Fiscal code bill gets mixed reviews from region’s reps

Local state representatives had mixed thoughts about the fiscal code bill, which passed in the state House Monday 103-85 and is the final piece of the state budget.

The fiscal code basically delineates how the budget, passed on June 30, is spent.

State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, said several important items were missing from the fiscal code, which is why he voted against it, but focused especially on one glaring absence – the return of a state police aviation unit to the Williamsport Regional Airport.

The state police helicopter – which was moved to Hazleton two years ago – had serviced an 11-county area, and Mirabito said its absence leaves a “gaping hole” on the helicopter coverage map.

The problem with its absence, Mirabito said, is that it takes longer to arrive for search and rescue operations, and leaves less fuel upon arrival for such operations.

Additionally, he said Hazleton’s elevation is higher than Williamsport’s, which means the helicopter can’t get out as easily in inclement weather.

With the Marcellus Shale gas industry heavily involved in Tioga and Potter counties in particular, Mirabito said the helicopter is necessary. “It’s put us at a disadvantage of fighting crime and public safety,” he said.

Mirabito crafted an amendment to the bill that would have restored the helicopter but was unable to get it amended.

Mirabito also took issue with the changes to the fund that offers homeowners property tax relief. The bill transfers $100 million of slot machine license fees from the state gaming fund (which effects property tax relief) to the general fund to balance the budget, he said.

Mirabito also was displeased with education funding, stating local rural areas received disproportionately sharp cuts.

Although state Rep. Garth Everett, R-Muncy, voted in favor of the fiscal code, and said he’s “satisfied we did the best we could,” he agrees with Mirabito on the helicopter issue.

“We attempted for about three fiscal codes unsuccessfully” to get the helicopter back in the area, Everett said. Overall, he thinks it is a fair document, and is about 85 percent the same as last year’s, noting compromise is important.

State Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, however, said any effort to get the helicopter unit back is like trying to legislate “Christmas in July.”

“The publicity is great, but it’s a practical matter,” Yaw said.

He was told the reason for the transfer was consolidation, cutting down the units from seven to five statewide, and that number may shrink again. “So the chance of that coming back to a smaller airport like Williamsport is not very good,” he said.

He voted for the bill when it first came to the state Senate, and after a back-and-forth with the House, the House passed it. The hassle was due to language in the bill that Yaw saw as “a commitment to do a payday lending bill” with high-interest rates.

The fiscal code was ultimately approved without this language.

“Once that bill is signed by the governor, it becomes the law of the state … it’s important to correct the record to make sure it is accurate,” Yaw said.

State Rep. Michael K. Hanna Sr., D-Lock Haven, voted against the bill because he opposes the budget he said was “passed on party line.” Also, like Yaw, he didn’t like the payday lending portion.

“We don’t want to allow loans at a usurious rate, and I would oppose payday lending in Pennsylvania,” Hanna said. “Beyond that, (I opposed) the effort to sneak it into the bill without full disclosure as part of the fiscal code instead of standing alone as legislation.”

State Rep. Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro, the state health chairman, voted for the fiscal code and is strongly supportive of it as it contains positive health and welfare components.

He said it specifically clarified the distributions of funding for cystic fibrosis, lupus, biotech research, regenerative medicine and more. On the welfare side, it sets aside funding for childcare, medical assistance, women’s medical services, hospital services funding, disability services and more.

Baker also praised the bill because for the first time “in a long time,” it allows funding for 290 new state troopers for recruitment, education and training.

Like the others, he wishes the helicopter was reinstated, but thinks the overall bill is “pretty comprehensive.”

State Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III, R-Brockway, voted for the bill and was satisfied overall.

“I think that anybody could look at (the) bill and shuffle things around they’d like a little differently, but it’s a fine compromise between all the entities to get the budget enacted,” he said. “If you’re happy with the state budget, you’ll be happy with the fiscal code.”