Candidates vying for the seat in the state's 37th Senate District said they support Marcellus shale drilling in the region, but contrast on ways to correct public funding issues in the state's school districts.
D. Raja, a Republican business owner and former Mt. Lebanon commissioner, faced off Friday with state Rep. Matt Smith, of Mt. Lebanon, during the first candidate forum of the race.
The candidates fielded questions from constituents during the forum, hosted by the Pittsburgh Area Chamber of Commerce at the Tonidale in North Fayette.
Raja and Smith seek to replace former Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, who resigned from his seat in June.
The 911th Airlift Wing:
The next senator for the state's 37th senatorial district must work to stave off a potential closure of Moon Township's 911th Airlift Wing, the candidates agreed.
The U.S. Air Force targeted the 911th for closure earlier this year as a part of a series of Defense Department budget cuts.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a directive to delay the planned 2012 closure by one year. Congress also approved a provision as a part of its 2013 defense budget that would halt all planned military base closures temporarily.
Still, the air wing must contend with the threat of a closure in years to come—one that could cost Moon Township more than 1,300 jobs.
Raja went on the attack against Smith on the issue, criticizing him for not co-sponsoring legislation in opposition to the Air Force-initiated closure.
"You want to be a leader, then you co-sponsor the bill and you take it to get votes," Raja said. "He did not lead on this issue."
Smith said he spoke out against the closure and co-signed the legislation, introduced by Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, denouncing the base realignment.
"We're hearing fuzzy facts," Smith said. "I did decry the base closing."
The candidates contrasted when questioned about funding issues in public education.
Raja said he would support "school choice" efforts, beginning with families whose children attend schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent for the state.
"When schools are chronically failing year after year, we need to be able to address that," Raja said.
Smith said he would not support such a voucher program, but has supported the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a hybrid private-public initiative that would enable businesses to receive tax credits after donating scholarship money toward students in failing districts.
Students who qualify for the program are able to withdraw from their school district and chose to attend a public or private institution.
"I am not for shifting or diverting money from public schools to a voucher program," Smith said.
Smith defended his vote against Act 13, the law that strips municipalities of the ability to regulate drilling, because he favors local control on the issue.
Raja criticized Smith for "voting to fund green energy sources," that he said could jeopardize Marcellus shale-related development in the state.
Raja expressed support for drilling in the region. He echoed remarks from his failed 2011 bid to become Allegheny County Executive, saying he would focus on securing funding for business incubators in the airport corridor, where officials hope to spur growth from the burgeoning natural gas industry.
"I have voted for things like green buildings and preservation tax credits to provide incentives for things like the rehabilitation of old structures," Smith said.
"He'll say government should get out of the way," Smith said. "But I do feel it’s the proper role of government to provide the right environment for growth."
Downsizing Pennsylvania's Government:
Smith took aim at the state's Republican Senate leadership for halting legislation that he said would restructure—and downsize—the General Assembly.
"In June of this past year, we had bipartisan legislation that could reduce the size of the Senate and the House," Smith said. "And the Senate did nothing. They let it die."
Raja said he would start efforts to downsize state government by "leading by example." He has promised to not accept a pension and urge lawmakers to switch to a 401k plan.
"I'm turning down the pension. Period," Raja said. "It's a simple idea."
What do you think are the most critical issues facing the new senator who wins this district?