KENNETT SQUARE >> After Cuyler Walker unexpectedly withdrew as the Republican endorsed candidate for the 158th district, committee members went knocking on incumbent Chris Ross’ door. Ross announced his retirement earlier this year, but when he, and not Roger Howard, was asked to run, Ross immediately accepted.
“I have some unfinished business,” Ross said, referring to the pension crisis. “I was willing to step in, given the short time frame. This will be my final retirement. You either leave a little early or a little late, and I said I would be leaving early, just not as early as I thought.”
Ross, a nine-term legislator, said education and pension issues will be his top priority if re-elected.
“My concern now is the degree to which pension costs are sucking all of the oxygen out of the room, both for the state budget and also for the school districts,” he said.
Ross said the $50 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 says lawmakers must find a solution on the pension problem soon and that the sentiment now among lawmakers is to address legislation that impacts only newly hired teachers.
“The vast majority of private sector employees nowadays are on a defined contribution plan exclusively,” he said. “We’re talking about a defined benefit for those low-income so they have a reliable pension, and those earning more than $50,000 a year to go into a fair and reasonable defined contribution plan. Over a period of time, we will be shifting the risk to taxpayers substantially and reducing it substantially. This is fair to the workers and also fair to the taxpayers.”
One solution Ross proposes is a fair and reasonable Marcellus Shale extraction tax that is dedicated to paying down the unfunded pension liability for existing employees and existing retirees, and shift newly hired teachers and state workers into a hybrid plan that includes a component of defined contribution. This plan, Ross said, will save the system between $11 billion and $15 billion over the next 30 years.
Ross is pushing for a better state educational funding distribution formula.
“The growing school districts like the ones in Chester County have been shortchanged for years because of the funding formula, which unreasonably favors those school districts which have declining student populations,” he said. “We now have a strong push and are now in the process of getting people together to make an attempt to fund on a per-pupil basis and get a fair adjustment for those districts that have relative poverty.”
Ross said if elected, he will continue to work to preserve open space.
“Obviously, there is continuous building here, but I think it has slowed down,” he said. “I think we need to be focused on targeted open space. We need to be sure we have recreational fields and the environmentally sensitive areas are properly protected.”
On the health care issue, Ross said it seems there is support to expand Medicaid.
“The working poor need assistance in covering their insurance,” Ross said. “We want them to be able to take advantage of the expanded program the governor has negotiated with the federal government. That will take care of those people and put them in a program they can afford rather than rely on the emergency room or hope they don’t get ill.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has spent $5.3 billion this year on highways, bridges and public transit, a 40 percent increase over last year. Ross said he favors getting additional funding for roads and bridges.
“Nobody enjoys having increased fees or increased costs, but we have to pay for what we have,” he said. “We can’t allow our infrastructure to deteriorate.”
Gas tax money, Ross said, isn’t going as far today because today’s cars are more fuel-efficient. “As people go to full electric cars, the wear and tear on the roads will continue, and we will need to find a funding source that is fair and accurate.”
During his tenure as a public servant, Ross has come across many property tax reform bills. Ross things senior citizens need some kind of relief.
“I think we need to focus on the revenues we are getting from gaming more directly and target that to low-income seniors,” he said. “If we can funnel the bulk of that down to them, then we would be able to give them real property tax reform rather than the approximate $100 per year most people are getting. For a family making $150,000 a year, the $100 is not a substantial amount of money. But to a fixed income senior, if we could target the money on them, we might be able to do $1,000 or $1,000 or $3,000 of tax relief for them, which will make a difference from theme being able to stay in their house, or lose their house.”
Ross said he also wants to review economic development — what works and what doesn’t — in an effort to bring jobs to the area. He said there are more than 80 economic development programs in place, and he wants to review the ones that are producing jobs.