The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 27, 2012

Local businessman challenges Wozniak

Randy Griffith

— A ramped-up exchange of negative campaigning has brought attention to the state’s 35th Senatorial District race.

Television ads by the Friends of Tim Houser for PA Senate blast incumbent Democrat Sen. John Wozniak for past votes that raised taxes and increased legislative pay.

Ads by the Committee to Re-Elect Senator John N. Wozniak portray challenger Houser as a puppet of the state Republican Party, saying the GOP is responsible for pay and benefit increases.

Online state records show both campaigns have received funding from party organizations in other areas of the state.

Both candidates discussed the negative ads during interviews with The Tribune-Democrat, but neither directly attacked his opponent.

Wozniak said there is “a lot of hypocrisy” in Republican criticism of his combined 32 years in the state House and Senate. In areas of suburban Philadelphia, it’s the Republicans who have the long tenures, he said, adding that it was the Republicans who led some of the pay-increase legislation.

“They pride themselves on seniority and experience,” the Westmont resident said. “The GOP doesn’t want the same thing in western Pennsylvania.”

Wozniak points out he hasn’t accepted a state vehicle, has one of the smaller staffs in the Senate and has returned “tens of thousands” from his allowable expense account.

Houser said the focus on the cost of the Legislature provides a good place to start talking about the state’s overall financial picture.

He conceded that the negative ads have affected him.

“It’s nerve-racking,” Houser said. “I wish there was a better way to do something.”

He defended the ads as being informative.

“It is one of the only times when the candidate or incumbent can educate the public on what’s going on,” Houser said.

When discussing the issues facing Pennsylvania over the next four years, both candidates mentioned education, financial responsibility, transportation and jobs.

A funeral home owner and operator in Ebensburg, Houser cited his background in education.

“I started out as a parochial school teacher,” he said. “That was in 1979. Many of the issues that we were dealing with then, we are still trying to tackle.”

He would like to see a review of the way state tax dollars are allocated to local school districts, citing the Westmont Hilltop district’s string of local property tax increases blamed on low state funding.

“We have to get some folks in there to study this,” Houser said. “Folks are getting more and more afraid that they are going to be forced out of their homes.

“The way it’s funded now is kind of archaic.”

Cutting the cost of the Legislature would free more money for education, Houser said. But he admitted he does not know how much of the state budget is going to the Legislature.

A check of the state budget shows the Legislature’s total funding is $272 million, or just less than 1 percent of the total $27.6 billion general fund budget. Education accounts for $10.5 billion or 38 percent of the current budget.

Wozniak agrees that the way Pennsylvania funds its schools should be changed.

“I have been harping for a number of years that we need to take a serious look at our basic education formula,” Wozniak said. “I have had a number of bills dealing with how to make school districts more effective.”

Although he thinks merging school districts is not politically feasible, Wozniak says he is finding some interest in consolidating administrative duties at the county level. The resulting savings could be redirected to the classroom.

Calculating the state’s basic education formula at the county level instead of the school-district level would be more equitable, he added.

Houser did not offer a detailed plan, but pledged to bring all parties into the process.

“Education is the top of my list,” Houser said. “We can get this job done.

“We almost have an adversarial situation setup with teachers, administrators and parents. We need to get on the same page.”

On highways, Houser would not rule out a gasoline tax increase, but said all other possibilities should be examined first. There are more roads to take care of and vehicles are using less gas, he noted.

Wozniak said he and his fellow Democrats are waiting “with bated breath” to see what Gov. Tom Corbett proposes for bridge and highway funding.

“We are falling way behind because of a lack of revenues,” Wozniak said.

On improving the state’s financial picture, Wozniak said he has asked for a breakdown of all programs created by legislation during the past 30 years, listing the original mission, initial funding and current funding for each. He said the next question would be: “Is that program fulfilling its mission?”

“We hear so much that the growth of government is out of control,” Wozniak said. “I think this is actually a way of determining where that growth is at and why.”

Houser said getting the corporate tax structure aligned with neighboring states would bring more companies to the state and create more jobs. The additional workers would, in turn, create more revenue from income and other taxes.

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