Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. August 8, 2022.

Editorial: Enforce price transparency

A group of Democratic Pennsylvania lawmakers announced a bill Friday that would require price transparency from health care providers.

It’s a good idea. But the existence of a new state bill only illustrates the failure of an existing federal law that already requires price transparency.

State Sen. Katie Muth and Reps. Dan Williams, Christina Sappey and Danielle Friel Otten, all of whom represent parts of Chester County, plan to introduce mandatory price transparency as part of a broader bill that would require the state Department of Health to approve hospital sales. It is in response to the closure of two hospitals in that region following their sales.

The price transparency piece should not be necessary. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services implemented the congressionally mandated hospital price transparency rule in 2021, but most hospitals have ignored it.

A study this year by Patient Rights Advocacy.org found that nationwide, only 14% of hospitals and health care systems have complied with the rule.

The rule is based on the notion that price competition for health care services would reduce their costs, just as price competition does so in the general economy. It requires all health care providers to post prices for common services, thus enabling consumers to compare costs.

Even with 100% compliance, the rule would be only a partial solution because it deals only with certain planned procedures. People who need emergency care can’t shop for it. So the issue is just another example of why universal care is necessary.

Meanwhile, the federal government at least should enforce the rule. It should fine providers that do not post prices. And when providers fail to do so, the government should mandate that they may charge only the published Medicare rate.

___

Scranton Times-Tribune. August 8, 2022.

Editorial: Ethics never make menu in Legislature

You probably didn’t treat your local state lawmaker to a lavish holiday dinner in December, beginning with appetizers of seared crab cakes, grilled lamb and bacon-wrapped scallops. You can’t afford it and, besides, you already pay state lawmakers to conduct the public’s business.

Someone in Southwest Pennsylvania went that extra mile, at an invitation-only, black-tie event to ensure that people who wanted access to Republican lawmakers had it. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obtained the invitation and reported Sunday on the soiree of the “Southwest Society.”

But because of the same laws that allow such influence-buying events to occur in the first place, there is no way to know who paid the bill for the lavish outing.

Pennsylvania has some of the nation’s weakest campaign finance laws. But this event did not even rise to the level of campaign disclosure standards because, as its sponsors told the Post-Gazette, it was not a political fundraising event. That meant it fell under the purview of Pennsylvania’s worst-in-the-nation lobbying disclosure and ethics rules.

A GOP political consultant said all of the money went to the restaurant rather than to any lawmakers, so it doesn’t fall under even the inadequate disclosure rules. But the money came from narrow interests seeking influence. It’s access without accountability.

The invitation advised narrow interests that mingling with the lawmakers would cost a minimum of $1,000 as a “friend” of the society, up to the $10,000 “visionary” level.

The law requires lawmakers to report the receipt of “gifts” worth more than $250, and lodging and travel of $650 or more. But even that low bar is riddled with loopholes. Lobbyists who represent multiple clients with similar interests, for example, can just combine their “gifts” of less than $250 so lawmakers don’t have to report the individual “gifts.”

Rules for lobbyists themselves to report the spending are even weaker. According to the state Department of State, lobbyists spent $1.65 million on legislative meals, gifts, travel and lodging in 2021, but disclosed only details covering $17,600.

The Legislature needs to eliminate thinly disguised bribery by enacting a ban on all “gifts,” which further private interests rather than the public interest.

___

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. August 8, 2022.

Editorial: Fix the uncertainty of Pa. mail-in ballot dating

Pennsylvania has an election problem that needs to be resolved.

Elections can be complicated. Same with politics. But this is a ridiculously easy issue that doesn’t need to be the stumbling block it has become.

It’s all about dates.

Since Act 77 of 2019 was passed, broadening the access to remote voting via no-excuse mail-in ballots, the simple act of writing down the date has become a subject of intense scrutiny.

It’s not a new action. Signing your name and writing the date has been a part of completing official documents for ages.

