When it comes to statewide political issues of concern to Jews, Hank Butler thinks Jewish Pittsburgh is in a very unique position.
Speaking last week at a meeting of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, Butler, director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition — the statewide Jewish community’s chief lobbyist — reminded the panel that the vast majority of leaders in the Pennsylvania House and Senate — not to mention Gov. Tom Corbett himself — now come from western Pennsylvania.
And that perfectly positions area Jewish entities, such as PAJC, to educate and sway opinions.
“You have a very interesting position [from which to] educate elected officials,” Butler said.
He added, “I think education is critical. It’s a time when the Jewish community here can have a big impact on educating legislative leaders] on issues of importance to the Jewish community.”
Sixteen House and Senate leaders represent western or west-central Pennsylvania, Butler said, including Sens. Joseph Scarnati (president pro-temp), Jay Costa (minority leader) and Wayne Fontana (caucus administrator); and House Reps. Sam Smith (speaker), Mike Turzai (majority leader) and Dan Frankel (caucus chair).
Butler used last week’s PAJC meeting to lay out the priorities for the commonwealth’s Jewish community in the 2013 legislative session.
Chief among those are subsidies for community food pantries and funding for NORCs (Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities), EITCs (Education Improvement Tax Credits) and mass transit.
Butler also is following pension reform — a high priority of the Corbett administration — to gauge its budgetary impact on the PJC’s priorities.
And the PJC is working with the ACLU to draft anti-bullying legislation — cyber bullying in particular. It will support a measure co-sponsored by Frankel on terror-free procurement, and it is trying to restore to the state budget an annual allocation for Holocaust education, which was removed in the 2007-08 budget.
He also cited some of PJC’s legislative achievements to date in areas such as Education Improvement Tax Credit, terror-free investing, NORC funding.
Based in Harrisburg, the PJC is the lobbying arm for Pennsylvania’s 10 Jewish federations plus smaller independent communities. All told, it represents the interests of 500,000 Jews across the state, including 300,000 in Philadelphia and 40,000 in Pittsburgh, though Jewish communities in southern Pennsylvania, around his hometown of York, and in the Poconos are growing.
But Butler is quick to note that the PJC is neither a liberal nor conservative lobbying group.
While Jews are virtually united on some issues — Israel, divestment from Iran, terror free-investment — they are more splintered on others. In those cases, the PJC sees its job as educating lawmakers on the nuanced positions of the community.
For instance, Orthodox Jews tend to favor school vouchers while Reform Jews tend to oppose them, Butler said. It’s his job to explain these differences within the community to the legislators.
Part of his message to the lawmakers is that the Jewish community is not politically monolithic.
“It’s a good thing,” he said, “It puts us in a position where we have to educate our legislators that perception is not reality.”
Addressing NORCs in particular, Butler said, “It’s big in the Jewish community, but frankly, outside the Jewish community nobody knows what it is.”
Butler also is following state initiatives regarding immigration — an issue the PJC thinks should be handled at the federal level. Butler said many of these initiatives are ill advised, such as one that recently failed, which would have revoked professional licenses for anyone who hired an undocumented worker.
Other such initiatives, he said, are potentially discriminatory.
“The position of the PJC is it’s a federal issue,” Butler said. “There are many bills out there, and we’ve been constantly monitoring them. … We’re concerned about the issue of immigration.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)