2020 Leg. Candidate Questionnaire: Carolyn Comitta, 19th Senate District

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Carolyn Comitta

Editor’s Note: As has been our tradition, The Times sent our its annual questionnaire to all Chester County legislative candidates, via their respective party. We publish these responses entirely unedited and unfiltered to give readers an honest assessment of the candidates and their positions. They will be published as candidates return them to us.

  1. Although there are many major challenges facing Pennsylvania, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is currently front and center. There is stark disagreement in the current legislature on Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the Pandemic. What, if anything, would you do differently and why?

Our ongoing response to and recovery from the virus will figure prominently in this and future elections. Remember, the onset of the pandemic was an unprecedented time. We knew even less about the virus than we do today. I was and have been in communication with business owners, bars, and restaurants that were heavily impacted by the closures and continue to deal with reduced capacity due to mitigation efforts. A lot of the frustration was caused by the inherent uncertainty of the situation, as well as confusion regarding how decisions were being made.

Governor Wolf and his administration responded and continue to respond to the virus to protect and save as many lives as possible. I continue to support those efforts and I support the governor’s authority to make such decisions in an emergency situation. This virus spread extraordinarily quickly. We had to keep up with it. Diminishing the governor’s authority would have made it virtually impossible to respond swiftly and effectively. In an emergency, one cannot delay – a good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan done later.

  1. Although Pennsylvania was facing a fiscal shortfall before the pandemic, now it is expected to range between $3 and $5B. How would you close that budget gap? Cuts, taxes? Be specific, what programs/funding would you cut or what taxes would you raise (or work to create new revenue streams)?

We are now six months into this pandemic. A vaccine or a breakthrough treatment is not going to happen overnight. Neither is our economic recovery. The next budget process (which will likely occur in the aftermath of the election) is expected to be one of the most difficult and most important in memory.

The challenge is always to find a balance in making reasonable economies while realizing new sources of revenue. Freezing legislator salaries, as well as those of judges and top officials, is a small step in the right direction. The legislature should also act to close tax loopholes to ensure large companies pay their fair share. In addition, it is time to take a hard look at corporate subsidies and incentives to ensure they are tied to job creation and other performance benchmarks.

Finally, I support plans to legalize recreational marijuana for responsible adult consumption. Other states have done so, creating thousands of new jobs and realizing hundreds of millions in tax revenue in the process.

  1. Public school funding and property taxes continue to be a concern in Pennsylvania — state funding of public schools as a percentage of budget continues to slide, a trend that is more than 30 years old. With litigation for fair funding in process, how would you change how the state funds its public schools.

Pennsylvania ranks among the last states in the nation in terms of state funding for public education. As a result, our students are subjected to glaring inadequacies in the quality and resources available in public schools based on where they live and their income.

We must make it a priority to fully fund our public schools and fully institute the fair funding formula, which directs funding to districts based on objective factors like student enrollment, needs, and ability to generate revenue. Currently, that formula only applies to about 10 percent of state basic education funding dollars. The stopgap budget passed earlier this year continues that trend in flat-lining education funding. I don’t think that’s enough. I am a supporter and co-sponsor of House Bill 961, which calls for distributing 100 percent of the funds through the formula. At the very least, we need to establish and stick with a plan to phase in 100 percent fair funding. The pandemic has shown a bright light on the existing inequities in public education and we must address them now or pay much, much more later.

  1. Following on, Pennsylvania is 47th by some measures in funding higher education — many other state schools charge less for out of state students than Pa. schools charge for in state students. Is the state underfunding our higher education institutions?

Students and young people are our greatest natural resource and quality education is the best gift we can give them. I continue to strongly and consistently support increased investments in our state system of higher education so that the dream of a college or university diploma is affordable and accessible for all. Some state system schools were already grappling with enrollment and financial struggles before the pandemic. The public health and economic crisis have served to only increase the urgency of the situation. But to ensure that our state schools remain competitive and attractive to both in-state and out-of-state students, they must continue to offer a strong value and the legislature must address the looming student debt crisis.

  1. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman have come out strongly for legalization of marijuana for adults (and expunging records for those with possession convictions). Where do you stand on this issue?

I agree and I support the legalization of recreational marijuana for adult use. Nearly a dozen states have already done so, and more are likely to soon. The legalization of recreational marijuana is on the ballot in New Jersey and several other states this November. And polls consistently show that many Pennsylvanians support it.

We should begin moving in this direction now because, as we’ve seen with the medical marijuana program, it’s going to take a few years for the program to ramp up. And it’s crucial that it be done carefully and responsibly with community input.

Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program has seen significant growth since 2017.  It’s estimated that the legalization of recreational marijuana could generate anywhere from tens of millions to hundreds of millions in revenue a year depending on the specifics. That’s not going to immediately fill our budget shortfall, but it will make a tremendous impact over time. Keep in mind, that right now not only are we getting zero revenue from recreational marijuana, but we’re also paying the criminal justice costs of arresting thousands of Pennsylvanians each year for low-level marijuana offenses.

Pennsylvania can better protect the tens of thousands of consumers who are using marijuana anyway, while realizing significant revenue, creating jobs, and investing in our economy.

  1. Policing and its funding have been part of a national conversation of late. Should local municipalities be expected to pay more of the costs of State Police if they do not have local police? Additionally, does the state need to find a new funding mechanism for law enforcement funding, either locally or statewide.

