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Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

April 21, 2021 GMT

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 18, 2021.

Editorial: Pa. is finally upgrading its unemployment system, but claimants will have to do without during the process

Pennsylvania is embarking on an overdue update to the state unemployment system, an update that officials say will modernize the website and streamline applicants’ experiences with the system.

This update has been in the works for years and was set to take place in October, but administrators pushed it back as it necessitates shutting down the system for a period. The pushed-back time now is just weeks away. In June, the system will go offline for about two weeks while the state transfers data to the new system.

During the offline period, current users and new applicants alike won’t be able to file claims. A Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry official said it is working to give claimants notice so that they can prepare in advance. Back pay will be given following the shutdown period.

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Two weeks of no income is too long for residents depending on their jobless checks. They are, in fact, jobless and that means without a paycheck. It is not a stretch to envision many people balancing their budgets on a knife’s edge due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why not a backup system to ensure uninterrupted service for those relying on unemployment compensation? Why not, at the very least, a smaller window during which the system is offline? Instead of retroactive payments to current claimants, why not advance payments? This is the time for creative thinking, even if it means another slight delay in implementation of this long-awaited system upgrade.

Officials didn’t want to upgrade the system during the COVID-19 pandemic, when thousands more applicants than usual were applying for benefits and a new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program still was rolling out. But, ahem, the pandemic is ongoing, and the Department of Labor and Industry continues to hire new staff to catch up on the backlog of more than 40,000 unresolved unemployment claims. Upgrading the system prior to the pandemic could have eased the lives of thousands of residents and unemployment staffers alike. But we have no way-back time machine.

It is true that new claims fell during the first two months of this year as compared to a state high last April. But the number of people seeking jobless benefits is not insignificant, especially for those in the group seeking help. Perhaps state officials should contemplate what it would be like to skip a couple of paychecks.

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A system upgrade is undeniably necessary, as the current software dates back 40 years. Its clumsiness has been cited as a major obstacle to those seeking unemployment, contributing to widespread and well-documented delays in issuing checks. But fixing what should have been fixed long ago shouldn’t exacerbate the pain of those who need help now. State officials should be looking intently at a mechanism for uninterrupted service, even if it means a slightly longer delay in implementing changes.

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Harrisburg Patriot-News. April 18, 2021.

Editorial: Black people deserve the same respect from police officers as white men in suits

Dr. John Sygielski, president of Harrisburg Area Community College, wrote the following on his Facebook page on Thursday:

Got a call from a Black HACC student asking to drive him to work because he was afraid. Established a phone tree of drivers to assist him until he feels ‘safe’ to drive alone, again. I have never before received this request from a White student. Have you?

The post reflects the stark reality of our times. Many Black people are afraid. Mothers are afraid for their Black sons who would simply like to live life and pursue their dreams like everyone else.

Wives are afraid for their Black husbands who hope to avoid being stopped by police coming home from work. And young Black women remember Breonna Taylor, shot in her bed before she could even hold up her hands.

But police say that was just a mistake. Like the one that killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Minneapolis. It was a just an accident, police said. Just a mistake.

It’s the stark reality of our times. Police are killing black people, often by mistake. And all Black people have reason to be afraid they could be victims of the next mistake.

Things were already at the boiling point last week with nightly protests over Wright’s shooting, just as a good part of the caring world was riveted to the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of the murder of George Floyd.

Then, Chicago police killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo, who made the fatal mistake of running away. Kids do the dumbest things, but there’s no leeway for a Black or Brown kid to do dumb things. Police shoot them.

Considering the stark reality of our times, the child may have thought he had a better chance of living by running away than by surrendering to police custody. He may have remembered George Floyd.

Who can forget? Who can forget the video of a Black man on the ground with a police officer’s knee on his neck? Who can forget his groans of “I can’t breathe?” And who can forget his calls for “Mama?”

