Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

LNP/Lancaster Online. July 3, 2022.

Editorial: State House Speaker Bryan Cutler shows some courage in Jan. 6 hearing. Other Pennsylvania elected officials should take note.

As we celebrate this Fourth of July weekend, it’s important to acknowledge that American democracy, so courageously won, is facing real peril.

We are unabashedly patriotic. We sing the national anthem proudly. We believe wholeheartedly in the American experiment. We’re deeply disappointed when American leaders — whether elected or appointed — fail to adhere to the Constitution. As this great country celebrates its 246th birthday, we hold it to high standards because we believe it can, and must, meet them.

All of this is why we believe the Jan. 6 hearings are so important. And why we’ve been distressed by the involvement of Pennsylvanians in the Jan. 6 attack and in the perpetuation of the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

We expect better from people from the birthplace of American democracy.

Congressman Perry

The founders tried to protect the nation against people like Congressman Perry of our neighboring county.

At its June 23 hearing, the Jan. 6 committee described how Perry urged Trump to install Jeffrey Clark, an environmental attorney at the U.S. Justice Department, as acting attorney general in December 2020, so Clark could use that department’s authority to block states from certifying their electoral results.

Richard Donoghue, who served as acting deputy attorney general in the Trump administration, testified to the committee that the plans hatched by Perry and Clark could have “spiraled us into a constitutional crisis.” (Donoghue also testified that there was no merit to the story of a truck driver who claimed he drove a trailer full of fraudulent ballots from New York to Lancaster.)

Perry also advanced a conspiracy theory alleging that Italian satellites changed Trump ballots into votes for Biden. It was, as Donoghue told the Jan. 6 committee, “pure insanity” and “patently absurd.”

It also was a waste of the government’s time.

Which brings to mind the machinations in Pennsylvania that led the state Senate to launch an “investigation” of the 2020 election on the taxpayers’ dime.

The state House — and Speaker Cutler — have reinforced some of the nonsense.

State House Speaker Cutler

Cutler claimed there was a “cloud” over the 2020 election’s legitimacy at a Nov. 10, 2020, news conference — there was not.

And he was among the more than 60 Republicans who signed a letter asking Pennsylvania members of Congress to object to the commonwealth’s 20 electoral votes for Joe Biden.

But as detailed in the June 21 televised committee hearing, Cutler pushed back against attempts by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself to get involved in efforts to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results.

And he paid the price, as Trump ally Steve Bannon and others organized protests to pressure Cutler into compliance.

“There were multiple protests,” Cutler said in video testimony to the Jan. 6 committee. “There were at least three I think, outside of either my district office or my home and ... my then 15-year-old son was home by himself for the first one. All of my personal information was doxxed online. It was my personal email, my personal cellphone, my home phone number. In fact, we had to disconnect our home phone for about three days because it would ring all hours of the night and would fill up with messages.”

This is appalling. We appreciate that Cutler did not cave to Trump’s demands.

No such backbone has been demonstrated by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker.

Smucker on Jan. 6 hearings

Lancaster County’s congressman refused to comment to LNP ' LancasterOnline on the revelation that U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama tried to secure blanket pardons for members of Congress who objected to states’ electoral votes.

That would have included Smucker, who, as LNP ' LancasterOnline’s Tom Lisi noted, joined seven GOP House members from the commonwealth in voting against Pennsylvania’s slate of electors early Jan. 7, just hours after the violent attack on the Capitol.

As Lisi reported last week, “Smucker’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the effort to secure pardons for Republican members of Congress or his reaction to the Jan. 6 committee hearings.”

As a letter to the editor published today points out, however, Smucker did post photos on his official Facebook page about “Take Your Dog to Work Day.” He did that the day after we learned about the alleged blanket pardon request.

Smucker has voiced dismay over the Jan. 6 attack, but he refused to hold Trump responsible, voting against impeaching the 45th president for inciting the violent mob. Instead, Smucker issued a statement at the time about the need to “unite and move forward.”

Even as we learn from the Jan. 6 hearings that the former president knew the mob he dispatched to the Capitol was armed with weapons — even as we learn that Trump spoke approvingly of the mob’s vicious threats to hang his own vice president — Smucker has failed to strongly condemn Trump.

As Lisi reported, Smucker did tell a chosen telephone town hall audience last week that it was “wrong” that Trump encouraged “the storming of the Capitol by people that he knew were armed.”

