Editorials from around Pennsylvania
Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
BUDGET OFFERS OPPORTUNITY
The Citizens’ Voice, June 4
With the new state fiscal year looming July 1, the Legislature has begun serious deliberations on the budget.
Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $34.15 billion budget in February, about $927.3 million, or 2.75% greater than the current budget, including $200 million more for basic education.
Lawmakers expect to adopt a new budget in time for the new fiscal year, partially because revenue this year is projected to exceed projections by more than $800 million.
They should not adopt a static budget this year, but actually drive progress in several ways knowing that doing so also will enhance long-term budgetary stability.
. Infrastructure: Wolf’s infrastructure program would have the state borrow $4.5 billion through bonds and use a new, modest tax on gas production to pay the debt. Because Pennsylvania exports about 75 percent the gas it produces, the tax would be paid primarily by consumers in other states. Legislators should stop reflexively shielding the gas industry.
. State police funding. More than half of the state police $1.2 billion budget now comes from the state Motor License Fund, which is supposed to be used for transportation infrastructure. Lawmakers should approve Wolf’s plan to reduce that problem by imposing a per-resident fee on municipal governments that do not provide for local police protection.
. Minimum wage: Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast to cling to the federal $7.25-an-hour minimum wage. Raising the wage not only would help at least 106,000 workers who are paid the minimum, but reduce social “safety net” costs, and directly and indirectly increase state tax revenue through greater income and sales tax collections. There likely will be some movement on that issue, but not to the $12 an hour by July 1 and gradual increase to $15 by 2025 that Wolf has sought.
. New voting machines. The administration has required all 67 counties to acquire secure voting systems in time for the 2020 elections, to comply with a federal mandate for election security. Wolf has proposed that the state government cover $75 million of the projected $125 million cost, at the rate of $15 million a year for five years. Lawmakers should go one better and cover the entire cost, over time, to preclude local governments from dragging their feet.
Some lawmakers have insisted that the surplus should go into the Rainy Day Fund to help guard against future funding shortfalls. Some of the money should go to that fund. But investing in infrastructure and ensuring higher wages also are means to improve the economy and, therefore, stabilize the state budget. Lawmakers should vote for progress.
STORMS CAN TEACH US SOME VALUABLE LESSONS
The Reading Eagle, June 2
The stormy week we just endured offered plenty of lessons for people in our region.
First and foremost, it reminded us that even in this disconnected age, communities still matter.
An EF2 tornado struck the Morgantown area of Caernarvon Township Tuesday night, bringing with it winds of at least 111 mph, damaging a large number of homes and displacing at least two families. At least one home was leveled by the storm.
It was most fortunate that the storm did not cause any deaths or serious injuries. With a slight variation in its path, it could have been a different and much more tragic story.
As usual, the American Red Cross and local emergency management officials responded to the scene, but in the aftermath of the storm some of the most important work was done by the people affected.
Much of the damage was concentrated in the Country Meadows subdivision. Resident Dominic Caruso spoke of the sense of community that emerged there after the tornado struck.
“Everybody in the neighborhood actually came out last night asking if everybody was OK, if everybody was safe, if anybody needed anything,” he said. “We all kind of gathered together. It was a neat experience from not such a nice experience.”
In the days after the storm residents throughout the affected area were out working together to clean up the debris and bring their neighborhoods back to normal.
In today’s world many people tend to keep to themselves and are much less likely to know their neighbors well, even those who live right next door. Many of us spend far more time in the virtual world of our phones and computers than among the people in our own communities.
But people do need each other, especially in troubling times, and it’s refreshing to see that there’s still a sense of community out there.
Another important lesson from recent storms is that weather alerts must be taken seriously. It might be tempting to tune out tornado watches, severe thunderstorm warnings, and the like. They’re so common this time of year. Most of the time the storms pass without major incident, and there’s a tendency for people here to assume that will be the case every time. The danger might not be as severe as what people in Oklahoma or Ohio face, but the reality is that tornadoes do strike here from time to time. The Denver area in Lancaster County also was hit recently, and there have been other damaging storms over the years.
So when the emergency tones ring on your television set, phone or radio, pay attention to the instructions. If there’s a warning of a severe storm, find a safe, sheltered place, preferably in a basement or lower level and away from windows.
