There are plenty of polarizing political figures in Mercer County (present company included), but none are more so than Representative Michele Brooks. The simple mention of her name causes violent reactions from Democrats and Republicans alike (or perhaps I should clarify and say ‘ALL Democrats and SOME Republicans alike’).
I give her credit for being a very hard worker, and I’ve been accused of giving her too much credit when she didn’t deserve it. Unfortunately, though, Representative Brooks has the uncanny ability to alienate and offend some of her most fervent supporters. I know this from talking to voters across the County, and I’ve experienced it personally. Any one that has received a ‘scolding from an angry Michele Brooks’ knows exactly what I’m talking about.
Regardless of your personal opinions of Rep. Brooks, she has managed to win her position in the State Legislature twice . . . and by a very notable margin in the last election (11/08). Some might say that it is because she has never been challenged by a half-decent candidate, but Representative Brooks will tell you that it is because she is good at what she does. I figure that the truth is somewhere in the middle.
There were two town hall meetings on Rep. Brooks’ schedule this week. The first was set for Wednesday, May 27, at the North Shenango Municipal Building, Linn Road, Espyville, and the second for Thursday, May 28, at St. Paul’s Keifer Building, at 341 East Jamestown Road in Greenville. Both meetings were scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
I found it interesting that with the sprawling size and layout of the 17th District, Representative Brooks chose to hold both town hall meetings in the northwest corner of her district (focusing on northwest Mercer County and southwest Crawford County). Her detractors would argue that she prefers to hold public meetings in or near her comfort zone because she is afraid of a poor reception elsewhere, and I wonder if there might be some truth to that suggestion (read my Closing Comments for an illustration). The locations in Espyville and Greenville are less than 18 miles apart (with her hometown of Jamestown smack in the middle), and yet the 17th District stretches over 50 miles from north to south and over 30 miles from east to west. Her choice of locations seem uninviting to folks from northern Lawrence or southern Mercer Counties, but both locations were convenient enough for me to make the trip to document the meeting.
I chose to attend the Wednesday, May 27th meeting, which was scheduled to begin at 6pm. I made the 28 mile trip in roughly 40 minutes (during a torrential downpour), but I was still late and missed the first few minutes of the meeting. While I could have easily asked Representative Brooks tons of my own questions regarding the budget, current legislation, and economic issues, I decided that I would simply observe and document the interests and concerns of typical constituents and ‘friendly neighbors’. There were about 20 people in attendance, and below is a brief summary of the question topics:
- State Budget
- Funds Availability for Community Groups and Facilities
- Casino Gambling
- Video Poker Gaming
- The Distribution of Lotto Funds
- The Property Tax Relief Fund
- Feeding of Fish at the Linesville Spillway
- Graduation Assessment Testing
- Property Tax and Rent Rebates
- Welfare Reform
- PA Agricultural Caucus
- Gun Control
- Tolling of I-80
- Stimulus Funds
- Rate Caps on Electric Providers
Below is a more detailed overview of some of the more interesting topics:
Casino Gambling / Video Poker / PA Lottery
The question was asked if additional casinos might be considered across the state (going as far as to have a casino in each County).
Representative Brooks pointed out that the original plan allowed for a limited number of casinos (13 or 14 licenses). It was her feeling that there should be a pause and review of the existing casinos before any thought of expanding should be considered.
Rep. Brooks is concerned that “promises that were originally made with gambling haven’t been fulfilled yet”. “I have a problem with the way that this thing was sold. They should have been honest with their expectations so that people would have confidence in what they were being told. Has anyone’s taxes really been eliminated or lowered like they promised?”
On the issue of legalizing video poker, Representative Brooks pointed out that there would be an initial cost of approximately $25 million just to get it up and running. In the meantime, “kids think they can go to college for almost nothing and it isn’t going to deliver what was anticipated.”
When asked “does that mean that you don’t support the expansion of gambling”, Representative Brooks answered “I’m for an honest conversation about what expansion of gambling means. It hasn’t been proposed yet. You were promised property tax elimination . . . have you seen that yet?” She continued “There are legal concerns about the licenses right now. There needs to be an open and honest dialog.”
