Report From Harrisburg

Dan Miller speaking at a podium, with people standing behind him.
Dan MIller is in his fourth full term in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

tate Rep. Dan Miller (D-42) took office in June 2013, winning a special election for the seat vacated by Matt Smith after Smith won election to the state senate. Miller, a former Mt. Lebanon Commissioner, retained the seat in the 2014 election and was elected to a fourth full term in November, 2020. The 42nd Congressional District encompasses Mt. Lebanon, Dormont, Castle Shannon, Baldwin Township, and parts of Scott Township and the city of Pittsburgh.

Like most of the country, Miller is dismayed by the deep divide in the country.

“We are in a period of hyper partisanship,” he said. “It used to be, you’d find an idea to rally behind, but now it’s ‘Which side are you on?’”  

Miller recalls his time in local government, when “you used to be able to walk into a meeting and not know who’s Republican and who’s a Democrat. Now, when you get to Harrisburg it’s like you have to wear a team jersey.”

He is hoping the partisanship doesn’t impact Pennsylvania’s share of the federal Build Back Better infrastructure bill.

“If I had ever heard someone say paving streets and building bridges was a partisan issue, I would have thought that person was foolish,” he said.

Miller would like to see a good chunk of the infrastructure money spent on  broadband internet access.

“In the 21st century, if kids don’t have internet access, those kids are not set up to learn.”

Another portion of the infrastructure money could help make up a shortfall in public transportation funding, but only as a quick-fix solution, Miller said.

“The state dumped the responsibility of public transportation to the Turnpike Commission. Now the Turnpike Commission has more debt than the entire state.”

In 2007, Pennsylvania passed Act 44, which required the Turnpike Commission to give $450 million annually to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) for highways, bridges and public transportation. In 2013, Act 89, which Miller voted against, kept the payments the same but required the full amount to be spent on public transportation, the majority of the cash spent in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas. In 2022, the annual payments will decrease to $50 million.

“The federal money can be used to buy some time, but won’t fix the issue.”

One of Miller’s first acts after taking office was to organize a disability and mental health summit, featuring professionals from a wide variety of fields. The two-day event has been virtual the past two years. His staff is working on the details for the upcoming summit. Although the pandemic has impacted care for people with disabilities, Miller believes that only exacerbated an already serious issue.

“It’s not like February 2020 is some promised land we’re trying to get back to,” Miller said. “There were red flags before the pandemic.”

Turnover rate for caregivers of people with severe disabilities spiked from a pre-pandemic 25 percent to 65 to 75 percent now, Miller said, as caregivers are finding less demanding jobs for the same or more money.

Another crack revealed by COVID was the state’s unemployment compensation department.

“During COVID, the Number One issue my staff faced was helping people navigate the unemployment system,” Miller said. “With the offices closed, trying to do everything over the phone, and (in 2017) they cut the call center by 500 jobs in a political move. Unemployment is running like Windows ‘97.”

As with other government agencies, the biggest COVID challenge Miller and his staff faced was “how do we continue to serve? This office helps people access state programs, provide resources and get information out to people.”

He has nothing but praise for the people in his office.

“I don’t think I fully recognized the value of my staff. COVID showed me how important a good staff is.”

Amid the chaos of the last couple of years, there were some bright spots. Miller helped secure an $8 million grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) to defray the cost of St. Clair Health’s Dunlap Family Outpatient Center, a 280,000-square-feet, six-story facility. He was also instrumental in obtaining almost $800,000 in grant money for Mt. Lebanon’s Vibrant Uptown streetscape project.

Miller sees more challenges ahead, as he believes the pandemic is far from finished.

“Not COVID-19, but COVID-23. We are going to be living with some aspects of COVID for quite some time. We need to do more emergency planning.”

Miller, a former volunteer firefighter with the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department, likens the response to a firefighter emergency analysis.

“Firefighters have a plan for every house, every building,” he said. “I think we need a real analysis of how the (state’s) response went. The real issue is, we need a public health plan, with real, non-partisan information. Some aspects of the pandemic have been heavily politicized. It’s hard to legislate when some people’s primary source of information comes from social media.”