Take Note: Pennsylvania Senator Corman And Rep. Benninghoff On Judicial Races, COVID-19 And More
Every year, the Governor of Pennsylvania and the General Assembly have to agree on budget. But this year, lawmakers are also tackling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Added to that are hot button issues including the outcome of the presidential election and legislative redistricting. WPSU's Anne Danahy spoke with two elected leaders from Centre County: Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff.
Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Anne Danahy. Every year the governor of Pennsylvania and the general assembly have to agree on a budget, but this year lawmakers are also tackling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, what that means for jobs and businesses, schools and parents, and hospitals and healthcare workers. Added to that are hot button issues including the outcome of the presidential election and legislative redistricting. Joining us to talk about all of that are Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff. Senator Corman and Representative Benninghoff, thank you for joining us.
Jake Corman: Thank you.
Senator Corman, we'll start with you on this first question. You're both Republicans from Centre County, and am I correct, this is the first time the two top leaders of the general assembly had been from Centre County? And if it is, how do you balance representing Central Pennsylvania, which is largely rural, with the needs of the whole state?
Well, I think it is for Centre County, just a few years ago we had two, the speaker of the house and the president pro tem from Jefferson County. But Kerry and I, both living in Bellefonte, going to the same church is very unique. But a very exciting opportunity for us. As you become a leader, I started out as appropriations chairman went to majority leader then to president pro tem, climbed this ladder as well, you begin in a statewide perspective to your job. You have your district which is still the most important because these are the people who elect you, and these are the people you represent, but you have to take on larger responsibilities as you are now in a statewide role. So you just take that on as well. It adds a lot more work to your plate, but that's what you sign up for. I'm still the Senator for the 34th district. That's my first priority, but I do now have statewide responsibility as well and you just try to balance the two.
Representative Benninghoff, is that tricky? Because I imagine sometimes the needs, the demands, the politics are very different from what you're seeing in central Pennsylvania, rural areas and the more urban areas.
Absolutely. And sometimes you're trying to balance things, no different than you do in your own home. Proud father of five children. They were not always in agreement with what we're having for dinner or where we're going and so somebody has to be the negotiator. So Jake's and my leadership roles, we try to be you that individual. There's times where we have to negotiate with each other or each other's chambers, the governor's office, and obviously our minority parties in both of our own chambers of self. But the needs are somewhat similar across the Commonwealth in some places and some are very drastically different. At the end of the day, there are commonalities. We try to find those and try to work to get those things done.
One issue that doesn't get a lot of attention, but it's really important is judicial elections. As early as May, voters could consider a Republican back to amend the state constitution and change how the high court judges are elected in Pennsylvania. And the idea is that instead of a statewide election the state would be split into regions. Would this actually limit voters sway and the voice that voters have? Because instead of getting to vote for all the Supreme Court races or all of the superior court, now I only get to pick the one in my legislative area.
First of all, I don't believe it will be on the May ballot. So that's the first thing. And we want to take some time on this issue. It's obviously a significant change. We pass it through one session, whether we decide to pass it to the second session or not remains to be seen. So we want to take some time and then maybe hold some hearings and get as much input on it as possible. Two things that sort of lead me to drive this discussion that I have concerns about, one, most of our appellate courts are all from the same part of the state Allegheny County, Philadelphia County, or Dauphin County. They're not from Centre County. They're not from Mifflin County. They're not from even Johnstown Altoona. They're all from sort of areas where there are big corporate law firms that can bankroll a lot of these judicial races.
The second part that really concerns me, as I think we put our candidates for judge and judicial candidates in a very precarious position. One, they're not allowed to raise money, but yet they got to go out and raise it. And two, they're not allowed to comment on issues, but yet they have to go out and comment on issues. When people go into the ballot box to vote for these very, very important seats, they're limited on their ability to know who they are and what they stand for and what they're about. So those two issues have concerns for me. And so whether we continue down the same path as we had for years, or whether we change it to judicial districts, or we look at other things like merit selection or gubernatorial appointments... The Federal system has three districts in Pennsylvania.
