Area legislators talk up state budget during chamber State of the Commonwealth gathering

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Jul. 22—Pennsylvania's recently adopted $39.8 billion budget for 2021-22, which put $2.5 billion into the state's Rainy Day Fund and kept aside more than $5 billion in federal coronavirus aid for the future, was a main focus on Wednesday as three local General Assembly members provided a State of the Commonwealth Address in Johnstown.

The spending plan increased K-12 education funding by $300 million, transportation infrastructure by $279 million and nursing home support by $280 million.

It passed by a vote of 140-61 in the House and 43-7 in the Senate — chambers controlled by Republicans. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed the budget, which did not include any increases in taxes or fees.

"I think that it's a great budget this year," state Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, 71st Legislative District, said at the Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown. "They put a lot of time and effort into it, not knowing where we're going to be in the future. I guess we'll see next year where we fall with tax dollars when people get back to work. I think it was a good budget. The governor seemed to agree it was a good budget. He signed it."

The Rainy Day Fund is now at a historic $2.76 billion after receiving its single-largest infusion of funds ever, more than $2 billion, coming from a budget surplus.

"We got some pushback, and there were some differing opinions," said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, 35th District. "There were people — my colleagues in Harrisburg — that wanted to spend every bit of that and then even raise taxes, but, through compromise, we were able to set aside the money, and I think it was the prudent thing to do — be fiscally responsible — because we don't know where this budget is going to be next year or the year after that.

"We need to prepare for that in the future, not just be nearsighted. I feel that it's important not just to blindly spend those federal dollars and set up future budgets for failure."

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, 72nd Legislative District, recalled a moment during the debate discussion when a conservative Republican opposed the budget because it spent too much and then, shortly thereafter, a Democrat criticized it for not spending enough.

So Burns said he tried to imagine how people back home would vote.

"I realized this is the perfect budget," Burns said. "Forget about looking at all the numbers. If the radicals on the right dislike it, and the liberals on the left dislike it, it must be a good budget. That's how you come to a decision in Harrisburg, and honestly, I was sitting there and I'm thinking, 'I've got liberals to the left of me, radicals to the right, but here I am stuck in the middle with you.' "

The event, hosted by the Cambria Regional Chamber, was held in order to provide information about important issues facing the state and local region, including the impact of the budget.

"I think the budget has been something on people's minds, something that people are interested in," Amy Bradley, the chamber's president and CEO, said. "And I think it's always good to have an opportunity to hear directly from the people representing you, what they're thinking, why they're voting certain ways, what their vision is."

Political divisions

Burns criticized what he considers to be the negative political divide affecting the country, state and region right now.

"That's the biggest threat, when all people want is government that works for them," Burns said, "but it's not working for them because of politics — politics inside the Capitol. Forget about political campaigns, and the campaign mailers and all that. The politics are being played inside the building, and that's a problem."

He added: "Really, all we want is government that works for people, and our problems here locally are too big to allow that political divide to continue to lead to ineffective government. We simply can't do it."

Burns suggested allowing independents to vote in primaries as a way of bringing politics back to the middle "so that we don't have the far left and the far right" controlling government.

He said the middle is "where government is more effective — that's where we get compromise and government works for the people."

He also asked audience members "to support good ideas, Republican or Democrat, support good candidates, regardless of your party affiliation, vote for the best person."

Focus on broadband

Langerholc has gotten 13 bills signed into law, six within the past year.

His recent Senate Bill 835 created a grant program to provide incentives for companies to develop rural broadband. He said the need for access in smaller communities "was something that we saw even before this (COVID-19) pandemic reared its ugly head."

He assessed the area's overall response to the pandemic, saying: "We've most definitely endured a very long, tough road — some more tough than others — but it's through our collective spirit that we have embraced the challenge and overcome the obstacles and put ourselves on the path forward. Johnstown is no stranger to adversity, as we all know. Just look at what the people of this community have had to endure over the years.

"Some say it's the resiliency deeply rooted in our bones that has helped us to take on the challenges of COVID. But I say it's that and a little bit more. I look around this room and I see the collective knowledge, experience and education of people who know why this region is a great place to work, live and raise a family, who refuse to give up on this town when others may be quick to denigrate it, who see the good and the potential in what once was and will surely be again."

Langerholc also promoted the region as a good place to live due to its low cost of living, schools, outdoor recreation and, possibly soon, increased passenger train routes to Pittsburgh and completion of four-lane U.S. Route 219.

"These are pieces to the puzzle of what makes this region so attractive," Langerholc said.

In May, Rigby hosted a House Republican Policy Committee gathering in Johnstown.

Members toured the area and then held a hearing at the Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped to learn about the local economic impact of the pandemic.

"The policy hearing was a very good and successful hearing," said Rigby, deputy chairman of the committee. "It allowed us to take a lot of things back with us to talk about, the things that we could do better, things that we corrected, things that we did OK, too. We did a lot of good things, but there were a lot of unknowns that we probably could have done a little bit better."

Rigby said the committee members were "quite impressed with Johnstown."

"It's amazing the people that aren't from here how impressed they are with what we have here," Rigby said. "We really need to take advantage of that and showcase it a little bit more."

Legislatively, Rigby touted a bill he introduced that would make businesses in Historically Underutilized Business Zones entitled to a minimum of 40% participation in procurement contracts in the commonwealth.

"Hopefully we get some traction on that once we get back (in session)," Rigby said.

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