State Rep. John Lawrence meets with constituents during a series of town hall meetings
● By Steven Hoffman
State Rep. John Lawrence updated constituents on the state budget, efforts to approve property tax reforms, redistricting, and other issues at a town hall meeting at the Russellville Grange in Upper Oxford Township on May 17.
This was one in a series of town halls that Lawrence held in mid-May for residents throughout the 13th Legislative District. With the town hall coming so close to the June 30 deadline for state lawmakers to reach an agreement on a new budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, it was no surprise that Lawrence began his 25-minute presentation with details about the progress that has been made on developing a spending plan for the next year.
Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $32.3 billion spending plan in March that includes an additional $100 million in funding for basic education. Republicans in the House countered with a $31.5 billion budget proposal that maintains the bump in funding for basic education, but achieves an overall $246 million reduction in spending from the budget for the current fiscal year through a six-percent across-the-board cut for hundreds of line items.
One major issue complicating the next budget is the fact that the current budget is leaving the state with a deficit for the next year.
“We are facing a significant shortfall,” Lawrence said, explaining that the $31.7 billion plan that was approved last year created a situation where the expenditures were likely going to surpass the revenues for the fiscal year. That's exactly what happened, so now lawmakers have to factor that shortfall in as the spending plan for the next year is developed.
One issue that Lawrence has long been concerned with is how the state is managing its debt—he specifically wants a more responsible approach to budgeting with more focus on paying off the debt, rather than continuing to incur more debt. The House has offered HB 82, a state debt reform measure, and HB 83, which outlines a plan for repaying state debt more responsibly, for consideration. Lawrence is a prime sponsor of both. Lawrence explained that the state currently spends about $1 billion annually on debt-service payments.
The state's two pension systems—SERS and PSERS—are under-funded by approximately $70 billion. Lawrence said that there are varying opinions on how to address the pension situation. One proposal calls for all new hires to be placed on a 401(k) type plan with a defined contribution.
Another proposal is to institute a stacked hybrid plan that is a traditional pension up to $50,000, with a defined contribution plan above that threshold. Another option is a side by side hybrid plan that would be a defined benefit and contribution starting at dollar one. A fourth option is for the state to borrow billions of dollars to fully fund the pension systems. The idea is that the state could borrow the money at an interest that is lower than the interest rate that would be earned by putting the money in the pension system fund.
Lawrence made it clear that he is not in favor of borrowing the money to fully fund the pension system.
“That is really tricky to do,” Lawrence said. “Other states have tried to do that and it didn't work out well for them.”
Another issue that residents were interested in at the town hall meetings is the ongoing effort to get the state out of the business of operating liquor stores, Lawrence said. He explained that there are currently four different proposals that have been passed by the State House and are awaiting action by the State Senate. Lawrence noted that state lawmakers approved a bill that would have gotten the state out of the liquor store business entirely, but Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the plan in July of 2015.
After Lawrence's presentation, the rest of the time during the town hall was dedicated to questions from those in attendance.
A resident asked about the proposed American Health Care Act at the federal government level, which is being pushed by Republicans as a replacement for the Affordable Health Care Act, and the potential changes to Medicare and Medicaid that could impact Pennsylvania residents.
Lawrence explained that the health care issue is very complicated, and until the specifics of a new health care law that would be approved by both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate are known, it would be difficult to talk about the potential impact at the state level.
A resident asked about property tax reform, which is certainly one of the most important issues facing the state.
Lawrence illustrated that the issue was important to him by talking about a World War II veteran, whom he didn't name, who is 90 years old who is having his house go up for Sheriff's sale in the near future because of high property taxes.
Lawrence sees some reason for optimism that property tax reform could be possible. He explained that House Majority Leader Dave Reed has made it a priority. The State House passed legislation in the last session that would have increased the personal income tax and the sales tax so that property taxes could be reduced. But the State Senate wasn't able to move legislation forward.
Lawrence explained that it can be difficult to get Republicans and Democrats to find middle ground on some issues, but sometimes—and the property tax reform issue is one example—the divide is between lawmakers who represent rural areas and lawmakers who represent urban areas. Sometimes, what would be beneficial in urban areas hurts rural areas or vice versa.
To illustrate the point, Lawrence noted that Philadelphia already has a sales tax of 8 percent, so raising the sales tax to offset property taxes there is a problem.
Yet, in Potter County, a less-populated part of the state, school taxes are only $300 a year so lawmakers there don't have an incentive to support measures that lower property taxes.
“The challenge is getting something that the House, the Senate, and the governor can all agree on,” Lawrence said. “Pennsylvania is a diverse state. It is a tremendous challenge. I have tried to be consistent on the issue, but I've also tried to be open-minded.”
Lawrence was one of 59 lawmakers who supported a previous attempt at property tax reform that would have raised the sales tax and the state income tax to offset the property taxes.
“It failed dramatically,” he said.
It will take compromise from everyone involved in order to get property tax reforms approved.
“You never get everything you want with legislation,” Lawrence said.
Another resident asked about the possibility of allowing registered independents to vote in the Primary Election. Lawrence said that there have been previous discussions about that, but a consensus on making a change has not been reached.
There was also a question about Pennsylvania getting a new REAL ID system approved that is in compliance with federal regulations so that the state's residents don't have difficulty using their identification for air travel or visits to federal facilities. The state is facing a looming deadline to make their identification compliant with federal regulations.
Lawrence explained that he introduced legislation in the house that was amended by the State Senate. The legislation is awaiting the governor's approval, which is expected. The bill will give Pennsylvanians the option of choosing a standard driver's license or photo ID card, or Ids that are REAL-ID compliant.
Another topic that came up during the town hall meetings was redistricting and the national effort aimed at curbing gerrymandering.
Lawrence explained that the Pennsylvania Constitution calls for a five-member panel to draw the boundaries for legislative, congressional, and senatorial districts. The five members on the panel are to be a member of the majority party in the State Senate and State House, respectively, a member of the minority party in the State Senate and the State House, respectively, and one person that the other four members of the panel must agree on. That almost never happens so it usually goes to the Pennsylvania courts to have the fifth member appointed.
The numerous instances of gerrymandering across the country, where boundaries are drawn in such a way as to favor one party or the other, including several examples in Pennsylvania, have made citizens much more aware of how both parties manipulate the drawing of boundaries.
“Public confidence in the current process is shaken,” Lawrence said, adding that even the best process of drawing boundaries can be manipulated.
Toward the end of the meeting in Upper Oxford, the conversation turned local as a resident thanked Lawrence and his office staff for getting PennDOT to do some much-needed repairs to the road. The resident said that the office staff is always responsive to requests for help.
Lawrence, who has been in the State House since 2011, said that these town hall meetings attracted more attendees than some previous town hall meetings. People are more engaged in some of the issues facing the state and the country.
“That's good,” Lawrence said. “I like town hall meetings. I'm very interested in what people have to say.”
To contact State Rep. Lawrence's Jennersville office, call 610-869-1602. The State Capitol office telephone number is 717-260-6117. More information about his legislative work can be found at www.replawrence.com.