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Benninghoff urges return to pride in having freedom

State Rep. talks about dealing with COVID-19 restrictions

LEWISTOWN — Whether speaking about overcoming COVID-19 restrictions, whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccines, dealing with problems facing small businesses or finding a way to get more people back into the workforce, state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, whose district encompasses part of Mifflin County, believes having a pride in American freedom plays a large part.

The state lawmaker, who now serves as the majority leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, visited The Sentinel Wednesday for a wide-ranging discussion, but the overriding theme was about freedom.

“At the end of the day — and I feel very strongly about this — we need to reinstate the pride in America again,” Benninghoff said. “I love talking to people who come here from other countries because they’re so proud to be here. I listened to a guy on (National Public Radio) the other day who was from Poland … When he came to the United States, he wanted a better life, he ended up signing up to fight in the first Iraqi conflict because he felt that as an American … I inherently have a responsibility to go fight for my country.

“I’m thinking more people need to think like that. And as Americans, we need to think about that. We need to be proud of the opportunities that are available to us.”

Benninghoff touched on one of the biggest problems currently facing local businesses and the economy at large — a shortage of workers, something Benninghoff attributes at least partially to some making as much or more money on unemployment as they did prior to losing their jobs during the pandemic.

“That should have been graduated away several months ago,” Benninghoff said regarding the so-called “extra” benefits given by the federal government to those who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 outbreak. “And I’m empathetic to anybody who may have lost their job or businesses that may have closed, but I don’t know a time in the past two decades where I have seen more help wanted signs. I don’t know of more advertising I’ve seen for sign-on bonuses and very desirable salary rates for little-to-no training requirements. Anybody that wants to get a job today can get a job, but they have to want it.”

Benninghoff said opportunities also exist for people to obtain in-demand trade skills that will allow them a better chance at landing a good-paying job — but, he said, they have to have the motivation to go to work.

“A lot of our private trade organizations will take a young kid right out of school — male or female … they’ll take a young person and they’ll get them in the classroom and it doesn’t cost you anything to go to school as long as you sign up, show up, pass drug tests and do what you’re supposed to be doing,” Benninghoff said. “Within eight or nine weeks, they’re in the field learning. Once they’re in the field, they’re starting to get paid. Most of them are going to graduate out of that in a couple of years at 60, 70, 80 thousand dollars a year. If they want to put the time in, they can make over 100 grand.

“Somehow, to some extent, we’ve lost that pride in going to work and the importance of bringing a paycheck home. … That’s what I always thought was the pride of America — the ability to get any job you want, to try to earn whatever you want to earn by putting the time in and, yes, for some of us, it means working more than one job, but if you want to earn extra, nobody’s saying ‘no, you can’t do that.’ … I don’t care if it’s a kid in Philly or a kid in Crawford County, I want them all to have a good career. I want them all to hope to be a millionaire some day. Why not? Why take that away from them? But more importantly, how do we incentivize that? Make it a pride thing. Be proud to take a check home to your family to sustain them. That was the example that my dad showed us — that work was important.”

Benninghoff also discussed the significance of passing recent constututional amendments that curtail the ability of the governor to continuously extend a state of emergency and make unilateral decisions without legislative input, framing it as a way to restore freedom in a democratic republic like America.

“Disasters come in a multitude of forms … but the legislature will have a more direct role and, frankly, if you believe in representative government, I think that’s important,” Benninghoff said. “I’ve tried to work with the governor on a multitude of issues … and I tried to explain to him that this is not a power grab. We have our eyes and ears to the ground more because we have smaller, intimate districts. (The governor is) not necessarily hearing things. A lot of the information he gets is from his staff. But once we were able to develop some of those, and it obviously took months to say ‘Hey, we’re all on the same team here. We’re all trying to fight the same pandemic. We’re all trying to keep people employed and get schools back open.’ But those things seem to work better.”

Benninghoff also said the legislature will look at whether many regulations that have been suspended since the onset of the pandemic are still necessary.

“There are those things you need for safety reasons, but there is also a multitude — I think we had over 140 pages and our staff typed them all up — and our staff along with the chairman’s and the executive director of each committee have been told ‘Look over those regulations that fall under the purview of your committee and let’s decide whether or not these things still are relevant, whether they need updated or whether you need them.’ If you can suspend something for 15, 16 months, it begs the question ‘Is this regulation still needed?'”

Benninghoff also broached several other topics.

¯On transportation and the proposed project to make the entirety of U.S. 322 between Lewistown and State College a four-lane divided highway: “I’ve met with your chamber (of commerce) multiple times in my career here and we’ve always felt that that corridor is pivotal to strengthen Mifflin County and I would consider the Mifflin and Juniata Valley area’s economy,” he said. “Businesses that may not want to locate in Altoona or State College might want to come to Mifflin County or they might want to come to Juniata County. But that corridor is such a natural vein and major artery for us to have the infrastructure both to move goods and move people and, frankly, move our workforces.”

¯On transportation and infrastructure funding, pertaining to electric vehicles becoming more prevalent: “We’re a little challenged by our own technology because cars are more efficient with fuel and when we were predominantly funded strictly by a liquid fuels tax, that handicaps us. In addition to that, we are now having cars that are going to electric and will be run by batteries. That $3.2 billion will not keep up. It hasn’t kept up and COVID hindered us because a lot less people were traveling. … At the end of the day, nobody likes having to pay additional costs, but we want to be fair about that and I do believe that those who are driving electric vehicles need to be paying.”

