By FRAN MAYE
Pension reform, transportation and privatization of the state’s liquor stores are key challenges facing state lawmakers this year, Rep. Chris Ross (R-158th Dist.) told members of the Longwood Rotary Club Thursday.
The state is dealing with a $800 million budget deficit, and Ross said that is being addressed on a number of levels.
“We have cut most parts of government pretty dramatically,” he said. “We are trimmed down in terms of personnel and most operations. Revenues are stable now, and we are meeting expectations, but some costs are going up.”
Ross said the “graying population” – senior citizens – are requiring more and more services and tough decisions will need to be made this year on funding elderly related programs.
The budget deficit pales in comparison to the $45 billion unfunded liability in the state’s two public pension plans, one for state workers funded entirely at the state level and the other for public school employees, funded with a 50 percent split between the state and its 500 school districts. Ross said lawmakers must find a solution on the pension problem soon. Ross said the sentiment now among lawmakers is to address legislation that impacts only newly hired teachers.
Gov. Tom Corbett has gone on record saying he is unwilling to consider heavy borrowing as a solution to the pension crisis, and his strategy will be unveiled after his upcoming budget address in early February.
Regarding transportation, Ross said motorists are already feeling the first effects of a new transportation funding play that could impact gasoline prices soon. Last week, Corbett signed a bill that pumps billions of dollars into improvements to the state’s highways, bridges and mass-transit systems.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is set to spend $5.3 billion this year on highways, bridges and public transit, a 40 percent increase over last year. The increases in gas taxes and motorist fees will be phased in over five years and will generate about $2.3 billion a year.
The increases will amount to $2.50 per week for a motorist who travels 12,000 a year, according to Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch.
Because today’s vehicles are so fuel efficient, Ross said the state isn’t getting as much revenue in taxes at the pump. He said when he took office, his car got 20 mpg, but he drives a hybrid car now that gets 40 mph.
Privatization of the state’s liquor system is on the fast track, said Ross, adding he is in favor of the plan.
“Most people want to be able to buy beer, wine and spirits in the same place,” Ross said. ‘It will give better choices, and I don’t see the point of the state being in the liquor-selling business. But our biggest problem is what we do with beer distributors. They are threatened with being put out of business, and we have to come up with some kind of way to be fair to them. That’s the sticking point so far.”
Ross said state lawmakers have been working on phasing out the liquor store system for 30 years, but haven’t been able to do it because of a lack of support from the state’s labor unions.
“We’re closer now than we have ever been,” Ross said.
Ross, who recently announced he won’t seek re-election after 9 terms and 18 years as a lawmaker, said he has a number of bills he is working on. Among them: Reforming the real estate law, writing legislation that deals with distressed municipalities, working on legislation that will aid people with early dementia and a backup diesel generator bill that will put other clean sources of power on the grid when demand is high.
Ross said he is retiring from office at the right time. Because of redistricting, his district has changed, and he no longer represents Kennett Square, Kennett Township and Pennbury Township, which had been the nucleus of his territory.
“I don’t have a predominate influence in any one of the school districts,” Ross said. “This district will be a challenge to represent.”
Two people, Cuyler Walker, a Republican and chairman of East Marlborough supervisors, and Susan Rzucidlo, a Democrat, have announced their candidacy for the position.
Ross said he will spend more time with his family, and perhaps do some writing and teaching. He said he did not want to become a career politician.
“I will still be around. Being in legislature, I’ve observed people stay too long or leave too early. I’ve watched some of my colleagues get to a point where they can’t imagine life outside the legislature. Their goal in life is to die in office. I don’t share that desire.”