Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Reed weighs in on property taxes, school project

by on February 24, 2017 10:59 AM
Indiana, PA

State Rep. Dave Reed buoyed local constituents’ hopes of relief from property tax burdens Thursday, reporting at a town hall meeting that Gov. Tom Wolf is closer than ever to accepting legislation that would eliminate the tax on real estate.

Reed, R-Indiana, the state House majority leader, said Wolf, in early budget talks, “for the first time he actually said he is open to complete elimination of school property taxes.”

Spectators cheered the possibility, but Reed cautioned that no one can predict what will happen to the popularly known “Senate Bill/House Bill 76” tax reform proposal.

Reed speculated on the fate of Senate Bill/House Bill 76 during an annual question-and-answer session that drew about 110 area residents to the St. Andrew’s Village senior living center in White Township.

The legislation, generally, would increase the state sales and income taxes and direct the new revenue to replace local school taxes.

“I do believe (Wolf) would want some changes, and quite frankly the bill has changed 100 times already,” Reed said. “And it’s my understanding the Senate is working on some additional changes.”

“So the governor says he is open to that, it should be dollar-for-dollar, he wants to make sure the dollars are distributed equitably across the state, and he believes there should be some discussion of raising some of the funds locally, not at the state level.

“Governor Wolf, to his credit, is at least open to the discussion and that’s the first time I’ve heard any governor say that,” Reed said. “But I took it as a positive because in two and a half years, it’s the first time he said those words.”

Reed took residents’ questions for three hours, first laying out general ground rules such as insisting on civility and respect among the speakers. Reed also said that he wouldn’t have much to say on local or federal issues not in his domain, yet the first question out of the box was for his thought on the Indiana Area School District’s elementary school construction and realignment plan.

Eric Barker, of Indiana, asked Reed to go on record in opposition to the project.

“I’m not a school board member; I don’t get to make that decision,” Reed said. “We have separation of powers of different levels of government for a reason.”

Still, he elucidated.

“I was just as shocked as anyone,” he continued, saying he expected the board would opt to reduce four schools to three. The plan now calls for closing two Indiana Borough schools for good and replacing a third, Ben Franklin Elementary, with a large one to accommodate 900 students.

“The proposal to go from four to two frightens me a little bit. I have some of the same concerns as you have expressed, the same concerns expressed by the Gazette in its recent editorial,” he said. “Ultimately, if I were a school board member, it’s not the plan I would have chosen.”

He agreed with a suggestion that the project holds no academic benefit for the district.

“We have a good, successful school district. There’s nothing, from my perspective, as an elected official but more importantly as the father of three children … we’ve had a great experience, we think it’s a wonderful school district.

“I don’t think there’s anything you could say, ‘if we do this, we’ll go back to the front.’ We’re already at the front.”

Reed held the public discontent as an example of why, he said, local elections often are more important than presidential elections.

Later, Tammy Curry, of White Township, asked Reed to respond to what she called safety issues concerning the project. Reed said the controversy might have been avoided if school boards would be elected as they were decades ago: three 6-year terms up for election every two years.

“There would be less flip-flopping (of board majorities) and would allow more continuity,” he said. “The board could slow things down. Since the change, there’s been more of a rush.”

The only moments of contention at the session came when Ann Rea and Martha Barkley pressed Reed for his position on legislation concerning women’s health issues including funding for Planned Parenthood, an agency that provides abortions among many other services.

Reed first deferred on Planned Parenthood funding as a federal matter not in his hands as a state legislator.

Pushed again for his stance, he called the issue a difference of opinions unaffected by any amount of debate.

“I completely respect your opinion,” Reed said. “This is in a category of issues where two people can have two sets of beliefs.

“I’m pro-life, other than instances of rape, incest and the life or health of the mother,” Reed said. “I’m not going to apologize for that and I’m not going to ask you to apologize for being pro-choice. It’s no use for us to debate that issue because you’re not going to change my mind and I’m not going to change your mind. It’s OK, we live in America.

“But it’s also why I believe we should be focused on financial issues, and economic issues, and education issues, and we don’t have to get people riled up on social issues. The gun issue is the same way.

“But I do get frustrated because I think folks like to bring up those issues because they don’t want to deal with the real issues at hand.

