Local candidates for the state Legislature split Wednesday evening over term limits, transportation priorities and government reform.
Seven candidates in all spoke at the Candidates' Night event, held by the League of Women of Voters of Centre County. The gathering, held in the State College Municipal Building, highlighted this year's state Senate race in the 34th District and the House races in the 76th and 77th districts.
In the 77th District race, incumbent state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, appeared with Republican challengers Joyce Haas, of Patton Township, and Ron Reese, of Worth Township. Haas and Reese are competing for the GOP nomination in the May 18 primary. The winner will face Conklin in the November general election.
Conklin and Haas, taking questions from the audience, both said they would not support term limits for state lawmakers. "Actually, 26 percent of the Legislature has turned over 2005" without the imposition of term limits, Haas said. "You make the choice -- not someone else."
Reese, however, said he probably would support term limits. "It should not be a career," he said of service in the Legislature.
On transportation funding, Conklin said the government needs to fund a new, high-speed Interstate 80 interchange just north of Bellefonte, where traffic from Interstate 99 joins the east-west artery. At the same time, he said, funding for a highway-grade connecting road between U.S. Route 322 at Seven Mountains and I-80 near Pleasant Gap also needs to be a priority.
Conklin joined two other state legislators earlier Wednesday in calling for a $1 interstate-highway toll at the state line. Revenue from the toll, expected to reach several hundred million dollars a year, would help fund transportation priorities, including those in Centre County, Conklin said.
Haas, upon hearing the $1 toll idea, said that "that's certainly not (portraying) Pennsylvania as a friendly state." She suggested that local transportation projects should be funded largely through the state gas tax. She said each region should receive a transportation budget allocation that matches the amount it generates through state-gas-tax revenue.
Reese, among his transit priorities, said the a new road connecting I-80 and Route 322 should not cut through the Pleasant Gap area. Instead, he said, Route 322 between Seven Mountains and State College should be improved, and an entrance to a new I-80 connection should take shape in the Boalsburg area. There, Reese said, it would do less damage to existing farmland.
On the issue of illegal immigration, Haas said she supports recent anti-illegal-immigration legislation in Arizona. She said employers who employ illegal immigrants should face fines, but that the country needs a better way to help employers identify illegal immigrants' false working papers.
Likewise, Reese said there is often no way for an employer to determine if an immigrant's working papers are false.
Conklin said that "the only way we're going to stop this problem is to look at the employers themselves." He said many employers are fully aware that they're employing illegal residents, and that he has backed legislation to enforce restrictions on employers.
Separately, he called for a constitutional convention in the state. Such a convention would examine the overall operation of the state government and how best to reform it through a revision of the state constitution. That last happened in 1968.
Conklin said a constitutional convention should include a careful examination of the redistricting process -- that is, how the state establishes the boundaries of lawmakers' districts. Any revisions to the constitution would face a popular vote at the ballot box, he said.
He said the state also needs to halt no-bid contracts and pay-to-play practices.
"(The people) entrust us, so we must entrust them," Conklin said.
Haas, however, said Pennsylvania already has a solid constitution. It just needs to be enforced, she said. She said necessary reforms can be achieved largely through internal changes in Harrisburg, such as new limits on the duration of chairmanships and other leadership roles in the Legislature.
Reese said he has yet to see specifically what a constitutional convention might achieve. He said he would like to see a more streamlined, part-time Legislature take shape to replace the current full-time body. He would support the abolition of the Turnpike Commission, which he called among the most corrupt agencies in the state.
He also called for more transparency in state government and said he would help to safeguard property rights.
Other candidates who spoke at the Wednesday forum are State College resident Jon Eich, a Centre County commissioner, who is facing incumbent state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township in the 34th Senatorial District race; incumbent state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, and Republican challenger Daryl Schafer, of Haines Township, both running for the 76th District House seat; and incumbent state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, who appears to be running unopposed for re-election for the 171st District House seat.
A link to complete video coverage of the Candidate Night event will be posted shortly on StateCollege.com.