Members of the Adams County Council of Governments (ACCOG) quizzed two state representatives and aides of two federal legislators about political initiatives including cyber charter schools, rural broadband, human services and fire and emergency management funding, requirements for local construction inspectors, and health care at its legislative priorities meeting on Thursday night.
On the panel were PA House District Reps. Dan Moul and Torren Ecker, Chad Reichard representing U.S. Rep. John Joyce, and Larissa Bailey, Central Pennsylvania Regional Manager for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.
The meeting was moderated by ACCOG member and Cumberland Township manager Ben Thomas.
Cyber Charter Schools
Thomas asked the panel about PA House Bill 526 that would require that if a local school district provides a full-time cyber school then students would have to use that school or else pay for other options.
Moul and Ecker characterized the measure as a property tax relief bill.
“The school boards have messaged well for this bill,” said Moul. “There are definitely folks who are in opposition. We’ll see how it plays out.”
“If you opt to go to another school you should pay for it like any other private school,” said Moul.
“School districts should continue to advocate for the bill’s passage. The squeaky wheel speaks,” said Moul.
He noted that companies that run cyber schools lobby hard against the bill.
Moul noted the need, but also difficulties in budgeting for high speed internet and that the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for fiber optic cables would be difficult to find.
“I’m a realist. Adding $10 to everyone’s cable bill would not come close to getting rural areas on broadband,” said Moul.
“It won’t be long until you can get high-speed internet off a satellite dish. Once you can put a dish on your roof for internet, fiber optic cable will be useless,” Moul said.
Reichard said Joyce supports rural broadband, but the current net neutrality proposal in the U.S. House is not helpful because it will make broadband costlier for individuals. “There is not a government solution for this; it will have to come from private companies,” said Reichard.
Human Services Funding
Ecker said the PA House has been discussing the “medicaid carveout,” in which PA takes money for behavioral (mental) health from its overall Medicaid funding. Ecker said this leaves both a “physical” and a “mental” side to Medicaid and that the two sides “are not talking.”
Ecker said the bill under discussion is designed to bring more transparency and to help behavioral healthcare better communicate with physical healthcare.
Moul said many counties are opposed to the bill because they get a benefit from money that is not spent on behavioral health which they use primarily for addiction.
Moul proposed another idea: “Could we give our judges the money to start a Vivitrol program?” (Vivitrol is a prescription injectable medicine used to prevent relapse to opioid dependence after opioid detox).
“We could require users to take Vivitrol, and to show up at meetings. And if they miss one meeting they would go back to jail,” he said.
Thomas said the county’s fire and emergency management teams are experiencing “heavy challenges. The volunteers do an outstanding job but the idea that residents will have to foot the bill” is problematic, he said.
Ecker agreed “the numbers are startling” and the situation was “a crisis” as the number of volunteer firefighters has reduced dramatically.
“Times are changing and we need to adjust. I’ve met with countless folks who are very passionate about this issue and committees have been formed to make recommendations,” said Ecker.
Ecker said this was a bipartisan, bicameral issue that has a lot of support.
Moul noted that some fire companies in the county have recently been fined for hiring outside fundraisers and incorrectly reporting this on their taxes and that he was trying to work with PA departments to help them.
Moul argued that bureaucrats from the state were to blame for the problem.
“Wait until we have to go to all-paid fire companies; you’ll see your taxes go through the roof,” said Moul.
Uniform Construction Bill
Thomas asked the panel about the Uniform Construction Code (UCC) bill (HB349) that would allow builders to hire their own approved inspector.
Thomas said there was a lot of opposition to the bill in Adams County because it would produce “unintended costs of permitting” and that townships would have to advertise for approved UCC inspectors.
“I voted for the bill. Other legislative bodies find the bill revenue neutral,” said Moul.
Ecker and Moul both pointed out that the bill only comes into effect when the person applying for a permit has to pay the inspector directly.
“If you’re a township with an in-house inspector, the bill does not affect you,” said Moul
“I think this will drive the price down because it creates competition,” said Moul
Moul said “Why would anyone want to take my private right to choose away from me?”
Moul also noted that having multiple inspectors available can be useful when employees are away.
Ecker also pointed out advantages of the bill including more choice for homeowners and noted the bill had been under discussion in Harrisburg for over eight years. “I like this bill as a consumer protection bill. I think residents will like it more than supervisors do,” he said.
Reichard said Representative Joyce’s “major reason for running” was health care. “He has been completely motivated and has insight into the industry,” he said.
Reichard said Joyce is “opposed to Medicare for all” which will “bankrupt hospitals very quickly.”
Bailey said “There are opportunities for agreement” and that Toomey had introduced a bi-partisan bill to exclude excise taxes on medical devices. “He’s hopeful he can get this across the finish line,” she said.
Thomas said Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation where municipal authorities do not have access to radar and other similar devices and asked about legislation to change that. Ecker said there was “not a lot of momentum” on this issue in Harrisburg.
Enforcement of Federal Department of Environmental Protection laws about municipal groundwater has been passed to the states and then to localities, and the panelists noted that this created issues locally.
Bailey said “we can protect our waterways without red tape. Having government tell you is not the cheapest way to do it.”
“This is a huge issue which is slowing creeping along. You have to pay for these projects,” said Ecker.
Moul spoke out passionately about the problems of the regulations. “Townships are collecting millions of dollars in tax money before they have any projects on the books.”
“It’s the worst rolled-out piece of legislation I’ve ever seen,” said Moul. “There’s no data to prove that is does anything.”
Thomas asked about a plan to have state officials collect county taxes. Moul said that would only occur if the county wanted the state to do it. He also cited a current report suggesting that this would be too expensive. “I don’t see it happening with those kind of numbers,” said Moul.
The issue of “prevailing wage” laws that require government construction projects to pay a standard minimum wage set by the State Department of Labor was discussed.
Moul and Ecker condemned the law as being “pro-union.”
Thomas asked about the possibility that local municipalities who do not have their own police force might be required to pay for state police coverage.
Ecker said he was “strongly opposed” to such measures. He argued that small municipalities should decide whether or not they want to have a local police department and that “state police response times will not change anyway.”
Moul said “Hell no. You’re already paying for state police.”
ACCOG legislative committee chair Bob Gordon said this year’s meeting was held in the evening in what appeared to have been a successful attempt to get more people to attend.