However, people sign a blizzard of documents in their lives. The stack when you check into a doctor’s office can be staggering. The pile you get registering a kid for school or summer camp or day care? Even more daunting. With the papers required by law and the ones used to head off liability, even the simplest action can feel like signing a mortgage.

And so people miss things. They cut corners. They sign their names quickly and illegibly and ignore the date after being asked for it 10 times a day. It happens.

But when it comes to voting, should it?

Pennsylvania law requires a number of steps to vote from home. Fill out your ballot. Place it in the provided small envelope that keeps it safe and private. Then place it in the larger provided envelope that is, in itself, a separate document that needs to be filled out. Print your name, add your address and write the date.

The question for some people has become how important that date is. It’s required by law. But does that matter? The Legislature made the rules, so clearly lawmakers think it’s pretty important.

The courts have gone with the spirit of the law more than its letter. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in 2020 that undated ballots in the 45th District race between state Sen. Jim Brewster and now-Westmoreland County District Attorney Nicole Ziccarelli could be counted. In May, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a similar ruling regarding a Lehigh County judicial seat.

That gets into the counties, and that’s where things get sticky. The 45th crosses county lines, with the final decision delayed for months as Allegheny argued for counting undated ballots and Westmoreland against it. It was also a factor in the U.S. Senate primary showdown between Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, who ultimately conceded.

This needs to be resolved. Continuing to seesaw between interpretations of the law — whether by the court or elections boards — is no way to run an election. If the law is at all unclear, it needs to be addressed.

Either make the requirement of dates ironclad or remove it from the envelope and negate the issue.

On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court upheld the state’s no-excuse mail-in voting. Fine. Now it’s time to make it work.

___

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. August 8, 2022.

Editorial: Pennsylvania needs legislator gift reform — now

“Out in Harrisburg, it’s fairly common,” said state Rep. Tim O’Neal of swanky, invitation-only, off-the-books gatherings of lobbyists and legislators. The South Strabane Republican was admirably candid in his remarks about Pennsylvania’s lobbying culture in a report by the Post-Gazette’s Mike Wereschagin.

Our reporter uncovered an exclusive Christmastime bash at the Bella Sera event venue in Canonsburg. The shindig featured GOP legislators from this corner of the state and was grandly named “Southwest Society.”

You didn’t know about it. You weren’t meant to know about it. Pennsylvania’s lax legislator gift laws require little reporting and include loopholes that let lobbyists report even less. But the public needs to know that their representatives are being convinced by arguments, not by expensive meals and tickets and trips.

“Lobbying... can help educate members,” Mr. O’Neal explained. “We have to vote on literally every issue there is. You can’t be an expert in all of them.”

This is a fair description of the value of lobbying and lobbyists. Legislators must vote as if they were experts on innumerable matters of public policy, and they can’t afford to hire subject matter experts on all the issues. Nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations can’t fill the gap. Lobbyists serve a public purpose by bringing private sector expertise to public sector officials.

The problem is that they do so for the benefit of their clients. When legislators learn about energy policy from an oil industry lobbyist, or tort law from a trial bar lobbyist, or abortion law from a Planned Parenthood lobbyist, they’re getting one side of a complex issue. They’re getting an education, but they’re also getting a case.

The best legislators understand this and listen to representatives of all sides of the issues. The worst form quid pro quo relationships with favored groups, accepting lavish gifts (often disguised, even to themselves, as “friendship”) in return for doing that special interest’s bidding.

This is the nature of legislating. But the law can help more legislators be good ones. Right now, lobbyists must only report gifts to individual legislators of more than $250 per year per client. Lobbyists can avoid reporting requirements by divvying up their costs among several clients at once, keeping them below the threshold. A lobbyist who takes a legislator for a $500 meal but lobbies for 10 clients has spent only $50 per client and doesn’t have to report it. As a result, only about 1% of all influence spending by lobbyists is reported in an itemized way.

Reform bills would ban gifts over $250 per year per legislator and tighten wine-and-dine reporting requirements. They have languished in legislative committees for many years.

