State legislators were in the hot seat last week as they answered hot topic questions affecting Carbon County agencies.
During the third annual Legislative Brunch, held at the Lehighton Recreation Center, dozens of area agencies and organizations, as well as school, hospital and municipal officials, listened as four state officials gave their thoughts on the financial health of the state, how it affects Carbon County, and what is being done to help the future of the area.
Carbon County Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, who helped organize the event, welcomed everyone to the brunch.
He thanked the local sponsors, as well as the Interagency Council of Carbon County, Partners for Progress and Child and Family Collaborative for taking the initiative to make this event possible.
Nothstein explained that the brunch is not political in nature, rather it is a way of providing answers and solutions to agencies so they can better provide services to their consumers.
He then introduced the day's guest speakers, Brian Duke, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Aging; state Sens. David Argall (R-29), and John Yudichak (D-14); and state Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-122).
Duke thanked the group for the invitation to speak. Last year, he attended the brunch and listened to county agencies explain what they do and how funding cuts affect their services.
Duke commended Cheri Santore, the director of the Carbon County Area Agency on Aging, and her staff for their dedication to the seniors of the county.
"We're in a time of challenges," he said, noting that the state faces a tough budget year due to a growing deficit. "It's also a time of reform. We have to seek out innovation where we can find it. The governor is pursuing that. They are looking to find ways to be innovative in the delivery of services.
"It's a time of restraint and a time to think about every dollar we spend so we can meet the needs of those we serve and preserve the safety net as we move forward," he continued. "It challenges us all to think about different ways of doing what we do, finding different ways to support our activities as we move forward."
Duke spoke about how his department is working to create a plan that looks at the future that helps the thousands of seniors in Pennsylvania; as well as tracking what is currently being done so that they can determine benchmarks.
He noted that to solve some of the gaps in senior care, all agencies and departments that serve the community need to come together and work as one unit, rather than as individual groups.
Argall talked about the current recession this country is facing due to economic uncertainty.
He said that the governor has two options in the budget raise taxes or cut spending, and he chose to cut spending.
Argall pointed out that education, public welfare and corrections take up about 90 percent of the budget, where as the salaries of all members and staff of the House and Senate make up about 1 percent.
He ended by discussing how cutting programs that don't work anymore in today's society is one solution to helping the state regain its financial health.
Heffley echoed Argall's thoughts about finding solutions that help cut spending.
He pointed out that he has been trying to be diligent in finding and supporting bills that help create answers and support growth in the state.
Heffley also noted that he is concerned about the governor's budget, but pointed out that the original draft was not the final version.
"It's a process," he said, adding that any feedback he gets from his constituents is very helpful to making him aware of what needs to be changed.
Yudichak, who was the sole Democrat of the three legislators, disagreed with some points made by his peers.
He said that he felt there are more options available than cutting spending or raising taxes.
He talked about innovations and investments that could be made to find ways of saving money, such as Act 22 of 2011, which reforms the welfare structure.
Yudichak said he felt other avenues that could be looked at include updating the tax code and changing sales tax.
"The budgets don't reflect the values of Pennsylvania," he said, noting that he feels this way because it doesn't invest in the youth and seniors of the state.
He pointed out that cuts to hospitals forced closures of obstetrics units and makes pregnant women travel farther to deliver their babies.
He also pointed out that in 1985, the state's budget for corrections was $207 million and $2 billion for education. In 2012, the tables have turned and the state now pays $2 billion for corrections and $207 million for education.
"I don't think that reflects Pennsylvania's values," Yudichak said. "We're going to have to make tough decisions in Harrisburg so that the commissioners here in Carbon County and the local elected officials don't have to make those tough decisions."
Following the speakers a brief question and answer period was held with questions about the prison system, the budget for education, and how funding cuts to agencies that serve the neediest families hurts school districts.
Jeanne Miller, the director of Carbon and Schuylkill counties education services at Lehigh Carbon Community College and the SHINE Afterschool program, then wrapped up the event.
She stressed that "it takes a village to raise a child."
"We need you to be a voice for our village," she said to the legislators. "We need you to be advocates for our children and families in Carbon County."
Following the events, legislators mingled with area agency representatives. In addition to this year's speakers, representatives from Congressman Lou Barletta's office; Sen. Robert Casey's office; and Sen. Pat Toomey's office were in attendance.
The fourth annual Legislative Brunch is scheduled for April 26, 2013.