Editorial Roundup: Ohio

Youngstown Vindicator. Aug. 1, 2021.

Editorial: Prosecution of individuals is biggest warning

A “stern warning” to other corporations and corporate executives is one of the things an FBI official said the federal agency hoped to achieve with the recent agreement in which FirstEnergy Corp.will pay $230 million stemming from an Ohio bribery case.

Really? A stern warning?

What would send an even stronger warning to anyone tempting to engage in such actions would be the personal accountability, including criminal prosecution or prison time, for every individual involved in this scheme.

The Akron-based energy giant at the center of a $60 million bribery scheme in Ohio admitted July 22 to using dark money groups to fund the effort, and agreed to pay $230 million and other conditions so prosecutors won’t forge ahead with a criminal case against the company.

Authorities charged FirstEnergy with conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, alleging payoffs to public officials to back a $1 billion subsidy that would have had taxpayers helping the company prop up two aging nuclear plants.

Under terms of the agreement, that charge could be dropped in three years if the company complies with the terms of the deal, such as continuing to cooperate with investigators looking into the kickbacks to officials, who included the Ohio House speaker and a lobbyist who became the state’s top utility regulator.

The deal, signed off by FirstEnergy’s president and CEO, comes in a scandal that has affected business and politics across Ohio since the arrests a year ago of then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four associates. Government officials say Householder orchestrated a plan to accept corporate money for personal and political use in exchange for passing nuclear bailout legislation and scuttling an effort to repeal the bill.

Half of FirstEnergy’s $230 million penalty will go to the federal government. The other half will be paid to a program that benefits Ohio’s regulated utility customers, Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel said. FirstEnergy also has to forfeit about $6 million seized from the accounts of one of the dark money groups, Partners for Progress.

Under the agreement, FirstEnergy also must make public any new corporate payments it’s aware of that were intended to influence a public official and continue an internal makeover of its ethics practices. It also must issue a public statement describing it intentionally used dark money groups to hide the scheme.

“I hope that today’s announcement serves as a stern warning to other corporations and corporate executives who would sell their integrity to a public official, a group of public officials,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Chris Hoffman, calling the probe a historic public corruption investigation that “deserves historic remedies.”

Patel called the $230 million penalty probably the largest ever secured by his office.

Good.

But what might be lacking from the agreement is personal responsibility — not just for the company as a whole, but for the individuals directly involved in the scheme.

Patel did say that the settlement won’t preclude prosecutors from pursuing any individuals whose actions are described in detail in settlement documents, though without being named. Indeed, that must happen. If this utility company’s negotiated cash settlement negates prosecution of involved individuals, it would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

Frankly, it’s that prosecution that would be the most heeded stern warning.

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Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. July 30, 2021.

Editorial: Portman builds an infrastructure deal

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman deserves credit for brokering a bipartisan infrastructure deal, but he has a lot more work to do to get it over the finish line.

The deal survived a test vote in the Senate Wednesday, but that’s no guarantee it will become law.

Hammered out over the past few weeks by a bipartisan group of moderate senators, with Portman, of Cincinnati, taking the lead among Republicans, the approximately $1 trillion package would go a long way toward fixing our nation’s aging infrastructure.

It includes money for roads, bridges, airports, public transit, broadband internet, charging stations for electric vehicles, ports, water lines, electrical grid modernization and the environment.

Despite all the good the package could do, things could still go sideways.

For example, the legislation hasn’t been written yet. Further, lawmakers from both sides could try to add pet projects, additional spending or other measures that could scuttle the whole package.

There’s also the matter of how it would be paid for. Republicans, after all, are back in fiscal watchdog mode now that a Democrat is in the White House. That’s why they’re threatening not to raise the debt ceiling, a move that would be disastrous for the nation.

Portman said the deal, which includes $550 billion in new spending (the rest comes from extending current funding for highways and the like), would be fully paid for. That includes repurposed stimulus dollars, fees, delay of a new drug pricing rule and similar moves.

Not everyone is sold on the math, and Republicans nixed President Joe Biden’s proposal to raise taxes and increase spending for Internal Revenue Service enforcement, which the GOP has been happily slashing for years.

The second is perplexing because Republicans like to portray themselves not only as fiscally responsible, but also as the party of law and order. Yet they opposed more money to enforce the tax code and ensure people and companies are paying their fair share?

Then there’s the political calculation from both sides.

Democrats wanted a much bigger spending package when they entered negotiations with Portman and his fellow moderates. They gave up a lot to get to the deal, but that’s in part because they’ve settled on a second, larger bill that would fund a number of priorities not covered in the infrastructure package.

The plan is to try to pass the second bill using reconciliation, which can be done on a party-line vote. That only works if they can keep their moderates, such as U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, in the fold. Sinema is already grumbling about the possible $3.5 trillion price tag.

Republicans, meanwhile, are loath to hand Biden any kind of win, even if infrastructure spending is politically popular and necessary.

Former President Donald Trump called the deal “a loser for the USA” and said it would be “a victory for the Biden Administration and Democrats, and will be heavily used in the 2022 elections.”

It also would be a victory for the American people, but that’s not what Trump cares about.

For good measure, Trump tossed in a threat to Republicans who might back the deal, saying that “lots of primaries will be coming your way.”

This from a president who was constantly promising that “infrastructure week” was just around the corner and, as Portman pointed out, once proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

Portman isn’t seeking reelection next year, so he’s a bit freer than many of his GOP colleagues to ignore whatever spews forth from Mar-a-Lago.

