WELLSBORO - Health care, the natural gas industry and the impact of its development on employment in the Northern Tier were the hot topics at the 16th annual Legislative Breakfast Thursday.
Three legislators addressed those at the breakfast, sponsored by the Tioga County Development Corp.
U.S. Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Howard, began by comparing the economy to a horse race, small business to the horse and government to the jockey on the horse's back.
"If the jockey ever gets bigger than the horse, then the race is over," he said. "This is what is crushing our true economic engine, our small businesses."
President Barack Obama's health care reform bill, currently being debated by the Supreme Court is one thing Thompson said is hanging over the heads of small business owners.
"The vast majority of the American people know that the president's health care bill is full of unkept promises," he added.
"Including his promise that every family's health care premiums would decrease by $2,500 a year, instead, they have increased on average since 2008 by about $2,215 per year."
In 2008, average health care premiums were $12,860, and three years later they are $15,073, according to the Kaiser Foundation, he said.
"We want to give control back to the patients, not a politician, not a bureaucrat," he said.
Thompson also discussed the ongoing work being done on unemployment insurance laws, including the need, he said to "transform it to a workforce training program," requiring drug testing and proof that a recipient is actively looking for a job, as well as welfare reform.
"People who were using their ACCESS cards at ATMs, strip clubs, liquor stores and casinos; that is now against federal law," he said.
State Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Brockway, talked about the natural gas impact fee that he authored last year and was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett this year.
The impact fee will bring dollars back to the local communities directly impacted negatively by the natural gas industry, but he reminded the audience that the industry has done much good for the region.
"With this comprehensive shale bill, we have brought consistency to Pennsylvania and predictability," he added.
He acknowledged that there will always be those opposed to the extraction of fuel from the ground in any form, but said the industry promises to be the engine to the region's economic revival.
Shell has announced it will build a "cracker plant" providing 10,000 jobs near Pittsburgh, that will help create more jobs in other parts of the state, including here, such as the Hydro-Recovery natural gas frack water treatment plants in Blossburg and Antrim, Scarnati said.
He also talked about education and how to best invest the dollars available for it.
"When I look at the terrible waste in the Philadelphia school districts, it affects your school districts here in Tioga County. You get less money," he said.
If a school district continually fails a student, parents should be empowered to make decisions on where their children go to avoid that failure, he added.
"These kids drop out of school, get into criminal activity, get into the corrections system, and if you don't think that costs a lot of money, think again," he said.
We are spending almost $2 billion a year now, $32,000 per year per prisoner. We have to have a conversation, should we put those individuals for substance abuse in jail, or do we treat them?"
Government pensions, Scarnati said, will require an "explosive amount of money from taxpayers that we will not be able to sustain. We have to figure out how to do it. It is an elephant in the room, and will continue to suck every dollar out of state government, along with corrections and welfare. Instead of investing in roads, bridges and communities, we are putting money into a black hole," he said.
State Rep. Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro, lauded Mansfield University for "rolling out the Marcellus Institute," which will help create a better trained workforce for the natural gas industry.
The state's Keystone Opportunity Zone program was expanded this year, he said, which directly led to Shell deciding to put its cracker plant in Pennsylvania instead of Ohio or West Virginia.
"This billion dollar plant will help transform the economic landscape in the Commonwealth," he said.
According to the governors office, Baker said, there have been 23,872 new jobs created in the core natural gas industry in the second quarter of 2011 as well as 205,575 employees in ancillary industries.
There were 123,441 new hires from the fourth quarter of 2009 to the fourth quarter of 2011, he added.
The average salary for core industry workers is $79,918, for ancillary workers it is $63,155, and across all other industries it is $47,000.
"We now have the lowest unemployment rate, we are basically at full employment," he said.
The state average unemployment rate is 7.6 percent and Tioga and Bradford counties are lower than that, he said.
The Williamsport metropolitan statistical area showed a GDP growth rate of 7.8 percent which is the seventh highest in the nation, Baker said.
"When you look at what is going on here with the Marcellus Shale industry, we will be leading the nation very soon if we keep going down this path," he added.
State and local taxes collected are over $1.2 billion, he said, contributing to supporting 140,000 jobs, not to mention the $1.6 billion in lease and bonus payments paid to landowners.
"If we didn't have this industry, we would be in sorry shape," Baker said.
Marcellus Shale gas production could reach 176 cubic feet per day by 2020, second only to Texas, he added. "In 10 years, some experts believe we could surpass Texas" in natural gas extraction, he said. "It is important we understand how significant this is. Tioga County has over 800 wells and Bradford County has over 1,000. Combined with Lycoming, we have over 55 percent of all the wells in the Marcellus formation."