They have Western District, they have a Middle District and they have an Eastern District. Having broken up into districts isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Federal model works very well. The president nominates, the US Senate confirms. I just think it's a discussion worth having as we have these judicial elections. I've thought about this for years, my father actually was the first, not the first, but he introduced it back in the '90s this plan that we're discussing today-
Anne Danahy: Your father, who was Senator J. Doyle Corman.
Yeah. So it was not a new issue, but I just think the predicament that we put our judicial candidates in by having to run statewide, is a delicate one and one at least deserves review. So we'll take the time to review it and then make a decision at a later date whether to proceed with this, or maybe some other change.
I mean, I'll put a follow up question to Representative Benninghoff on that. How do you respond to the criticism that this is Republicans trying to find a way to get more conservative Republican-friendly judges on the court when the state is moving in a Democratic direction?
It's just they're saying in your first question, you answered part of that. And it is, we have somewhat of a diverse state, but there are a lot of people that live in rural Pennsylvania that oftentimes feel like they don't have their voice. I've also heard from people when they go to judge elections or they go to what they consider an off year election, non-presidential, we try to tell them, these are just as important as a presidential race. You need to pay attention who your judges are, whether at a local level or not. And I have people respond, "Well, basically I don't really know anything about them. I looked for my familiar names," or "I just voted against Pittsburgh or Philly. So unless they're from an area outside there, I vote against them." So to Jake's a very well laid out explanation, to me this is about whether or not we want to give you the voters an opportunity to have a say in is, because as you know, if we were to pass this a second time it actually goes to the voters.
One of the other criticisms, and I'm sure you've heard this one too. I'll put this one to Senator Corman, is that this is at least partly in response to a Democratically-controlled Supreme Court rejecting the Republicans' proposed Congressional district maps. So there was a redistricting battle and it ended up in the court and the Republicans weren't happy with that and don't want to see it happen again.
No. Not at all. I mean, as I said, my father back in the early '90s, Senator Doyle Corman, introduced this legislation back then. And so this is an issue has been around for years. I disagreed with a lot of the Republican court decisions back in the early 2000s when Justice Castille was the chief justice. So when you're looking at a change like this, you can't look at it in a vacuum, like what's going to impact this year or next year. You're looking to put a change in for decades.
So the question is, what is the best way to either elect or appoint our judges moving forward? Is it sending them out on statewide elections where very few people know who they are and they're put in difficult positions about raising money? Is it a merit selection? Is it a judicial or a gubernatorial appointment with Senate confirmation? It's a good discussion to have. And I think you need to look at it from a long-term perspective, not in a vacuum.
We'll always agree or disagree with judges, but that's the part of these branches sort of going back and forth. That is not what's spurring this discussion on.
On legislative redistricting, that's something that will be coming up soon too. Why not have an independent commission handle that? What do you think the best route for handling that would be? We'll put that to you first Senator.
Well, we do have a commission for state legislative races. Matter of fact, Representative Benninghoff will serve on that commission as well as Senator Judy Ward and two Democrat leaders, plus a fifth person, which if those four don't agree on someone the Supreme Court will pick a fifth. That'll be an independent person to ultimately decide whether the Republicans or Democrats are right on their maps and so forth. Look, we looked into that. We actually passed a version of it back a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get it through the Constitutional process in time to for this cycle. And so as far as the state legislative maps we will go through the same process.
I will tell you I'm very concerned, and Representative Benninghoff can speak to maybe a little better since he'll be on the commission, that the census data coming from Washington, D.C., is really late. And it's really going to put us in a time crunch to get this completed by the time you would do petitions next year. To the point where we may have to consider moving their primary back next year, just because the data is coming to us very late. But it is a five person commission. It's a bipartisan commission. The Supreme Court will pick an independent fifth person. I think there hasn't been a whole lot of complaints about the state legislative maps in the past as opposed to congressional. But it is a five person commission that I think has served us well in the past.
Representative Benninghoff, is that a concern that because of the delay in the census, because of obviously the COVID-19 pandemic, that things will get delayed for elections too?
Well, when you're making decisions in life, it's always good to have information as early as you can. So anytime things are more delayed, it puts a rush on things. We've been through this legislative process multiple times. It would be hopeful to have this information in May, seems like we may not get it till fall. But life is full of lots of challenges. I wouldn't take this position on if I didn't feel I was up to take on the challenges.
