Mazal tov to State Rep. Dan Frankel, who on Nov. 2 was re-elected in a walk.
Now that the election is over and the state is facing a major budget crunch, it seemed an opportune moment to sit down with Frankel to find out what the upcoming legislative session in Harrisburg might look like, and what being in the minority (again) will mean for the Democratic agenda. I sat down with Frankel at his Squirrel Hill office just before Thanksgiving for a wide-ranging discussion of politics, privatization and pot.
The Democratic Party may have taken a beating this election cycle but the Pittsburgh area and Frankel specifically have done very well. Philadelphia’s political influence is waning as our own Tom Corbett replaces Gov. Ed Rendell, who hails from the city of brotherly love. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership in the House is also moving toward Iron City as Frankel replaces Rep. Mark Cohen as Democratic caucus chairman. Frankel said he’s excited about his new position as third highest-ranking member, but explained that his ability to maneuver is limited by being in the minority.
Frankel said being caucus chairman is the “first line of defense” to react to the majority’s agenda. “We want to work with the GOP,” Frankel said. He has a good working relationship with his Republican counterpart Rep. Mike Turzai, who also hails from Allegheny County.
Frankel sounded friendly about working with the Republican majority, but when I asked about specific possibilities for closing the $4 billion budget deficit, he was less than positive about some of the options. He doesn’t support privatizing the state’s liquor store system, as Corbett does, and he doesn’t see how it will be possible to erase the deficit without raising taxes as Corbett promised.
Frankel said the new governor will be “hard-pressed to balance the budget without any new revenues.”
Instead of privatizing state functions, Frankel is more comfortable talking about the things Harrisburg has done right to deal with the deficit. “The number of state employees is down,” Frankel claims, and “government is working more efficiently.” Then again, Frankel admits there aren’t “three, four or five billion in efficiencies” to be found.
Frankel is proud of the current legislature’s work on pension reform, which he agrees is still a looming problem in Pennsylvania as it is in many states across the country.
“We took a step,” he said. Rolling back the 2001 pension enhancements and changing the system for new hires so that they are making more of a contribution to their future retirement is certainly going to help mitigate the unfunded pension problem Frankel believes.
And Frankel is right that this isn’t just a problem in Harrisburg; it is a “pervasive mess at every level of government.” Before the conversation with Frankel, I didn’t know that there were 3,200 different public pension plans in the state that represented 25 percent of all local pension plans nationwide.
Frankel agreed that the pension reforms aren’t a complete solution, but he opposes the preferred Republican option of changing the system from defined benefit to defined contribution. “Going to a defined contribution system won’t solve it,” he said.
Besides the public pension problem, Frankel pointed out a number of other areas where the state could find itself struggling for cash. The stimulus “disappears” next year, so no more money there. Corbett said he won’t tax natural gas drilling. Meanwhile, the extension of unemployment benefits that Pennsylvania received from Washington must be repaid.
“How does that $2.1 billion” get paid back he asks.
Frankel is not only focused on Harrisburg’s money woes. As a member of the New Pittsburgh Coalition, he is part of the group trying to find ways to put Pittsburgh’s fiscal house in order. The question of privatization came up in that part of our discussion. Selling off the city’s water and sanitation function has been suggested as a way of raising money for the city. Frankel said he’s willing to consider such a proposal but he wants “value” to show that privatizing these functions “is worth it.”
To raise money for the state, I asked Frankel about his thoughts on legalizing marijuana. He said he supports legalizing medical marijuana but doesn’t think he’d support complete legalization. When I suggested that a state that needs to raise revenues (taxes), as Frankel argues, could just legalize the growth, distribution and sale of marijuana and then tax it, he seemed intrigued.
“Well, that’s an argument,” he said.
Abby Wisse Schachter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of the New York Post blog Capitol Punishment (www.nypost. com/blogs/capitol).