But he went on to undermine — yet again — the integrity of our elections by suggesting that some voters lack confidence in our election system. (As we’ve noted repeatedly, if some Pennsylvanians believe there were issues with the 2020 election that must be remedied in order to restore their trust, that’s because Republicans have been pushing that narrative.)

Smucker said he knows Cassidy Hutchinson — a top aide to Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows — who delivered bombshell testimony before the Jan. 6 committee Tuesday, and described her as “very credible.” But then he went on to suggest that parts of her testimony may not have been “properly recollected” or “not truthful for one reason or another.”

Smucker’s criticisms of Trump have been tepid. He seems to prefer to change the subject when he can.

His timidity stands in stark contrast to the courage of Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee.

Perpetuating the republic

It seems fitting on this weekend celebrating our nation’s birth to quote from Cheney’s speech Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

“We are confronting a domestic threat that we have never faced before — and that is a former president who is attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic,” Cheney said.

She continued: “Now, some in my party are embracing former President Trump. And even after all we’ve seen, they’re enabling his lies. Many others are urging that we not confront Donald Trump, that we look away. And that is certainly the easier path.

“One need only look at the threats that are facing the witnesses who’ve come before the January 6th committee to understand the nature and the magnitude of that threat. But to argue that the threat posed by Donald Trump can be ignored is to cast aside the responsibility that every citizen, every one of us, bears to perpetuate the republic.”

Cheney is right. And this weekend is as good a time as any to reaffirm our commitment to fulfilling that responsibility.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 29, 2022.

Editorial: Dock Pa. legislators’ pay for tardy budget

Thursday marks the last day of state’s fiscal year and the deadline for Pennsylvania legislators to approve a state budget. Once again, they are poised to blow off that deadline, even though it’s imposed by the state constitution.

Call it an embarrassment or a dereliction of duty. Either way, the inability of legislators to meet a deadline will leave some state employees unpaid and some state services unavailable.

In a fair world, legislators’ salaries — amounting to at least $95,432 a year — would be the first to be suspended for their failure to deliver a timely budget.

It’s hard to know what the real hang-up is this time. Legislators and the governor’s office are typically tight-lipped about the budget’s sticking points. Generally, this government process still happens in proverbial smoke-filled rooms.

The appropriation for the University of Pittsburgh, however, is very public. We repeat our call for Republican legislators to quit holding in-state students hostage over fetal tissue research, which isn’t even funded by state money. Withholding the subsidy won’t affect the research, but it will punish students counting on lower in-state tuition.

At least in the first years of the Wolf administration, when one impasse busted the deadline by nine months, negotiators could point to a looming budget deficit that made budget decisions even thornier. But this year, thanks largely to federal American Rescue Plan funds, the state has more money than it needs. This should have greased the process. Still, the deadline looms with several issues unresolved.

To be sure, apportioning more than $40 billion among hundreds of state departments, offices and agencies that serve 13 million people is no easy task. It requires knowledgeable and conscientious staff members to understand the issues, as well as effective and wise leaders to negotiate the compromises essential to governing — especially with a Democratic governor and a Legislature controlled by Republicans.

But it’s their jobs — the ones they applied for by running for office. Most American workers can’t blow off deadlines, especially ones imposed by law.

If they can’t do the people’s business, legislators ought to have their own wages garnished. It’s only fair.

Such a change would also likely make the constitutional deadline real. It would force legislators and the governor’s office, instead of peacocking for the base, to make the kind of imperfect compromises everyone could live with.

That’s real leadership — the kind the people pay for and deserve.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. July 5, 2022.

Editorial: PennDOT needs to find real alternative to tolling

While the U.S. Supreme Court was making all the big news in recent weeks, the justices weren’t the only ones dropping significant decisions. On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decided to make some waves of its own.

It did so by putting its judicial foot down when it comes to bridges.

In a 36-page opinion, the court nixed a proposal to toll an Interstate 79 bridge in Allegheny County. It was the second time the court hit at the idea. In May, it granted a preliminary injunction against the $2 billion initiative that would change the way bridge projects could be funded statewide.

The problem is that PennDOT and the Pathways Bridge Public-­Private Partnership that would build or upgrade nine bridges and then charge to use them didn’t follow established requirements to approve them.

Typical PennDOT projects are a very prescribed process of proposals, announcements, advertising and hearings. Even something as simple as changing a stop sign to a stoplight can be surprisingly detailed and complex. The bridge tolling lacked that specificity, discarding the demands of Act 88 for input and assessment.

