The Pennsylvania General Assembly started a new session Tuesday that cemented a new list of lawmakers and highlighted the issues that are likely to dominate the Harrisburg political scene for the next two years.
After a year 2020 in which lawmakers were forced to abandon many of the legislative priorities on their to-do lists in order to respond to the challenges of the global coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, the health crisis is likely to change and addressing a multi-billion dollar budget gap will remain a top priority.
Legislators must decide how to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to those who need it – especially those most susceptible to the disease and those who have limited access to health care.
You need to decide how to support businesses as the coronavirus continues to spread and then find a way to help recover from the economic downturn.
They need to decide how to help those struggling with food insecurity, a roof over their heads, making payments on their student loans, and trying to find new job opportunities.
You need to decide how to help local governments faced with budget constraints due to lost revenue streams.
And perhaps most importantly, they need to find the money to fund all of these initiatives and programs.
Democratic Governor Tom Wolf is likely to continue to battle with the Republican-controlled General Assembly to address Keystone State's problems.
The Reading Eagle asked the state legislatures representing Berks County to share their top three priorities for the new session.
This is what they had to say:
Senator Judy Schwank
The Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, which represents the 11th Senatorial District.
State Senator Judy Schwank
Financial Relief: My number one priority is ensuring financial relief for small businesses – especially in the hospitality industry, including restaurants, bars, special occasion venues, and nonprofits. We need to focus on COVID testing and vaccine launches to restore our lives, livelihoods, and communities. Persistently high unemployment requires a renewed focus on developing the workforce and improving the business climate in Pennsylvania. Developing a balanced budget with significantly lower revenues and likely without government assistance will also be challenging.
Education: There is no doubt that the pandemic has had a major impact on student learning. I plan to focus much of my legislative agenda on helping our school districts and higher education institutions get back to normal. All students should have access to quality education that includes early childhood learning and special needs education. Access to community college, which I believe should be tutor-free, and ensuring the viability of Pennsylvania's state higher education system are major educational priorities.
Agriculture: In my role as the Democratic Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, I will enact legislation to review ways in which agricultural practices can be used to combat climate change and legislation to review the food system in Pennsylvania, and how it can affect it can focus on stronger local production than better support for the food banking system. I will also come up with a resolution to investigate recycling in Pennsylvania, especially plastics. Law 101, which makes recycling mandatory in the Commonwealth, needs to be updated to reflect current markets, technologies and consumer practices related to plastics recycling and to ensure that recycling is economically sustainable and environmentally sound.
Senator Dave Argall
The Schuylkill County Republican represents the 29th Senatorial District.
State Senator Dave Argall
Economic Relief: Employers and workers across the Commonwealth have faced unprecedented difficulties this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the governor's shutdown of our economy. I have consistently supported laws that, despite Wolf's vetoes, would certainly begin to reopen our small businesses.
Eliminate Property Tax for Schools: Since previous attempts have failed, despite only getting 24 to 24 votes in the Senate, Senator John DiSanto introduced a new constitutional amendment to do so. I support DiSanto's legislation, which can be approved by the governor without the threat of a veto.
Lieutenant Governor Election Reform: The Pennsylvanians watched the relationship between Governor Wolf and former Governor Mike Stack deteriorate to the point where the two men publicly stated they would not speak for weeks. This is not a way of working and we need to make sure that no such situation ever occurs again.
Senator Katie Muth
The Montgomery County Democrat represents the 44th Senatorial District.
State Senator Katie Muth
Government Transparency: Far too often, the public is excluded from the decisions made in Harrisburg. I will continue to fight to reform our system so that our legislative process includes and involves the public as real partners in decision-making. Transparency, from information on government websites to the process of public commenting, is key to this end, and I will continue to fight to ensure that all Pennsylvanians have a seat at the table.
Protecting our natural resources: In my first two years as a member of the Senate, it has been shown that our Department for Environmental Protection does not always fulfill its mission. We've seen pipeline projects contaminate drinking water, environmental permits for companies under investigation, nonexistent water testing programs for radioactive contaminants, and communities sued by the DEP for simply trying to protect their cities. We can and must do better, and I will introduce and support a package of environmental reform laws dedicated to protecting our state constitutional rights to clean air and water.
Tax reform that benefits the people: Pennsylvania has one of the most regressive tax codes in the country, and the ongoing COVID pandemic has exposed the significant shortcomings of that system. We have the opportunity to change the flawed Pennsylvania tax system and make changes that will benefit the hardworking people and families of Pennsylvania by closing the Delaware void and adopting the Fair Share Tax Plan created by the Budget and Policy Center. These two changes will reduce the tax burden on the vast majority of families and ensure that companies using our current tax laws are held accountable.
Barry Jozwiak MP
The Bern Township Republican represents the 5th legislative district.
