WELLSBORO - Tioga County may have to wait until at least March before a new court of common pleas judge is appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett and confirmed in the state Senate.
"We will have budget hearings almost the whole month of February, and the governor's budget address is Feb. 4," said state Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III, R-Brockway, who held constituent hours in his borough office Monday. "So the earliest I can see it getting done is March."
Tioga County has been without a regular judge since Jan. 7, when President Judge Robert E. Dalton Jr., retired only two years into his term.
A senior judge has been arranged by Court Administrator Nancy Clemens to handle court cases until a new judge is appointed.
On the budget, the Legislature, Scarnati said, plans to put "a lot of emphasis on budget increases for K-12 and higher education this year."
"Several years of decrease or no increases in funding hasn't been kind to our institutes of learning," he said.
Scarnati said a "great debate" is needed on public schools.
"How we approach them and make sure students have access to our state schools is very important to me," he added.
Scarnati is aware of the large budget deficits facing the 16 schools in the state system, and that the local match needed "just isn't there."
"I have asked the new chancellor to come up with an answer about how he is going to keep these state schools open without program and staff cuts," he added. "There's a lot of emotion in this issue, and keeping these state schools open and affordable is of paramount importantance."
Scarnati also discussed the recent ruling by the state Supreme Court that found portions of Act 13, Scarnati's signature law regarding natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, unconstitutional.
"The state Supreme Court basically threw out the zoning and the setbacks, which are pretty important to those living around drilling," he said.
The justices based their findings on the state Constitution but also on the "unproven notions that fracking was dangerous and they remanded the rest to the lower courts to decide," he added.
The Corbett administration has asked the court to review and repeal its decision and will file appeals in lower courts to uphold Act 13, Scarnati said.
"All we tried to do was balance the job creation and protect the environment. Where this heads and how it goes remains to be seen," he added.
As for the natural gas industry, Scarnati said, for now, he is concerned but hasn't had any "knee jerk" reactions to the Dec. 19 decision.
"If a township passes an ordinance that any drilling company doesn't like and takes them to court over it, they will bankrupt the township," he said, noting that some smaller townships have yearly budgets only amounting to $125,000.
"This ruling really leaves a lot of uncertainty (not only) in protecting the environment but the commonwealth could be hurt by this (financially)," Scarnati said.
"If they throw this (Act 13) out, the impact fee could be gone, too," he said.
"It cuts both ways, to those cheering the ruling, I would say never before in the history of the commonwealth have we had money coming back into the communities where industry is taking place," he added. "It was a bonus, $400 million in two years."