As Jake said, the commission gets put together. The courts generally pick the fifth person if there's not an agreement. So the courts are already involved with this. At the end of the day, we have very specific guidelines in drafting these maps, and we try our very best to keep communities together. I believe legislation even requires that they're like-minded. I hear people who talk about the whole fair districting proposal that they want to have communities of like-mindedness. But yet when we saw the Supreme Court redo the congressional maps, they split Centre County in half. Some of our constituents are represented by somebody many miles away past Lewisburg. I just think that that seems contradictive to the whole concept of what they're pushing.
End of the day, we'll do our very best. We'll follow the guidelines. We have geographic boundaries that we have to be cognizant of. Try to keep them compact. We do our best to not split municipalities. Try not to split school districts to the best of our abilities. But I have colleagues that represent five different counties because they have more deer than they have population and it's a math equation. Thirteen million people divided by 203 house seats. That's the number of people you have to represent.
Sort of a COVID related question for you. Governor Wolf this week announced the creation of a COVID-19 vaccine task force with the legislature. And you both have been critical of Governor Wolf's response to the pandemic. Are there specific plans or changes that you want to see moving forward? And what's your reaction to his forming of this commission?
Well, this is something we've actually been asking for since the beginning of the pandemic. This has to be an inter-agency issue. I spoke to him several weeks ago when we were talking on the transportation issue and said, "Why don't we put a group together like we did in the beginning of December?" In a 37 minute phone call, we came up with a temporary solution to not having to furlough PennDOT employees or stopping projects. Why aren't we doing the same thing with the vaccine? At the end of the day, people see this as the one lifeline to try to get back to some life of normalcy, try to open things up, feel comfortable to go to sporting events or whatever else, but there's just been kind of a haphazard rollout. There's a lot of miscommunication, misunderstanding. We hear that, my colleagues on the Democrat side say the same thing. They're frustrated. Their healthcare providers are inconcerned. If healthcare providers who are not even sure if they're going to get vaccines delivered in time.
I believe in this day and age in 2021, we've got people living in a space station, we ought to be able to put a protocol together to do a vaccine rollout, know what kind of amounts of containers we're getting, what the percentage of increase -- which apparently supposed to go up in the next delivery. So we can guarantee that if Anne Danahy got a vaccine today that in 30 days you can get your second supplement.
The problem is that we have some providers who are actually holding back some of the vaccine that should be delivered out to the 1A category, for fear that they aren't going to be able to give that second boost to the patients that already had it. The goal of putting this inner agency together is, it's not a Republican or Democrat issue. We want to get our patients, pardon me, our public who wants to be vaccinated, vaccinated. And make those individuals more comfortable to go to work, go to school and be able to interact with everybody.
Senator Corman, any thoughts on that? On what specifically you're hoping to see?
Look, this is an area where we have to stop the politics. Us blaming Tom Wolf and Tom Wolf blaming Donald Trump isn't helpful to any of us. So therefore, we've reached out. I think the new secretary of health is a breath of fresh air that she's reached out to work with us. So we got to work together to figure out the best way to roll this out. I don't know in my 22 years, there's a more important thing that we're going to do in state government than roll out this vaccine for the health and welfare of our citizens. We're all in to be helpful. I think the task force is a good step.
What I'd like to see the task force do is hire a tsar of sorts. Maybe someone with a military background and understands logistics. Because rolling the vaccine out still has some health care components to it, but it's more about logistically how do you get it out to people? So to put sort of one person in charge, I don't want sort of a task force of seven people just sort of get weighed down in bureaucracy. Let's get one person in charge who's got logistical experience, again, maybe military experience. I know the House passed a bill about getting the national guard involved.
So look, we're all going to work with the governor on this. This is something new, we'd never done before, right? So I don't want to be critical. It's been slow so far. We need to pick up the pace. I know the Senate and the house is prepared to work with the governor in any way to make this happen. Because again, I don't know my 22 years there's more important thing that we've done than getting this vaccine to the citizens of Pennsylvania.
If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. We're talking with Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff.