Regarding the lottery fund, Representative Brooks pointed out that when the fund was created it was supposed to be for senior citizen programs, but there were eventually changes in how senior programs and budgets were funded. She stated “if you are going to create a program and base it on a promise, you need to stick with what you promise”
[you can read more about Casino Gambling and Video Poker HERE]
Graduation Assessment Tests
Representative Brooks brought up the issue of Graduation Assessment Tests. She stated that language was added in last year’s budget to prohibit the administration from spending money on these tests, but with the previous budget ending at the end of June that language will expire. Anticipated costs for the tests are roughly $201 million. It is Representative Brooks’ opinion that the tests “won’t help our children achieve more”. She stated that the test is taken in 11th grade, when it is generally too late to correct a problem if one exists. She pointed out that “the money would be much better spent in elementary testing rather that at the 11th grade level”. She added “shouldn’t the help start sooner?”. Rep. Brooks further argued that testing at the 11th grade level may actual discourage students and actually be the cause of more high school drop outs prior to graduation.
Representative Brooks was asked if these tests might result in teachers simply gearing their teaching of students based on the end result of passing the test. Ms. Brooks responded that a test should not be the focus of teaching. Instead the focus should be a “well rounded, life learning student that can apply practical solutions to difficult problems.”
Property Tax and Rent Rebate
Representative Brooks discussed legislation that she sponsored which would create a moratorium on Property Tax/Rent Rebate eligibility. The legislation would allow senior citizens who have received a small Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) this year to remain eligible for the Property Tax/Rent Rebate program.
[you can read more about this issue on Representative Brooks site HERE]
Welfare Reform Legislation
Representative Brooks discussed legislation that recently passed the House (but not the Senate) that includes a “statute preventing liquor stores from accepting the electronic welfare payment cards”.
[you can read more about the legislation (HB 74) HERE]
Representative Michele Brooks also discussed legislation from last year that was passed in the House but was eventually stalled in the Senate regarding the addition of photo identification on welfare health care cards. The legislation was intended to prevent fraud in the system where welfare recipients were passing around their welfare card and ineligible individuals were receiving fraudulent services. Representative Brooks labeled the legislation as “a commonsense approach to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars”.
Those in attendance were disappointed that a good piece of legislation didn’t get passed and they asked what could be done about it. Representative Brooks pointed out that there are a number of pieces of legislation that simply die in committee each year.
[read more in our article titled “So Much Legislation, So Little Time” regarding the amount of legislation that expires in committee on a typical legislative calendar year]
On the issue of gun control, Representative Brooks pointed out that Philadelphia recently wanted to pass its own gun control laws. She stressed that “we as a state won’t permit that . . . each community having different laws . . . how do you as a citizen know what the laws are”. She expressed her belief that laws need to be uniform. She added that courts have ruled on the side of Pennsylvania on the issue, but Philadelphia is repealing the decision.
Tolling on I-80
The issue of the possible tolling of I-80 was brought up by an attendee of the meeting. Representative Brooks stated that last year a “strongly worded letter” was sent to the Federal Government from a dozen concerned Pennsylvania legislators to the Federal Government asking that the Federal Highway Administration NOT approve the tolling application. She stated that the letter pointed out that the issue was being “railroaded through”, and we need help from the Federal level to stop it.
An attendee of the meeting asked “What does it cost to fix the road (referring to I-80) each year? Would the tolling of THAT road pay for the maintenance to fix and repair THAT road? What is left would be money for our OTHER roads, right?
Representative Brooks pointed out that the tolling of I-80 would not simply charge out of state trucks and traffic to travel our roads. Instead, “much of the traffic is OUR goods and services.” She stated that one local company estimated that the tolling of I-80 would increase their transportation costs $50,000 to $70,000 annually, and those costs will eventually increase general costs for goods and services across the state. Another local business (specializing in bus tours) estimated that the tolling of I-80 could cost the company an “extra million dollars” annually.
