Residents question pensions, school budgets, and heroin epidemic at town hall meeting
CLARKSTOWN – State lawmaker, Garth Everett, 84th Legislative District, held the last of his Town Hall Meetings in Clarkstown at the Volunteer Fire Company on Wednesday evening October 1. There he informed the public with facts about the state budget, its expenditures and allocations.
Using charts, graphs and illustrations he explained how budgets get passed in the first place. “Budgets are not actually passed by governors,” he started. “The House and Senate take over with hearings and decide on all budget cuts and credits.”
Regarding education, he explained, the use of funds became insufficient after the “economic turndown” of 2008. Administration chose to put 1 billion dollars of “stimulus money” into ongoing education funds, and that money is going away, he said. In 2012 10.5 billion dollars was spent in grades K through 12. “This is the most we’ve ever spent.” He was opposed to putting money into districts’ funds, but would rather have seen it used for one time projects as needed. “Curriculum and books are left up to the school districts.”
One resident questioned standards testing and Everett explained his thoughts on not graduating students until they have mastered the basic skills such as Algebra I. Pennsylvania always had standards, he added. “Don’t let these kids fall behind,” he said and encouraged extra remediation.
Referring to other state funded programs such as Pre-K, Penn College and the LCTC, Everett said we are fortunate to have them here. Students can go out and get jobs and be successful.
John Brink from Muncy asked about cyber schools. Everett said he supports the choice but most of his constituents prefer the “brick and mortar” schools. “Our public schools are the bread and butter of public education. It’s about educating kids. Only a small portion is taken from the district’s budget.” He did add that it could be done more efficiently.
Thirty-nine percent of the state budget ($29.03 billion) is spent for long term care and medical assistance for those who have lost their resources. “This part is growing due to an aging population and more nursing homes,” he said. Medical spending is more stringent and government is now checking medicaid spending in Pennsylvania. 750 million was spend on fraud and abuse in the system.
Corrections is another area that is increasing in the budget. “Heroin is a growing problem and we need to treat the addicted. We have learned we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he told the audience. “We need to treat them and hammer the professional drug dealers.” Eighty percent of heroin cases start with prescription drugs and is less expensive to get. “It is big business dealing with all ages, races, and social economic classes. We need to do something different. We are not winning the war on drugs the way we’re fighting it. We need a different tactic.” The state allotted 2.6 billion for corrections, seven percent of the budget.
There was a reduction in the debt ceiling for Pennsylvania over the past two years and funds have been accessed to help local programs at the YMCA and the Muncy Valley Hospital.
Showing a chart on pensions and contributions, Everett answered several questions regarding school pensions. He feels there is a pension crisis with the state government being the biggest user.
Pensions were doing well in 2000, and were actually overfunded as pension budgets and contributions increased.
In 2001 the return of investment dropped and by 2010 there was a pension deficit close to 50 billion dollars. Everett co-sponored the Corbett Tobash Bill endorsed last June by Governor Corbett. This law proposes to increase the amount put into state pensions while paying down the accrued debt. “We can’t declare bankruptcy. We have an obligation to our teachers and workers.” The proposal affects new hires only coming into the system and would eliminate salary spike hikes towards the end of retirement. “Contributions would be consistent and not based on 85% of your highest average,” he said estimating a savings of 9 billion dollars. “Tax payers won’t make up the difference. It would almost be like a 401K plan,” he added. To read the full provisions of the bill and its amendments refer to House Bill 1353.
When asked about the gas industry and taxes, Everett responded with a clear explanation on how the funding is allocated. 252 million comes into PA from gas taxes and 65% comes back to the local municipalities. 12 million came to Lycoming County. Some of the funding also goes to environmental programs for safe handling such as DCNR and the Game, Boat and Fish Commissions. Some states that offer a severance tax might not have property taxes so he expressed concern on revenues coming directly to us if impact fees were removed.
Another resident inquired about medical marijuana and Everett approved of its use in certain cases, but did not wish to see it passed for recreational use. Different medicines are synthesized for different medicinal uses and cannabis is one of them. “However, there is no FDA approved or tested on cannabis here. Our bill is very controlled.”
More discussions took place from questions on the size of government in general, timeliness of getting bills passed and future plans for taxes.