Pa's 171st House District: An Incumbent Aims For Year 20

Nov 7, 2016

The State Capitol in Harrisburg, PA
Credit (Photo: AP)

WPSU-FM has been taking a look at some of the races in the Pennsylvania State Legislature that will be decided on election day.  WPSU’s Kristine Allen reports on the 171st State House district race, which pits a long-time incumbent against a lawyer who’s a newcomer to politics.

Pennsylvania’s State house districts tend to be oddly shaped, and the 171st is no exception. It includes parts of Centre and Mifflin Counties, curving around Penn State but including College Township, and a part of Ferguson Township.  The incumbent , Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican, has represented the district for 19 years. 

At a sportsmen’s meeting in Pleasant Gap, Benninghoff said he’s worried about keeping down government costs.

“I’m getting concerned about budgets that are growing by a billion dollars each year,” he says.  But he says he doesn’t want the state to increase revenue.

“We’ve got to stop trying to find new resources of money, and try to manage the money we have better.” Part of managing money better, Benninghoff said, is reforming the state pension system.

“Sadly I think everybody needs to be a participant in that,” he says. “We have a lot of groups that come before us and they want to be exempt out of any kind of pension reform. And I’m not sure if that’s fair to the other people that don’t get exempt.”

Benninghoff said times have changed since the state pension system was created in the 20th century.  He said today people are living 30 and 40 years past retirement, at a high cost to the state.

“It is just cost prohibitive,” Benninghoff said.  “And I think we need to move the state to the same thing that the private sector has done for 20 years.”

At the league of women voters candidate night in State College, Benninghoff’s challenger, Melody Fleck, didn’t say what she would do about pension reform.

“All I can say is my background is in law,” Fleck said. “And I did a lot of estate administration and planning in my career.  I have expertise in pensions and taxes.  And I certainly would like to get in there and see what I can do.”

But Fleck questioned why Benninghoff had not been able to tackle the problem.

“I’m new to this,” she said.  “And of course, Kerry Benninghoff has been in office now 20 years. That’s 10 terms.  He’s been the head of the GOP policy committee, which is the majority party in the House. And he hasn’t solved this problem.  So – I’m not even in there to find out what the issues are yet. But a big question is why hasn’t the incumbent done this?”  

At the Candidates Night, both contenders addressed the issue of climate change.  Benninghoff expressed uncertainty about the cause of global warming.

“First of all, I believe that climates change all the time,” he said.  

I believe after the ice age, I suspect a lot of people thought global warming was occurring then.  I believe these are cyclical things that occur. Whether man’s contributing to it to some extent has yet to be100% proven. There are different oopinions on that.  I don’t think you have to subscribe to one particular mindset or scientist’s report.”

For Fleck, who has been active in the Sierra Club Moshannon Group, the climate issue is crucial.

“I think science should be the guide here,” she said. “There’s clear science from the majority of scientists that in fact fossil fuel is driving climate change, and it’s showing up in all kind of very measurable ways.”

And Fleck thinks the state legislature should take action on climate change.

“We need to do more to transition our economy in Pennsylvania to renewable energy so we can be part of the solution, instead of the problem,” she said.

And what should the priorities be for Pennsylvania? When it comes to jobs in the 171st district, both candidates agree on the first item:

“ I think jobs are a very important necessity,” said Benninghoff.

Fleck agreed that jobs are the number one issue.

As his second priority, Benninghoff named opioid abuse.

“Pennsylvania is losing ten people a day, that’s 300 a month, “He said. “It’s not just addicts.  There are people overusing prescriptions.  And sadly, when that prescription runs out, they’re turning to the streets where they can buy heroin at 5 dollars a hit.”

For Fleck, the second priority is education.

“We have some schools in Pennsylvania that are talking about going bankrupt because they don’t get enough state funding,” she said.  “We also have kids who aren’t able to afford college. We, as a society, owe it to our kids to make sure that they are prepared, educationally, to address the issues before them.”

On Election Day, voters in Pennsylvania’s 171st state house district will decide whether to chose the first time Democratic candidate, Melody Fleck, or stay the course with Republican incumbent Kerry Benninghoff.