Lawrence wants to make state government work better for citizens
By Richard Gaw
On Oct. 24, Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law Act 102 of 2018, legislation that was sponsored by State Rep. John Lawrence that protects victims of domestic violence by changing how alimony is paid during a divorce.
Lawrence started working on the legislation after one of his constituents made him aware of a major shortcoming with the existing law, which left open the possibility that a victim of domestic violence could be ordered to pay alimony to their abusive spouse, even if the abuser had pled guilty to the crime. Act 102 of 2018 ensures that these victims will not have to pay their convicted abuser.
When Lawrence first ran for office, it was because he wanted to make the state government work better for citizens. Act 102 of 2018 is an example of that: A small, but not insignificant, piece of legislation that will improve the lives of Pennsylvania residents.
“We try to make sure that government works for citizens, including the people who live in the 13th District,” Lawrence explained during a recent interview as he campaigns for a fifth term representing the 13th Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The 13th Legislative District is comprised of four boroughs and 13 townships in Chester County and two municipalities in Lancaster County. Lawrence is being opposed by Democrat Sue Walker in the election on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Ever since he was elected to the State House in 2010, Lawrence has been a champion for government reform, an advocate for fiscal responsibility, and a proponent for smaller government. His values and views don’t change because another Election Day is approaching. He points to his record as a consistent voice on issues like government reform and fiscal accountability, and to his work serving the constituents in the 13th District as reasons why he wants to return to the State House in 2019.
As a lifelong resident of the area, Lawrence has focused on local issues that impact the community. He and the staff in his office have earned wide praise for how responsive they are to residents who reach out to them for some type of assistance with an issue.
“In a year, we'll get 7,500 district inquiries,” Lawrence explained. “Those inquiries can be for any number of things, such as help navigating the complexities of state government.”
For example, a person might seek information about who to contact at a particular state agency to get an issue resolved, or someone might need help cutting through the red tape to obtain a professional license from the state.
“We have a lot of folks who come into the office, and we're able to help them,” Lawrence said.
He has also been helpful when it comes to local issues where he can help navigate through the governmental bureaucracy. One example is the much-needed improvements to the intersection of Route 796 and Old Baltimore Pike in Penn Township. PennDOT had told Lawrence that there would be a 20-year wait to undertake such a large project, but Lawrence was able to facilitate the process of getting various stakeholders together to work on the issue.
“We were able to put together the funding, and we were able to get that project moved forward. I'm really excited about that,” Lawrence explained.
Over the last few years, officials in Oxford Borough have been working on a plan to construct a parking garage as a way to encourage economic development in the downtown and to address the need for more parking. Lawrence has been involved in various aspects of the effort, including helping to secure some state funding through grants. The parking garage project could be a major piece of Oxford’s revitalization efforts.
In addition to the work on local issues, being a state lawmaker also means making many different and difficult decisions about how the state allocates and balances a $32 billion budget.
One of Lawrence’s overarching goals has been to steer the state’s finances in a more responsible direction so that the burden on taxpayers can be lessened.
“Pennsylvania faces some difficult financial challenges,” Lawrence acknowledged.
One of the most important duties of the state legislature is to adequately fund public schools, and education funding is a major part of the annual spending plan. Lawrence said that education continues to be a top priority. He explained that one of the most important duties of the state government is ensuring that students attend quality public schools.
“I have fought hard to prioritize education spending in the state budget,” he said. “This year’s state budget delivered more money to our local school districts than any previous year.”
The State Legislature set aside $60 million that is being made available to Pennsylvania's schools to ensure school safety, and Lawrence sponsored a bill that would give parents the ability to opt-out of the Keystone Exams for their children with no negative penalties to the student, parent, or teacher.
During the budget process, Gov. Wolf proposed eliminating some funding to the New Bolton Center Veterinary School, and Lawrence worked with legislators from both sides of the aisle to ensure that the New Bolton Center kept its level of funding.
While everyone favors quality education, funding schools at the appropriate level remains an enormous challenge.
Lawrence explained that when he's out campaigning or just shopping at the grocery store, the number-one issue that residents in the 13th District ask him about is still school property taxes, which are directly related to the level of state funding for education. If the state decreases its percentage share of education funding, a greater burden is placed on local property owners.
“It's the number-one issue in the 13th District,” Lawrence said of property taxes. “Many folks, in particular seniors, are being taxed out of their homes. In recent years, most of the increase in school taxes is due to the vastly underfunded teacher’s pension system, and the requirement for the state and the school districts to contribute more to those pension plans.”
Lawrence has supported a number of proposals to address the issue of high property taxes. One piece of legislation that he sponsored, which unanimously passed the House, would have dedicated all revenue from casino table games to property tax relief. He also voted in support of House Bill 76, which would have eliminated school property taxes and shifted the tax burden by increasing broader taxes like the state sales tax and the personal income tax.
The state’s pension system crisis has caused local property taxes to skyrocket over the last decade. Teachers have always fully paid into the pension system, but the state did not. For years, the state under-funded the pension system as a way of balancing the budget, allowing the deficit to grow and grow.
