Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 19, 2022.

Editorial: Botched Lancaster ballots undermine voter confidence

Sixteen-thousand botched mail-in votes in Lancaster County could determine the outcome of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Now, imagine a similar scenario playing out in a Pennsylvania county in the 2024 presidential election. It could lead to a constitutional crisis.

“Election integrity” may have become a Republican talking point, but it’s responding to two genuine realities: Regular snafus in the collecting and counting of votes, such as the Lancaster mess, and understandable unease among voters about the competent administration of elections. Yes, some people prattle about “election integrity” in a cynical bid to undermine results they don’t like, and disappointed candidates try to console themselves by claiming the other side stole the election.

But there are also many, many voters who are innocently concerned for America’s democratic institutions. They look at major mistakes like Lancaster’s and worry: “Can we trust this process? Does it matter if I vote?” Not because they’re conspiracy theorists or wannabe insurrectionists, but because these are reasonable questions to ask.

Some try to dismiss these citizens as anti-democratic cranks, but this is counterproductive. It denies the observable reality of election mistakes, and only increases suspicion as people wonder why their honest concern is treated with derision. Screaming “nothing to see here!” always attracts more attention than it distracts.

In Lancaster, a coding error made by the county’s mail-in ballot vendor (NPC Inc., of Blair County) rendered 16,000 ballots unreadable by scanners. Now county officials have to painstakingly fill in new ballots based on the originals, then scan them. This is, incredibly, the second time in two years — with different vendors! — the county has had to do this.

The process is moving forward with professionalism. Three people are involved with each ballot: One who reads the original, one who marks the replacement and one who watches to make sure they got it right. Representatives for GOP Senate frontrunners Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick, who are currently separated by fewer than 1,500 votes statewide, are circulating. We have every reason to believe the count will be accurate.

But the stakes are very high — too high for snafus that introduce more friction than absolutely necessary into the process. Imagine, again, the global implications of a presidential election falling on one county whose mail-in ballot vendor botches a line of code.

Pennsylvania’s Republicans and Democrats need to drop the dueling platitudes and come together to give voters confidence in their elections. They must prioritize making democracy work — and be seen to work — over partisan advantage.

If the state’s going to stick with mail-in voting, Democrats must work to ensure debacles like Lancaster simply do not happen. If the state’s going to pull back from mail-in voting, Republicans need to offer alternative ways to ensure access to those who can’t get to the polls.

If the parties can’t come together to address this fundamental crisis of confidence, they will drive us closer and closer to a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. May 25, 2022.

Editorial: State-related schools should be more answerable to Right-to-Know Law

It should go without saying that an agency that is state-related should be subject to the same demands as other state organizations.

Except it isn’t. Plenty of groups or institutions that live off their official-sounding titles when it comes time to ask for money try to distance themselves from those labels when it’s time to live up to the requirements for transparency and disclosure that go with them.

State Rep. Ryan Warner represents parts of Westmoreland and Fayette counties. The 52nd District Republican has introduced legislation to make Pennsylvania’s state-related universities more subject to the Right-to-Know Law. Many people probably are surprised to learn that those four schools don’t have to live up to the same requirements as other state agencies — including Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools like California and Indiana.

The state-related schools — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — live in a kind of limbo. They are state schools when they want to be, like when they want to ask the governor or the Legislature for money. But ask them questions they don’t want to answer and suddenly they are a different animal with their own boards and governance separate and apart from the state.

It’s a murky area that first came sharply into focus in the early 2000s. That was when a reporter asked just how much Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was making. At the time, Paterno was synonymous with a school with “state” right there in the name. Heck, the lyrics of the university’s alma mater don’t even mention the school’s real name, just cooing glowingly about “the glory of Old State.”

The argument was that Paterno was not a state employee, so his salary didn’t have to be disclosed the way the governor’s chief of staff’s pay did. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the State Employees’ Retirement System had to disclose the coach’s salary.

It was kind of a letdown when it happened, revealing that the longtime coach was nowhere near the top of his field when it came to paychecks, although he did make more than then-president Graham Spanier.

But if there is anything that says the state-related schools need to be more transparent, it is probably the fact those names are eclipsed by what ended their careers. The Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal sent former assistant coach Sandusky to prison and Spanier and two of his top associates to short stays in jail. Paterno was fired in 2011 over it and died less than three months later. The whole incident was an epic failure of disclosure.

