The first public forum for the 178th district Pennsylvania House race was held Thursday evening at Anchor Presbyterian Church in Wrightstown.
Incumbent Republican state Rep. Scott Petri has held the seat since 2002. He briefly sought candidacy for the 8th District Congressional seat and bowed out during the primary after Brian Fitzpatrick, the eventual primary winner and brother to incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick, entered the race.
On the Democratic side is Neale Dougherty, a political newcomer who grew up in Upper Makefield and is now a resident of Solebury. Dougherty serves on the New Hope-Solebury School Board and works as a commercial insurance consultant.
Dougherty opened, laying out a campaign based on increasing funding for K through 12 schools, environmental protection, strengthening the economy and addressing the heroin epidemic in Pennsylvania.
Petri’s opening statement focused on his plan to create jobs and generate revenue by routing gas transmission pipelines along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and charging a fee for it. Petri is working on legislation to that end, but nothing has been voted on.
Because of the nature of the forum, with candidates given about 60 seconds apiece to answer questions with no rebuttal, several issues were intermingled including gerrymandering, the state budget and taxes.
Petri said he supports a plan that would establish an independent body to select people who would serve in the redistricting process. He noted that the 8th Congressional District is symmetrically drawn, encompassing the entirety of Bucks County and a sliver of Montgomery County, and the 178th District map keeps communities intact.
Dougherty clearly had more of an issue with the way districts are mapped, calling Pennsylvania “one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation.” He pointed to Republicans holding the majority of seats that represent Bucks, even though Democrats have the registration advantage by about 11,000.
“Republicans have taken gerrymandering to the ideological extreme,” he said.
Dougherty also blamed state legislators for the gridlock that caused a nine-month budget impasse last year.
“The damage from it is permanent and lasting,” Dougherty said, noting that some school districts resorted to short-term borrowing and nonprofits had to drop employees or shut down entirely.
“At a minimum, they should be putting pressure on their party’s leadership to compromise,” Dougherty said. “We saw none of that … it was a national embarrassment.”
Petri called it “a battle worth undertaking,” and said that Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed tax increase would have “devastated” taxpayers.
“I don’t believe there is dysfunction in Harrisburg,” Petri said, which yielded some groans from the audience. “Sometimes, you have to stand up for what you believe in.”
As for the state income tax, Petri touted Pennsylvania’s uniformity clause for keeping a flat tax in which everybody pays the same percentage under their local system, though he said that he would possibly support a minimum threshold for low-income families.
Dougherty called the system “regressive,” saying it hurts low-income earners more than those who earn higher wages.
“Harrisburg is fixated on saying, ‘We didn’t raise your taxes,’ ” he said, but argued that the system transfers the burden to local municipalities and school districts, which may have to raise local taxes.
Petri authored legislation that would lift Philadelphia’s power of preemption on local income taxes. Under the current system, people who live in Bucks and work in Philadelphia are subject to the roughly 3.5-percent wage tax, none of which is sent back to the places they live.
Local officials have been pushing to have the legislation amended. Northampton, Petri said, is missing out on about $1 million in income tax funding.
Dougherty called this effort a “non-starter” and said, “It is unrealistic to think that we could get credit for those city wages.”
Petri said that, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pushing to end the reciprocity agreement with Pennsylvania, this issue was made “even more critical” because Bucks municipalities could end up losing out on even more of their income tax base.
When asked about funding for Philadelphia schools, Dougherty said that he would support more funding, but schools in the 178th District are his main priority.
“Funding needs to be increased across the board in all districts,” he said. “I will not sacrifice our tax dollars at our cost to benefit Philadelphia.”
Petri said that Philadelphia schools receive 50 percent state funding, and others in Western Pennsylvania receive more than that, while districts like Council Rock receive much less support from the state.
“(Philadelphia’s) administrative process is a disaster,” Petri said. “They need their own funding.”
On minimum wage, Dougherty said he supports a raise because the current rate, he believes, keeps people too close to the poverty line. He also believes that because many women hold minimum wage jobs, it could help close the pay gap.
Petri said that he believes in equal pay, but that he thinks the market solves the issue more than the law would.
Dougherty said that fracking can be a boon to the economy, but it must be regulated to protect the environment and there still has to be a push toward renewable resources. He also supports a 5-percent severance tax.
Petri said he supports fracking as a means of economic growth and reiterated his plan to build a pipeline along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where the environment has already been disturbed.
In light of Solebury Township supervisors passing a resolution urging lawmakers to get gun control laws passed, candidates were asked whether local municipalities should make policy statements on the issue.
Petri said the state should not have a “patchwork” system of gun laws, where each municipality has different policies.
“It has to be a statewide initiative,” he said, but did not give specifics on his own views on universal background checks, banning assault rifles or other issues discussed in the resolution.
Dougherty said he would support background check legislation in the state and a more comprehensive system for reporting lost or stolen firearms.
During the debate, issues like college tuition, police-community relations, the presidential race and the opioid epidemic were either briefly mentioned or left out entirely. While the candidates remained cordial, some audience members sparred with the moderator, believing their questions were not accurately asked or appropriately followed up.
There is not currently another debate scheduled for the candidates.
The 178th district is comprised of municipalities including New Hope, Northampton, Solebury, Upper Makefield and Wrightstown.