Candidates in 49th Legislative district square off

By Christine Haines chaines@heraldstandard.com Oct 14, 2016

MONESSEN — When voters head to the polls Nov. 8, those in the 49th Legislative District will elect a new state representative for the first time in more than 30 years. Democrat Alan Benyak of Charleroi and Republic Donald “Bud” Cook of Coal Center are vying for the seat held by Rep. Peter J. Daley since 1983. Daley, D-California, announced earlier this year he would not seek an 18th term in office.

Benyak, an attorney, and Cook, an emarketing and promotions consultant, recently discussed the issues facing the district at a public forum sponsored by The Mon Valley Herald Standard, the Mon Valley Alliance and the Greater Rostraver Chamber of Commerce.

One of the biggest issues facing not just the region, but the state as a whole, is opioid addiction. “People are dying every day,” Cook said. “At http://www.votebudcook.com we have a whole plan out there that addresses the drug problem.” Benyak said that he can see drug deals, and at times drug use, from his office window in Charleroi nearly every day, and each time he calls the authorities. “We need to treat these people because it is something that will be with them their entire life,” Benyak said. Benyak said he supports pending state legislation to allow charges to be brought against anyone who provides illegal drugs that cause injury to another person. “The U.S. attorney’s office is overwhelmed,” Benyak said of the need for the state legislation.

Property tax reform and blight

Benyak said he is a supporter of property tax reform, shifting to a 1 percent increase in the sales tax. That would allow people to pay taxes based on what they are able to spend, not on their place of residence, he said. Cook said the previously proposed property tax independence act is simply a tax transfer, shifting from property tax to a sales tax.
“That’s not a solution,” Cook said. “Now the government has its hand in your pocket 365 days a year instead of one. I think we need to address the blight in our area that has taken away a lot of the property tax.” Benyak said blight is a serious problem in the legislative district. “The number one reason for blight is property taxes are so high people just walk away from their properties,” Benyak said. “There are good things going on now. In Charleroi there is the land bank. I do have to give Donora credit for thinking outside the box and having their street department tearing down houses.” Cook said regulations often get in the way of communities fixing themselves up. He cited the case of a property in Washington County, where a local  contractor was hired to tear down a structure only to have the project stopped by the state Department of Environmental Protection because the contractor wasn’t licensed to handle asbestos removal. “It doesn’t take a lot to get these communities cleaned up,” Cook said.

Education

Both candidates support additional funds for education.
“Where you come up with the money is a great question. You would have to look at every single item in the budget and prioritize them,” Benyak said. Cook said districts need to think outside the box when it comes to funding, partnering with nonprofit groups, state agencies and area universities to provide programs for students.
“It’s not always about passing new laws and spending more money,” Cook said.
He indicated he supported the concept of charter schools as alternatives to traditional education. “Competition is a good thing, but they too need to be held to a high standard,” Cook said. “I support basic public education,” Benyak said. “The problem with charter schools is they aren’t held to the same standard.” When asked whether high school students should have to pass a question civics test using the questions from the U.S. citizenship test, Benyak said he would like to review the proposal first.
“I don’t know what those 100 questions are. Would it be the same questions in all of the school districts?” Benyak asked. “I would defer to the attorneys here and say we need to review,” Cook said. Cook said he was amazed when he was gathering signatures for his nominating petition at how many people between the ages of 25 and 35 were unaware of how the political system worked.

Harrisburg, jobs and pensions

As for the political gridlock in Harrisburg, Cook said he is all for building a team.
“You attack the problem, not the people” he said. Benyak said people need to respect one another and keep an open mind. “I’m always able to get along with other people. My father was a steelworker and my mother was a secretary. I was taught to respect people. I’m a middle of the road guy,” Benyak said. On the role of recreation in the region, Benyak said it is one element of a diverse economy. “I’ve always viewed it as the icing on the cake, and in this particular district, there isn’t much cake left. We need to develop real jobs before we develop recreation,” Benyak said. “My priority is family-sustaining jobs.”
Cook said recreation jobs are the low-hanging fruit for local job creation.
“Seven of 10 jobs are created by small businesses in this country. If Allenport Steel Mill were coming back, it would have come back years ago,” Cook said. Neither candidate has made up his mind regarding taking a state pension, though Benyak noted that they are a long way away from earning a state pension and would need to win multiple terms in office to qualify. Cook said he would submit actual expenses instead of taking the state per diem. Benyak said he still hadn’t decided which reimbursement method he would select.
“I won’t abuse it either way,” Benyak said. In closing, Benyak said he supports a no budget/no pay proposal for the state legislature, forcing lawmakers to come up with the annual budget in a timely fashion. He also said the district has a bright future.
“We can rebrand ourselves. We’ll be something very different in five or 10 years,” Benyak said. Cook said he will continue to walk the walk. “Two things are still respected in the Mon Valley — hard work and fighters,” Cook said. “All my adult life I have attacked problems. Go down Main Street. Is this the best we can do after 25 years?”

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