166th District candidates Vitali and Armstrong discuss the issues at debate

By LOIS PUGLIONESI, Times Correspondent

HAVERFORD >> Incumbent Democratic state Representative Greg Vitali and his Republican challenger in the 166th Legislative District, Sarah Armstrong, fielded a bevy of questions at a Haverford Township League of Women Voters candidates forum, held Wednesday at Lynnewood Elementary School in Havertown.

Although candidates in the 163rd Legislative District race were also invited, Republican Jamie Santora declined the invitation, League spokesperson Kate deRiel said. However, DeRiel said Thursday that a miscommunication with Santora had occurred.

Democrat Vince Rongione attended, but could not participate beyond introductory remarks and answering questions afterward due to League policy.

In a surprisingly civil, issue-oriented discussion, Armstrong, a CPA and former CFO of a global software company, said she voted for Vitali 20 years ago, and that she had not “thought for a minute in terms of running against” him.

“I’m running for something,” she said. “I’ve had enough life experience to know that the ... work of a legislator is to provide effective representation for our district.”

Armstrong, 45, expressed enthusiasm for public service and said she brought to the table skills as a businesswoman, community volunteer, wife and mother who would “look holistically at what we’re doing.”

Seeking a 12th term, Vitali, 58, stressed his record of environmental activism, hard work, honesty and independence as a legislator who does not accept contributions or gifts from special interest groups, and is willing to stand up to them.

In responses to queries on education, both candidates identified education funding reform as a priority. Armstrong said she’d work to “fix the funding formula,” including elements like the “hold harmless” provision in Education Code, which does not reflect changing demographics.

Vitali said he’d work to restore funding cuts made over the last four years, and bring the state’s share of basic education funding from 34 percent to about 50 percent.

Differences emerged on issues like liquor privatization. Vitali said he would support privatization if the current system didn’t already exist. However, it provides jobs and controls excessive alcohol use, Vitali said. He advocated more consumer-friendly changes instead.

Armstrong supported privatization, averring that 70 percent of Pennsylvanians do, too. However, current employees in state liquor stores should have the “first opportunity for jobs,” she added.

Armstrong also expressed support for mandatory minimum sentencing, which Vitali opposed.

Vitali advocated a severance tax of 5 to 6 percent on natural gas drilling, maintaining that “we’re leaving money on the table.” Armstrong said impact fees “are putting a lot of money into our state budget annually.”

Additionally, Armstrong said she was not convinced the science of climate change is sound, but said, “We all have a responsibility to be stewards of the Earth.”

Vitally said, “It’s vitally important that we address climate change as a state. It’s a problem that should be dealt with.”

Looking ahead to another term, Vitali said he’d work on increasing the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard and reinstating a 2010 state moratorium on new oil and gas leasing of public park and forest land, in addition to dealing with methane from development of natural gas.

Armstrong said she’d introduce legislation on mental health issues, and would encourage the state to “actively market and administer programs that attract new businesses.”