Editorials from around Pennsylvania

March 6, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:



Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s renewed proposal for an increase in the state minimum wage, which seemed dead on arrival at the time of his 2019-20 budget address on Feb. 6, might actually still be breathing, as a result of limited “life support” being provided by legislative Republicans.

Despite GOP lawmakers having attacked the governor’s proposal during the House Appropriations Committee’s first budget hearing on Feb. 11, comments by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, on Feb. 25 opened a window for compromise with the governor between now and the June 30 budget-preparation deadline.

In his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, Wolf called for raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour; the state’s current minimum wage, which has been in effect since 2009, is $7.25, the same as the federal minimum.

While Wolf won’t win an accord for a hike to $12, the likelihood for a smaller increase, if the governor will concur, now seems possible, based on what Corman is saying.

Besides increasing the minimum wage to $12 an hour next fiscal year, which would make that minimum among the highest in the nation, Wolf also wants 50-cent-an-hour increases, going forward, to bring the minimum hourly wage to $15, the same figure that some other states are working toward.

Like the increase to $12, it’s unlikely that the proposed 50-cent annual hikes here in Pennsylvania will win legislative approval, even though 17 other states have scheduled annual adjustments within their minimum wage laws.

Pennsylvania law prohibits the state’s municipalities from setting a local minimum wage, unlike in Illinois, where the city of Chicago already has a minimum wage of $12 an hour, which is scheduled to increase to $13 in July.

Illinois, whose current minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, is on track to have a $15-an-hour minimum wage by 2025.

Pennsylvania is one of 21 states that have remained glued to the federal minimum-pay level, while the other 29 states, including all of this state’s neighbors, are above the federal minimum.

On Feb. 25, when Corman “cracked open” a window for compromise with Wolf, the majority leader indicated that there’s enough built-in Republican support in the Senate for a modest increase to bring a bill to the floor, if GOP and Democratic lawmakers can agree on a figure. That day, a spokesman for the governor acknowledged that Wolf’s proposal is subject to negotiation with the Legislature.

But strong opposition to any increase remains from business groups such as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which has said the governor’s plan is “disconnected from reality for many Pennsylvania employers.”

It’s believed that a higher minimum hourly wage would force employers, particularly small businesses, to lay off workers, raise prices, cut back employee hours or scale back employee benefits.

But the states that have adjusted their minimum wage rates higher have not endured catastrophic results.

What seems most important for Pennsylvania is that it balks at a huge initial jump like Wolf proposes.

The idea of a minimum-wage increase has fared well in voter polls, although informed voters understand the possible negative consequences.

Much more “life support” might be necessary, perhaps beyond 2019-20, before a short- or long-term consensus on the issue is reached.

__ The Altoona Mirror

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2TlGgeV



Pope Francis pledged to bring “the wrath of God” down on child abusers and end cover-ups and embrace victims within the global Roman Catholic Church.

Such statements sound great, especially coming as they did at the conclusion of the pontiff’s “The Protection of Minors in the Church” summit at the Vatican. But we’ll hold off on the applause until we see actions that convince us that religious leaders got the message delivered by victims and advocacy groups.

That includes church leaders here in our region. A statement Wednesday from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown to The Tribune-Democrat said the topic of child sexual abuse, as addressed by Pope Francis, “would be discussed among the United States bishops at their annual gathering in June.” Local Bishop Mark Bartchak will be among those discussing the problem, we’re told.

Francis, in a closing Mass at the Vatican summit, called abuse of children “utterly incompatible with (the church’s) moral authority and ethical credibility.”

He added: “We need to recognize with humility and courage that we stand face-to-face with the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable.”

Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown-area native who was abused by a priest when he was a young boy, would be among those the pope said feel “justified anger.”

Dougherty has become a public figure in the fight to shield children from the risk of abuse in the future, and to bring justice for those whose victimization occurred years ago.

He was a guest at the summit in Rome, met with key figures in the church and Italy’s government, and returned less-than-optimistic that major changes are on the horizon.

In an interview with The Tribune-Democrat shared in Thursday’s editions, Dougherty called the experience “a pilgrimage” that affected him personally even though his abuse had pushed him away from religion.

Dougherty called the church’s response to testimony from victims and advocates a “veiled attempt” to appease the uprising of frustration and infuriation.

His short-term hope is in the hands of lawmakers in Pennsylvania, who have the power to open a window for victims to file lawsuits despite being past the statute of limitations. A bill was passed in 2018 by the state House but not the Senate.

″(The church) is a global organization, a huge ship that does not turn on a dime,” Dougherty said. “It really solidified having to really push the legislation.”

Dougherty was joined in Rome by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat from Berks County and an abuse survivor.

Rozzi pledged to renew his efforts concerning a statute window in Pennsylvania.

We continue to support that mission, and urge the church — and all organizations — to provide transparency in taking steps to reduce the risk of such crimes against children going forward.

Talking about the issue is a first step — an improvement on the secrecy with which child sexual abusers have been handled traditionally.

But talking must lead to action — steps to protect children and also to identify and prosecute those who have committed the atrocities we’ve seen and reported on way too often.

From Brother Stephen Baker and Bishop McCort, to the grand jury report on the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, to allegations against pediatrician Johnny Barto, and the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, our region has been front and center — tragically — on the issue of child sexual abuse.

We are proud of Dougherty’s drive to change the landscape for child sexual abuse — both outlets for victims and measures to protect others — and we salute his works here in the United States and his journey to the Vatican, regardless of the outcome.

He delivered to church leaders a powerful message — along with pictures of local victims who had died young, and notes from their families.

“You want to be in the room,” Dougherty said.

