Candidates for 177th Legislative District debate

Candidates for Pennsylvania’s 177th Legislative District took to the Veteran Boxers Association in Port Richmond last Wednesday night for a debate.

On the campaign trail: Candidates (from left) Maggie Borski, Joe Hohenstein, Patty-Pat Kozlowski and Dan Martino debated the issues at the Veteran Boxers Association in Port Richmond last Wednesday. Democratic candidate Sean Kilkenny was invited, but did not attend. TOM BECK / TIMES PHOTO

By Tom Beck

Candidates for Pennsylvania’s 177th Legislative District took to the Veteran Boxers Association in Port Richmond last Wednesday night for a debate.

The debate questioners were Jim Moran, a retiree and member of the Communications Workers of America and director emeritus of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health; Ben Mannes, a former policy adviser to Beth Grossman during her campaign for district attorney; and Sam Durso, co-chair of Philly For Change, an organization that supports progressive Democratic candidates.

Democratic candidates Maggie Borski, Joe Hohenstein and Dan Martino were present at the debate. Patty-Pat Kozlowski was the lone Republican. Democratic candidate Sean Kilkenny was invited, but did not attend. At the debate, topics ranged from the opioid crisis to taxes to the minimum wage.

When candidates were asked whether they’d be willing to expand Medicaid to deal with the opioid crisis or if they’d be willing to cut Medicaid, answers varied.

All the candidates said they would not be willing to cut Medicaid, but Borski and Martino said specifically they’d like to see it expanded.

“There’s far too many roadblocks when it comes to seeking health in this country — especially in this state,” said Martino, who noted that he supports universal health care. “The problems that we’re seeing on the streets today is that people are ready [to get treatment for drug addiction] and that’s rare. We need to capitalize on that moment when someone is ready and willing to go through treatment. We have to eliminate every roadblock in their way because that’s the only way out.”

Borski took the crisis a step further, and blamed the drug companies for what she said was their role in creating the crisis.

“It’s these big pharmaceutical companies who have had a direct impact and a direct role into this crisis,” she said. “Four out of five using heroin right now do so because they got hurt on the job, they went to the hospital, and their doctor prescribed them painkillers that were misrepresented by these big pharmaceutical companies. So you have to hold them accountable, we need to support lawsuits to hold them accountable and even use that money to help support health care and rehab for people suffering from addiction.”

Kozlowski used the question as an opportunity to slam safe injection sites.

“The opioid crisis is really why I got into this,” she said. “When I heard that the city was dancing around to open these safe injection sites, that’s when I threw my hat in the ring because that’s going to kill our neighborhood and our quality of life.”

“I think making sure that one of the aspects of Medicaid coverage can also be appropriate drug treatment,” Hohenstein said. “I don’t believe it makes sense to be cutting Medicaid for, again, the same reasons.”

Candidates were also questioned about both the city and the state’s tax structure, and how the local economy can be stimulated despite the city’s high tax burden relative to other major cities.

Kozlowski suggested giving a tax break to each of the 900,000 small businesses in Pennsylvania to hire one full-time employee.

“If we just gave them a tax incentive or a tax break to hire one employee at a living wage, imagine that, that would be 900,000 living wage jobs,” she said.

“Entire industries and entire segments of the corporate world…are going almost tax-free,” Hohenstein said. “One that we’ve been talking about for several years is the fracking and the shale industry. Those guys still don’t pay taxes. …What we’ve got to be able to do when we’re talking about balancing out the state budget is making the state [go] after appropriate higher-level tax streams and funding streams — and start with the shale industry.”

Borski piggybacked off of Hohenstein’s response regarding the fracking industry.

“We sit on a goldmine of natural gas in Pennsylvania, and we don’t tax anyone for it,” she said. “You want to talk about stimulating the economy, that is where we need to start. It is completely unacceptable that we do not have a severance tax, and that needs to stop.”

Martino criticized the city’s lack of a progressive tax system.

“We can bifurcate our tax structure so that we’re going after the wealthier people in the state,” Martino said. “We can go after things like dividends and capital gains while at the same time reducing wage taxes.”

When asked what the minimum wage should be, Martino and Kozlowski each said $12 an hour. Borski and Hohenstein said $15.

“I don’t think anybody in this room would get out of bed for $7.25 an hour - — especially in this 177th where people are struggling to make ends meet,” Martino said, noting that he came up with the $12-an-hour figure after reading an MIT study. “I know a lot of people here have to sit at the kitchen table and look over their bills and decide which one they have to pay and which one they have to skip. That’s no way to live. So to answer your question directly — I believe that $12 is a fair jumping-off point for me.”

“When I spoke to Local 22, they said, you know EMTs start out at $15 an hour,” Kozlowski said. “After the end of the week, they get a paycheck and it comes down to $15 an hour. So would you pay someone scooping water ice or working at McDonald’s $15 an hour, yet the EMT who hits you with the Narcan or with the defibrillator $15?”

However, Kozlowski also said she was open to having a lower minimum wage for workers under the age of 18 anywhere from $8 an hour to $10 an hour.

“I’m going to stand with organized labor on this one and say a $15 minimum wage,” Hohenstein said. “When we talk about livable wages, $15 [an hour] is $30,000 a year. Nobody supports a family on $30,000 a year.”

“Joe hit the nail on the head - — $30,000 is simply not a livable wage,” Borski said. “You have to also take a look at the cost of living, which has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, even 30 years, you name it. I speak for myself at 25, I have so many friends who have student loan debt that are trying to work jobs in their free time whether it’s in college or in law school or whatever and you have people from different generations say, ‘Well, I worked and I paid my way through school,’ and that just simply is not possible right now.” ••