“The board essentially approved a multi­billion-­dollar transportation project based on what was essentially a four-page PowerPoint recommendation from (PennDOT) that failed to delineate which, or how many, pieces of public infrastructure the initiative would affect,” Judge Ellen Ceisler’s opinion read.

That is why the three local municipalities affected by the I-79 project — South Fayette, Collier and Bridgeville — claimed they weren’t given the opportunity for input required.

The court’s ruling makes sense — and yet, since Commonwealth Court is the lowest rung on the state court ladder, who knows where it will go from here. Where it’s unlikely to go is the state Legislature, which has expressed opposition to the expanded and unpopular tolling plan.

PennDOT needs to find a way to pay for bridge infrastructure that follows the rules lawmakers have laid out or the ones the state courts will adjudicate. Bridges aren’t optional, and neither is the law, but tolling seems to be going nowhere fast.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. July 5, 2022.

Editorial: State bridges as rickety as tax structure

When an appellate court on Thursday shot down the Wolf administration’s plan to impose tolls on nine major highway bridges, it added urgency to the need to rebuild the state’s highway tax structure.

PennDOT wanted to borrow money to repair or replace the bridges, including two on Interstate 81 in Susquehanna County and four on Interstate 80 in Luzerne and Carbon counties, by borrowing the money and paying off the loans with revenue from tolls on those bridges.

The plan had some broad advantages. First is that it would ensure the timely repair or replacement of the bridges. Second is that tolls would generate some out-of-state revenue.

But the plan drew strong opposition from communities in the vicinity of the targeted bridges whose residents regularly traverse them, and from the trucking industry and other elements of the shipping industry.

While opposing tolling, legislators have not offered any alternative. PennDOT, which is responsible for more than 40,000 miles of roads and 25,000 bridges, says it needs about $15 billion to attend to documented highway and bridge maintenance needs, but it’s clear that the current state tax structure to pay for that work is inadequate.

As Pennsylvania drivers know, they pay a whopping 58-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax to fund road and bridge work. But revenue from that tax is stagnant or declining due to the increasing fuel efficiency of modern vehicles. And relying on fossil-fuel taxes itself will become a fossil as electric vehicles, including trucks and buses, inexorably replace conventionally powered vehicles. EVs accounted for about 8.5% of new vehicle sales in 2021, and they are projected to account for about 20% over the next two years.

So the Commonwealth Court’s rejection of bridge tolling only adds to the need for the state to devise a different means of taxation to fix roads and bridges.

Rather than complaining about whatever the administration devises, legislators should create a taxation system based not on fuel consumption, but on individual vehicle miles driven. The technology is available, and is akin to the E-ZPass system that is the standard on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

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Uniontown Herald-Standard. June 30, 2022.

Editorial: Leave trial locations to courts

Given the state’s political structure, it’s natural to think of the Legislature in terms of the major political parties. But that’s just part of the story. Individual lawmakers often are wholly owned subsidiaries of much narrower interests – gas, guns, unions and so on.

Those interests pay millions of dollars to lobbyists and in campaign contributions to enshrine their preferences in law. It’s why Pennsylvania is the only gas-producing state not to impose an extraction tax on natural gas, why the state allows schoolteachers to strike, and so on. The public interest commonly plays second fiddle to the narrow interests that call the tune.

Now comes state Rep. Rob Kauffman of Franklin County, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, with a proposal to take that special-interest power to an absurd new level.

The state constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, establishes three separate and equal branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial. Kauffman proposes a constitutional amendment by which the Legislature could stomp on the judiciary in favor of the insurance industry and other corporate interests, at the expense of people who have sued those interests.

At issue is venue for civil litigation, the question of where civil lawsuits are adjudicated. It was a major issue in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the insurance and health care industries contended that trial lawyers, representing people alleging medical malpractice, “venue shopped” to file the cases in counties where they were most likely to succeed and with histories of large payouts. Broadly, that meant Philadelphia.

The state Supreme Court issued a rule in 2002 that civil litigation must be filed in the county where the alleged injury occurs. But Kauffman wants the Legislature – 253 politicians – to take over the venue decisions now handled by judges.

Pennsylvanians who have a constitutional right to a fair trial instead would have a right to a trial in a venue determined by politicians beholden to the powerful interests being sued.

That is a parody of justice and equal treatment under the law. Kauffman should desist, or his colleagues should summon what’s left of their regard for democratic separation of powers, and kill the proposal.

END