In an interview with the Sunday SUN, PA State Rep. Mark B. Cohen said that “The public mission of the Pennsylvania Legislature is to help Pennsylvania citizens. We legislators all are, and we all should be, judged on how well we accomplish that.”
The top current Cohen priority is to “preserve the safety net that all Pennsylvanians need in case of future adversity for themselves, family members, or friends. There should be no assets cap for food stamps to limit eligibility for low income people. There should be no abolition or future cutbacks of Pennsylvania’s welfare benefits for mothers with dependent children.
There should be no restrictions on what health care services private insurance plans offer. There should be no using of Pennsylvania fiscal problems as a weapon to afflict those most in financial need. Gov. Corbett has to listen to the cries of the neediest Pennsylvanians and their advocates in making decisions.”
Other top Cohen priorities include “the prevention of the collapse of bridges and roads, the preservation of a woman’s right to choose, and the preservation of everyone’s right to vote despite all sorts of deceptive and mean-spirited legislation to the contrary.”
Cohen said that his most original legislative achievement was the establishment of state house district offices because “there was no organized group demanding them. It took many hundreds of individual conversations with House members over a five year period to get the state house to approve them.”
The legislative district offices were important for two reasons, Cohen said. “First they have helped many millions of Pennsylvanians over the years since they established in late 1979, nearly five years after he had first proposed them.
“Second, they helped open the eyes of state house members to the economic difficulties faced by millions of Pennsylvanians. Without legislative district offices—still not in existence in over two thirds of the states—there would have been no PACE and PAGENET programs for senior citizens, no use of gaming revenues to reduce some people’s property taxes and the Philadelphia wage tax, no increases in the minimum wage. District offices and district staff helped legislators to get to know the needs of ordinary citizens, and not just the needs of leading citizens.”
Even today, Cohen warned, legislative district offices are “controversial.” There are groups and newspapers, he said “that want to abolish district offices and reduce the number of state legislators.
We must not let that happen. State legislators are on most issues the only advocates individual citizens have in Harrisburg. We must not let the legislature be incapacitated or dumbed down.”
His biggest disappointment, he said, “was the effect of the Great Recession on my goal of creating a low cost state university in Philadelphia. The new chancellor of the State System of Higher Education was for it, along with key staff members in the state Department of Education, but suddenly Pennsylvania went from having substantial surpluses to having massive deficits. The Great Recession killed the idea of a Philadelphia State University at least for awhile.
“I want to bring that idea back when the state is in good financial condition in the future again. It is outrageous and ridiculous that low cost state universities are not in the counties that have the biggest economic need for them. There are only a small number of Philadelphians that attend Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education universities right now, with all too many Philadelphians stopping their college education after completing Community College of Philadelphia because they have no place to go that is affordable for them. Philadelphia has easily a quarter of Pennsylvania’s economically challenged college students, and it needs easily access to heavily subsidized state universities just like people living in rural counties have.”
Cohen said he was proud of helping to secure educational funding that benefitted the people of his legislative district. “The creation of the Northwest Center of Community College of Philadelphia at 12th and Godfrey, the creation of IMHOTEP High School, Samuel Fels High School, Grover Washington Middle School, Prince Hall elementary school, and expansions of Central High School, Lowell Elementary School, Northeast High School, Carnell Elementary School, Creighton Elementary School, Finletter Elementary School, Moore Elementary School and Pennell Elementary School all came about because of legislative appropriations to the School District of Philadelphia which enabled expansion of school facilities where the school populations were growing.”
The best legislator Cohen ever served with, he says, was K. Leroy Irvis, “a wise, eloquent, and compassionate man whose leadership was vital in establishing the Act 101 Program for disadvantaged college students, and the Emergency Home Mortgage Assistance Program for financially struggling homeowners. Irvis also played a key role in making Temple, Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh state-related institutions, greatly reducing their tuition costs and expanding the programs they had to offer.
“I was proud to work with Irvis on many issues, grateful to be appointed by him as Chairman of the House Labor Relations Committee, and am thrilled to be working today in the state office building named for him. We really have to improve the building to make it an even more fitting tribute to his all-excellence as a legislator and a human being.”
A requirement for a good legislator, Cohen said, is “to figure out what you are for. If you don’t know what you are for, you can be hijacked by unrepresentative special interests despite the best of your intentions.
“Then you have to work for what you are for tenaciously. Every once in a while, you can achieve great things with little effort because of the spadework others have done, but usually meaningful achievements take a lot of work over a long time. The work is worth it when you see how people have benefitted in the past and will continue to benefit in the future.”
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