According to Lawrence, “Rising school taxes are directly related to the fiscal crisis facing the state pension systems, which are woefully underfunded due to poor budget decisions made by governors (Tom) Ridge and (Ed) Rendell, and the Republican and Democrat legislators who enabled them.”
Lawrence emphasized that the state has an obligation to meet when it comes to the teachers’ pensions.
“I am committed to keeping the pension promises made to teachers,” Lawrence said. “I've been a relentless voice that we have to fund the pension system.. This year we made all of our contributions to the pension funds. I voted to designate $2.26 billion to PSERS, the teachers’ pension system. By way of comparison, that’s almost the same amount the state put into PSERS during the entire eight years of the Rendell administration. I will continue to strongly advocate making responsible payments to fund the state pension systems. We must keep our promises to retirees.”
One way to meet all the state’s financial obligations is providing oversight to how taxpayer money is being spent, and eliminating waste whenever possible.
Lawrence said that he interceded and pointed out the inappropriateness of a $12 million expenditure to renovate the Penn State University president’s suite at the football stadium.
Lawrence was also one of the lawmakers who sounded the alarm about the $50 million low-interest loan that the state was planning to make to a politically connected New Hampshire-based private timber company to purchase timberland in northwest Pennsylvania. The funds for the loan came from a taxpayer-subsidized state program that is, by law, is required to fund improvements to water and sewer plants in Pennsylvania. Why should that funding go to an out-of-state company when there are so many needs in Pennsylvania that that funding could be used for? To Lawrence, it was an issue of financial accountability. Lawrence is a member of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, which approved a resolution calling on Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale to conduct a financial audit of 118 nonpoint source projects that had been approved by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST) board of directors, including the $50 million loan.
Lawrence has been concerned about the state debt and the burden that is being left for future generations of taxpayers. He has advocated for reducing the state’s debt, and for keeping a close watch on all the debt of state-related agencies to ensure that taxpayer money is being used responsibly. Lawrence sponsored legislation that was aimed at reducing Pennsylvania’s debt burden by requiring the administration to use responsible debt management practices by repaying new capital debt by using a level principal payment approach, which would save taxpayer dollars by reducing the amount of money spent on interest payments. The legislation received bipartisan support and passed the State House by a vote of 188-2 and was unanimously approved in the State Senate. However, the legislation was then vetoed by Gov. Wolf.
Many of the pieces of legislation that get approved in Harrisburg receive support from both sides of the aisle. While politics has become increasingly polarizing nationally, Lawrence said that he has always strived to work with both Republican and Democrat colleagues on legislation that benefits the citizens of Pennsylvania.
One of the things that motivated Lawrence to first run for office was the infamous midnight pay raise that state lawmakers granted themselves, without debate or public scrutiny, in 2005. At that time, state lawmakers not only granted themselves a hefty pay increase of more than 15 percent, they did so late at night and then left town. That kind of dubious was par for the course for a state legislature that worked hard at its reputation for wasteful spending and corruption.
Since he was elected to office, Lawrence has eschewed that kind of governing. He has refused the taxpayer-paid defined benefit pension. He also does not seek per diem payments and other perks, like a free state car and a cell phone.
“I advocate for legislation that holds elected officials accountable and returns power back to people,” Lawrence said.
What Lawrence likes best about his job as a state lawmaker circles back to the reason that he originally ran for office: It’s the opportunity to make government work better for the citizens of Pennsylvania. It’s the opportunity to be a voice in government for those who would otherwise not have a voice. It’s working on legislation like what became Act 102 of 2018. Not everyone will be affected by legislation regarding domestic domestic violence and alimony payments, but for those who are affected, the legislation is critically important. In order to get legislation that was signed into law, Lawrence worked with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, enlisted support and help from the Domestic Coalition Against Violence, and shepherded the bill through the approval process.
“That's how it's supposed to work,” Lawrence said. “Somebody sees a law that needs to be changed, and we work together through the process to make a change. I appreciate Gov. Tom Wolf’s approval of my bill. I have heard from victims of domestic violence all over the state who have been ordered by a judge to pay alimony to their abusive soon-to-be ex-spouse. This legislation corrects that injustice to ensure that, going forward, people will not have to pay their abuser.”
The new law, which had overwhelming support in both the Houses and Senate, goes into effect in 60 days.
In Office 211 in the Ryan Office Building in Harrisburg, Lawrence has a picture on his wall of state lawmakers from 1877. It’s a reminder, he said, that no one remembers any of those lawmakers today, but people are still living with the benefits and consequences of the work that they did. It’s the laws and policies that make a difference in people’s lives, not the lawmakers themselves. Taken individually, many of the pieces of legislation discussed and debated by the State House might not have a dramatic impact, but collectively the bills help improve the lives of the citizens of Pennsylvania.
Lawrence would like to continue to represent the citizens of Pennsylvania when state lawmakers are dealing with issues like rising pension costs, expenses related to Medicaid, and the ongoing effort to fund public schools, while balancing all of that with the need to put the state on a course that is financially sustainable.
“My focus,” said Lawrence, “is always on what can be accomplished to improve the government for Pennsylvania citizens and the people in the 13th District.”
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty .com.