Reina Wooden, an acclaimed artist in Harrisburg, posted this on her Facebook page:

Dear All People,

If you see a cop talking to any African American person, I KNOW YOU BETTER STOP WALKING. You better stay right there till that cop gets back in their car and drives away. Let them know WE ARE WATCHING THEM and they are not ALONE. This is the LEAST we can do.

This is the stark reality of our times. Many Black people – our co-workers, friends and neighbors -- are afraid. Easing tensions and reducing anxieties may require driving someone to work, like Dr. Sygielski did. Or, it may require taking out your cell phone and staying right there, as Wooden suggests.

Most of all, it requires significant changes in how some police view Black people.

It requires many police officers to stop assuming every Black man is a criminal deserving of prison or death. And it requires them all to take concrete steps to treat Black people with the same respect and restraint they readily show white men in business suits.

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Altoona Mirror. April 19, 2021.

Editorial: State police can’t relax standards

The Pennsylvania State Police announced last week it will make it a priority to hire as many as 65 women who were otherwise qualified to become troopers but were not hired because they could not meet rigorous physical fitness standards — standards that apparently were not required to perform a trooper’s job duties.

And while the hiring of more state troopers, and a group of people who will diversify the force as well, is wonderful news, we want to caution the state police to not admit people who are incapable of performing a demanding job.

We know one of the largest recent criticisms of police forces is a lack of minority and female members. PSP currently only has 314 female troopers in a statewide force of just more than 4,500.

Encouraging more women and racial minorities to apply should help forces not only have better relations with minority communities, it should also lead to more women and minorities aspiring to join the force as they will see positive role models who look like them.

But diversification cannot come at the expense of relaxing what must be demanding standards to become a member of a truly elite law enforcement unit like the Pennsylvania State Police.

Troopers often deal with people who are undergoing stressful, unpleasant events in their lives, not to mention those who may be dangerous and/or mentally unstable, including people who specifically want to harm or kill law enforcement officers.

Needless to say, that’s not a job for everyone or even most.

It takes a special type of human to deal with the incredible stresses of law enforcement without making a mistake — because as we’ve recently seen elsewhere, a mistake by police can prove to be fatal.

The state police cannot sacrifice its standards, no matter what, but the agency needs to make sure those standards are only designed to show who has what it takes to be a trooper and aren’t merely an artificial barrier to keep certain types of people out.

We welcome the influx of female troopers and hope that people of all genders, colors, religions and backgrounds are inspired to serve in law enforcement — just as long as they’re truly qualified for the job.

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York Dispatch. April 15, 2021.

Editorial: Fight efforts to hamstring Pa. governor

Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor of North Carolina in 2016, defeating an incumbent Republican. It was a clear mandate from voters for a new direction. The state’s Republican-led Legislature, however, had other ideas.

Legislators called a special session in late 2016 to pass a number of measures that substantially curtailed the incoming governor’s powers. They cut the number of state employees under the governor’s control by two-thirds and limited his authority over the state’s elections and education systems.

It was an extreme and unseemly power grab — one that voters overturned resoundingly two years later. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from adopting the playbook in other states, including Pennsylvania.

A year-long GOP effort to curb Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency authority to address the coronavirus pandemic crescendos next month with a constitutional amendment that would give the state’s General Assembly unilateral power to end disaster declarations.

If Republicans wanted to end disaster declarations, they could have started with this bill, because it could easily be declared a disaster in terms of what it would mean for state policy and public safety.

The last thing Pennsylvania’s residents need is a political response to a statewide emergency. Consider the ongoing pandemic; political responses are virtually all Republican lawmakers have offered. Never mind medical guidance about masks, mass gatherings and social distancing, GOP leaders far too often were more concerned with parroting party talking points about government overreach and downplaying the seriousness of the virus. All while COVID-19 claimed the lives of more than 25,000 Pennsylvanians.

Republicans led neither by legislation nor example, belligerently refusing to wear facemasks on the floor of the Capitol and going so far as keeping positive cases among their own ranks from their Democratic counterparts.

