In a little over a week, Centre County voters in the 12th Congressional District will head to the polls for the first Congressional special election in the county since 2001.
Republican Fred Keller, a state representative since 2010 from Snyder County, will face off against Ferguson Township Democrat Marc Friedenberg, who lost to Lycoming County incumbent Tom Marino in the 2018 midterms.
The sprawling 12th Congressional District includes College, Ferguson, Gregg, Haines, part of Halfmoon, Harris, Miles, Penn and Potter townships and Centre Hall, Millheim and State College boroughs.
Each candidate recently sat down with the Centre Daily Times to talk about the issues most important to the district residents and how they plan to address those issues if elected to Congress.
Jobs and the economy
While both candidates said focusing on providing “family sustaining jobs,” job growth and economic development were top priorities to them, they differed on several key points.
Friedenberg said he thinks a lack of fair-wage jobs in the area has led to more people working multiple jobs to make ends meet and “brain drain” of educated young people. To combat that, he proposed investing in infrastructure like roads and bridges and broadband to facilitate economic development and higher quality jobs.
Keller shares a similar view on the need for building out infrastructure, especially in rural areas. Having been in business for over 25 years, he said, he knows the importance of both broadband and the road system as a way to facilitate rapid information transfers to keep business operating smoothly.
“When you look at job availability, the best thing you can do for wages is to have people competing for that labor, which we’re starting to see right now,” he said. “... There’s been a real growth in wages across the country because of the fact that our economy is doing well ... (we need to be) helping people be matched or be prepared for those jobs, I think you need to look at vocational education.”
Part of Friedenberg’s pitch to expand the middle class hinges on the “decoupling” of employment status and health care, in order to restore spending power and quality of life. By giving constituents an option to buy in to the Medicare program, more people might start businesses, invest in their retirements or simply invest more without the fear of losing health care, he said. He also wants to find a way to bring down high prescription drug costs, high premiums and high deductibles.
Health care reform, according to Keller, includes “mak(ing) sure any plan we come up with covers pre-existing conditions,” has transparency and encourages competition. He said he is adamantly against “socialized, single-payer medicine” because “coverage does not equal care.”
For him, the issue is personal. When his son was 3 years old, he suffered a head injury and was flown to Geisinger Medical Center. “He was on life support for 26 days and multiple times during that period doctors said ... ‘Your son is not going to live. When are you going to disconnect life support?’ ” Keller said.
His son is now 27 and works as a product manager for the hospital that treated him. But Keller believes that if the United States were under a “government-controlled single-payer (health care) system,” he would have had to disconnect his son from life support.
Both candidates said they support the expansion of rural broadband and efforts to increase competition and affordability of service.
Friedenberg, a cybersecurity instructor at Penn State, said a concerted broadband effort by the federal government needs to include getting access to people who have none or who rely on DSL, incentivizing governments and industry to expand access and exercising anti-trust laws to break up monopolies and increase competition.
A person not having service or paying too much for bad internet is “a market failure,” he said. “And I think when we have a market failure like that, that’s a signal that the federal government needs to get involved if you think like I do that internet access today is as important as rural electrification was.”
“I think first setting out with a clear goal of what we want to achieve” with respect to high-speed internet access is important, Keller said.
Tax credits for internet service providers could be part of that framework, he said, but government also has a role in defining what high speed internet access is and how it wants to roll that plan out.
Climate change and the environment
Keller is opposed to the Green New Deal, a non-binding resolution put forth by U.S. House Democrats to get ahead of the effects of climate change. He said he supports using the energy industry — namely, natural gas — to fund infrastructure projects. He does not want to push out the natural gas or oil industries, he said.
“The Green New Deal will cost ... $93 trillion ... it would cost every Pennsylvania family $600,000. That’s a tax increase on the middle class, and quite frankly a tax ... that they can’t afford,” he said.
Many Republicans have cited the cost of the Green New Deal at $93 trillion, a number that comes from right-center leaning think tank American Action Forum. They have estimated the cost would be between $50 trillion to $93 trillion over 10 years, but other groups have said that it’s too early to put a price tag on the plan.
Friedenberg is in favor of the Green New Deal, because he considers climate change to be one of the greatest issues facing our generation and affecting the lives of his children.
But even if the Green New Deal doesn’t stick, he said he is in support of helping transition Pennsylvania’s economy to a more sustainable one.
“In Pennsylvania, we’re uniquely well positioned to become leaders in the transition to renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions in particular,” he said.
That transition, he said, looks like investing in infrastructure like roads and bridges, making sure humans are building in ways to defend from climate disasters and aiding a new crop of jobs in industries like solar, wind and geothermal energies.
Both Friedenberg and Keller support agriculture, and in particular, dairy farmers in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, but each had a slightly different take on how to help combat the “dairy crisis.”
“When you look at the agricultural community ... (there is) a lot of regulation ... I think there are some regulations that could be looked at or revised,” said Keller, who used the Waters of the United States rule as an example.
He supports finding a way to get whole milk into schools and government-subsidized SNAP programs, and also helping create a demand for milk to increase prices, including the re-labeling of nut milks and milk substitutions to remove “milk” from their marketing.
Friedenberg chose a different tack, saying he supports an “emergency price floor” for dairy milk, by raising the price per 100 weight of milk from $13-$14 to $20.
“This $20 would cover the cost of production, keep the farms open, so that we can have some hearings and look into what might be the many causes of what might be the this decrease in milk price, and making sure ... if we need to look at supply management programs,” he said.
He said he is also opposed to the trade wars President Donald Trump is currently engaged in with China, as tariffs really “are taxes on American consumers, not anyone paying us a bill.”
Student debt and education
In response to student debt and higher education, the candidates had much different views.
“When you’re talking about the affordability of education, here you need to look at everything,” said Keller.
To decrease the proliferation of students taking on debt, he said, the government needs to make sure people understand job placement rates, the cost of a degree and what it costs to repay a loan over time.
To recent calls for student loan forgiveness, he said, “simply changing who pays the bill is not reform.”
He said that he supports four-year degree programs and also helping students — through loans, grants and career counseling — attend trade schools and two-year degree programs.
Friedenberg, who said he finished paying off his Penn State loans but hasn’t finished paying off law school, supports making higher education more affordable through needs-based grants from the federal government that cover 50% of tuition.
“I think the federal (government) can hold down (loan) rates — the private loans that students are getting ... have much higher rates than federal rates,” he said.
He also said existing loan forgiveness programs — where people can perform public service or take public sector jobs to have loans paid or forgiven — should be advertised better and that the government should take a closer look at adversarial loan servicers and private loan companies.
Both candidates said they are in favor of protecting Social Security, which the New York Times reported could be insolvent by 2035.
“Social Security is something that people paid for over their lifetime, as did their employer ... so that’s something people have earned. And they’ve paid for it,” said Keller. “It doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to them.
“The best way you can make sure you have funds available is to make sure you have people paying into the system and that is through growing our economy and making sure we have good family-sustaining jobs and people trained to take those jobs,” he said.
Friedenberg disagreed with that approach, saying that when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 added $1.5 trillion to the national deficit, it put “a target on the back” of programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
In order to counteract that deficit, he said, Congress should lift the cap on payroll taxes, allowing people who make over $140,000 a year to contribute more to Social Security.
The Special Election will be held May 21, the same day as the municipal primary in Centre County. To find your polling place, visit http://centrecountypa.gov/index.aspx?nid=243.