It wasn’t planned that way but due to competing events the Northampton County League of Women Voters’ legislative coffee Saturday became the Bob and Steve Show.
That’s state Reps. Bob Freeman and Steve Samuelson, both Democrats, who answered questions from the League and an audience of about 40 people at the forum at Moravian Village in Bethlehem.
Local Republican legislators had also been invited but some were attending the Northampton County GOP’s annual Lincoln Day Breakfast, according to League Second Vice President Shirley Lindgren.
So Samuelson, who represents parts of Allentown, Bethlehem and Bethlehem Township, and Freeman, who represents Easton and other parts of Northampton County, addressed such issues as education funding, a natural gas severance tax, judicial reform, redistricting and distracted driving. Here’s how they came down on those issues:
Both Freeman and Samuelson favor an extraction or severance tax on the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserve, pointing out that Pennsylvania is the only major natural gas producing state that doesn’t have one.
They backed House Bill 33 which would send a third of the severance tax revenue to the communities where the extraction is taking place to address the impact. Another third would go to statewide environmental protection, an area that has seen severe cuts in recent years, and a third to the state general fund to help plug the $3.9 billion budget gap.
Samuelson said some opponents of the extraction tax say it will hurt an industry in its infancy. “I’ve never heard Exxon Mobil called an industry in its infancy,” he said.
Both legislators said they have concerns about merit selection of judges. They said it would be better to leave the choices up to voters than to put it in the hands of an unelected panel made up of representatives of special interests, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.
But they would support a ban on gifts to judges as well as other elected officials. “Yes, we should have limits on gifts,” Samuelson said. “The limit right now is [anything over] $250 you have to disclose it.”
Freeman said groups with names such as “Citizens for Good Government” can contribute unlimited amounts of campaign donations without disclosing who the contributors are.
Pennsylvania needs public financing of judicial races so citizens can be sure that special interests with deep pockets aren’t influencing judges’ decisions, Freeman said.
The state has increased funding for education for the last five years but this year the tough part will be maintaining the current funding level in the face of a $3.9 billion spending gap in the state’s budget, they said. About 37 percent of the state’s spending plan goes toward public education, Freeman said.
If the state cuts funding for schools, local school boards will have to make up the differenc by raising property taxes, Samuelson said. That’s especially hard for districts that have a large portion of their land in the hands of tax-exempt entities, like colleges and hospitals.
Neither legislator supported reducing the number of legislators in the House. Such a move would expand the size of each district which would increase the amount of money candidates have to raise to run and therefore the influence of special interests, Freeman said. It would also make each representative less accessible to his or her constituents. “Once you get to a large size, you tend to lose touch with your constituents,” he said. “Right now people just walk in and say, “Is Bob in? Can I talk to him about something?’ It’s a great opportunity to have connected time with the people who are our bosses.”
Freeman and Samuelson said they’ve favored bills to put all state expenditures online for public review and Samuelson said he introduced an amendment to put the state’s debt service online.
Freeman favors a similar redistricting system to Iowa’s which has a legislative services bureau draw up the lines. Those districts can’t be based on voter registration, previous election results or any demographic information other than population. Pennsylvania’s redistricting done largely by the party in power usually aims to protect incumbents even by drawing districts that don’t make sense, he said.
The districts have “morphed into these amoeba-like structures,” Freeman said. “You look at a map and say, ‘Did the guy drawing these lines have a seizure halfway through the process?’”
George Emery of Bethlehem asked them why the Legislature hasn’t banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Samuelson and Freeman said they voted for legislation that passed the House which would have done just that. But the Senate approved a watered down measure, which would have made it a secondary offense for teen drivers to call or text. That would mean police would not be able to pull over drivers texting or talking on the phone unless the officers spotted another infraction, such as running a red light. The House sponsors are pursuing the stronger bill.