By G.E. Lawrence, Special to The Phoenix, 10/09/2006

157th rivals debate issuesEdit

BERWYN - The three candidates for the 157th District's seat in the Pennsylvania House met Sunday in a civil and sometimes revealing debate.

Incumbent Republican Carole Rubley of Tredyffrin Township, and challengers Rich Ciamacca, Democrat of Schuylkill Township, and James Babb, Libertarian of Lower Providence Township, discussed questions proposed by the audience of roughly 50 voters.

Rubley's responses stressed the history of legislative actions and proposed or needed measures, while Ciamacca stressed policy differences and Babb basic philosophical differences in approaches to government.

"I predict that the other candidates here will make a number of proposals this afternoon about how to use your money," Babb began in an opening statement. "It's your money, not theirs. The job of government is to protect your life, not run it."

Babb, who runs his own marketing, sales, and advertising services company, TRA Consulting LLC, proposed a return to a Commonwealth budget level of $44 billion two years ago, claiming that "then we can own our own property again."

Ciamacca, a lawyer working for pharmaceutical and utilities clients, a former engineer in the defense industry and Navy submarine officer, said "I want to bring my life experience to Harrisburg, and work on priority issues of the environment, education, the state's economy, and healthcare."

"There won't be real reform in Harrisburg until we change the majority party," Ciamacca said.

Rubley said that her work in "grassroots activism," her 10 years on the Tredyffrin Township Planning Commission and five on its Board of Supervisors was "invaluable experience in Harrisburg," compared to that of other legislators not as intimately aware of local problems.

In response to a question on Pennsylvania gaming legislation, Ciamacca said that he was "not all that happy" with gambling proposals, but recognized that the intent was based on the need for revenue apart from property taxes. "We need to shift support of the schools to the state from property taxes," he said.

"When we first talked about slots, it was to save the racetracks, which are important to Chester County and other counties," Rubley said. "But it moved far beyond slots. The bill that we got went even to free-standing facilities. It was a bad bill, that in its original form even overrode local zoning." She said that she would work on a bill with alternative language.

Babb said that "I'm not a big fan of gambling, but that's just me. You may want to gamble responsibly, and that's your right." He argued that the state had no authority for involvement in the issue.

About public education, Rubley said that it was "our obligation to provide for a sound system for public education financing," but that "funds raised locally should stay local, under local control. Act I of the recent Special Session includes such controls," she said. "If a school district budget's increase exceeds cost-of-living increases, it has to go to voters for approval."

Babb said that Pennsylvania SAT scores rank 47th in the nation, while in dollars allocated per student the state ranks 6th. "Competition breeds choice," he said. "Parents should choose the course of education for their children," and that private management costs less.

Ciamacca challenged Babb's assumption. "I reject the notion that the free market should determine educational choices," he said. "Some school districts are now spending $16,000 per student, others $6,000.

"We need to level the playing field, continue support of pre-school programs, all-day kindergarten, and raise teacher pay. We need to look at all of the costs," he said, and inject "a dose of reality" in the discussion. "Going to a single-payer" healthcare system, for example, could lower the costs to districts of teacher coverage, he said.

Asked what state programs each candidate would consider cutting to reduce the budget, Babb said "Virtually all of them. I plan to eliminate programs. We need to severely change the burden on taxpayers." Rubley was disappointed, she said, that the current year's $800 million surplus had not been used for future years, and that "an opportunity to cut the fat" was missed. "We need to reduce the costs of welfare" as well, she said.

Ciamacca grew passionate about the issue. Entirely eliminating burdens on taxpayers, as Babb wished, he said, "is not a realistic goal" when "there are so many things" that need to be addressed. "People are growing hungry in Pennsylvania," he said. "I'd rather talk about tax fairness," he said. "We should be good stewards, diligent, and be clear about our priorities."

About improving ethical standards and reducing the influence of lobbyists, Rubley spoke to her own passion, her involvement in a now-bipartisan reform movement in the House. The Jefferson Reform Initiative would, among other things, impose lobbyist discosure requirements and committee chair term limits. Ciamacca said that limits on campaign contributions and a lobbyist bill were necessary first actions. "If we want to improve ethical standards," Babb said, "take away their power. Restrict legislative power to what is described in the Constitution."

Rubley and Ciamacca both strongly supported public transportation expansion; Babb asked that voters "take away the barriers" to private competition on transportation. Rubley and Ciamacca agreed also that the use of the Pennsylvania Army and Air National Guard "is not the best use of the Guard," as Rubley put it. "The Guard should stay at home, and we should bring the troops home from Iraq," Ciamacca said. Babb argued that guard members had the right to come home from "involuntary service."

The event at Easttown Public Library was sponsored and moderated by the League of Women Voters in Chester County.

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