“We’re not afraid,” said Republican state Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon County during a mask-free GOP news conference in November.

They’re not very wise, either. Officials who don’t take public-health threats seriously enough to protect themselves, their families and their staffs can hardly be trusted to safeguard the general public.

Of course, protecting the public is not what’s driving next month’s amendments; political predominance is.

“The way our government in Pennsylvania is functioning right now has created a backslide of our representative Republic,” state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, complained last summer. “From at-home orders, to school closings and business shutdowns, all of these decisions have been made unilaterally without legislative input.”

Gibberish about a backsliding representative Republic aside, that’s what governors do; they make decisions. Wolf has had plenty of input from informed parties: medical experts, state Department of Health advisers and the like. His administration’s handling of the pandemic has been clear and consistent, if not always popular.

But true governing, unlike playing to a partisan base, is not a popularity contest. It requires decisiveness and accountability.

Removing emergency responsibilities from the governor’s office in favor of the General Assembly would, at best, muddle and delay action when it’s most needed. At worst, it would reward a power grab and infuse partisan considerations into public-safety decision-making.

Pennsylvania’s voters would serve themselves well next month in following the lead of North Carolina’s residents and turning a decisive thumbs-down on constitutional efforts to limit gubernatorial authority in times of emergency.

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Philadelphia Inquirer. April 12, 2021.

Editorial: Biden administration is taking gun violence seriously, but Harrisburg is not off the hook

After four long years, and at a time Philadelphia needs it most, there is an occupant in the White House who understands the value of gun control.

Last week, the White House announced initial actions the administration is taking to address gun violence. Unable to impose gun control requirements through executive action, the White House instructed the Department of Justice to draft a model “red flag” law for states to use and craft a federal law enforcement response to the proliferation of “ghost guns.” The plan calls for $5 billion toward a violence interruption program. President Joe Biden also nominated David Chipman, a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who most recently was a senior adviser for the gun control group Giffords, to head the ATF — an agency that didn’t have a confirmed director since 2015. Biden has also directed the ATF to issue an annual report on gun trafficking.

On Thursday, Biden called gun violence an “epidemic” and “international embarrassment” at a Rose Garden press conference where he discussed his administration’s action.

Also last week, more than a dozen of Philadelphia’s top federal law enforcement officers announced a new initiative to address gun violence. At a Thursday press conference alongside Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams announced that each one of the federal agencies will do more to support the work of the city’s police: FBI is adding more agents and intelligence analysts to investigate violence, ATF will support the Philadelphia Police Department’s forensic laboratory and will track down more leads, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will prosecute more gun cases.

The focused collaboration among law enforcement agencies, local and federal, is a welcome development.

Just a few weeks ago, a leaked police memo showed a district captain instructing his officers to conduct more car stops and to issue more code-violation notices. Hopefully, the spirit of the new collaboration and focus on gun violence will trickle down through the department and more resources will be dedicated toward gun violence, and not minor traffic stops.

The new tone from the White House and federal agencies gives hope, but the announcements also revealed the limits of executive action. Through his pen, Biden can tinker around the edges when it comes to actually regulating guns. The president called on Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act, ban assault weapons, and close background check loopholes. With 60 votes required to break a filibuster in the Senate, it’s hard to imagine 10 Republicans letting any of these measures pass.

Republican obstructionism doesn’t stop in D.C. Bill after bill to reduce the number of guns on Pennsylvania’s streets, and out of the hands of individuals who are a danger to themselves or others, are introduced in Harrisburg, only to languish in Republican-led committees. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s background check system experienced record volume for the third consecutive quarter: 427,450 checks before purchase, more than 100,000 more than the first quarter of 2020. The commonwealth is drowning in guns.

Gun violence is indeed an international embarrassment and a national tragedy. There is finally national leadership to promote change — but Congress and the statehouse must act.

END