Candidates for 51st Legislative District face off in forum

By Mike Tony mtony@heraldstandard.com

Published Tue Nov 01, 2016 2:15 AM EDT

LEMONT FURNACE — The two candidates running for state representative in the 51st Legislative District answered questions about their views and experience in a forum, discussing approaches to pervasive regionwide issues such as opioid abuse, frustrations with property taxes and blight, and funding for education.

Five-term incumbent Tim Mahoney, D-South Union Township, and his Republican challenger, Matthew Dowling of Uniontown, exchanged perspectives during the forum at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus hosted by the Herald-Standard, Greene County Messenger and The Mon Valley Herald-Standard in conjunction with the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce.

Forum moderator Jim Protin, president of the Mon Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, asked each candidate what measures they would take if elected to better the portions of Fayette and Somerset counties they would serve.

OPIOID ABUSE

Mahoney, who hosted a House Democratic Policy Committee public hearing on opioid abuse treatment at Uniontown City Hall earlier this month, said elementary-level education needs to be better funded, adding that he believes addicts should receive longer periods for rehabilitation without a long-term reliance on addiction-fighting drugs.

“We’ve lost this war with drugs this generation,” Mahoney said. “There’s just no doubt about it.”

Dowling, a local businessman and veteran community volunteer, stressed that law enforcement agencies need more financial support.

“Early education as well as rehab and treatment are areas we need to focus on,” Dowling said.

The candidates were asked how they felt about methadone clinics in the community.

Dowling said there is no incentive for clinics to get users off of methadone and called for oversight to reduce its use. Mahoney said most of the people that run clinics get rich off of them because they keep users in a program. But, Mahoney added, it is pointless to regulate the location of clinics.

“For us to say we’re going to regulate where these methadone clinics go is asinine because, what makes a difference where they go?” Mahoney said. “They’re there to help our relatives, our friends, our neighbors.”

Mahoney said it is the state’s duty to follow everyone who is on methadone and get them off the drug within 16 months.

PROPERTY TAXES AND BLIGHT

Dowling called for pension reform while “keeping the promise that we’ve made to people that have paid into these systems for years and years because they’ve earned it.” He said reform would save taxpayers “billions and billions of dollars,” emphasizing that spending needs to be more controlled, which in turn could help with reducing property taxes within the state.

Mahoney noted that he co-sponsored the Property Tax Independence Act — House Bill 76, which would eliminate all school property taxes across the state (with the exception of those retained to retire current debt) and replace those taxes with funding from the personal income and sales taxes. House Bill 76 was referred to the state Finance Committee on Oct. 6.

Subsequently, Mahoney advocated for school district administration consolidation, which he has pitched locally and statewide for much of his time as state representative.

“If we were to go into a countywide district that I’ve been talking about for the last six years, we would save $56 million every year starting the first year it’s in,” Mahoney said. “That would take your property taxes down over half of what your school taxes are.”

At a February town hall meeting, Donna Brightman, president of the Washington County, Maryland, Board of Education, joined Mahoney, and it was noted that Brightman’s single-administration district spends $56 million less on public schools than Fayette County’s six school districts while educating about 5,400 more students.

Mahoney attributed blight to what he said was the majority of properties in Connellsville, Brownsville and Uniontown becoming rentals since city residents can’t afford their taxes. Mahoney said the issue came back to the school boards.

Dowling said the best cure for blight is economic growth.

“If we get jobs back and people come back, the blight goes away,” Dowling said.

EDUCATION FUNDING

Mahoney said education funding could not be increased anymore and said Harrisburg lobbyists are paying for flyers against him, claiming that school board associations are donating money to the Republican Party to make sure he doesn’t get re-elected.

Dowling said a school funding formula created and adopted in June by a bipartisan commission studying the issue mostly “got it right” but criticized Gov. Wolf for not following the formula. Dowling also questioned Mahoney’s focus on consolidation.

“When you put (school consolidation) as a bill that’s going to go through and force that upon everyone, then the entire state is going to be forced to follow that plan,” Dowling said. “Right now, school districts could get in a room and have a meeting and consolidate if they want, but forcing them is the same as forcing an unfunded mandate across the entire state.”

Mahoney noted a 2011 court decision against a school consolidation referendum that he said he tried to put on the ballot “through a little backdoor loophole” but added he was still trying.

“All we have to do is get six school boards to agree to it,” Mahoney said.

Dowling said he believes consolidation would only work for parts of the 51st Legislative District.

“As I’ve been meeting voters out in Turkeyfoot and Meyersdale, they’re faced with class sizes so small that they have to eliminate the arts,” Dowling said. “They want consolidation there. But if you go to the Albert Gallatin School District, you’ll hear a much different story.”

The district includes the City of Uniontown; Georges, German, Henry Clay, Nicholson, South Union, Springfield, Springhill, Stewart and Wharton townships; and Fairchance, Markleysburg, Ohiopyle, Point Marion and Smithfield boroughs in Fayette County.

It also includes Addison, Elk Lick, Lower Turkeyfoot, Summit and Upper Turkeyfoot townships and the boroughs of Addison, Confluence, Garrett, Meyersdale, Salisbury and Ursina, in Somerset County.

Election Day is Nov. 8.

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