If there’s a strong possibility of flooding, seek higher ground. Avoid walking or driving through floodwaters. According to the National Weather Service, it takes only 6 inches of moving water to knock people off their feet. Water on roadways may be deeper than it appears and can hide hazards such as sharp objects, washed out road surfaces, electrical wires, chemicals, etc. A vehicle caught in swiftly moving water can be swept away in seconds; 12 inches of water can float a car or small SUV, and 18 inches of water can carry away large vehicles.
Hopefully we’ll get a respite from the terrible weather of recent days, but there’s no doubt there are plenty of storms to come in the next few months. It’s best to be prepared.
___TRUMP TARIFFS ARE MEXICAN STANDOFF
The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review, June 1
A week ago, it was infrastructure versus a trade deal.
“Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) trade deal,” President Trump wrote to Democratic leaders ahead of a planned meeting.
The USMCA was negotiated between the three nations in November, bringing peace to North America in the midst of the global trade war touched off by the tariffs Trump announced in January 2018.
Although signed with fanfare, that was a bit like moving into a new house before applying for a mortgage. Tariffs are something the president can do unilaterally. A trade deal requires Congressional approval. Seven months after the USMCA announcement, that approval still hasn’t come.
And after the president’s trade-war call to arms this week, you have to wonder if there is a deal to approve at all.
Trump announced a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports. From avocados to automobiles, everything would be hit as the president demands an end to illegal migration. In a month, it would double, rising 5% every month until October when it hits 25%.
Our borders must be secured, but how does holding a knife to our economic throat do that? Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators agree.
“The president is right to point out the crisis at our southern border. However, a blanket tax increase on everything Americans purchase from Mexico is the wrong remedy,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, in a statement Friday.
“Tariffs are a dangerous and risky economic tool. They raise the cost of products for American families, reduce market share abroad for U.S. exporters, and make our economy less competitive globally. History has shown us time and again that nobody wins a trade war: Trade is mutually beneficial, and trade restrictions, like tariffs, are mutually harmful. . The president’s use of tax hikes on Americans as a tool to affect change in Mexican policy is misguided. It is past time for Congress to step up and reassert its Constitutional responsibility on tariffs.”
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, says migration needs to be addressed legislatively, too.
“This action will do nothing to secure the border or fix our broken immigration system. Trump should work with Democrats and Republicans to pass into law an immigration reform bill that is modeled after the 2013 effort, which achieved 68 votes in the Senate. It would bring rules and certainty to our immigration system, secure the border and offer a path to citizenship to law-abiding, undocumented immigrants,” he said in a statement.
The economy is Trump’s greatest campaign commercial heading into the 2020 election. Is this really the time for a Mexican standoff?
Pa’s RIGHT TO KNOW LAW FAILS CITIZENS
The York Dispatch, May 29
Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law is deeply flawed, even after 2009′s overhaul. And it will remain that way until state lawmakers challenge law enforcement special interests that weaponize fear to dodge public accountability.
That’s the ultimate takeaway from a May 9 court ruling in favor of York County over The Dispatch.
Judge Richard K. Renn put to rest a protracted legal battle between the county and this newspaper over access to a 2017 report created by the state Department of Corrections after county officials requested an unusual, wide-ranging inspection of the local lock-up.
The judge noted the DOC looked at all “aspects of prison operations to uncover deficiencies therein.” We were particularly interested in any financial information in the report, considering overtime costs at the prison had doubled between 2013 and 2017.
In 2013 the county paid $3.4 million for 96,000 hours of overtime at the prison, and by 2017 it shelled out $6.5 million for more than 150,000 overtime hours. In June 2017 alone, York County Prison employees worked more than 21,000 hours of overtime, costing the county more than $790,000.
For months, the county refused to release the DOC report, citing security concerns. Local officials refused to budge even when we acknowledged the possibility of legitimate safety issues and narrowed our request to only the portions of the report dealing with finances.
We believe there must be a balance between such concerns and the public’s right to know — and in this case the county didn’t give enough weight to taxpayers’ interests.
The prison is among York County’s largest expenses. More than $63 million in taxpayer cash will be spent operating the jail this year alone.
Its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is among the largest on the eastern seaboard and of obvious public interest.
Yet, based on Renn’s conclusion, taxpayers and citizens have no right to see what the experts thought of the county’s financial management of the prison.
Why did overtime costs spike? Was it because of poor management, or something else? If it was the former, who was responsible? Are those people still in the county’s employ? Should someone be fired — or voted out of office? How was the problem corrected and what steps were taken to prevent a recurrence?
