The people we send to Harrisburg determine what happens in our backyards.
Aside from electing a U.S. president on Nov. 6, some very important state offices will also be filled. The people we send to Harrisburg influence things like water and air quality, environmental protection (or destruction) and what can happen in our backyards.
(Favoring the gas-drilling industry over citizens, the state legislature recently passed a law depriving local communities of the right to regulate land use, in effect making the entire state an industrial zone. The case is headed for the state Supreme Court.)
The people we send to the General Assembly influence what children learn, the capacity and quality of health care facilities and jails, safety on the highways, whether seniors can keep their homes while facing ever-increasing property taxes and whether all people have basic shelter, food and clothing.
The people we elect will also set the moral tone of state and local government and will determine if we will have an ethical state government free of corruption. Because of those who would seek to buy Pennsylvania, we need good people in public office who will say, "Sorry, Pennsylvania is not for sale."
The Pennsylvania Homeowners Association has some suggestions for new and returning legislators regarding public policy.
1. Homeowners over the age of 65 should be exempt from property taxes. People should see an end to their property taxes. Homeowners on reduced, fixed, incomes should not have to face ever-increasing taxes. No tax should threaten your home. The senior homeowner with a "lifetime freedom" card should be exempt from property tax as long as he owns his home.
2. Pennsylvania homeowners deserve a real homestead exemption. Only three states do not have a homestead exemption: Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. (Pennsylvania has a homestead exclusion, limited to a reduction in assessed valuation of a homestead which is subsidized by gaming revenues collected by the state and administered by school districts, the total of which is limited to 50 percent of the median value of all homestead properties in the school district. It is a limited attempt at relief from school taxes.)
The purpose of a real homestead exemption is to protect the family home from creditors. The entire equity in the home can be protected by a state homestead exemption, which is basically a life estate in real estate. Once a homeowner has paid off all mortgage debt and property tax, the family home should be totally secure and protected by law from all creditor attacks.
3. Pennsylvania citizens deserve the right of initiative and referendum. Twenty-eight other states and the District of Columbia have these rights. With enough signatures on a petition, Pennsylvania citizens should be able to put an issue directly onto a state ballot. Likewise, citizens should be able to have a referendum vote on any law of concern, voting the law up or down by popular vote.
If we believe that government derives its powers from consent of the governed, there should be no problem giving these rights to the people. These rights have long been advocated by some state legislators, by Common Cause and by the Commonwealth Foundation.
4. Extended living at home. With the home secure from attack and taxation, the senior homeowner who needs assistance, but who wants to remain at home, should be able to do so.
5. Pennsylvanians deserve direct benefits, such as the reduced cost of natural gas for home heating, from the extraction and depletion of natural-gas resources. The state constitution names the commonwealth (the General Assembly, governor and officials) as trustees of public natural resources which are the common property of all the people, including generations to come. The trustees are to conserve and to maintain those resources for the benefit of the people. (Big Oil and Gas stockholders, corporate officers and public officials are not the intended beneficiaries.)
6. A severance tax on extracted gas that would fund education — thereby enabling the rollback and capping of property taxes. With the prospect of immense profits from the extraction of gas, the gas industry does not need cheerleaders in government. Citizens do need to know that government cares more about them than corporate profits, need to see direct benefits from the permanent depletion of a natural resource (which will be shipped to world markets as liquefied natural gas with no regard for U.S. energy independence) and need to see that state officials are fit trustees.
This opportunity should not be lost. Impact fees pay for impacts. Citizens now need a direct benefit.
7. Pennsylvanians deserve a new state ethics law that prohibits political candidates and public officials from accepting campaign contributions and favors from an industry they regulate. While it may be lawful for corporations to offer money and favors, it appears unethical and corrupt for candidates and public officials to accept campaign contributions and favors from industries they then must regulate as a responsibility of their office.
Pennsylvania should be a leader in requiring a level playing field for all candidates and officials who have a regulatory, legislative, executive, or administrative responsibility related to regulated industries. The test of correctness is not limited to mere legality.
Edward Smith, a resident of Cambria County, is a retired manager of small, medium and large full-service cities and counties. He is a former federal agent and was a doctoral studies Fulbright Fellow at the University of Leiden and The International Union of Local Authorities, The Hague, Netherlands. He holds a master's in public administration from Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He organized and chairs The Pennsylvania Homeowners Association, www.PennHomeowners.com, and can be reached at LRLHighlands@AtlanticBB.net.