House Speaker Mike Turzai is pitching himself as a “reformer with results.”
The 16-year member of the state House and newly announced Republican gubernatorial candidate is trying to separate himself from three others who hope to unseat Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018.
Following months of speculation, Turzai officially jumped in the race in November after finishing the four-months-late state budget. The spending and revenue plan — his seventh as a member of leadership — relied on borrowing, expanded gambling and fund transfers to plug a $2 billion deficit.
Turzai, 58, of Allegheny County, sat down with LNP on Thursday to talk about his campaign and his positions as he prepares to face York County state Sen. Scott Wagner, Allegheny County businessman Paul Mango and Pittsburgh lawyer Laura Ellsworth.
Here are a few takeaways.
Turzai said it’s been “frustrating” and “dispiriting” to work with Wolf on budgets for the last three years.
After Republican lawmakers tried this summer to plug the budget deficit with special fund reserves — dedicated to things like transportation, the environment and job training — Turzai said that, as governor, he would try to make those funds part of the state’s general fund.
That would allow the legislative and executive branches to review them each year. Right now, Turzai said, there is “well over” $4 billion in those funds and “they’re lacking scrutiny, they’re lacking oversight.”
When asked how Harrisburg could pull back its overall spending, Turzai said generally it needs to “prioritize spending” based on the revenue coming in, and stop increasing the overall budget amount.
Turzai has been a major player in the fight to curb the state’s pension problem in recent years. Lawmakers and the governor passed a reform in 2016 that gave future state employees options of taking one of three pension plans.
Turzai said he wants to see all new hires moved to defined-contribution plans, the more common, market-driven plans used in the private sector.
School officials have praised Wolf for “historic investments” in education in his term, saying they are needed increases to education funding. But Turzai questioned those investments and said “nobody’s seen” how they have improved schools.
“If you want to improve education in areas like Philadelphia, you have to have the competition from charter and Catholic and other types of private schools,” said Turzai. “There’s great public schools. It’s just that one size doesn’t fit all and the competition ups everybody’s game to get better results, higher graduation rates, higher job placement, more options, like career and technical education.”
Turzai said two of his three sons went to a public high school and one is in a Catholic high school.
Turzai supported the final gambling expansion legislation in October that allowed for 10 new mini-casinos, legalized online gambling and permitted fantasy sports betting and video gaming terminals at truck stops.
His vote, he said, was contingent on the provision pushed by Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, to allow municipalities to opt out from hosting one of the new mini-casinos. Every municipality in his district has already opted out, he said.
He also said he’s “somewhat skeptical” that the expansion will generate the roughly $200 million that this year’s budget is relying on it to generate.
While a court case is currently determining whether Turzai and his colleagues politically gerrymandered district boundaries in 2011, efforts are also underway to remove legislators from the district-drawing process.
Turzai did not say whether there are plans for a vote on the independent redistricting commission legislation, which would institute a board of citizens who are not elected officials to draw the districts. The speaker said he believes the current process has been fair.
“Nobody knows communities (better) than elected officials who represent those communities,” Turzai said.
Turzai said he has never received any reports of sexual harassment against Republican members of the House during his seven years in leadership.
“There’s absolutely no room for that type of behavior. None,” he said. “They are serious issues and they should be taken seriously.”
He added that the House has instituted training for House members and staff, and they are in the process of reviewing sexual harassment policies.
With former Rep. Gordon Denlinger of eastern Lancaster County considering a run for lieutenant governor, Turzai said he had a “great working relationship” with Denlinger when they served together.
The lieutenant governor and governor run separate primary campaigns in Pennsylvania. Only one Republican, Jeff Bartos, has said he will run for the No. 2 position — and he’s already aligned himself on an unofficial ticket with Wagner.
Turzai said he hadn’t spoken with Denlinger, of Caernarvon Township. He also said some have suggested to him that Cutler, who serves with Turzai in leadership, would be a good choice.
Cutler “would also be outstanding,” Turzai said of the southern Lancaster County lawmaker.
Contacted later by LNP, Cutler said in an email that he hadn’t considered running and hasn’t spoken to anyone about it, but “to be mentioned is an honor.”