On jobs, while both agreed that the state needs to improve the climate for business — including cutting the corporate tax — the two differed on what the state needs to do to compete with other states and foreign countries. While Howard opposes tax breaks and subsidies for business, Pileggi argued that neighboring states and even other countries won’t hesitate to offer perks to bring in industries and jobs. Without them, he said, Pennsylvania will be left on the outside looking in.

“We need to be able to take advantage of our assets,” Pileggi said.

On the issue of state pensions — including teacher pensions, which have become an increasing financial burden for local school districts — Pileggi said some reform had already been accomplished, but much more work was to be done, including moving state employees from “defined benefit” plans to “defined contribution” plans similar to 401K retirement plans.

“We’re out of step with the private sector,” he said. He said he expected the legislature to take up the issue this fall.

Howard was quick to lay the issue at Pileggi’s feet, suggesting that in 2003 the legislature decided to cut contributions to the pension fund, leading the current underfunding of the state employee and teacher pension system. He also argued that state judges and members of the legislature are getting a better pension deal than teachers and state employees — because of a higher maximum rate of pay 90% versus 75% — Pileggi was being “somewhat disingenuous to talk pension reform when you’ve padded your own pension.”

The two also crossed swords on the issues of sprawl and redevelopment. Howard argued that it should be left in the hands of the private sector and that government should stay out of it.

Pileggi suggested that stance reflected a naive view.

“It is always cheaper to develop on virgin soil than in urban cores,” he said. “You have to provide incentive. If not, you’ll just have sprawl along the interstates.”

The two offered starkly different views about working with Democrats — who while currently in the minority in the legislature have been needed to pass various bills in the last couple of years.

“I have a fairly large and good record of working with people from across the aisle,” Pileggi said. “If you have a divided government, as we’ve had at times, you have to find a way to work with the other side.”

While Howard said he felt he could work with Democrats if “they are above board about where their objectives are” he said that it was important for an elected official to never give up their principles, suggesting that he would find much of what he felt the Democrats support in variance with his beliefs.

“I don’t think I could work in concert with standard Democrat principles,” Howard said.

On property taxes, the pair again showed a great difference in opinion. Howard called for the end of the Act 1 legislation and a new laws requiring a public referendum for any school district to raise taxes. He also expressed support for House Bill 1776, which would increase the state sales tax to pay for schools and eliminate property taxes.

Pileggi said that local property taxes amount to about $13 billion — nearly half as much as the current state budget, a number he said a small sales tax increase could never replace.

“That’s just not going to happen in the next five years,” Pileggi said. “It’s a pipe dream.”

What he thought was more realistic was program for senior citizen property tax relief, a program estimated to cost between $2 billion and $4 billion, he said. While he acknowledged that finding even that much money would be difficult, he said he thought it would be achievable in the near term.

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