So a political question, Senator Corman, you were one of the Pennsylvania Republicans who asked Congress to delay certification of the presidential election. At this point, are you willing to say that there was not massive voter fraud, that Joe Biden was the fairly elected president?
I think, obviously Joe Biden's our president of the United States. I accept that and support that now that he's our president. Our concern was, not some of the things that were coming out of the politics and the internet of what happened. But real things that happened with our secretary of state, and who's now resigned in disgrace because of her lack of performance. The secretary of state took an attitude this year that was never seen before in Pennsylvania, where she sort of thought that she was in charge of our elections. When actually the counties are in charge of our elections. And normally you see a secretary of state send out three or four guidances on how to go through with an election for their counties and just that guidance. She took the attitude that she was in charge and she send out about 15 to 20 new guidance to our counties. So a lot of the things that she was involved in, changing the rules in the middle of the game, which just sort of showed, which was our concern before we confirmed her secretary of state, that she came from a partisan process in Bucks County where she's from. And then she wouldn't be the fair arbiter of an election.
At the end of the day, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of Pennsylvanians who don't believe the election came off fairly. So it's important for us as policymakers who provide oversight to review the 2020 election, which is why I've appointed a bipartisan evenly Republican and Democrat select committee to review the 2020 election and then ultimately deliver to the legislature recommendations on how we can improve. If you look at Florida in year 2000 they were a disaster, right? Everyone looked, how did this happen? With hanging chads and all those sorts of things. Now you look at Florida, they consider that the gold standard of how to run an election. So we need to reach out to other states and find out what are some of the things that they do that can improve Pennsylvania system.
But at the end of the day, I think Kerry and I tried to say that any objection to this election, whether they be for the president United States, or they be the state legislature, whether they be for County Commissioner, the redress is in the court system. The Trump campaign did not bring anything into the courts that they were successful to overturn an election. So therefore, rightfully so, the electors from Pennsylvania went to Joe Biden. But I still think there were concerns in this election and things that we need to review before we have another election. Because you can't have a healthy democracy unless people believe in the integrity of the process. Right now there are many people who don't believe in integrity of the process. So it's our job now as policymakers... again, you have to do this bipartisanly, because do we just come in with a bunch of Republican bills? A, the governor's not going to sign and B, the Democrats aren't going to believe in it. So let's come up with a process that we can all believe in. Find the best practices in other states. That's what state are, they're incubators for each other, and then put a plan in place so that everyone has belief in it before our next election. That's my goal.
I want to put the same question to Representative Benninghoff. You were re-elected this election. Do you think it was a fair election, and do you accept the results?
I accept the results at this point. I would echo one of the things Jake said. I think sadly if we didn't have the social media we do today we probably won't even be having this discussion. Unfortunately, there's information, people hear snippets and they're quick to send it out and whisper down the alley. Things get changed and spread.
At this point, our state guard committee is really looking prospectively. We've received information from a bipartisan Pennsylvania State County Commissioners Association who actually have suggestions of some changes in their as well. I do believe the governor's also offering some suggestions of changes. So it's a matter of looking about our election code. In our concern early on that we might get criticized was really not necessarily about vote numbers it was about policy and procedures and whether or not votes should be counted after 8 O'clock. If you and I walk in at 8:02 we can't vote. But the secretary, as Jake said, was changing these rules up to two days before the election, whether (ballots) should have been segregated and kept apart. Well, I think by that, allowing people to fix ballots somewhere in the process prior to election day, whether they signed or didn't sign what are called naked ballots, ones that weren't put in a security envelope and still accepting those was very frustrating. So whenever you hear that the letter of the law is not being followed, I think that lends people to hypothesis and theories. The word of fraud goes out there. They had one preconceived notion about what they thought was going to happen and it didn't happen. At the end of the day, we're moving forward. Our state government committee is looking at some of these changes that have been suggested. I believe there's actually one of our Democrat house members has put a bill in that somewhat parallels the suggestions by the County Commissioners Association, which is Republicans and Democrats. We will do our best to make sure we have a good law for people in future elections, so they can continue to feel that they're safe and secure and as fair as possible.
