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Legislators discuss Florida school shooting, taxes, firefighters

February 16, 2018 GMT

Local state legislators spoke about issues that affect the region at a legislative update Thursday at the Somerset County Club.

The panel touched on education, taxes, volunteerism and other topics during the two-hour discussion.

The panel consisted of Republican state Sen. Pat Stefano, Republican state Reps. Carl Walker Metzgar, Matt Dowling and Mike Reese, and Democratic state Rep. Bryan Barbin.

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Dave Reed and state Sen. John Eichelberger Jr., both prospective Republican candidates in the 9th Congressional District, were among the 150 or so business people, educators, politicians, residents and students in the crowd.

Education

The death of at least 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was on everyone’s mind at the luncheon. Most of those who were killed were students, along with an athletic director and an assistant football coach. The suspected shooter is a 19-year-old former student.

The panelists discussed the zero tolerance for guns on school property and the need to look into changing the law. They were asked by people in the audience about what roles guns should play in schools and state gun control laws.

Everyone on the panel talked about the need for state funding for more security in public schools, be it equipment such as metal detectors or personnel such as school resource officers. Also discussed was the possibility of weapons training for administrators and teachers so they could carry weapons onto school property. These possibilities would be deterrents, Reese said.

“I’m a father of a 12-, a 10- and an 8-year-old who all go to public school,” said Reese. “I was terrified when I learned what happened in Florida.”

School resource officers are the immediate answer as a deterrent to shooters, he said. The state Legislature needs to look into funding for security for schools as well as explore amending the zero tolerance for weapons on school property, the panelists agreed.

Taxes

Dowling told the crowd he is “extremely against” a Marcellus Shale natural gas tax, as proposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in his budget proposal. He described it as a second tax on the oil and gas industry, which already pays impact fees to Pennsylvania municipalities.

Metzgar agreed. What gets lost in the discussion is that the money would come from the pockets of landowners who lease their land to oil and gas companies, he said.

“It is most unpalatable when (they) try to steal from our brothers and our neighbors,” Metzgar said.

There needs to be an examination of the natural resource regulations in the state, the panelists seemed to agree.

“Coal and natural gas are important to the region,” Barbin said. “But regulations need not be so much (that) it will keep people from coming back.”

Firefighters

Since the 1970s, the number of volunteer firefighters has dwindled from 300,000 to 50,000, according to former Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner Ed Mann.

At the same time, municipalities cannot afford to have paid fire departments. The state saves $6 billion annually by having volunteer fire departments.

The panelist seemed to agree that paid firefighters are not the answer.

The regulations and requirements for training that must be followed can add up to hundreds of hours, another hurdle that stops some from volunteering.

“We have to look at how we can make that system a little less onerous,” Metzgar said. The panelists suggested an educational fix. Why not guide those students interested in joining a department by allowing them to take at least half of the 160 online hours of training in the schools, Stefano asked.

The panelists also discussed the state budget and the push to finish the last 5 1/2 miles of four-lane Route 219 between Meyersdale and Interstate 68 in Maryland.

The legislative update was presented by the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce. The event was sponsored by Corsa Coal Corp., AK Coal Resources, The EADS Group and Somerset Area School District.