That’s because if they ever came to a vote, the public pressure to support them would he overwhelming, so leaders concoct reasons to keep them under wraps. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, needs to quit protecting his fellow legislators and serve his constituents — and all Pennsylvanians — by bringing a gift reform bill to the floor.

___

Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News. August 7, 2022.

Editorial: From the fringes of the far right, Doug Mastriano vainly tries to dance back to the middle

As the fall campaign season approaches, the Republican nominee for Pa. governor is trying to scrub his record to appear more palatable.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano will never be confused with the late pop singer Michael Jackson. That makes it all the more jarring to watch Mastriano figuratively mimic Jackson’s famed dance moves by trying to moonwalk away from some of his extreme positions.

In his brief and undistinguished career as a state senator, Mastriano staked out far-right positions on hot-button issues such as abortion and climate change. He latched onto Donald Trump’s election lies to help him rise from nowhere to becoming the Republican Party’s standard-bearer in Pennsylvania.

Now that Mastriano is the GOP nominee for governor, he appears to be backpedaling from extreme positions in an effort to broaden his appeal in the general election. Many candidates tack toward the middle for a general election, but Mastriano has been so far out on the fringe it is all but impossible for him at this late date to attract voters who believe in facts, support women’s rights, and want judges to respect the Constitution, not use it as a cudgel to impose their will.

That may explain why Mastriano deleted more than a dozen posts from his Facebook campaign page in recent months, including one fallacious claim that called climate change a “theory” based on “pop science.”

Other posts deleted by Mastriano included one where he described the fight against abortion as “the most important issue of our lifetime.” Earlier this year, he called abortion his “No. 1 issue.”

But in more recent interviews with friendly media outlets, he has softened his stance, saying, “The people of Pennsylvania … decide what abortion looks like.” That’s true, but only in the sense that whomever “the people” elect governor will determine if women will continue to have access to abortion.

That’s because Republicans control both the state House and Senate and have tried to further restrict abortion only to be stopped by Gov. Tom Wolf, who has vetoed their efforts three times. If Mastriano is elected, there is little doubt that he would allow extreme abortion restrictions to become law.

In April, Mastriano said he would “move with alacrity” to sign legislation banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. He added that he would not “give way for exceptions” such as rape or incest.

His positions are so far afield from what the general electorate has said it wants that a number of state Republican leaders did not back him in the primary. They know Mastriano’s views are too extreme for most Pennsylvanians and have instead endorsed his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, to be the next governor.

Still, Mastriano is trying to scrub his record to appear more palatable. He has deleted tweets promoting QAnon conspiracy theories and removed a proposed plan from his website to have the government disclose names and locations of people infected with COVID-19. So much for privacy.

Mastriano tried to distance himself from the despicable far-right social media site Gab, whose founder, Andrew Torba, has repeatedly made antisemitic remarks. But Mastriano’s campaign paid Gab $5,000 for advertising and consulting to help attract supporters.

The GOP nominee has not backed away from the one issue that has propelled him from unknown backbencher to the top of the Republican ticket: the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Claims of election fraud have been debunked and rejected by dozens of courts. But Mastriano continues to push the bogus election falsehoods that are being promoted by Donald Trump.

Mastriano met with Trump in the Oval Office to discuss efforts to overturn the election. He marched with the insurrectionists on Jan. 6 and used thousands of dollars in campaign funds to bus protesters to Washington.

The House select committee investigating the facts surrounding the Jan. 6 insurrection has subpoenaed Mastriano to turn over documents and testify about what he knows. The New York Times reported Mastriano was the designated “point person” in Pennsylvania in the plot to use fake electors as part of Trump’s failed coup attempt.

If elected, Mastriano has boasted he will be able to influence the outcome of the 2024 presidential election. His plans include forcing voters to reregister, decertifying voting machines, and ending mail-in voting. Mastriano can try to polish his record all he wants, but his previous antidemocratic efforts should effectively disqualify him from holding any elected office.

END