I do want to switch gears. We've got to get to a couple other questions looking forward. So Governor Wolf's proposed budget for next fiscal year includes raising the personal income tax. He says middle and lower income taxpayers would actually see their taxes go down. Why is that a bad idea? To say the well-off are going to pay a little bit more and we're going to generate some needed revenue. Senator Corman, why do you think that's a bad idea?
Well, that's sort of typical -- putting one part of Pennsylvania against another -- that we get from the governor at times and certainly from the Democratic party. Look, the personal income tax has paid for a lot more than just individuals. Many of our small businesses are incorporated in a way that they pay the personal income tax that would see a significant tax increase. Now think about what the small businesses in Pennsylvania have gone through over the last year. First of all, they have been shut down. Second of all, they've been restricted even when they were allowed to reopen to a way they could reopen, where big boxes who they're trying to compete with, the Amazons of the world are thriving during this pandemic, right? They're absolutely thriving because a lot of the smaller guys are closed and they're declared essential.
And so a lot of our small businesses who are incorporated through the personal income tax would see this large increase, a 50% increase at the same time that they've been struggling for the last year. The governor's approach so far has been to give them money instead of allowing them to open and compete. That just can't last because we can't print money forever. So this personal income tax is paid for a lot more than just individuals. So yeah, is he increasing the poverty level for a family of four? Yeah, he's doing that. I guess someone who's above that level would pay more, but he's also capturing small businesses who employ a lot of people.
And then you correlate his minimum wage increase, which I've supported in the past. But at a time when these small businesses who are paying it are struggling. Now they got to pay higher taxes and higher wages, that's a heck of a recipe for these businesses here in Pennsylvania. So I think this is not the time to be raising taxes on small businesses. I don't think it's the time to be raising costs on small business. This is a plan that this governor has proposed that is great for big business and bad for small business. And that's why I oppose it.
And Representative Benninghoff. What about that idea that, even if you don't support raising the personal income tax, maybe now will be the time to raise the minimum wage?
Well, I have a restaurant owner friend of mine. He said after listening to the address, "The shutdown was a tremendous blow on us. This is strike two and strike three. If you're going to mandate that I have to pay a certain wage for people at the same time that you're going to raise my personal income tax I'm done." What people don't realize about two thirds of small businesses pay their taxes through the PIT. Most people think all businesses pay a corporate net income tax and they got lots of money to do that with, that's not the case. In the restaurant and hospitality industry, you have a profit margin of about 1%, maybe 2% if you're lucky.
The large big box stores or the businesses that are from state to state or even in other countries, they have a much greater profit margin, 25, 30%. You can take certain hits. And one of the things that a lot of people I don't believe realize is that, most of our small businesses throughout this pandemic have made a tremendous personal commitment to keep their employees healthcare being paid. At a time when some of my friends who own businesses really we're not drawing anything out of the kitty for their own income. They made sure their employees had healthcare, because nobody knew where this pandemic was going. The healthcare cost for a business is very expensive, and that's in addition to what you pay as a wage.
People also forget Pennsylvania being one of the third largest aging states in the nation, many people move back to Pennsylvania, even if they leave after college and go to work somewhere, predominantly to be around their family and because Pennsylvania does not tax retirement. So you have a large percentage of the employees, pardon me, constituents that don't pay taxes on the far end and now we're going to be imposing a tax on that workforce, which has diminished over the last couple of years. I mean, we've seen more people on unemployment in Pennsylvania the last 10 months than we've ever seen. It's just the timing of this is very, very poor because as some of my business people say, "Who are you going to tax? Some of us aren't going to be here." I have some who is telling me they may not be here in May. They're hoping for a little bit of relief in the CARES dollars Jake and I just drove out to the Commonwealth. But at the end of the day, who's going to pay the tax?
Would you support either of you looking at a higher minimum wage, perhaps as we move out of this pandemic, because it's $7.25 an hour in Pennsylvania and that's about $15,000 a year. That's tough to live on.
Kerry Benninghoff: I think if we're going to do anything like that would probably have to be somewhat graduated. I did vote for the last one years ago.
