By Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York)
The historic 2016 general election is behind us, and a new year awaits us. That includes a new two-year legislative session beginning in January.
Just as you may look at a new year as a chance to make positive changes through resolutions, I am looking at the new session as a clean slate for the legislature to effect real change for Pennsylvanians.
The opportunities that await us are numerous. I remain focused on important reforms like reining in spending, addressing the pension crisis, and ultimately, eliminating property taxes. However, there are additional ways to reform Pennsylvania and set us on a more successful path.
One area of opportunity and a continued priority for me is workforce development. While we often hear about job creation efforts, we cannot forget that plenty of jobs are going unfilled because employers cannot find workers with the necessary skills.
As a business owner, I am very aware of the ever-growing skills gap in the labor force being created by retiring baby boomers, the push for students to pursue four-year colleges rather than trade schools, and advancing technology.
A strong workforce results in a strong economy, which results in Pennsylvania heading down a more successful path.
Since coming to Harrisburg in April of 2014, I have advocated for making students aware of careers that are in high demand, pay well, and can be obtained with a two-year degree from a trade school or community college.
Not every high school graduate is meant to go to a four-year college, and we need to change the mindset that one has to go to such a school to be successful.
We also have to acknowledge another group of individuals that could fill the skills gap being faced by Pennsylvania’s employers – those with a criminal record.
Too many people have made a mistake in their past, and they are still paying for it by not being able to obtain employment or advance in their career due to their criminal background.
Just as we all seek a clean slate in a new year, I aim to give individuals who committed certain non-violent offenses and have been crime-free for a period of time the chance to start fresh – to get a job or an apartment – without being judged for a crime they committed years ago.
This past session I introduced, together with Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) and Representatives Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) and Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), “Clean Slate” legislation to automatically remove a person’s criminal record from public view after a designated period of time.
While we were not able to achieve final passage of this legislation, it is one of my top priorities for the new session.
In the meantime, a related law, Act 5 of 2016, goes into effect November 14th.
This provides individuals with certain offenses the opportunity to petition the court for an order of limited access. Meaning, the crimes would not be erased from the record, but they would be removed from public view, and therefore, would not appear in employer and landlord background checks. In turn, the person would not have to disclose them on an application.
My legislation is similar but calls for the process to be automatic, saving people from having to petition the court.
Another opportunity for us is to address school mandates.
Every year we hear cries for more education funding, but instead of increasing the amount of money, let’s look at ways to spend the money more efficiently. We all know that pensions are a major cost driver, as are salaries and benefits.
But over the years the state has handed down plenty of unfunded mandates on our schools – prevailing wages on construction projects being a major one.
Eliminating unnecessary costs is key to directing more dollars into the classrooms for our students in order to prepare them for successful careers – careers that not only call for technical skills but soft skills.
These are basics like showing up to work on time and looking presentable, making eye contact and shaking hands when meeting someone, and simply working hard.
Do I think we need to have a mandated class on soft skills? Absolutely not. But how can we expect students to learn these skills when they have been handed expansive state-of-the-art schools constructed with taxpayer dollars at a cost driven up by prevailing wage rates, and they see others with their hand out demanding more money?
The sense of entitlement cannot continue if we expect our schools, our students, and our Commonwealth to be successful. It is time we all buckle down and work smarter.As we put the election behind us and begin to move on, I look forward to the opportunity to start the new legislative session with a clean slate and begin tackling these and many other important issues.