Education funding debate revived by Masser, Yeager
SHAMOKIN - Ted Yeager challenged state Rep. Kurt Masser on his contention that he fought to get $100 million restored to the state education budget during the controversial funding battle last spring.
Yeager, the Democratic challenger for the 107th Legislative District, said it wasn't a matter of restoring the money.
"There wasn't a fight to put money back in. That money was there," he said during a debate Tuesday afternoon sponsored by the Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce in front more than 40 people.
But Masser quickly countered.
"I disagree. There was a fight; I was there; I was part of the fight," he said. "There were 203 people with 203 different ideas of where that money should go. Oh, there was a fight, and we won that fight."
It was one of the more lively exchanges during the one-hour debate, held at the social hall at Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. The chamber, which typically has a candidates' forum each fall, instead organized this year's luncheon as a debate between the two 107th candidates, who are both from Elysburg.
Questions were asked by a three-member panel that included Sandy Winhofer, chamber director; Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item; and Gabriel Beaulieu, a Susquehanna University student from Coal Township.
The Republican versus Democrat debate over whether education funding was cut or only had federal stimulus dollars removed last spring is still alive, judging by the candidates' comments.
Masser said it is "an outright lie" to suggest he and other Republicans voted to cut spending for education. Instead, it is now at historic levels, he said.
At the same time, he said, education funding can't grow unchecked.
"Staffing across the senatorial district has gone up in every school district (while) enrollment in every school district has gone down," and that's not sustainable, he said.
But Yeager said the state budget overall wasn't as dire as the Corbett administration made it sound, and education funding didn't have to be an issue.
"When Gov. Corbett said the money was not there, in that same year, there were $500 million in tax cuts and a $700 million surplus in the budget. The money was there," he said.
Also, he said Masser's "historic" funding numbers for education include money for pensions, which the state has had to raise considerably, and Social Security - things that don't impact students.
Asked what he would do if faced with cutting education in order to balance the state budget, Yeager, who retired from teaching after 33 years, related ideas about trimming costs. Noting he was an athlete in high school and college, he suggested nonetheless that sporting programs may have to cut the number of games they play to save on transportation costs.
"Does it hurt the athletic program to have fewer games? I don't think so. Does it save the taxpayers money? Sure it does," he said.
He also noted the dire costs of unfunded mandates on local schools.
Masser said education is "far too important to look at a funding cut" and he hopes next year's budget might include a "modest increase" in education funding.
Both candidates agree the funding formula for cyber-charter schools is unfair as it exists, and Masser said he wished the state could have passed reform this fall. A bill to do so recently stalled out.
The state's decision earlier this year to impose an impact fee but not a tax on the large oil and gas companies tapping Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale fields was another source of division between Yeager and Masser.
Yeager said the thought that a tax would chase away these companies is wrong considering there is more "energy" under Pennsylvania than there ever was under Texas before they took a drop out of it, he said, citing Shell Oil.
"Taxes are not what oil companies and gas companies use to determine where they are. What determines it is what's the supply and how do you get to it," he said. "Right now, it's easier in Pennsylvania to get natural gas than anywhere else."
He said the state has missed out on revenue from Marcellus Shale. Had it done the same as West Virginia, which taxes production, it could have generated $378 million in revenue between July 2009 and the end of 2011.
But Masser said taxes as a whole need to be considered in the Marcellus Shale debate, and to suggest Pennsylvania is letting these companies off at the lowest cost of any state is wrong.
"These companies are paying all the other taxes other companies in the commonwealth are paying. When you take taxes on a whole, we're not at the bottom," he said.
The candidates also debated at several times the extent to which the state is keeping an environmental check on gas drilling. Masser said state agencies monitoring production have more "boots on the ground than Texas." He said the state is "twice as diligent on environmental standards" than in previous years, and, in a spinoff discussion about coal, he said regulatory processes that are too difficult keeps miners out of work.
Yeager countered that while coal companies pay an extraction tax, gas companies do not. He expressed concerns about balancing income with environmental concerns.
"We're not as diligent as we need to be with our environment and the overview of gas companies," he said.
Masser, who noted local truck drivers who are employed because of gas drilling and that it has had a positive impact on jobs in the region and throughout the state, began and ended his points on Marcellus Shale by calling it a "game changer."
Both candidates were generally supportive of Northumberland County's Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA), planned for 6,500 acres of county-owned land, but both expressed a few concerns.
Yeager said it sounds like a good idea, but that any funding he would seek at the state level for the park would receive the same scrutiny he'll apply to all state spending to be sure there's a return on investment.
"I would lean more toward a slower approach rather than try to go full guns and get it done right away," Yeager said. "Let's make sure if we're going to do it, let's do it correctly."
Masser said slower isn't necessary considering the park has been in the works for seven or eight years.
"We're sitting on a gold mine out there as far as I'm concerned for the potential to bring outside riders and their dollars into our region," he said. "You talk to any businesses, certainly along Market Street (in Shamokin), I think they're excited about this project and what it means for extra traffic going by their doors every day."
He did express concerns about how much local residents would be charged to use the park, and the recent change in plans - possibly temporary - that would no longer allow hunting year-round at the 342-acre "Alaska site" that's part of the AOAA.
Other subjects covered in the debate included health care, jobs, term limits and state government reform.