Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:
Pay attention: Pa. is poised to fall off a budget cliff
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Pennsylvania is staring at a fiscal cliff.
It’s easy but perilous to ignore state budget minutiae amid a contentious presidential election. Right now is when the state budget needs the most sunlight. That’s always tough to find in Harrisburg, which makes lawmakers’ abbreviated schedule (they meet Wednesday for the last time until after the election) particularly risky.
After the shutdown in March, revenues cratered, and Harrisburg passed a five-month budget that flat-funded most state agencies (except education). It bought time to get a clearer economic picture, and for the federal government to provide fiscal relief for state and local governments.
That federal help never came, and our budget expires at the end of November. If we don’t start looking at the budget in a new way, this recovery could be slower and more painful than the one that followed the 2008 Great Recession.
First, we can’t keep throwing money into the same old buckets. COVID has forced a radical realignment of priorities, and Pennsylvania’s budget should reflect that. Industries across the commonwealth have not fared equally — restaurants and hospitality have suffered mightily, for example. Arts and culture organizations are looking at a year or more of virtually no income. More than a million Pennsylvanians could be facing eviction come January. Targeted stimulus spending could help, but any flat budget ignores the radical shifts that a COVID and post-COVID economy demands.
Second, the state needs to be more transparent about what cuts we’re likely to see if federal help doesn’t come soon and to give Pennsylvanians a clearer voice in the process. That transparency was lacking when the five-month budget passed in June. State law requires that Pennsylvania balance its budget, and yet we’re currently looking at an approximately $4.5 billion deficit. Compare that with the Great Recession deficit of 2008-09, when a $3.2 billion deficit was offset with more than $1.2 billion in federal recovery dollars. If Congress doesn’t pass a relief package that includes help for states and municipalities, services will be cut, and state government won’t be able to deliver vital help when people need it most.
Finally, the state needs new revenue. If Republicans retain control of either the U.S. Senate or the White House, federal relief is no more likely to come than it has been in the last seven months. Even if Democrats win both, relief is unlikely to come before February. So lawmakers in Harrisburg must find new revenue and fast. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed marijuana legalization, which would help, but so far Republican lawmakers say it’s a nonstarter. The alternative? Absurdly, earlier this month, the Senate held a hearing on a bill that would expand gaming. That lawmakers still default to this tired alternative does not bode well. They should also be challenged on their insistence on holding onto a $172 million surplus in their own budget.
The usual tricks and sleights of hand that comprise many budget seasons are not going to cut it this time. Without radical transparency and a willingness to consider innovative funding sources, lawmakers will doom this recovery to be longer and more painful than the last one.
Supreme Court shows importance of a single vote
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Sept. 17 ruling on mail-in ballots. The state high court ruled that ballots cast by mail could be counted if they were received as late as 5 p.m. Nov. 6, three days after the polls open and close, bearing a postmark before 8 p.m. Nov. 3.
It was not a decision made by arguments heard and arguments won. It was a decision made by default. The nine-seat court split down the center.
Four justices — John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — rejected the state Republicans’ request to throw a roadblock in front of the Pennsylvania ruling. Four others — Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas — wanted to stop accepting the ballots when the polls closed.
The tie was essentially broken by the ghost of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With her seat empty since her September death, there was no tip to a majority, obligating the court to let the case go, just as it would have if she was there to voice her opinion.
This might seem like a precursor of the rest of the court’s decisions until a new member — likely Judge Amy Coney Barrett — dons a black robe. It’s not.
It’s a metaphor for the Nov. 3 election.
People read the information. They weighed their options. They took positions.
And when it was all said and done, the vote that swayed the final result was the vote that wasn’t cast. The one that couldn’t be counted.
According to the Federal Election Commission, there were 6,165,478 votes cast in Pennsylvania for the 2016 presidential race. That was about 60% of the voting-age population of the state’s 12 million people. The state went for Trump by a difference of fewer than 45,000 votes. Millions were of voting age but didn’t register.
Everyone has a tendency to focus on what swayed the people who picked one candidate over the other. What had the bigger impact was the ballots that weren’t cast.
