All this adversity has made Simmons very effective during debates. He's a skilled orator and was clearly the most polished of all the candidates in three debates last night. A few times, even opponent Bill Coyle joined in the applause after an answer, only to catch himself and look in amazement as his own hands would betray him. Coyle also had to admit and even apologize for a mistake in supporting the Manchin-Toomey gun proposal that would require background checks on the sales of firearms at gun shows and in Internet sales.
Three Term Pledge
To his credit, Coyle conceded his weakness. ""I may not be the best debater, I may not be as up on the issues as someone who's versed in it, but I've had success in my career, and I think I can translate that to our district." A wholesale furniture salesman, Coyle claimed he was running because Simmons has broken the three-term pledge limit that he made when he first ran for office.
And he has.
But Simmons had an answer.
"The people of my district have asked me to run for a third term because I'm actually one of the people who have gone into government and done what I said I'm going to do,"he explained. "I fought for conservative principles. ... We've just got a victory from this Governor and have passed a budget that does not increase taxes."
Who's the Real Conservative?
Simmons painted Coyle as a liberal in conservatives clothing.
"Mr. Coyle has been backed by teacher union presidents, has been associated with Jennifer Mann, a former liberal Democrat, and with Karen Beyer, my liberal predecessor," he said. "I don't believe his intentions are really on the term limit pledge. I believe his intentions are a liberal Republican that wants to take a conservative out."
Coyle claimed he was the real conservative because he'd close one of the district offices. Simmons scoffed at that idea, noting those offices exist to serve constituents. Then he returned to Coyle's ties to the teachers' union.
"When the president of the teachers' union at East Penn School District says, 'Bill Coyle will represent our interests in Harrisburg," - someone that opposes paycheck protection, opposes pension reform, opposes everything that conservatives stand for - and two other teacher union people - I have the photo right here, saying 'Bill Coyle is the moderate alternative to Justin Simmons,.' Bill Coyle is not a conservative."Simmons also pointed to Joanne Jackson, a Democrat sitting in the audience, and claimed that she had just told him that Democrats plan to mount a write-in campaign for Coyle. Jackson was so incensed that she has decided to mount her own write-in campaign.
Reducing the size of the state legislature (203 state reps, 50 state senators, 2d largest in country)
Both candidates said they'd like to reduce the size of the state legislature."Any time you can cut expenses, I think that's a good thing," said Coyle. "I'm a little concerned that it would give too much power to Philadelphia."
Simmons claimed a constitutional amendment will soon be in the hands of the voters.
"I've always been an advocate of reducing the size of the legislature,"" he claimed. "Texas, a state double the size of Pennsylvania, has a legislature, half the size. ... We need to reduce the size of the legislature and move to a part-time legislature here in Pa. ...It's going to be a constitutional amendment so we have to get it through the next session as well and then it will go to the ballot for people to vote on the issue. ... My opponent has said it will never happen. We're very close to this happening."
Pensions and per diems for state reps
Noting that Pa. has a $54 billion unfunded liability for pensions. Simmons signed a pension declination form. "I will not accept the pension," he observed. .
He lambasted per diems as "a ridiculous system" in which a "legislator can go out to Harrisburg and get $165 blank check to spend money however they want. No direct expense. It's wrong. I've been on every bill to eliminate the per diem system, I do not take per diems. I do direct expense because my expenses, when I have to spend the night in Harrisburg, come in about half the $165 per diem. The per diems have got to go."
Coyle agreed, but added he would eliminate pensions completely from the legislative branch.
"My opponent ridiculed me for that, but I think we should eliminate [pensions] from the legislative branch."Differing views on term limits.
Coyle stated he supported term limits for state representatives They should run for four-year terms and be limited to two terms. Under the current system, state representatives are always campaigning, which he called a "full-time job."
Simmons claims to have "evolved" on the issue. "The voters decide at the ballot box," he argued He also noted the irony of being attacked on term limit pledge by an opponent "who will not take the term limit pledge because he said he didn't know how long it would take to get things done."
Is It Time for HB76 Or Some Alternative to Eliminate Property Tax?
Coyle said he supports HB 76, which replaces a property tax with increases in the sales tax. It's hard not to support that bill," he said. But he admitted a "little bit of fear" about the impact of a consumption tax on clothing. Noting the outlets in Tannersville, he predicted that there "will be an impact in having a tax on previously untaxed articles of clothing. It's hard not to support that bill."
This fear about a tax on clothing was disputed by Simmons. "HB76 still does exempt clothing. You gotta' read the bill, Bill. Sorry."
Simmons claimed to have voted for HB76 each time it has come up. Noting that the bill has 91 co-sponsors, but got 50 votes, Simmons claimed one of those votes came from him.
Simmons also disputed whether Coyle is really for property tax elimination. "When you are endorsed by teacher union bosses in the district, when you are trying to get written in by Democrats, you can't be for property tax elimination," he charged. "You can say that to a tea party crowd, but you're obviously not saying that to the Democrats."
Second Amendment and HB503, which will require that all firearms be registered with the state police and that there be an annual $10 gun tax.
"I'm pro Second Amendment," said Simmons.."I'm always endorsed by the NRA. I'm going to be endorsed by the NRA in this primary. I supported the castle doctrine. I was a co-sponsor of the castle doctrine because I believe you should be able to protect yourself in your own home. ... I have to do a contrast between my opponent and I. My opponent, on Bobby Gunther Walsh, says he supports Toomey-Manchin, the Toomey- Manchin federal law that is more into gun control. I don't support Toomey-Manchin. I think law-abiding citizens that own guns aren't the problem. ... I am pro-Second Amendment. I will oppose HB503, and I will continue to fight for your second amendment rights as I always have done."
Coyle, who stated he is also pro second amendment,acknowledged that "I did make a mistake on Bobby Gunther Walsh and didn't do my research on a national issue. I thought it would be more state specific and I wan't up to speed on it. And I apologize for that, and have since amended my position on it.
Coyle not only opposes HB 503 and its $10 annual assessment on each firearm. He also thinks "it's insane that we have fishing licenses." He complained about "government trying to extend their tentacles around all of us."
Take Your Pick, Pension Reform or Bankruptcy
Putting aside debate styles, Simmons also made a scary prediction. He believes Pennsylvania faces bankruptcy, probably within the next five years, unless it enacts pension reform.
"Here's the thing we gotta' do. The first step. We gotta' put all new hires into a new defined contribution 401k system, like 95% of the private sector has. We have to take taxpayers off the risk of what the pension system has caused. We have a $54 billion unfunded liability here in pa. It's not sustainable. And here's the thing if we don't do something about this. ... If we don't legislatively enact pension reform, the state's going to go bankrupt. Thirty dollars of every $100 right now goes to the pension system. That will be $50 of every $100 of the state budget within five years. The state will go bankrupt and the federal government will have to come in and allow states to go into bankruptcy protection. A lot of you remember what happened to the Bethlehem Steel and the retirees there. If we don't fix it now, that's what's going to happen herein Pa.Noting that pensions were created to make jobs that no one wanted more attractive, Coyle said, "We shouldn't fund other people's retirements. We should fund our own."
(Blogger's Note: I will have reports on the other two debates on Monday).