Barrar’s town hall: budget takes center stage

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The proposed cuts to the state’s universities — about half of state funding — were another matter, Barrar said.

“We were all shocked,” he told the crowd. “I can guarantee every legislator, Republican, Democrat, when we saw the 50% cut to higher education, we were pretty stunned by that. None of us expected that type of cut.”

Barrar said he hoped a closer examination of other parts of the budget might offer other savings that would allow restoration of some of the cuts, particularly in higher education.

“Where I feel, personally, the governor did not focus enough of his time looking — because these guys are all new — was the welfare budget,” he said. “The welfare budget is a very difficult budget to go through and find fraud and waste.”

He told the crowd that there were very few cuts in the welfare budget and even a few increases, while some $900 million in waste and fraud, as identified by Auditor General Jack Wagner last year weren’t touched. As an example, Barrar cited paying patients at Methadone clinics being paid milage to get to and from treatments — while not being required to go to the closest clinic to their home.

“Now, we questioned the head of welfare, who is in charge of this program, and he felt that requiring people to go to the closest Methadone clinic to their homes put an ‘onerous’ burden on them,” Barrar told the audience. “And I’m going to tell you, I watched all the senators, the legislators, their faces were just…I mean everybody just sat their dumbfounded.”

Barrar said he took the welfare official to task.

“This is the kind of program, I think, that kind of infuriates taxpayers, that this is just a stupid wasteful program.”

Barrar said that there would be close scrutiny of such programs, with the idea that funds saved could reallocated to education.

The eight-term legislator also talked a bit about property taxes, including legislation that would limit increases on senior citizens, a bill that he has sponsored, as well as proposals to completely revamp school funding by substituting sales and other taxes for property taxes. This led to a wide-ranging discussion about the impact of such a move on local control, pay for senior school district administrators and other issues.

Concerns about cuts to Penn State’s agricultural outreach program were also expressed by attendees, worried that there will be little support for small farmers. Barrar said that even prior to this year’s cuts, that Penn State has been working to phase out such services and move some of the services to the state department of agriculture, although it is unlikely that the state would have the resources to take them on.

There was further discussion about job creation and tax measures that could help companies to hire more employees, cutting regulation, Barrar said, is a priority to help business grow.

Although Corbett has come under fire for keeping about $200 million in tax incentives for filmmakers, Barrar said that studies have shown that the tax more than pays for itself, in terms of stimulating local economic activity and added income taxes paid to the state.

The evening finished with a lengthy discussion about the Marcellus Shale Gas Field and whether it made sense for the state to impose a severance tax on drillers. Gov. Tom Corbett has said he will oppose a tax, but might consider an impact fee to help local communities pay for added infrastructure costs caused by the drilling.

“This is the question I get asked more than anything on the planet right now,” Barrar said.

Barrar said he differed with the governor on this issue and would support a 3% or 4% tax, as long as 1% is set aside for local use, for roads and public safety.

“I think this year or next year, you’re gonna see a tax put on, and I think there’s enough votes, even though Corbett has made a ‘no-tax’ pledge, we’ve actually counted the votes in our caucus and we feel there’s enough votes to override a veto of that bill,” he said.

Barrar said he also wants to make sure that there is an environmental legacy fund set up with the proceeds to the state will be able to cope with any unanticipated environmental issues created by the drilling. He also cited studies of groundwater contamination show that approximately 85% of the wells tested had contamination prior to drilling operations began — in part from generations of coal mining, in part because of some naturally-existing conditions, such as in-ground radon, leeched from uranium veins that runs across the northern tier of the state.

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