Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Candidates at odds on gambling and open space

Despite claims from Harrisburg that the mission of reforming Pennsylvania's taxation system has been accomplished, candidates for state Legislature at a League of Women Voters debate in south Bethlehem agreed more needs to be done and will be done in 2007.

But they differed sharply about which direction lawmakers need to go.

Joseph F. Brennan, the Democratic nominee in the 133rd House District, said he supports a plan that combines state gambling revenues with a half-percent increase in sales tax and would allow school districts to increase earned income tax to reduce the burden on property owners.

His Republican opponent, Dawn Berrigan, said she continues to support the plan proposed by the conservative Commonwealth Caucus, which would expand the sales tax to include more items, while cutting it from 6 percent to 5 percent; double the real estate transfer tax; and increase the state earned income tax by 0.55 percent. The plan does not factor in gambling revenue.

Green Party candidate Guy Gray said he finds ''a bit obscene'' the idea of funding schools with gambling revenue, but agreed with Brennan's idea that increasing earned income taxes is the fairest way to shift the burden.

The debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Northampton County and the Cathedral Church of the Nativity, also included state Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, who is seeking a third term, and Bonnie Dodge, the Republican challenger from Northampton. About 40 people attended the event, which was held at the church's Sayre Hall.

Dodge also decried the use of gambling, saying her top priority, if elected to the 18th District seat, would be to seek the repeal of Act 71, the law that legalized licensed gambling in Pennsylvania.

Boscola said that 172 busloads of people leave the Lehigh Valley every month to go gambling in another state. ''We need to keep that money here,'' Boscola said. However, she said she would also support increasing the state sales tax to 7 percent to bolster the state's education fund.

The House candidates are competing for the seat currently held by state Rep. T.J. Rooney, D-Lehigh/Northampton, who is leaving office at the end of the year after seven terms. Rooney, 41, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman, has not said what he will do next.

The traditionally south Bethlehem-based district strongly favors Democrats through voter registration. The district also includes parts of Allentown and Salisbury and Whitehall townships; and all of Catasauqua, Coplay, Fountain Hill and Hanover Township, Lehigh County.

Berrigan, a Catasauqua School Board member, said her goal is to abolish property taxes, and the Commonwealth Caucus plan crafted by Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-Berks, is the only way to get there. Brennan's plan, she said, is the same plan the Legislature adopted earlier this year. The Republican controlled Legislature had the Rohrer plan in front of it, but rejected it.

''The [Commonwealth Caucus] plan does not add up and it is never going to add up,'' said Brennan, a Rooney legislative aide and former Northampton County councilman. ''The sales tax is a regressive tax that will tax those who can least afford it.''

Berrigan claimed the sales tax is less regressive, saying an income tax would be harder on young families.

Though Gray agreed with Brennan on stressing a shift to income taxes, he also agreed with Berrigan that the current reform legislation is a ''very poor law. Lawmakers took the gambling dodge rather than craft fair and equitable taxes that everyone would support.''

Berrigan and Brennan also differed on the use of public funds to preserve open space, such as the Growing Greener programs, in which Pennsylvania voters were asked if they wanted the state to borrow money to protect parks, forests, farms and green spaces. Voters have twice voted for the initiative.

''I don't think we need to continue to spend taxpayer money on it,'' Berrigan said. Open space can be found in a short drive out of the Lehigh Valley, Berrigan said.

Brennan said the preservation of open space goes beyond farms and open expanses of land. It also means developing pocket parks for children to play in urban areas, he said.

''I always hear the Right say, 'Let the voters decide,''' Brennan said. ''The voters said yes. Who am I to say the voters were wrong?''

Gray said he wants Pennsylvania to put a five-year moratorium on new roads.

Article from mcall.com.

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