In 2009, the Right-to-Know Law did make state-related schools answerable when it came to some information, including areas of finance and salary.

It is not enough, however. The schools should not be allowed to continue to dress up in the word “state” when it benefits them if they aren’t willing to do all that comes with that uniform.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. May 24, 2022.

Editorial: Transparency key to fight corruption

A state open-record law requiring the lottery to disclose the names of big winners is not to make life difficult for winners who aren’t accustomed to dealing with large amounts of money.

Transparency, rather, is a fundamental security tool that uses disclosure to help fight corruption.

Yet state Sen. John Yudichak of Luzerne County continues to press his bill that would flip state law to the interest of an infinitesimally small group of individuals who win big lottery prizes, and against the broad public interest in transparency to ensure that the lottery is fair and clean.

The bill, which has passed a Senate committee and awaits a full Senate debate and vote, would allow people who win $1 million or more to decide whether to allow the lottery to disclose their names.

According to Yudichak, the objective is to protect big winners from scammers. But the lottery itself could do that by educating winners and providing them with names of financial professionals to protect their interests. Winners could choose what to do with such advice, but that properly would be their responsibility. Transferring risk from winners to all other Pennsylvanians, by imposing secrecy on the most fundamental and crucial aspect of lottery operations — awarding prize money — is the wrong solution.

Disclosing winners’ names not only serves every Pennsylvanian with an interest in the integrity of a state agency. It serves the millions of losers — people who played the lottery and built the prize amount but did not win — who simply deserve to know who won.

Private enterprises that conduct prize contests are required by law to disclose winners’ names to all participants to prevent contests from being rigged. The state should continue to apply the same transparency to the public lottery.

The Senate should reject Yudichak’s bill. If it passes, Gov. Tom Wolf should veto it in the name of allowing no exceptions to the lottery’s integrity, which is ensured by transparency.

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Uniontown Herald-Standard. May 24, 2022.

Editorial: Clock ticking on planning for state budget

Pennsylvania has surmounted the first of its two springtime hurdles, the primary election’s nomination process. Strict attention must now shift to the other hurdle – passing a 2022-23 state budget.

Ideally, budget preparation and passage should be completed before spring gives way to summer on June 21. However, more likely, a completed spending plan probably won’t be ready until just before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, or perhaps thereafter.

Some people say stretching the process until virtually the last minute forces lawmakers to agree to concessions and provisions that they might otherwise resist – and for the governor to get on board, even though the chief executive might not be happy about many of the budget’s aspects.

Looking ahead to the budget work that is before the commonwealth’s legislative and executive branches, perhaps the most important point is the temptation to become too generous with surplus funds must be resisted. Such generosity could come back to haunt the state, despite the commonwealth’s strong fiscal condition built upon the stability that the influx of federal COVID-19 funding made possible.

Caution must be the watchword in the budget-preparation weeks ahead, especially considering the uncertainties facing the federal and states’ economies that seem to have most people concerned.

One proposed spate of bipartisan generosity already in the works would involve lowering the state’s corporate net income tax. The measure has passed the state House and is awaiting action by the Senate.

While the move would make our state more attractive to new businesses, state officials must ascertain that the action is correct for the long term.

The same is true regarding any general state income tax reduction that might yet be under the proverbial radar. A good or not-so-good tax reduction is a great way to attract votes in the next election.

Anyone who has been following state government news in recent months knows there are causes for concern and hope.

Some of the major ones:

The Department of Transportation is the focus of worry because of the expiration of the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s annual many-millions-of-dollars obligation to help fund PennDOT. Lawmakers and the governor must be fully transparent about funding of the pension funds for which state government is responsible. The first paragraph of a May 11 Wall Street Journal article should spawn inquiries in Harrisburg: “State and local government retirement funds started the year with their worst quarterly returns since the beginning of the pandemic. Things have only gone downhill since. ”Issues of education funding, ongoing affordable housing needs, ongoing food security concerns and the agriculture industry in general – as well as, of course, the pandemic.

A new legislative session will begin in just over half a year. Its work will be made easier or more difficult by what happens over the next four to six weeks.

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