State representative Barry Jozwiak
Coronavirus: I want to make sure all frontline workers and first responders continue to receive the protective equipment they need to continue to take care of the people of Berks County. Additionally, I want to make sure the COVID vaccine is readily available and distributed to facilities in order to deliver the vaccine to the public as efficiently as possible.
Eliminate school property tax: I still want to eliminate school property tax. This is a problem that needs to arise in order for people, especially seniors, to stay in their homes.
Economy: I want to make sure that companies open up completely so that people can get back to work and companies stay in business. Too many businesses have closed due to COVID orders from the governor. Small businesses are the backbone of the economy and we need them to be 100% open asap. I'll be looking for more CARES Act money to help small businesses stay open, create jobs, and boost our economies.
Rep. Jerry Knowles
The Schuylkill County Republican represents the 124th Legislative District.
Rep. Jerry Knowles
Coronavirus: Local, state and federal government officials have been tasked with fighting this pandemic. We must continue to build on statute-based laws like the Senior Protection Act, a collaborative effort to bring our teaching hospitals and nursing homes together. Legislation to support our business community; and measures to ensure that students receive the education they need.
Electoral Reform: Our General Assembly review of the 2020 elections and our pursuit of an election review to continue in and during the next session. While elections are political in nature, the process in which they are held should be anything but political. When people question the process, they question the results.
Real Estate Tax Elimination at School: I am a strong advocate of real estate tax elimination, but I acknowledge that this is an uphill battle, as demonstrated by the last vote in the House where the elimination was overwhelmingly opposed. The land tax removal is what the people of my district want, and I will continue to campaign for it.
Mark Rozzi MP
The democrat of the community of Mühlenberg represents the 126th legislative district.
Status. Mark Rozzi MP
Aid to Childhood Sexual Abuse Victims: I will finish what I started to protect all Childhood Sexual Abuse Victims. In November 2019, Governor Wolf signed my historic law to protect all future victims of child sexual abuse. The second part of this legislative package, the constitutional amendment, would open a retrospective two-year window so that all victims who have aged out of the current law can claim damages. My goal is to get the legislation through the Senate and House of Representatives by the beginning of the 2021 session and have it on the ballot by spring 2021.
COVID-19 Aid: We need to allocate funds to the businesses, individuals and families who need them. We can do this by sponsoring company tax breaks, childcare subsidies, or nonprofits to help our friends and neighbors who may be during this difficult time.
Eliminating School Property Taxes: Now more than ever, we need to turn public school fees away from property taxes so homeowners don't lose their homes. We can do this through a combination of a 1% increase in sales tax and an increase in state income tax from 3.07 to 4.34. That archaic tax is a thing of the past and it is time to bring Pennsylvania's tax laws into the modern age.
Rep. Manuel Guzman Jr.
The Reading Democrat represents the 127th legislative district.
State Representative Manuel Guzman Jr.
Minimum Wage Increase: There is no reason a Maryland worker can earn more than twice as much doing the same job that Pennsylvania workers do. Like nine other states – including many of our neighbors like Maryland – Pennsylvania is required to approve a minimum wage of $ 15 as the minimum wage. Hard work should be rewarded, but accepting a minimum wage job in Pennsylvania in 2021 often means that workers are forced to accept a social lifestyle as they don't give themselves – let alone a family or child – $ 7.25 an hour can feed.
Eviction Moratorium Extension: Studies have shown that a Pennsylvania housing crisis will also lead to a Pennsylvania health crisis, and we cannot allow this to happen during this pandemic. Homelessness is the tragic reality that nearly a quarter of a million families in Pennsylvania currently face – just as we enter the coldest months of the year trying to contain the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Research from the University of Pennsylvania predicts that a 1% eviction rate would increase COVID-19 infections from 5% to 10% and result in one death for every 60 evictions.
Criminal Justice Reform: Detention often exacerbates the problems of people struggling with poverty, mental illness and addiction. We need to address the problems many of these people are struggling with and accept that they need help – not prison – to recover, as studies show that at least one in four people who go to prison is within the same Arrested again year.
Mark Gillen MP
The Robeson Township Republican represents the 128th Legislative District.
State Representative Mark Gillen
Eliminate school property tax: Legislators need to re-prioritize the school property tax burden as society is destabilized when home security is compromised.
Response from Coronavirus: The General Assembly must ensure that both the health and the rights of our citizens are protected. When businesses are forced to close, workers not only lose income, but in some cases their health benefits as well.
Economic relief: Legislators must remove all obstacles that have a negative impact on family income. Additionally, we need to identify and fix deficiencies in Pennsylvania's unemployment benefits system so that eligible recipients don't wait months for the payments they are entitled to.
State Senator Bob Mensch and State Representatives Jim Cox, David Maloney, Ryan Mackenzie and Gary Day did not respond to inquiries about their legislative priorities.