MIDDLEBURG — The two major-party candidates running for the vacant seat in the 85th Legislative District agreed economic issues are a top concern for those in the Valley, but differed in their approach to addressing it.
The economy and minimum wage were two of the topics discussed by Republican David Rowe and Democrat, Dr. Jennifer Rager-Kay, at Coffee with the Candidates on Friday morning. The event, held at Shade Mountain Winery in front of 91 people, was hosted by League of Women Voters of the Lewisburg Area and the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The forum brought out 90 people to the winery. The position was left vacant when Fred Keller was voted into the U.S. Representative for the 12th Congressional District in May.
Bill Bowman, the managing editor of The Daily Item, moderated the discussion. Candidates were provided questions prior to the meeting and given two minutes to answer questions on issues affecting the 85th District, including minimum wage, voting rights, the governor's mandate to revamp voting machines, constituent relations, worker shortage, redistricting, the opioid epidemic and the size of the state legislature.
Rager-Kay said the lack of economic development in the 85th District is the most important issue while Rowe noted it was the "anti-business climate" of the Pennsylvania Democrats that is the most pressing.
"Without it (economic development), sustainability is not possible," said Rager-Kay. "We have two humongous, wonderful universities, but we have no retainability when it comes to keeping our students here."
She said she would work closely with the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Businesses need basic necessities — such as access to broadband internet — in order to grow, she said.
Rowe said the "hostile business environment" is stifling economic growth and job creation.
Rager-Kay supports the $15 an hour minimum wage increase while Rowe does not. Rowe said it would be "disastrous" and "wreak havoc" small business owners like him.
"The true minimum wage is, and always has been, zero, because that's what people make when they don't have jobs," said Rowe. "If you want to kill jobs and economic growth, there is no better way to do it than more government regulations like increasing minimum wage to $15."
Raising the minimum wage stimulates the economy, and allows the middle class to spend money, said Rager-Kay.
"It sounds scary, it sounds like businesses are going to close, it sounds like nobody will want to hire somebody and pay them minimum wage," she said. "What you fail to see, what we fail to be told, it stimulates the economy across the board."
Rowe said the best way to address the opioid crisis is to promote nuclear families. The "eroded family unit" is at the root of the problem, he said.
"The nuclear family eats dinner together regularly, maybe goes to church, takes family vacations, all of which strengthens relationships and builds a solid foundation for future life goals," said Rowe. "We need to cultivate a culture that celebrates familial bonds and improves communication and accountability."
Rowe placed blame on the Affordable Care Act. Rager-Kay said mental health programs and addiction services have been cut year after year. She also said the former U.S. Rep. Tom Marino should have some blame for being a main driver of legislation that hindered the Drug Enforcement Agency's ability to shut down large shipments of opioids and narcotics.
"It's easier for patients to receive them (opioids) when you have pharmaceutical companies paying doctors in this area incentives in order to prescribe opioids," she said. "It's fine and dandy for a layperson to say what the real cause of the opioid crisis is, but if you want a real expert, then you send a doctor to Harrisburg."
Rager-Kay added, "Our class of professionals are primarily to blame for why the opioid crisis is the reason it is today. We were taught to treat pain to a level of zero, and now we're seeing the cost of that. Who better to fix it than the class of professionals who caused it?"
Differences in their views
Rowe and Rager-Kay differed in their views on several topics, including their stance on opening the primary to all voters. Rowe is opposed to open primaries while Rager-Kay supports it.
They also differ on appointing an independent commission to draw district lines. Rager-Kay supports it, but Rowe said the State Constitution says it's in the hands of the legislators. An independent commission would not answer to voters, he said.
Rowe also criticized Rager-Kay for not giving up her job as a physician if elected, noting the job requires the official to be full time.
Richard Owen, a deacon with the Roman Catholic Church in Lewisburg and Mifflinburg, said he spoke to the candidates following the forum about life and abortion issues. He said he sides with Rowe in being pro-life while Rager-Kay wants those decisions to remain with parents and doctors.
"Protecting the life of the child is paramount to me," said Owen. "I'm not surprised by their answers. I am happy that the Republican candidate is extremely pro-life."
Tina Burgess, of Selinsgrove, said she was impressed with the candidates' answers, especially Rager-Kay.
Clair Moyer, a registered Republican who sought the party's nod earlier this year for the 85th, said he is running a write-in campaign for the position. He attended the forum and said he disliked that the two candidates received the questions in advance.