The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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August 17, 2013

Casey touts fed aid: Crime-fighting money available, senator says

JOHNSTOWN — When a rash of crime occurs in a small city, such as Johnstown, the onus to address the issue is obviously on the municipality itself.

But the federal government can play an important role, too.

For example, funds are available from several sources, including the Justice Assistance Grant Program, Community Oriented Policing Services and Bulletproof Vest Partnership.

Johnstown, which has had five murders this year, recently applied for a COPS grant, which, if awarded, would provide money to pay for extra police officers.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey touted those programs during a visit to The Tribune-Democrat on Thursday.

“I think the federal government can continue to be a really strong partner in what is – and will always be – a local responsibility and a state responsibility mostly,” said Casey, a Democrat. “One of the best things we can do is stop what some people in Washington are trying to do, which is to cut – in a devastating way – the COPS program, the Justice Assistance Grants, so-called JAG, as well as something as basic and as elementary and effective as the bulletproof vest program. So just having the federal government not cut those programs, like some in Washington want to do, would be of great benefit to law enforcement.”

The ad hoc Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission recently released a report in which it outlined the causes of crime in the city.

The commission’s chairman, state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, called the local heroin trade the “common denominator” affecting housing, education, law enforcement and rehabilitation.

“The heroin problem is something we’re hearing more about, not only here, but in a couple of other places around the state; a real spike in that,” Casey said.

Casey believes a three-pronged approach is needed to deal with drug-related problems: education, treatment, law enforcement.

“You can’t have a real anti-drug program without all three,” Casey said.

During his interview, Casey shared his opinion on other topics:

Natural gas

Casey wants to see big fleets of buses – both those used for public transportation and by school districts – running on natural gas, which is plentiful in western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale field.

He feels the goal can be achieved, in part, by providing tax rebates to companies when they purchase buses that run on the fuel.

In addition, Casey supports creating designated corridors where fueling stations could locate. He has also encouraged workforce investment boards and companies to train workers in the skills needed for the burgeoning natural gas industry.

“I’ve worked very hard to put new ideas on the table,” Casey said.

He has introduced three pieces of legislation on the issue.

“The market is moving on this issue pretty quickly, but I do think that the federal government, to date, hasn’t been as aligned with it, as a strategy, as it should be,” said Casey. “I think some of the bills I have can do that.”

Egypt

A democratically elected government was recently overthrown by the military in Egypt.

President Barack Obama has not called it a “coup,” though.

If the administration uses that exact word, then law would require halting U.S. financial assistance to Egypt.

“It’s kind of a legal determination the administration has to make, but even in the absence of them – them being the administration – making that determination, which would trigger all kinds of consequences based upon statute in terms of our aid, even if that were not an issue, we have to seriously reassess the relationship with Egypt,” said Casey, who worked closely with the country when he served as the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs’ chairman.

Casey feels the United States was right to cancel planned joint military exercises with the new Egyptian government. He wants to see the violence stopped and steps taken toward enacting political reforms.

“We can’t determine the aspirations of the Egyptian people,” Casey said. “They’ve got to determine that, but I think we can provide some needed pressure and cajoling.”

Taxes and economy

More than 15,000 changes have been made to the federal tax code since 1986; some sweeping, others minute as punctuation changes.

After all of those alterations, the Senate Committee on Finance, which Casey joined earlier this year, has recently been working on ways to clarify, tighten and modernize the tax code. The members discussed ideas during 10 meetings held throughout a three-month period. Senators were allowed to either make their suggestions public, like Casey did, or they could opt to seal them for 50 years.

Approximately 1,000 pages of suggestions were compiled.

“Tax reform would be good for everyone,” said Casey.

No comprehensive plan has been developed yet.

“We’re far from that to be candid, but there are a lot of senators – most senators on the committee and beyond the committee – that believe we should do this. It would help the business community,” said Casey. “It would be one of the biggest kick-starts to the economy we could have.”

Reforming the tax code is one of many major issues facing the Senate between now and the end of the year, including the budget process, sequestration and the debt ceiling.

“We’ve got a number of difficult hurdles coming up when we get back,” Casey said.

Overall, he feels good economic developments have recently been made.

“The economy has been moving in the right direction. We’re getting positive numbers, month after month, but I would argue that we’re not creating jobs at a high enough rate or a fast enough pace,” he said.

Casey expressed concerns about the impact of sequestration, which required broad cuts to many federal programs. “I don’t think they’re widely felt yet. What I hope doesn’t come true, but I’m afraid it might at some point, is we won’t know how bad the sequester is until it’s too late,” he said.

He thinks it is unlikely a budget will be in place by the time the 2014 fiscal year is set to begin on Oct. 1.

“It’s more likely (a continuing resolution) will happen than we’ll have a broader budget agreement,” Casey said.

The senator feels a possible shutdown and default on federal debts must be avoided. “I think it’s a bad idea, for both parties, to even get close to a default,” he said.

When asked what has caused so many important issues to go unresolved, Casey said, “I don’t have a good answer because there’s probably 20 different reasons.” He said some of the problem can be attributed to the current mix of ideology and partisanship in Washington, D.C.

Pension crises

There is not much the federal government can do to assist municipalities and states with their pension problems, according to Casey.

Johnstown’s pension system is only 49 percent funded, according to City Manager Kristen Denne. It would require an additional $20 million to make it full. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has a public pension debt of approximately $47 billion.

“I think the ability of the federal government to help on a municipal pension plan or these terribly difficult circumstances state pension funds are in, I think the capacity and the willingness of the federal government to do a lot in that is pretty limited,” said Casey, a member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. He added, “If there is a way we can be helpful, I’d certainly be willing to entertain that.”

Local politics

Casey and Mark Critz have developed a professional and personal relationship.

Critz’s time in the U.S. House of Representatives – May 2010 until January – overlapped with Casey’s ongoing Senate tenure. They even knew each other before then from the days when Critz worked as a staffer for former U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown.

On Wednesday, Critz, a Johns-town resident, unofficially announced his plan to run for lieutenant governor in 2014. “I know him well, and I think he’d be a very strong candidate,” said Casey.

Critz will compete against other Democrats in the spring primary with the winner advancing to the general election. At the same time, other Democrats will vie for the gubernatorial nomination. The two winners will then form a ticket. Casey, who ran for governor in 2002, would prefer a different system in which the nominee for governor would get to select a running mate. “To be candid about it, I think it would be better to have a presidential-type system,” Casey said.

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