Helicopter, exhaust tests, highway plan are dinner topics

HUGHESVILLE – Sixty years and going strong – that was the message as the Lycoming County Pomona Grange as it celebrated its 60th annual Legislative Banquet here Friday night.

The rural and community service organization that gets its name from what farmsteads were called in old England – Grange – heard from a variety of speakers, including MeeCee Baker of VersantStrategies, a partnering firm that works with Granges from across the state as they write resolutions they want to see go before the state Legislature and become law.

Far from being strictly a Harrisburg worker, Baker said she’s a Granger at heart from rural Turbot Township and had fond memories of growing up immersed in agriculture.

“It was mere 37 years ago I was a Grange Princess,” she said.

She credited the Grange as the grassroots organizations in the state on agriculture affairs, but said the company she works at and the people there can be the “eyes, ears and boots on the ground representing you in Harrisburg.”

“We’re not the face of Grange – you are,” she said. “We’re the puppeteers behind the curtain.”

Baker said it was among her favorite parts of the job for her and her partners to develop strategies.

“In Harrisburg, we need to have a rifle effect as opposed to a shotgun effect,” she said. With an average of 5,000-plus bills introduced each year, it is important for Grange to know what it wants but also how not to duplicate efforts when policy may already exist.

Baker cited efforts this year regarding tax relief for Granges.

“You don’t have property taxes in Lycoming County, but some Granges are paying $14,000 a year in property taxes,” she said. Sadly, hundreds of these Granges are selling and leasing property in order to have meetings, she added.

Baker spoke about a Senate bill on labeling genetically modified foods and cited an example: Almost 90 percent of the products used in the dinner that Grange members had just consumed – prepared and served by Hughesville Volunteer Fire Department and Auxiliary – were genetically modified products.

Baker said the American Medical Association’s opinion is that genetically modified foods should not be labeled because there is no evidence that consumption of these foods cause ill health.

“Plus, if you want to eat foods that are not genetically modified you can buy organic products,” she said.

Additionally, Baker said requiring genetically modified foods to be labeled could lead to higher food prices.

Another speaker, state Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, noted how advocates and teachers such as Baker are among the most influential lobbyists in agriculture and rural affairs.

Mirabito brought up a number of issues he is pursuing, including attempts to restore the aviation unit of the state police at Montoursville. “We were six votes short in the House to pass an amendment to open fiscal code to restore the unit,” he said.

Mirabito described reasons why he voted against the privatization of liquor saying a study in 2009 by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania indicated alcohol consumption by youth was much higher in rural areas than in urban areas. “Prices will probably go up if there is privatization and deaths by consumption and accidents will go up,” he said.

Mirabito said he favors a rural caucus to improve the quality of life and will be involved in discussion on property tax reform as older residents are priced out of properties and younger ones can’t afford to buy homes because of rising real estate taxes – a source of funding for state school districts.

Mirabito – as did representatives for state Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, and state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, spoke of about $2 billion in investment as a result of potential funding streams for the Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway, the by-pass on Routes 15 at Selinsgrove that would divert traffic north toward Winfield and carrying it over a bridge connecting to Route 147 in Northumberland County. The other part of the $2 billion investment is two proposed energy plants using natural gas such as Moxie Energy near Montgomery.

Another issue that Charley Hall, a liaison for Everett said the representative received 550 calls on was the emissions inspection test that is paid for by residents of Lycoming County but not in nearby Northumberland County, based on a population equation determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Everett has sponsored a bill that would amend the code regarding inspection of vehicles that would make 5th class counties with population less than 100,016 people exempt.

But, just as Baker alluded to, it takes 102 votes in the House, 25 Senators and one governor to agree before bill becomes law in the state.

Lycoming County commissioner Ernie Larson said efforts by the county on reassessment were meant to level the playing field and not necessary lead to a tax increase.

He offered organizations, such as the Grange, to listen to a PowerPoint presentation on assessment and credited the grassroots aspects of the Grange and those at the state level of government for helping the commissioners accomplish their tasks.

He encouraged those in Grange to give VersantStrategies a chance to review resolutions before they go to the state level.

“They can make sure it’s not already a policy,” he said.