Every ballot should be cast. Whether Democrat or Republican or if someone wants to write in a vote for Captain America, that choice should be made because not voting is a choice in itself. It doesn’t choose the status quo. It opts for apathy — a stunning lack of interest that can have a lingering impact.
And that is why it is important to count the ballots that are cast. All of them.
Because a decision should be made by the people who took the time to make the choice — not the people who didn’t participate.
2nd lady attack: Pa. at its worst
The York Dispatch
The best and worst of Pennsylvania were on display last week — and there’s no guarantee the former eclipsed the latter.
Gisele Fetterman, the wife of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, was running a quick errand at a Braddock-area market last Sunday when she was verbally accosted by a customer. The woman, who has not been publicly identified, insulted the Brazilian-born second lady, saying “you don’t belong here” while repeatedly spitting out the n-word.
This kind of hate has become all too prevalent in recent years, in Pennsylvania and around the country. From verbal assaults to unwarranted police calls to acts of violence and aggression, people of color have been under unrelenting and increasingly hostile attack.
That the perpetrators are almost always white makes it hard to ignore the underlying — or, in the case of the woman who accosted Fetterman, downright explicit — racism and xenophobia that are at the root of this embittered, emboldened behavior.
What gives a person the idea that they have a right to insult a stranger? Tune in to a conservative media outlet. Take a gander at the feeds trending on social media. Check out the president’s Twitter account. You won’t get far without encountering hateful, divisive content.
Too often, those words and images provide the spark that ignites outbursts of ugliness. Even worse: the perpetrators often revel in their loathsome displays of ignorance.
“She didn’t hide from it,” Fetterman told CNN in describing her assailant, whom she briefly recorded on her phone. “I think people are more comfortable now being so bold in their bigotry or their hatred.”
What’s to be done?
The second lady has countered this ignorant and unprovoked attack with her characteristic grace and class. That’s hardly surprising. She has been a vocal advocate for the underrepresented for most of her public life.
A naturalized American citizen and mother of three, Fetterman has made it her mission to assist those in need: a Braddock-based free grocery store for low-income families, the 412 Food Rescue program that directs surplus foods to the hungry, programs like For Good PGH that oversee community-improvement initiatives — all while promoting inclusiveness, advocating for immigrants, and speaking out for victims’ rights. She even made the swimming pool at the lieutenant governor’s official residence available to non-profits and summer camp kids after the couple opted not to live in the mansion.
Fetterman’s assailant bellowed, “you don’t belong here”? Not only does she belong here, Gisele Fetterman is exactly the type of caring, community-building contributor Pennsylvania needs here.
She should not be abused while running a chore. No one should.
Pennsylvania has some soul-searching to do. Why do we feel entitled to hurl insults at strangers who look, act, believe, or behave differently than we do? Why do we feel it necessary to turn public-health guidelines like wearing masks into pointless, life-threatening displays of public peevishness? Why is it OK to display emblems of hate and terrorism from our flagpoles and bumpers? How do any of these acts make life better not only for society as a whole but the individual?
Pennsylvania can do better. So can America.
Our media and elected officials have been setting a bad example, either by actively participating in messaging and behavior that divides us or by supinely acquiescing to it. Most of us aren’t acting on it but too many of us aren’t stepping in to curtail those who are.
Stung as she was, Gisele Fetterman modeled a responsible, even respectful, response. She shouldn’t have to. No target of racial or bigoted attacks should. They’ve already been victimized. They need and deserve public support.
Pennsylvania is better than a hateful, unprovoked assault on a community leader. Let’s prove it.
All of us can help make Berks roads safer
One of the troubling mysteries facing Berks County is why serious traffic accidents seem to be more common here than elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
The coronavirus pandemic kept many vehicles off the roads for much of this year. It’s a rare positive byproduct of an otherwise miserable situation. But it would be wrong to let our guard down. Roads are getting more crowded again, and there have been 29 fatal accidents so far in Berks this year even with the lighter traffic load.
As things return closer to normal, we must recognize that there remains a problem to be solved. The events of 2019 may seem like a lifetime ago right now, but we can’t forget them now. Statistics for last year showed statewide traffic fatalities dropping to the lowest number on record, yet those numbers increased in Berks County.