Ms. Brooks explained that the original House floor discussion regarding the tolling of I-80 was focused on mass transportation. It eventually turned into an issue of roads and bridges. That point was important in the State’s application being denied by the Federal Highway Administration. Rep. Brooks stated “the application was denied because they were using the money for things that they weren’t supposed to be using it for.”
Rep. Brooks also mentioned that standards for toll roads are different than those for non-toll roads, and if I-80 is eventually tolled, there will be costs associated with converting the road to toll road standards. She also clarified that the gas tax was originally supposed to go toward roads and bridges, but it was not used as it was originally planned.
Representative Brooks feels that this approach is “reacting to the crisis instead of trying to prevent the crisis and be proactive”, and she labels the current problems with the roads and bridges as a “self-imposed crisis”. “We didn’t need to be in this situation with roads and bridges. If they had spent the money originally as intended, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
An attendee asked “roads and bridges have been in bad condition for 25 years . . . if you don’t support the tolling of I-80, what are we going to do to fix the problem?”
To explain her stand against the tolling of I-80, Rep. Brooks commented that “if you neglect your house for 30 years, and you don’t maintain it, can you afford to fix the problems overnight? You’re going to need to prioritize the needs and you shouldn’t further collapse the people that are paying for this (the taxpayers). You should put a reasonable plan in place to pay for that.”
Representative Brooks took time to explain that another important issue that is often overlooked is the fact that much of the traffic that would generally travel on I-80 will be diverted to non-tolled roads in our area and across the State. She stated “the unintended consequences of that is that our roads and bridges (that can handle occasional heavy truck traffic) can’t take it. Our small communities will be hurt by that.”
[read our MANY articles regarding the tolling of I-80 HERE]
Representative Brooks pointed out that “billions of dollars of taxpayer money will be coming out of the stimulus funds”. Unfortunately some of the most severe projects will not be addressed because there is a 120 day timeline associated with the Stimulus Funds (and the most important projects don’t fall within that timeline).
Rate Caps for Electric Providers
An attendee asked for more information about the rate caps on electric providers. Rep. Brooks explained that the rate caps on Penn Power had already been removed and customers have already experienced an increase in their monthly bills in a range of 10% to 30%. She expressed that “this is a prime example of not planning for the future and pushing through a piece of legislation without understanding and taking into consideration the consequences.” She explained that the cap was originally intended to be in place for 10 years. “After ten years wouldn’t it be logical to control the rate increases of these companies. When they drafted the legislation, they should have included a phase-in of the rate increases, but they didn’t preplan.” She further stressed that “phase-ins on increases should have been considered when the legislation was drafted.”
When asked “would you support rate caps again?”, Representative Brooks explained that she (along with Representatives Longietti and Stevenson) “looked at ways that we can put them back on”, but the efforts were unsuccessful. “This happened 10 years ago and now we are picking up the pieces. We’ve had the discussion regarding putting caps back on, but not sure whether it could even be done legislatively.”
My Summary and Closing Comments
The meeting was interesting, and the attendees had valid questions. It was clear, however, that Representative Brooks selected a very ‘friendly’ area to hold her meeting. At one point one gentleman made an off-hand comment that “we need to keep an eye on the people in Harrisburg”, and he was immediately told “she said that most of these things happened before she even got to Harrisburg . . . don’t be negative toward her because it isn’t her fault”. The room was obviously filled with friendly backers, and that made for rather ‘soft’ questions and little conflict. It sort of made me laugh and think back to a question and answer session that I had a few months ago. My crowd was ‘not so friendly’, and the questions were much more challenging. Representative Brooks carried herself very well, but I’d be curious to see how she would handle pressure from less supportive attendees.
In general, the town hall meeting format is a great way for regular people to get to ask questions and get informed. The range of topics was wide, and the subject matter was pretty detailed considering the limited time constraints.
Representative Brooks will have her second such meeting this evening in Greenville. If you are interested in “what is going on in Harrisburg”, I would urge you to attend.