As organizations that collectively represent close to 600 area businesses, the Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce and Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau recognize the importance of maintaining connections with elected officials. Our joint Government Affairs Committee addresses issues that impact our members and communities. The Committee recently invited the two Democratic candidates for State Representative for the 109th District to provide their position on issues of importance to the business community prior to the April 24th primary. Neither the Chamber nor Visitors Bureau endorses any political party of specific candidate.
James Geffken, 38, lives in Benton and serves as the Director of Buildings and Grounds for the Berwick Area School District. Daniel D. Knorr, II, 26, lives in Bloomsburg and has been Mayor of the Town since 2005. He works as an auditor for Rose Consulting in Lightstreet.
Last year, the Legislature passed Act 6 of 2011 which reformed Pennsylvania’s Unemployment Compensation system. However, the system still has holes that burden employers and allow abuse. Further, the reforms did not solve the insolvency of the UC Trust Fund. What additional reforms do you feel are needed to the UC system?
Geffken: First off, I would agree that there are some holes in Act 6 which allow for potential abuse of the Unemployment Compensation system. In my opinion, Act 6 should have been presented as an either / or scenario. Either an agreed upon severance package representing greater than 40% of an expected annual salary, or eligibility to collect Unemployment Compensation for a defined time period (All of which should exclude payments for pension, retirement, accrued leave or defined supplemental benefits.). The current act forces businesses to calculate a payment for severance for exiting employees based on a probable reduction in the company’s Unemployment Compensation contributions for said employee going forward. It does not alleviate the financial burden on the employer. The current set up allows the recently unemployed to double dip with both cash payouts and adjusted Unemployment Compensation income. I do not believe that this creates incentive to return to the workforce.
Knorr: With the recent recession and long-term high rates of unemployment, Pennsylvania has been paying out more money from its UC Trust Fund than it has been taking in over the past several years, resulting in a UC Trust Fund deficit of approximately $4 billion. While unemployment compensation is a crucial and necessary safety net for those who are out of work through no fault of their own, the benefits being offered have, over time, grown beyond the system’s original intent as a temporary measure for those who have given their efforts and abilities to the workforce.
Unfortunately, there has been no action to address the UC Trust Fund’s insolvency and federal obligation. As State Representative, I will actively work to bringPennsylvania’s Unemployment Compensation system closer to its original intent and purpose by tightening eligibility and beneficiary accountability, by supporting measures that reduce system abuse, and by fighting to ensure that UC Trust Fund solvency is not restored solely on the backs of the already-struggling business community.
What reforms, if any, do you feel are needed to Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation system?
Geffken: I believe that one of the main issues is the perception of and unfortunate reality of the systems abuse. I would like to see the development of a continual evaluation, and occupational therapy / retraining program set into effect as a condition of acceptance of Workers’ Compensation payments. While I remain sensitive to the needs of injured workers, I believe that the rehabilitation and when necessary retraining of workers is vital to validating the Workers’ Compensation process. Workers’ Compensation is ideally structured as a short term solution but too often becomes a drug out process en-route to disability claims. I believe that safeguards can be added to the process which would insure the active participation of claimants in their own recovery.
Knorr: As Mayor of the Town of Bloomsburg, a role in which I oversee nearly fifty employees across several different fields, I recognize the importance and support the payment of benefits to employees injured as the result of work-related occupational injuries and illnesses. However, I likewise understand the need to protect employers’ rights, benefits and interests, too.
There has been little activity in the legislature towards finding ways to improve Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation system. As State Representative, I would actively work to ensure that benefits are only for legitimate, work-related occupational injuries and illnesses and that the ultimate goal of the system is to aid in the safe return of employees to productive and rewarding employment.
A number of bills were advanced by the House Labor and Industry Committee last October which would reform Pennsylvania’s Prevailing Wage Act. (H.B. 1271, H.B. 1685, H.B. 1329, H.B. 1367, H.B. 1541, H.B. 709, H.B. 1191) Most of these bills have stalled due to lack of support. Do you support any or all of these bills?
Geffken: The pending reforms to the Pennsylvania Prevailing Wage Act are pretty interesting. Although these House Bills are presented in several forums as a block, their potential impacts should be discussed individually.
- House Bill 709 – Makes the Prevailing Wage Act a local option for school districts by school board referendum.
This Bill along with HB1191 and HB1271 is really at its heart a Right toWork State versus a Prevailing Wage State issue. The danger of this lies in its underlying union busting agenda. I believe that many of the issues that impede the daily operations challenges of school districts would be alleviated by the passage of HB1329 which would raise the Prevailing Wage Act bid threshold.
- House Bill 1191- Makes the Prevailing Wage Act a local option for municipalities or school districts by ordinance or referendum.
This is really just an expansion of HB 709 with the addition of municipalities and the ability to opt out of Prevailing Wage through ordinance which could be done at one time and therefore avoid the need for continual per project referendum votes. Again, I believe that a properly constructed HB1329 could trump this issue.
- House Bill 1271- Exempts several basic road maintenance actions from the Prevailing Wage Act.