I think on the acute level, we've got a couple of priorities. Number one, let's get this vaccine rollout rolling and get the majority of our public vaccinated. Two, open up businesses so that we can have the revenue flowing. A long run a strong economy works not when government intervenes on it, or a governor puts mandates on it, or we get more bailout money from the federal government. That's still taxpayers' money. The feds might literally print the money, but the actual payment or liability for that money comes from the taxpayers. It's hard to keep giving free money away to some people in the country when you're taken out of the same pockets of people that you're going to raise a tax and minimum wage on. So if we go down that road, post pandemic, it would have to be something probably in a graduated manner.
Anne Danahy: Senator Corman, were are you going to say something?
Jake Corman: I voted for a minimum wage increase. Came to an agreement with Senator Tartaglione from Philadelphia, who's has been the long the leader for a raise in the minimum wage last session. It didn't get completed. I don't think $7.25 is appropriate either. Having said that, Representative Benninghoff's is correct, 100%. We've got to get the economy open first. We've got to get these businesses open and operating at a normal fashion before we can even consider talking about wage increase. So I think most jobs, if you look right now, if you apply for they're offering far more than minimum wage. But until we can get the economy and get these businesses back on their feet... again, big business doesn't care about the minimum wage. Small business does. And that's the people that are teetering right now, as Representative Benninghoff said. So let's get everybody up and running. Let's get the vaccine out. Let's get as much normalcy, and then we can address these types of issues.
Anne Danahy: Senator Corman and Representative Benninghoff, thank you for joining us.
Jake Corman: Thanks for having us.
Kerry Benninghoff: Great conversation.
Anne Danahy: We've been talking with Pennsylvania Senate president pro tem, Jake Corman and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff. The interview was recorded on February 11th. To listen to an extended version of this interview and other episodes of Take Note, go to wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Anne Danahy, WPSU.
TRANSCRIPT: ON PARTISANSHIP
Anne Danahy: There's lots of discussion that at the national level that politics has become more partisan. Do you feel that at this state level too?
You know, sadly, I'll take a shot at that. I think a lot of people see snippets in the news and they judge all politics by what they see in the national level. I personally believe that you can make things partisan if you want to whether that's you as an individual or me as an office holder, but it's really how you choose to govern. There are philosophical differences between the parties and not just the two major parties, but all parties. Otherwise, we would only have one party, but I've often said that our differences and our difference of opinions and the fact that we may wrangle over that is really not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in the news people may just see, oh, the Republicans and Democrats are arguing over this. The Democrats are chastising the Republicans for this, but as far as our debate, our committee hearings, our differing of ideas, and people adding amendments or taking something away from an issue, I try to use a parallel. That's kind of a process no different than how we take raw iron ore and produce products out of it. We have learned through time that washing that, getting the metal out, heating it, it makes it a better product.
Well, the same thing with legislation, it may not be the prettiest process. I know Jake has alluded often times it's like making sausage. You may not want to watch it, but the end product's good. So, I would tell you that the partisanship is not necessarily as bad, but a lot of it has to do with what your beliefs are, and I have made a commitment with the minority chair, pardon me, the minority leader. She's new to her position. I said, Joanne, we're going to differ philosophically on things, but I believe you and I have a responsibility to try to keep the harmony here on the floor to the best of our abilities. We can argue. We can differ, and do it in a smart manner, do it with being respectful.
Senator Corman, do you agree with that? Or do you think that politics has gotten more partisan at the state level as we've seen at the national level?
I think with the rise of social media, it's starting to leak in more than it used to. The one thing that always differentiated us between Washington, D.C., and states are most states like Pennsylvania have to balance the budget. And so, therefore the fact we have to balance a budget, we have to make agreements. I served eight years with Ed Rendell, six years with Tom Wolf, Democratic governor with a Republican legislature. Eventually, you have to come to agreement or you can't govern. Where in Washington, D.C., they don't have that restriction to balance the budget. And so, therefore they don't have to solve problems. They can just put them off to a later date and continue to argue. We don't have that luxury. I'm glad we don't by the way.
I do think with the rise of social media, with people communicating through Twitter and Facebook as opposed to face to face, it has led to some more partisanship at the state level. It's not a positive development, but it's one that is part of everyday life. It's not going to go away. And so, we need to figure out ways to better communicate other than just, looking for how many people like your comments or view your Twitter handle.