Rep. Kurt Masser (R-Northumberland) is an endangered species in the genus of elected officials. Before holding office, he was an employer. He made payroll, paid employer and employee taxes, abided by reams of federal and state regulations. His business experience began on the family farm in Pitman, sixty miles north of Harrisburg, then later expanded into restaurants and catering.
The career path of the 47 year-old took a sharp turn when he received a notice in the mail that, in effect, told him he was working as much, or more, for the government than his employees and customers. It came in the form of an eye-popping bill for real estate taxes.
"I had no experience and absolutely no interest in politics," Masser said. "When I saw that bill, everything changed."
His new calling was tested as soon as he took office in 2004 as a Northumberland County Commissioner. The county faced a multi-million dollar deficit and crippling debt. Masser and his fellow commissioners pulled off what is increasingly, and unfortunately, viewed as the impossible: they not only eliminated the debt and the deficit, but also cut taxes.
Masser brought the same belief in spending restraint to state government when elected to his House seat in 2011. He’s now running for his fourth term. The learning curve in Harrisburg is longer, he says, but an environment that surprised him balances that.
"I had a pretty sour attitude about the place before I came into office, but found out that a lot of my colleagues are just as dedicated as I am to getting things done," Masser said.
PMA President David N. Taylor said that Masser is one of the core of state lawmakers that truly understands that the larger the government, the more limited the economic growth.
"Kurt knows what generates prosperity in Pennsylvania, because he’s done it," Taylor said. "Economic growth doesn’t start in Harrisburg or Washington but in the fields, factories and businesses in his legislative district and throughout the commonwealth."
Masser represents one of most economically diverse districts in the commonwealth. The Geisinger Medical Center in Danville is a world leader in health care. Another large employer, Bloomsburg University, lies just outside his district. His district has manufacturing, especially in Montour County at the Merck plant alongside the Susquehanna River and various small-medium sized manufacturers in Columbia County. Knoebels Amusement Park boasts high seasonal employment and is a staple first-job for many local youth.
But parts of his district also suffer from high unemployment, out-migration, and a scourge most associated with inner cities – a housing blight stemming principally from the overregulation of the coal industry. It’s so bad in some areas in his district that four years ago Masser led the formation of the Northumberland County Blight Task Force, and has worked in Harrisburg with other lawmakers to move anti-blight legislation. One bill he sponsored and became law, Act 171 of 2014, closes loopholes that Masser says have been exploited by parties responsible for blighted properties that are trying to evade their responsibility. The measure broadens liability so that the owners cannot hide behind shell corporations or a property manager.
"It’s not only awful for the people who continue to live there, of course," Masser said, "because they have to deal with the values of their homes dropping, but the blight attracts unsavory characters to the neighborhood."
In one tragic example, the population of Shamokin in Northumberland County has dropped from 19,000 to 7,000 in ten years. The town’s K-Mart and Ames Department stores recently closed.
Masser is also determined to reverse the decay through innovative use of abandoned coal lands and reviving the industry. As Northumberland County commissioner, he was behind securing 7,000 acres in Coal Township for the establishment of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA), named one of the top-ten, off-road vehicle sites in the country.
Director of the Northumberland County Planning Department, Don Alexander, said that AOAA is so successful he’s wooing manufacturers of off-road vehicles, along with their distributors and R&D departments.
"He’s a hard working ally in all this," Alexander said of Masser. "Every time I see him he asks what he can do to help."
Reversing the coal industry decline presents a special challenge to Masser and the region. With enemies of the industry at the highest levels in Washington, they’re fighting city hall. But Masser presses on. He notes that there is more anthracite coal still in the ground in the region than has ever been mined, and he cites the distinguishing qualities of the coal.
Anthracite is the principal coal used in steel making and other metallurgical processes. Steel making in the U.S., in fact, represents half the market for Pennsylvania anthracite. The industry received a boost in May when the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed more duties on steel imports from China and other countries in an effort to protect its industry from a glut of steel imports from around the world.
The nation’s public water systems represent another big market for anthracite coal; the coal’s high carbon content is unmatched for its filtration qualities.
President/CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber, Bob Garrett, said that Masser is "precisely the kind of leader we need to bring the industry back." He continued by stating, "He’s worked in both worlds (business and government) and knows how to bridge the two."
Along the same lines, the Chamber is putting together the Lower Anthracite Economic Summit, scheduled for late October at the AOAA site.
Garrett also cites Masser’s support (along with all state lawmakers in the region) of the 2013 transportation funding law, Act 89. The law is providing funding for a highway project in the region first conceived in the 1970s: the Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway, a nine-year project that will create 15,000 construction jobs.
But perhaps Masser’s biggest challenge, because it’s also a personal one, is the opioid drug crisis. He lost a niece to a drug overdose.
In June, the House cleared his legislation, HB 1805, that would require doctors and pharmacists to attend opioid- and addiction-related training prior to obtaining relevant licenses, and would further require ongoing training in every renewal period.
"The opioid abuse issue is affecting all groups of Pennsylvanians – not differentiating by region, religion, income, race or any other factor," he said. "It is truly daunting that we are losing more Americans each year to drug overdoses than automobile crashes."
The Pennsylvania General Assembly will be working in cooperation with the governor to hold special sessions on this difficult issue this fall.
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