By Rep. Anita Kulik
There can be times when I am at the Capitol, and I think we as legislators are in a bubble. Time after time, bills are proposed that may appear to make sense for a small part of the population, or are a reaction (or even an over-reaction) to a specific issue.
One simple example relates to the action that was taken in an attempt to address the impact of the pandemic. I voted against a bill that the majority felt was necessary to help businesses, knowing that the bill would actually hurt many local businesses. Indeed, just days after passing the legislation, action quickly had to be taken to correct the error that was made. Too often, these proposals are reactionary, and the bill can cause problems far removed from the original intent of the bill.
As another example, there are various bills offered to add educational mandates. I speak to my local school administrators, and local school board members, and I realize that while these mandates may look good on paper, the financial implications are forgotten or ignored, or that the mandates are not practical.
I believe that when you are in the position of voting on matters that affect the citizens and communities, or businesses or professions, of the Commonwealth, it is very important to not only speak with these people but also to understand their jobs and the issues that impact them. As a small business owner, I understand the issues affecting small businesses. As a former township commissioner, I understand the concerns and needs of local governments.
As a lawyer who handled countless domestic violence cases, I understand the issues relating to that matter. As such, in order to understand the issues relating to various trades and the like, I think we need to follow the old adage and try to walk a mile in their shoes.
Two years ago, I joined with colleagues from the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee for two eye-opening experiences. We spent time with military members and even experienced various training exercises with the 911th Airlift Wing. We were on the plane as the crew engaged in air refueling exercises. It was incredible to be there and watch these military members in action.
Later that summer, I was invited to take part in a "Fire Operations 101" program at the Allegheny County Fire Academy. As the wife of a volunteer firefighter, and as someone with many friends who are firefighters, I thought I had a good idea of the hard work involved, and the types of matters that they encounter. However, taking part in the fire academy activities truly made me realize what a hard job it is. We "geared up," had to perform duties in full gear, had to extricate ourselves from tight places, and even were in a "burn building," fighting a fire.
Taking part in activities like that brings a much greater appreciation for what many people in our area do. You gain a much greater respect for the difficult jobs people perform, and you can recognize the specific problems they face and can learn about the resources and assistance they may need.
This past week, I again was given more opportunities to understand the issues relating to particular workers and their trades. I joined with some of my colleagues as we toured various union training programs. I have long advocated for the trades and for vocational education.
Whether for those interested in being a carpenter or an electrician or some other job, our unions provide extensive training programs at little or no cost. The programs provide wages and benefits to the students while giving them the foundation for great careers. It was great to meet with various workers and union officials, to discuss matters of particular relevance to their professions.
The most interesting day I had was with mine workers and the officials of a coal-mining operation in Greene County. There has been much debate over the impact of fossil fuels and the use of coal for generating electricity. In speaking with families in the area, I know that many have had coal miners in their family tree. I have heard many stories about the work of the "old Moon Runners." Coal production and its use has received much criticism. By visiting the mine operations and seeing exactly what occurs, I was able to have a better understanding of many of the issues we have debated, and a much greater appreciation for the hard work of the miners who work extracting coal, and the commitment of the businesses in that industry.
I joined several of my colleagues and we took a safety course, "suited up" in our special gear, and went down into the mine. We took an elevator approximately 1,000 feet down, and then road a vehicle some four miles to the "longwall" area to see the coal removed. In fact, the ride took over a half hour, traveling through low, unlit tunnels. While taking part in the program, I had ample opportunity to talk to the business executives and workers, to discuss the true impact of their jobs. There are approximately 600 workers at the facility we visited. They have families that rely upon the wages and benefits provided by these jobs. The coal they mine power various power plants that provide electricity to keep us cool on hot days, to let us enjoy our favorite television programs, to heat the water we use to bathe, and so much more. The presence of these jobs helps to support local stores and local restaurants. The taxes paid by the coal companies support the local schools and local government operations.
To me, I believe it is difficult to properly do our jobs as legislators if we live in a bubble and do not understand the issues impacting those we represent. I believe the experiences like those I have mentioned – to sense what it is like to be a firefighter, to speak face to face with electricians and plumbers, to talk to miners, to talk to the business owners – are invaluable, and are necessary for government officials to properly do what our constituents expect.
A Kennedy resident and attorney, State Rep. Anita Kulik has served Pennsylvania’s 45th House District since 2017.