¯On what can be done to keep schools from having to go to full-time remote learning this school year amid the Delta variant of COVID-19: “There were many schools that were ill-prepared for the suddenness of the shutdown. … A lot of our smaller businesses got crushed in this thing, but the schools specifically and the secondary impact of a sudden shutdown with them also meant all of a sudden mom and dad needed to have day care … The other thing was people — even guys like me — had to learn about all this electronic stuff about Zooming and doing these types of things. I think I had to learn a whole new vocabulary, for Pete’s sakes. But at the end of the day, it did work. It didn’t work as great as we wanted but we also learned, and I think a lot it was reinforced, that we believe very strongly in in-person learning. We think there’s a lot to be said about … eye-to-eye contact. … We can’t go another year having children learning remotely.

“I really worry about the long-term impact to them and their futures, especially in these formable years of middle school and high school and really getting those fundamentals that they’re gonna need to go into college. … I think we’re better prepared than we were last year. One thing to keep in mind is we have more information coming at us than we ever did even 10 years ago. … I do not underappreciate the significance of COVID. As you know, I worked in health care. … I think we have to learn how to function with this. Do any of us like (masks)? No. Are we able to work around this? Yes. Were we able to work around this last year? Yes. … I believe we need to be positive. We need to be making choices as independent, free Americans, which I think was as much of a detriment to a lot of people as the illness was — being locked in their homes, being told where they could be. … At the end of the day, I think we’re farther ahead than we were last year. I think the schools are doing everything they can to prepare and at the end of the day, the citizens that elect your school board, hire your superintendent, they have to make decisions on what’s best for them. … We have local control for a reason.”

¯On vaccine mandates: “I think vaccines are far more readily available. Last year at this time, we were still running around trying to make sure vaccines were available for people. If people want them, they have them. There are those that medically can’t take them. There are those who maybe for faith reasons or just on personal beliefs — and they don’t get flu vaccines either. I think if you look at other countries, there’s a case to be made, like India who did not have much access to vaccines and yet, a lot of the people did get sick, but they have developed this herd immunity and I think we’re probably closer to that. … Personally, I support people making their own personal decisions in life. But as a state representative, I live in a state where we are an at-will employer and employers have to make decisions that are best for their private company … I am reluctant to have a statewide mandate imposed by the legislature or the governor. I think even the governor is a little bit more wise to not wanting to do something statewide. It’s a lot different this year, I think, when things were not readily available. Vaccines are readily available. This is a discussion that people should have with their physicians. There are other medical conditions that other people have that I’m not aware of that’s none of my buisness, but that discussion needs to be between patients and physicians. The government needs to stay out of it to the best of their ability.”

¯On election reform: “Regardless of what you think of the outcome of the 2020 election, there was obviously lots of consternation with some people not feeling as though their vote counted and the goal was to look at the overall system … . Whether we like drop boxes or not, a lot of the counties have chosen to adopt those. They’re probably here for the duration, so, therefore, we need to make sure people feel comfortable that they’re safe … . I think the focus, and this should not be a partisan issue either, should be ensuring voter integrity. That people feel comfortable that your vote is not canceling hers and yours is not canceling mine, that when you cast it through mail or walk to the booth and do it, that you’re comfortable that your vote matters, because at the end of the day that’s what a democracy is based on and, frankly … people can’t have faith in their government if they don’t have faith in the election system that creates it.”

¯On the budget: “Historically March into April is our barometer month when we start looking at our money and our resources coming in, a lot of people are paying their quarterly taxes. Well, (March and April 2020) was the beginning of the pandemic and things changed. So we quickly rolled out what we called a truncated budget for five months … and we fully funded (schools and other organizations) not knowing where the rest of the year was going to go, not knowing where our economy was going to go, but we made a commitment that they should be fully funded and it’s one less thing that they have to be worried about is ‘Are they going to have the money to do things?’ And I think in the long run that worked well. …

“This year, obviously, we come into a new cycle. A lot of changes occurred and there were some federal dollars rolling in throughout this pandemic. A lot of money went to hospitals, a lot of money went to public schools, a lot of it directly funded them. Some money went through us and then we would allocate it out. Other money went directly to our counties and municipalities. Those federal dollars have been very helpful, obviously to each of those entities and to us, but obviously that’s not going to last forever. … There was a sudden significant influx of about $7 billion that rolled into Pennsylvania. As we get into this year’s budget cycle … we felt, No. 1, April, those quarterlies usually serve as a barometer as we get into the May-June budgetary cycle and because there was so much stimulus money sent out to a lot of people … but what it did do for us is it gives us sort of an artificial bump to your sales and use tax. … So, our goal was to pass a budget, get money out and anybody who inquired prior to us passing a budget, I said ‘Listen, we’re going to do our very best to sustain you where you were last year. You should get nothing less than you got last year. Operate from that perspective. If we can give you a little bump above that, we’ll do it.’ … Of that $7 billion we probably spent 2, 2 1/2 billion of that trying to boost our own budgetary things, take care of individuals’ needs and make some very targeted, specific investments. … In addition to that, we did put some money aside because we know that the recovery is going to be slow and the last thing we wanted to do was get into this next year not knowing where the pandemic may be, where the recovery is going to be and there being a major hole.”

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