With 49 fatal crashes, Berks ranked third among the state’s 67 counties, according to fatalities reported by police to PennDOT. Sixteen of those crashes were alcohol-related. The numbers include drivers as well as intoxicated pedestrians.
The high ranking for Berks is particularly troubling when one considers that the two counties ahead of us are Philadelphia and Allegheny, which have much larger populations.
Meanwhile Pennsylvania highway fatalities dropped to 1,059 in 2019, a decline of 131 from 2018 figures, according to PennDOT. Alcohol-related fatalities dropping by 32 from 2018 to 331 in 2019.
The factors blamed for most of the fatal crashes are hardly unique to Berks. Acting Coroner Jonn M. Hollenbach said they typically involve impairment, speed and distracted driving. And numbers can vary from year to year. But there are issues here that must be considered.
For starters, deficiencies in our road system need to be addressed as soon as possible. Work being done on our dangerous stretch of Interstate 78 should help, along with improvements to overcrowded and outmoded Route 222 from Blandon to the Lehigh County line.
Police efforts to crack down on recklessness behind the wheel and discourage drunken driving also can help.
But people should not expect government to be the sole means of addressing this problem. Each of us has it in our power to make our roads safer.
That means abiding by the speed limit and showing courtesy to other motorists. It means putting aside cellphones and other devices. It means focusing attention on the road and keeping both hands on the wheels, putting off activities such as eating until the vehicle is parked. And of course it means avoiding getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol or drugs that impair one’s ability to operate a vehicle safely.
Let’s work together now and in the years ahead to improve this situation and give Berks the distinction of being one of Pennsylvania’s safest places to drive rather than one of the most dangerous.
Needed: A plan to keep the Bushkill Creek flowing
Here we go again. For several hours Thursday, a stretch of prime trout habitat in the Bushkill Creek ran dry, as backup pumps at the Hercules Cement plant in Stockertown failed to keep resupplying water to the stream from nearby quarries.
A similar event in June left the stream bed bare, killing an estimated 2,000 brown trout, along with baitfish and other aquatic life. Unlike that event, which was caused by a lightning strike, Thursday’s episode came about during a four-hour repair period planned by Hercules. The company had secured three diesel pumps to fill in for the regular electric pumps that send water from nearby quarries back into the creek. Hercules Environmental Manager Keith Williams said the backup pumps weren’t powerful enough to overcome elevation changes between the quarries and the creek.
Members of Trout Unlimited, who monitored the creek Thursday, said the number of fish killed this time was probably lessened by the damage caused by the June washout, noting that it can take three to five years for a trout population to recover after a large kill. Chapter President Joe Baylog said a washout is particularly stressful at this time of year. Spawning season is approaching for brown trout, when eggs are laid in the creek bed.
“If you get dewatered over the winter that kills a whole year of possibility of fish,” he said.
Hercules officials say that sinkholes in the creek, which drain the waterway when the pumps are shut down, pose long-term problems for maintaining water flow. They contend that recent dye tests show that the Hercules quarries don’t draw as much water from those sinkholes as previously thought.
Regardless, this is a problem. Recurrences are likely to wipe out a trout habitat that existed long before humans began damming up the Bushkill Creek for grist mills and mining limestone in nearby quarries.
The Hercules cement plant is owned by Italian company Buzzi Unicem. Punishing the firm though environmental fines doesn’t address the bigger issue.
Williams, the environmental manager, noted that the Stockertown plant is “not going to be there forever. When the plant (eventually) closes, who’s going to take care of putting pumps in and manning them and powering them and paying for the rent when everybody is gone?”
This is a public-private dilemma, and all parties — the state, Hercules, advocacy groups — need to come up with a plan for a long-term solution, before the taxpayer is left holding the plug for a disappearing, once-vibrant waterway.
Lining the creek in the area of the sinkholes is one idea, although that might transfer the siphoning of water to sinkholes elsewhere, according to Baylog. He’d rather see Hercules establish a sustainable backup system for its pumps, fill in the sinkholes in the creek bed and guarantee ongoing maintenance.
It’s time to get started on a lasting solution — one that foresees the eventual phase-out of cement manufacturing near the site. Gravity is going to win the day, as long as lower-lying quarries are fed by creek water.