JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Even though state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, is one of the most senior members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the seven-term legislator is currently running in a district that is unlike any he has ever represented.

The 72nd was redrawn following the 2020 U.S. Census to now include Johnstown, the region’s largest and most politically important municipality.

Burns, who started serving in 2009, said, if re-elected, he hopes to use his seniority to benefit the new district.

“I think there’s value in experience, and hard work still matters,” Burns said during a recent interview at The Tribune-Democrat. “Given the experience I have, the seniority I have in Harrisburg, it puts me in good position to deliver for our community. And I’ve proven time and time again that I’ve delivered when I said I was going to.”

When asked specifically about how he would represent the city, Burns said, “I approach the job the same way I always do. I try to help fix the problems that come before us. Whether it’s Johnstown, whether it’s Nanty Glo, whether it’s Blacklick, my approach to the job is the same. It’s try to help the people that need it. And that’s not going to change.”

Burns is running against Republican Renae Billow.

City and Act 47

The city has long-standing problems with poverty, drugs, crime, blight and population loss.

By state law, Johnstown will be required to leave Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities by April 2023. It joined Act 47 in 1992.

“The state’s been providing help for how long now when they were in Act 47,” Burns said. “They allowed them to be able to do this. I don’t know what resources are going to be available for them exiting here to soften the blow. But it’s something that city leaders should definitely look at, because there’s no guarantee that there’s going to be extra money for them just to soften the blow of leaving Act 47.”

Earlier this year, Burns opposed a plan that Vision Together 2025 was developing in private to bring Afghanistan war refugees to the Johnstown region, as a way to possibly slow the population loss and fill job vacancies. He cited concerns about the vetting process and what he considered a lack of openness in the process.

Burns said job creation is “the responsibility of private industry.”

“If you want to bring people in, you’ve had every right to – for the past 50, 100 years – to bring people here to work for your company,” Burns said. “It’s perfectly legal to do that. I don’t view the job of government to bring people here to find workers for private industry.”

Regarding job creation and attracting new business to the region, he said “the shotgun approach” is needed.

“It’s a numbers game,” Burns said. “You’ve got to approach a lot of businesses and hope to get 10.”

Burns thinks city officials need to address the crime issue in a more direct way.

“You can’t deny the problem,” Burns said. “Because, when you deny the problem, you’re never going to get a solution to it. I don’t know what the motivation is to continue to deny that crime is an issue and that the police need more help here in this town, but I assure you, there are people living in fear.”

Funding and services

Burns considers bringing money into the district and performing constituent services two of his strengths.

He said his office has played a role in helping acquire approximately $285 million in state funding, including budgeted items, grants, dollars for state-mandated sewer system work and projects such as the Dolly Parton Imagination Library at St. Francis University.

Burns also worked with other area state legislators and local officials to establish a Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development Keystone Opportunity Zone that enables the county to offer tax incentives to businesses.

“When people come to me, I go try to get them the resources they need to help,” Burns said.

Burns describes himself as an “independent-minded” Democrat who has voted against his own party on significant issues, including a proposed tax increase by Gov. Tom Wolf.

“My record speaks for itself,” Burns said. “In Harrisburg, I ignore party politics. I do what I think is best for the people I represent, and I hope that the people I represent can ignore party politics as well and vote for the best person.”

He has had little success in getting legislation enacted, but pointed to the Republican Party being the majority in the House of Representatives – and therefore controlling the agenda – for years. “They’re politically not acting legislation on purpose,” Burns said. “We don’t need to get into the weeds, but that’s what’s happening.”

Burns added: “If your political operatives outside the capital are saying, ‘We think we can win that seat in Cambria County. We think we can. So don’t let him pass this legislation, so that he can say, ‘Look what I’ve done. Look at this.’ It’s political games that are being played with people’s lives.”

He is the minority chair of the House Professional Licensure Committee, which plays a role in determining requirements for certain professions, ranging from physicians to cosmetologists.

“It’s almost like the average person wouldn’t see the benefit they would get from having me on that committee,” Burns said. “However, the benefit is the clout that that brings (and) enables me to be in contact with our leadership and be in contact with the people that can make things happen.”

Issue of abortion

Pennsylvania and all other states will now determine their own abortion laws with the Supreme Court of the United States having removed federal protection when it overturned Roe v. Wade.

Burns, who described himself as “pro-life,” supports putting the question on a ballot referendum for voters to address.

“The people of Pennsylvania will ultimately decide whether it’s a (state) constitutional right or not,” Burns said. “Being the only Democrat to vote for (the proposed amendment), as you can see, I’m willing to work with anyone if it’s an issue that I agree with and an issue that is of a concern to the constituents I represent.

“Having said that, I do think this is a major issue that the people should have their voices heard, they should have a say in this issue. And they are going to have it.”

Education dollars

Regarding education, Burns said he wants to address the way privately-operated cyber-schools are funded.

They receive the full dollar amount per child that is available in a particular school district, even though the institutions do not have the same costs, such as building maintenance and bus service, that brick-and-mortar schools do.

“We have to find out what it costs to teach a kid in cyber-school, and that’s what the state should pay, nothing more,” Burns said. “Then that would release the pressure on local school districts, like Westmont – raising the property tax. So if you want real property tax reform, let’s start there, let’s stop wasting money.”

He also discussed the issue of school safety, including its financial impact on districts, during his interview.

“Everybody wants to keep their kids as safe as possible,” Burns said. “I’ve gotten money for these schools. It’s a small amount, but it helps them offset the cost that they have to pay to have security guards in their facilities.”

Burns said he also played a role in recently helping four local school districts acquire $1 million combined in extra ready-to-learn grant funding that went directly into classrooms.

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