Again, this could be handled under HB1329 and would be redundant for projects under a reasonable financial threshold, which routine maintenance should fall within. I believe that it is unnecessary legislation.
- House Bill 1329- Increases the total cost that a public project must exceed in order to fall under the jurisdiction of the Prevailing Wage Act from $25,000.00 to $185,000.00 – to then be adjusted annually based on changes to the Consumer Price Index.
I completely agree with this piece of legislation and I believe that it is the key to finding a proper balance between protecting the integrity of major projects and union jobs without holding local school districts and municipalities hostage over union wages during routine maintenance and small project development. I also believe that this piece of legislation promotes opportunities for smaller scale, local businesses to serve their communities in an expanded role, as it gives them an option to compete for mid-level projects, and maintenance contracts.
- House Bill 1541- Requires a public project to be at least 51 percent publicly funded in order to fall under the Prevailing Wage Act.
This Bill could come under fire for not having a cap dollar amount. I believe adding one would make it more passable. However, I personally think that this is a good way to encourage more private / public partnerships for community and school improvement projects.
- House Bill 1685- requires the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to develop one set of job classification definitions for use by contractors statewide, making compliance with the Prevailing Wage Act’s payment requirements easier for contractors.
I would support this. The current system is confusing, difficult to enforce and an unnecessary burden on contractors, architects, engineers and specification writers.
Knorr: In my role on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, I have continually fought for reform of Pennsylvania’s Prevailing Wage Act. While I support fair and gainful wages for those contracted to work on large, expansive projects, due to a complete lack of legislative action since 1961, the current cost threshold of $25,000 includes virtually every public infrastructure undertaking.
As State Representative, I will work to increase the threshold to reflect the current value of the dollar, fight to better define those projects that fall under the prevailing wage mandate, and look to automatically adjust the project threshold for inflation moving forward so thatPennsylvaniadoes not find itself in this same situation again.
Governor Corbett’s proposed 2012-13 budget would permanently eliminate $30M in conservation, park and recreation funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and use the Fund to pay for general government operations. (http://conservationadvocate.org/keystone-fund/) Do you support this proposal?
Geffken: Governor Corbett’s proposed elimination of $30,000,000.00 in funding from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund is just plain wrong. I do not and will not support any legislation that threatens to undermine the continued management and development of our natural recreational environment. I am and avid outdoorsman who would argue for the addition of funding and absolutely stand in opposition to any reductions in this important funding stream.
Knorr: I do not support Governor Corbett’s proposal. The Keystone Fund, which allocates a small portion of the state’s real estate transfer tax to recreation, conservation and open space, has been overwhelmingly supported and utilized by the voters of Pennsylvania since its inception in 1993. The monies invested into the Keystone Fund have been used at every level of Pennsylvania government to improve outdoor recreational opportunities, enhance health, and stimulate local economies.
Governor Corbett’s proposal puts a quick, one-time boost over long-term investment in the quality of life for the people of our Commonwealth. It is a short-sighted proposal that attempts to make up for the lack of a true, comprehensive economic plan and vision. One ofPennsylvania’s greatest assets is our natural habitat, and as State Representative, I will fight to ensure that our citizens have the chance to experience and enjoy it.
Do you have an economic development plan or goals for the Commonwealth?
Geffken: I believe that it is time to develop legislation that will more effectively deal with Property Tax Reform. One of the main weaknesses in our current system is in the unfairness of the current assessment process. I would propose that Property Tax be levied based upon agreed property value at the time of construction or sale, with reassessment only at the time of re-sale or renovation. This would have the two fold effect of increasing taxable revenue for municipalities and school districts by providing real higher taxable value for recently sold and renovated properties, while protecting the assets of long term property holders and senior citizens.
Knorr: Currently, there is little to no economic leadership or vision being proposed for our Commonwealth. We are moving from one budgetary crisis to the next, and our legislators merely hope for better revenues and increased economic activity. As Mayor of the Town of Bloomsburg, I have shown that economic success and fiscal responsibility can be had even in the midst of the worst of recessions, producing three, consecutive surpluses while fighting any attempt at raising taxes during my five years in the position.
In order to better develop our economy and become more competitive, our legislature needs to first recognize the important role investment plays in our Commonwealth’s long-term economic health. While I will always be on the lookout for waste and abuse as State Representative, we cannot reduce or decline our way to prosperity. Rather, I will fight to ensure continued investment in our infrastructure, higher education, public education, and quality of life.
Secondly,Pennsylvania needs a more competitive corporate income tax structure. At 9.9%, the Commonwealth has one of the very highest rates in the nation. By reducing business tax rates, closing loopholes, creating a tiered system so that people have an incentive to start small, start-up businesses, and by closing the “Delaware loophole” that allows companies headquartered in Delaware but operating in Pennsylvania the ability to write-off trademarks, patents, or investments as business expenses, thereby reducing their tax obligation to Pennsylvania, we can make our Commonwealth more competitive, business-friendly, and prosperous.
The 109th District needs a state representative who will actively pursue such economic and fiscal reform and will become a leader for Columbia County as well as for Pennsylvania.