In this case, at the state level, that’s the budget, the pension system, the educational system, what we want to do long-term for failing schools, and I personally think our tax code could use an overhaul, too. We’ve got too many loopholes that need to be closed so everybody competes equally.

“But some folks like to bring up those (social) issues. But I don’t feel pressure on any single one of those issues right now. Our caucus is solely focused on a budget.

“Your beliefs are your beliefs, my beliefs are my beliefs, and that’s OK. But that’s what divides America and our communities. How about sometimes we focus on what unites us?”

Reed talked about a broad range of state issues ranging from pension reform, privatizing the liquor system, immigration and “deportation forces,” equal work-equal pay policies, housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and natural gas drilling and taxes.

Constituents asked about Pennsylvania drivers’ licenses noncompliance with “Real ID” standards for air travel and visiting federal facilities, access to firearms by people with mental illness, legalization of recreational marijuana and restrictions on protesters.

Some asked about school vouchers, shifting subsidies from public to cyber and charter schools, increasing funding for the Educational Tax Credit program, the opioid epidemic, gerrymandering and the size of the Legislature.

Reed predicted that a constitutional amendment to slash the size of the state House of Representatives from 203 to 153 members would win legislative approval in the current session, be signed by the governor and be approved in a voter referendum in time for redistricting after the 2020 census.

Reed said gerrymandering — the process of drawing legislative district boundaries to favor election of candidates from the ruling party — hasn’t affected him because the 62nd District has a near 50/50 registration split, encompasses communities of interest and represents diverse economics and demographics.

He said he was wary of a computer program said to rely on carefully crafted algorithms to design balanced and geographically logical legislative districts, citing a computer-drawn plan in California that would have unseated all the female legislators in office at the time it was tested.

“I want to make sure we do it right,” Reed said.

Reed faced none of the flak reportedly experienced by Republican U.S. congressmen at recent town meetings, where constituents have brought their anger and discontent over Donald Trump administration policies.

He offered that he was not much of a fan of Trump but still hopes that anyone who serves as president does a good job for the country.

“I want any president to do well. Most administrations don’t start out well … so I hope things turn in a direction that brings reasonable public policy to this country,” Reed said.

Reed told constituents that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has opened the door for a woman to soon be elected president — Condoleezza Rice and Elizabeth Warren are names he dropped — but said he was disappointed with Clinton’s campaign.

“We basically have a president who got elected from a reality TV show, based upon charisma, marketing and branding,” Reed said. “They went through a series of debates with 17 candidates that never really talked about issues. In fact, I was not all that impressed with the three debates with Secretary Clinton, either, because they didn’t talk about issues either.

“But I give Secretary Clinton a lot of credit. There will be a female president because of her. She cleared that path. But in clearing that path, she had a lot of baggage over 30 years.”

The state of the campaign, Reed said, wasn’t fit for children to watch on TV.

“And that wasn’t just the Republican nominee. Hillary Clinton could have won that election easily,” he said. “She could have knocked it out of the park. She didn’t stand out. She had the opportunity and should have knocked it out of the park. But I was embarrassed and would not let my daughters watch the presidential debates. How sad is that.”

On another federal issue, Reed conceded that he shouldn’t have signed on with more than 100 other legislative leaders from other states on a letter of endorsement for Betsy DeVos as a nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education.

“I make a hundred decisions a day. Not all of them are right,” Reed said. Had the confirmation hearings taken place first, he said, he would not have endorsed her.

Of all the issues talked about Thursday, Reed said the No. 1 item that commanded his office’s attention the past month was constituents’ inability to reach people on the state’s unemployment compensation telephone hotlines.

Reed said the state allocated millions of dollars to the Department of Labor and Industry to modernize its computer and processing systems, but DLI used the funds for routine operations.

At the same time, a high-level DLI employee failed to complete and submit needed paperwork to the federal government, costing the department an estimated $21 million of government funding, Reed said.

As a result, Gov. Wolf directed the closing of several unemployment benefit call centers, including one in Altoona, leaving jobless workers spending hours on the phone trying to submit claims for benefits.

The personnel shortage coincided with the wave of jobless benefit claims that came with the end of seasonal employment after the holiday season. Reed said the DLI undersecretary who missed the federal funding application has been fired.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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