He was, and he took the Johnstown region with him.

The pope and leaders within the church must respond with action.

__ The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2C6F5W3



Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney signed into law a ban on stores that don’t accept cash as payment. City Council passed the bill over the objection of Amazon, which was planning to open an Amazon Go in the city, a cashier-less and cashless store, as part of a national expansion of the brick-and-mortar prepared-food and grocery store.

Those supporting the ban on cashless stores argue they are discriminatory against poor people who don’t have a checking or savings account, let alone a credit card, and are therefore considered “unbanked.”

While it may be hard to imagine living without a bank account, according to a 2017 survey of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., in about 6 percent of Philadelphia households, no member had a bank account — about 35,000 households.

Opponents of the ban argue that it could hinder innovation in the retail sector and prevent businesses that are moving toward a cashless model from opening in Philadelphia, thereby costing the city jobs. Mayor Kenney signed the bill but expressed similar concerns.

City Council and the mayor deserve credit for holding firm against Amazon (which probably felt delicious after the city was passed over for a second headquarters).

Still, the ban on cashless stores doesn’t really address solutions to the actual hardship of being unbanked — which is not the inability to buy a fancy salad at Amazon Go or Sweetgreen (another cashless store). Many of the unbanked can do that, if they wish. A Pew report from 2015 found that almost 1-in-4 unbanked people used a prepaid reloadable debit card that is not affiliated with a bank. As technology improves, there is reason to believe that more and more of the unbanked will be able to access these sorts of noncash payment options.

But a plastic payment option doesn’t equal a bank, and often charges monthly fees and fees for each transaction.

The unbanked lack access to the wide array of financial services, such as savings accounts, credit, and the ability to make deposits and cash checks without excessive fees and with the convenience of mobile services. Too often, those without a bank account turn to such financial products as payday loans, which are expensive and can drive people deeper into debt.

Most people who are unbanked had bank accounts but closed them because they couldn’t afford the minimum balance or got hit with high overdraft fees.

Last year, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown introduced a bill to ban overdraft fees on debit-card transactions and limit other fees.

Philadelphia’s Office Community Empowerment and Opportunity is working with Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, a national organization working on safe and affordable banking. The city identified four banks that meet the CFEF’s standards, including low minimum deposits to open an account, no deposit fees, free savings account, and no overdraft fees. An awareness campaign for these safe and affordable accounts would help more people learn about these products and perhaps incentivize more banks to offer them.

The city’s ban on cashless stores gives the unbanked an advantage; even better would be an effort to make them banked.

__ The Philadelphia Inquirer

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2TBO3nW



Like most government agencies, police departments would like to have more money for people and equipment. Unlike most, they have at their disposal a potentially pernicious avenue for revenue generation — asset forfeiture.

Forfeiture is a civil process by which law enforcement agencies can seize money, vehicles, real estate or other assets connected to criminal activity. The process is frequently abused, however, and that’s why a recent Supreme Court ruling imposing some restrictions on the practice is welcome, if overdue.

No one wants criminals to benefit from the proceeds of their illicit activity. Forfeiture is supposed to turn that situation on its head by taking criminals’ ill-gotten booty away from them and giving it to law enforcement to use instead. Forfeited money can be spent on a police department’s material needs, while a seized car might be used for an undercover operation or sold for cash. The short-lived television series “Graceland” portrayed a group of undercover federal agents living in and working out of a California beach house taken from a drug dealer.

Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and local levels abuse the practice in various ways. Sometimes, they go after property belonging not to criminals but to people innocently in their lives — say a house belonging to a drug dealer’s parents. Or they try to hang on to property even if a person is never convicted of the alleged crime that gave rise to the forfeiture proceedings.

In some instances, police overreach and take far more than they should given the crime in question. In the state of Indiana, Tyson Timbs pleaded guilty to selling $225 of heroin and was sentenced to house arrest and probation. The offense didn’t even warrant incarceration. But state officials seized his $42,000 Land Rover. They argued it was drug-trade largesse, but Timbs claimed he bought it with proceeds from his father’s life insurance.

The Supreme Court sided with Timbs, ruling that seizure of the vehicle violated his constitutional protection against excessive fines. As important as the ruling was the court’s unanimity. Although the justices are ideologically divided on many issues, they voted 9-0 in this case, signaling that improper forfeitures are a serious constitutional issue of broad concern.

Forfeiture has its place, but law enforcement agencies must use it narrowly so that they reasonably punish the guilty without harming the innocent. One Supreme Court ruling won’t cure all of the problems with forfeiture. But it does help a little and sends the message that the court is watching.

__ The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2TkxSfy



Due largely to the intransigence of a single state lawmaker, Pennsylvania remains in the embarrassing position of having laws that accommodate discrimination against certain people in employment and housing because of who they are.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Butler County Republican, has managed since 2011 to prevent passage of a bill to outlaw discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual identification or orientation.

Metcalfe was able to do so as chairman of the House State Government Committee, where he demonstrated the ability of a single obstructionist to prevent progress.

Metcalfe no longer is the committee chairman. He has been replaced by Rep. Garth Everett, a Lycoming County Republican, who has said that he does not view the measure as being dead on arrival in the new legislative term.

The bill would upgrade the state Human Relations Act, which outlaws discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on “race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability” or use of guide animals.

Bizarrely, Pennsylvania prohibits, by regulation, discrimination in public employment based on sexual identification or orientation, but allows it in private sector employment as a matter of law.

There is little doubt that the bill would pass if it makes it to the House floor because it has broad bipartisan support.

That should happen in the current session to ensure equal protection for all Pennsylvanians.

__ The Citizens’ Voice

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2SNewL1

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