Those are all reasonable questions for which we still don’t have answers.
Make no mistake, the judge’s ruling isn’t at issue here. It’s Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law that’s fundamentally broken, thanks to the Legislature’s continued capitulation to law enforcement.
The prison report is packed with detailed financial information about staffing levels, salaries and overtime spending, Renn acknowledged in his ruling. But it’s so commingled with operational details that the release of even a redacted version would constitute a security risk, he wrote, while accepting the county’s primary argument.
Renn’s ruling hinged on two portions state’s Right-to-Know Law that exempt the disclosure of information that “would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or preparedness” and produce a “reasonable likelihood of endangering the safety or the physical security of a building ...”
It’s the same exact excuse county officials cited in their refusal to release the jail’s new legal mail policy even after the state Department of Corrections made public its version.
The “safety and security” defense secrecy is as old as representative government itself. Federal officials used it to defend spying on Americans for decades after 9-11, a program with no real value, officials recently admitted.
In 2009, Pennsylvania lawmakers exempted footage from police dashboard cameras from the RTK law. Body camera footage — originally pitched as necessary tools of transparency and oversight — are all but impossible to see in Pennsylvania, thanks to sweeping exemptions inserted to keep police lobbyists happy.
Like it or not, police officers are public officials, police cruisers are public vehicles and county jails are public facilities. And yet, lawmakers continually cave to pressure and end-run the public’s right-to-know all under the guise of “security” and “ongoing investigations.”
The arrest and confinement of citizens and immigrants are among a free society’s most weighty governmental endeavors, meriting constant scrutiny from an informed public — especially considering Pennsylvania has the fifth largest population of incarcerated people in the U.S. and highest incarceration rate in the Northeast, according to the ACLU.
As it stands, Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law is designed to instead ensure we all remain oblivious in such cases.
It’s time for lawmakers to change that.
PHILLY STREET SWEEPING PROGRAM HITS A ROAD BUMP
The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 4
For every Gritty, for every Super Bowl win, for every crazy thing that makes Philadelphia great, there is a crazy Philadelphia thing that makes us, well, the opposite of great. A thing that makes us losers who will never deserve nice things.
When it comes to making the city nicer for everyone, we tend to double down on the not-great. Case in point: A recent report from Plan Philly/WHYY that the much-anticipated pilot program of street sweeping that the city launched in April may have encountered a glitch — the trucks are too big for many of the narrow streets in the pilot neighborhoods.
The city has spent nearly $3 million on a fleet of 10 trucks to clean six of the city’s dirtiest neighborhoods to see if sweeping and cleaning can be applied citywide.
This city has a dirty history, often singled out as one of the filthiest. Enabling this mess: Streets are unswept because people don’t want to have to move their cars from parking spots in order to allow sweeping to take place — like they do in other major cities. In its plan for cleaner streets, the city has had to do a workaround, using leaf blowers to push trash out from under cars before the trucks can sweep.
Carlton Williams, Streets commissioner, insists that the city hasn’t wasted money, that the sweeping trucks can be deployed on wider streets in the city. He also insists that this is the purpose of a pilot program — to identify any kinks or bugs before making a bigger investment.
We can only agree up to a point, because if you don’t order the rightsized trucks to accommodate a city with old, narrow streets, you’re starting a pilot program at a disadvantage. You can’t adequately test a pilot program if you don’t have the right trucks for the job.
But this is just one aspect of the city’s response to cleanup, and the finger of blame also deserves to be pointed at those responsible for our ranking on lists of “dirtiest city” or “cities with the most litter.” We’re talking about those citizens of Filthadelphia who use their neighborhood streets as trash cans and dumping grounds for tires, construction debris, and other garbage.
The finger also gets pointed at the selfish car owners who would rather live in a pigsty than get up and move their cars in the morning for sweeping.
Consider what these car owners pay for the privilege of being able to park in front of their house: $35 a year. A second vehicle in a household costs $50 a year.
We say it’s time to raise those fees to help offset the downsides that so many cars create — environmental hazards, congestion, and dirty streets. Raising the residential parking permit fee could help defray the cleaning and sweeping costs. There’s one problem: The money is collected by the Parking Authority. But surely there are ways to direct revenues from a higher fee to the Streets Department. A cleaner city shouldn’t be rocket science.