Trump’s displeasure notwithstanding, Republicans at least appear willing to consider the legislation, which is no small thing in our hyperpartisan times.

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose entire being is devoted to fighting Biden to a standstill in a bid to help his party retake Congress, voted Wednesday to let debate begin on the deal.

Despite all the potential pitfalls, Biden was optimistic Wednesday, even before the Senate vote.

“This deal signals to the world that our democracy can function,” he said. “We will once again transform America and propel us into the future.”

No pressure, Sen. Portman.

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Toledo Blade. July 31, 2021.

Editorial: You will get healthier in Toledo

The struggle to make Lucas County a healthier place faces many obstacles, so it wasn’t a surprise that our region did not fare well in a recent national survey of healthy communities

For its “healthiest communities” report, U.S. News & World Report partnered with Aetna Foundation to survey 3,000 counties, including Lucas county, scoring each on a scale of 100 based on an average of scores in 84 metrics. Lucas county did not rank in the top 500 counties.

We don’t know exactly where on the list of the remaining 2,500 counties Lucas County fell, but we do know there is plenty of work to be done on key health issues.

For starters, obesity has long been a problem for our region. The Lucas County Community Health Assessment in 2020 showed 38 percent of Lucas County adults were obese, up from 36 percent in 2017.

Lucas County routinely ranks among the worst for infant mortality and smoking in Ohio and faces challenges such as food deserts and dangers posed by an older housing stock and lead-lined water pipes.

The good news is that local health officials, along with business and elected leaders, have embraced the big-picture thinking that will be necessary to address these issues.

Eric Zgodzinski, Lucas County’s health commissioner, pointed to the need to improve educational opportunities and attainment, address income inequality and create jobs, and to tackle poverty as strategies to improve our overall health and wellness.

The push from ProMedica Chief Executive Officer Randy Oostra in recent years to think in terms of improving the social determinants of health -- demographic factors such as income, education, housing, and food insecurity that affect a person’s well-being-- is the kind of thinking the region must embrace as a mission.

This focus has paid off and can be credited for some of the good news in public health in recent years. Lucas County has been able to improve access to primary care physicians, care, and exercise opportunities.

Getting a healthier community also means recognizing eas where we all can contribute individually. We know we can take advantage of the metroparks for fresh air and exercise. We can go to the ever-expanding farmers market network for healthier food.

The Toledo area can improve on these metrics and become a healthier, more prosperous region. To make that happen we must focus on the opportunities -- big and small -- to make that happen.

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Marietta Times. July 30, 2021.

Editorial: School districts need to decide

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is doing the right thing in declaring that, for now, he will not be issuing a mask mandate for schools. (Surely his office is closely monitoring the delta variant and is willing to pivot, if another state of emergency arises). But even though DeWine understands an edict from Columbus is not warranted, he urged parents to get vaccinated, get their kids who are old enough vaccinated, and for those who are not vaccinated to wear masks.

In discussing the matter Monday, DeWine said something that makes clear he understands what a few lawmakers still haven’t figured out. We have reached the point where the decision should be made by school districts and parents.

“Let me be quite candid,” DeWine said. “I do not believe that I have the authority today to mandate that.”

He went on to say “what I do have the ability to do and what the health department has the ability to do is to tell what the facts are.”

Those facts may indeed lead some local school districts to put in place their own mask mandates. As DeWine pointed out “if you want your child to play sports, not being vaccinated and not wearing a mask in school is a recipe for that not to happen or for that to certainly potentially be interrupted.”

In fact, the Ohio Department of Health has issued guidance for schools, “strongly recommending” masks for unvaccinated students and staff members. Meanwhile, updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance urges those in certain parts of the country to resume wearing masks. Vaccine hesitancy and the delta variant have made our emergence from the pandemic less certain.

School districts and parents, it is up to you, then, to do the right thing for your kids, as it should be.

Now. Do the right thing.

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Sandusky Register. July 26, 2021.

Editorial: Finally, a school funding plan

About a quarter century ago, the Ohio Supreme Court ordered state lawmakers to restructure the state’s property tax method for funding public schools, ruling it was imbalanced and unconstitutional. It did not allow equal access to quality educational opportunities to all students in the state, the High Court ruled.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court ruled, in the DeRolph v. State of Ohio case, that the school funding system was unconstitutional, and it was most recently reaffirmed in 2002.

Those who lived in wealthy communities are advantaged greatly over other students in less affluent communities. Kids attending schools in economically depressed areas of the state — what was for years called the “Rust Belt” — were especially disadvantaged.

The schools those more urban communities could provide were too often, very often, woefully inadequate, especially compared with their moneyed counterparts. The imbalance was obvious to the court, it was obvious to families and everyone else.

And although they were ordered to fix it, lawmakers could not, would not, did not and didn’t seem to even try very hard to get it fixed. The failure to address this perplexing problem has been a hallmark of our state government, the standard it achieved as accepting of failure.

It looks more promising today than anytime since 1997 that lawmakers have approved a plan that might achieve the goal of equal opportunities in education. Under the Fair School Funding Plan, that state must consider local incomes and property values to determine how much of the per pupil cost of a good education a school district should be able to cover on its own.

Their base amount, or the cost to educate the average student, will be determined by local costs instead of a uniform, statewide average, “a totally different way of looking at school funding,” one official called it.

We’re going to keep our fingers crossed, but we’re hopeful this is a solution that helps every student in Ohio reach their potential.

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