The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


October 26, 2012

Edward Smith | Concerned about what happens in our backyards?

— Some very important state offices will be filled Nov. 6. Water and air quality, environmental protection (or destruction), and what can happen in our backyards are questions that need to be addressed. (The Legislature recently passed a law depriving local communities of the right to zone – in effect making the entire state an industrial zone. The case is headed for the state Supreme Court.)

What children learn, the capacity and quality of health-care facilities and jails, safety on the highways, whether seniors will be taxed out of their homes, and whether needy people go homeless or hungry are other questions. 

Also to be decided is whether we will have an ethical state government free of corruption. We need good people in public office who will say when needed, “Sorry, Pennsylvania is not for sale.” 

The Pennsylvania Homeowners Association has some public policy suggestions for new and returning legislators.

* Homeowners over the age of 65 should be exempt from property taxes. People should see an end to their property taxes. Homeowners on reduced, fixed incomes should not have to face ever-increasing taxes. No tax should threaten your home.

* Pennsylvania home owners deserve a real homestead exemption. Three states –  Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland – do not have a homestead exemption. Pennsylvania has a homestead “exclusion” (a reduction in assessed valuation of a homestead) subsidized by gaming revenues collected by the state and administered by school districts. The purpose of a real homestead exemption is to protect the family home from creditors. Once a homeowner has paid off all mortgage debt, the family home should be totally secure and protected by law from all creditor attacks.

* Pennsylvania citizens deserve the right of initiative and referendum. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have these rights.  With enough signatures, Pennsylvania citizens should be able to petition the state to put an issue onto the ballot. Citizens, by referendum, should be able to vote any law up or down by popular vote. Our government derives its powers from consent of the governed and Pennsylvania citizens deserve these rights.  Some state legislators, Common Cause and The Commonwealth Foundation have long advocated these rights.

* Extended living at home is a growing concern for baby boomers. The senior homeowner who needs assistance, but who wants to remain at home, should be able to do so. It’s cheaper and better for all concerned. The state can help.

* Pennsylvanians deserve direct benefits, such as natural gas for home heating at cost, from the extraction and depletion of natural gas resources. The state constitution names the commonwealth as trustees of public natural resources, which are the common property of all the people. The trustees are to conserve and maintain those resources for the benefit of the people – including generations to come. (Big Oil and Gas stockholders, corporate officers and public officials are not the intended beneficiaries, nor are the foreign corporations and nations that will receive the gas from beneath our feet.)

* A severance tax on extracted gas would fund education – thereby enabling the rollback and capping of property taxes. With the prospect of immense profits, gas drillers do not need cheerleaders in government. Citizens need to see that government cares more about them than gas-industry profits and need to see that state officials are fit trustees. Impact fees are for impacts. Citizens now deserve a direct benefit for the permanent depletion of a valuable, nonrenewable natural resource.

* Pennsylvanians deserve a new state ethics law that prohibits political candidates and officials from accepting campaign contributions and favors from an industry they regulate. While it may be lawful for corporations to offer money and favors, it is unethical and corrupt for candidates and public officials to accept campaign contributions and favors from industries they then must regulate as a responsibility of their office.

Pennsylvania should be a leader in requiring a level playing field for all candidates and officials who have a regulatory, legislative, executive or administrative responsibility related to regulated industries.

The test of correctness is not limited to mere legality.

Edward Smith of Jackson Township is a retired city and county manager. He is a board member of Pennsylvania Homeowners Association.

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