Local municipalities that support their own police departments shouldn’t be expected to pay more of the costs of Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) service for those that do not. I am a supporter and co-sponsor of House Bill 959, which establishes a reasonable per capita fee to be paid by municipalities receiving full-time PSP coverage. Roughly, two-thirds of municipalities rely on PSP for service instead of staffing a police department. This sliding fee is a reasonable way for them to chip in for their police service instead of depleting the Motor License Fund and diverting funds that should be used to repair roads and bridges.

  1. Fracking and the Mariner East II pipeline are increasingly becoming controversial in Chester County. Has the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) properly supervised the pipeline construction? Also, where do you stand on fracking? Should it be halted in the state?

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen too many times, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is hampered in its oversight of pipelines due to existing regulations and budget limitations. When it comes to Mariner East, DEP simply does not have enough authority or enough funding to sufficiently supervise the widespread impacts of a pipeline project that is this large, this complex, and this problematic.

I have no doubt that some of the many problems with Mariner East could have been mitigated, if not prevented or avoided entirely, by stronger communication among state agencies, pipeline industry representatives, lawmakers, county officials, emergency first responders, and the public. I have introduced House Bill 1568 to establish a state board that would be responsible for considering the overarching issue of public safety and for implementing and coordinating the regular communication of information regarding pipeline activities in the Commonwealth. Despite any regulatory limitations, our state government has a duty to ensure that residents are provided with timely, accurate, and up-to-date communication regarding pipelines.

I am very concerned about the impacts of fracking on our health and environment. I support a moratorium on new fracking wells and a ban on fracking on public land. We need to work to begin to phase out fracking in favor of greener and more sustainable energy sources.

  1. What changes, if any, do you support in terms of gun safety in Pennsylvania?

As a founding member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns for Everytown for Gun Safety and a member of Moms Demand Action, I strongly support commonsense gun control measures to end violence and keep our children, families, and communities safe. That includes universal background checks and closing the “long-gun loophole.” Polls show that most Pennsylvanians support enhanced background checks and it’s time for the legislature to act.

I also support extreme risk protection order or “red flag” laws to keep guns out of the hands of those who present a risk to themselves or others. And I co-sponsored and voted for Act 79 of 2018 to take guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. Finally, I stand with local municipalities in protecting their ability to pass their own gun ordinances without the threat of expensive lawsuits from the NRA.

  1. With the nomination and likely confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court, it is possible that Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion in the U.S., will be overturned, returning the issue to the states. Where do you stand and how would you vote if there was a bill banning abortion in Pennsylvania?

I have long been an advocate for women’s rights, and I would vote to keep abortion legal and preserve access to and the availability and affordability of vital women’s health care services.

  1. Are Pennsylvania’s protections for the LGBTQ community adequate? If not, what would you change?

There are currently no explicit, comprehensive statewide laws establishing LGBTQ non-discrimination in Pennsylvania. We remain the only state in the Northeast without a law protecting individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

While this summer’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling extended federal civil rights protections against workplace discrimination to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, it doesn’t encompass discrimination in public accommodations (stores, restaurants, theaters, hotels, recreation facilities, and private museums). That means it will have no effect on business owners refusing to serve people for those reasons.

And although the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission interprets the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to prohibit such discrimination in the areas of housing and accommodations, it is not enshrined in law and has not been tested by the courts.

The legislature can change that. I am a co-sponsor and supporter of House Bill 1404 to do just that and ensure equal protections for our LGBTQ friends and neighbors so that they should not be threatened simply because of who they are and who they love.

  1. Is there an issue in Pennsylvania you feel does not get enough attention that you plan to highlight if elected?

Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution states, “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” Unfortunately, the climate crisis and the urgent need to transition to clean energy are not getting nearly enough attention or action in Harrisburg or Washington.

I am a long-time member and supporter of World Information Transfer, a nonprofit United Nations NGO focused on educating people and communities about the connection between our environment and public health. The coronavirus pandemic is a stark example of this. It’s shown us how forces of nature can drastically and rapidly impact our health and our economy. It has reinforced the importance of understanding science, making decisions backed in data, and taking seriously the very real impacts that global problems can have on our everyday lives. The climate crisis is no different. Pennsylvania needs to act now to stop climate change.

I support expanding the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act (AEPS) to reduce our carbon emissions and create thousands of sustainable jobs in clean energy. I have introduced House Bill 1195 to boost our renewable energy goals with realistic and achievable benchmarks. I also strongly support Pennsylvania joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program among 10 northeastern states that targets carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. And I voted against partisan measures that would have kept the Commonwealth out of RGGI.

The bottom line is the legislature cannot continue to fight political battles at every step of the way when this crisis continues to grow with each passing day. Pollution and greenhouse gases impact our health, well-being, and quality of life. We cannot afford to wait until it’s too late. I firmly believe that we have a fundamental responsibility to do all we can to shape a healthy future for our children and grandchildren. That starts with protecting our environment – the very land we live on, air we breathe, and water we drink. We must commit to fighting climate change by moving to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

  1. Getting personal, can you tell us something about yourself that might surprise people (ie, unusual hobby or pet, brush with fame, etc.)?

I play the violin, piano, and sousaphone. I also have some experience in mountaineering and rappelling. A few years ago, I had the chance to rappel 31 stories down the side of One Logan Square in Philadelphia as part of a challenge I did with then-Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. As part of the challenge, we partnered with the West Chester Rotary Club to raise funds to send 12- to 14-year-old girls from the West Chester Area School District (WCASD) to participate in the Philadelphia Outward Bound School experience.

In my twenties, I participated in a Washington State Outward Bound program and I still reflect on that experience from time to time. Outdoor adventure and exercise are not only great ways to reconnect with nature, but also for people of all ages to develop and hone invaluable self-confidence, trust, and leadership skills.

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