Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Inquirer. Sept. 20, 2021.

Editorial: The next steps to protect abortion in Pennsylvania

In one legislative session after another, Pennsylvania Republicans have tried to limit access to abortion throughout the commonwealth — and the fall term that opens this week is poised to be no different.

The new session in Harrisburg starts against the backdrop of recent events in Texas where earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect. The court refused an emergency request to block Texas Senate Bill 8, which essentially places a bounty on anyone who “aids or abets” the performance of an abortion.

By allowing the law to take effect, the Supreme Court signaled that it’s open season for Roe v. Wade — the landmark 1973 ruling that upheld the right to an abortion. On Monday, the court also announced that, in December, it will hear oral arguments on a Mississippi abortion ban.

Attacks on abortion rights are taking multiple forms in the Pennsylvania legislature — a fetal remains bill, a so-called “heartbeat” ban, and a ban on abortion in cases of a Down syndrome diagnosis, just to name a few.

The most recent abortion-related measure in Harrisburg — the “Pain Control for the Unborn” bill — is State Rep. Timothy R. Bonner’s proposal to require abortion providers to administer pain medication to a fetus in terminations done over 12 weeks.

Physicians’ groups have repeatedly stated that the issue of fetal pain in abortion is not a scientific or practical concern in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, when abortion is legal in Pennsylvania. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology summed up the issue succinctly: “A human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after viability.”

Nevertheless, in 2017 Pennsylvania Republicans passed a 20-week abortion ban, purporting to defend “pain capable” fetuses. Gov. Tom Wolf, rightly, vetoed the bill and has vowed to veto any other anti-abortion legislation that Republicans send to his desk.

The pen of Gov. Wolf, whose term expires in January 2023, is the only thing that currently ensures that Pennsylvania won’t have a Texas-style abortion ban in place.

Pennsylvania needs a governor who would stand up for abortion rights — and that is also true of its senators.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, enshrining a nationwide right to an abortion. Ahead of the House vote, 48 out of 50 Democratic U.S. senators expressed their support. Among the two holdouts was Pennsylvania’s Sen. Bob Casey.

Despite his personal stance on the issue, Casey’s been more likely to vote in ways that protect abortion than restrict it. His vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act should continue that pattern.

The time to develop infrastructure to defend abortion in Pennsylvania after Wolf’s tenure ends is now. Hopefully, Republicans will remember that they are allowed to vote in favor of ways that protect those who’ve already been born in the commonwealth — and not just use specious claims about fetal pain to control the bodies of pregnant people.

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Erie Times-News. Sept. 19, 2021.

Editorial: Mask mandate offers kids freedom to stay safe and in school

This is where we are: Nine months after not one, but three safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to stop the pandemic that has killed more 600,000 Americans, little over half the people in this country and state are fully vaccinated.

A highly contagious delta variant circulates and it is making kids sick at a rate far greater than the initial strain.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said pediatric hospitalizations increased fivefold over the summer as delta spread. Unvaccinated teens were hospitalized at a rate 10 times higher than those vaccinated, as The New York Times reported. There is no vaccine yet approved for children 12 and under and, thus, no protection.

In Pennsylvania delta accounts for more than 92% of current COVID cases. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said cases surged from less than 300 a day to more 3,000 a day over the summer. And in August, COVID infections among school-aged children leapt by more than 11,000, just as we all hoped for a return to a normal school year.

We know how to keep children safe and their schools open. Studies show wearing masks reduces spread of the virus and allows students to gather safely and learn.

So, at this turning point, possessing the tools and knowledge to hold the line on the virus, protect children and keep them in school, what are we doing?

Fighting over face masks.

It seems a lifetime ago but recall the response to face masks when COVID first emerged. Seamstresses bought reams of cloth. How-to videos and photos of homemade face-coverings stitched up for medical heroes crowded our social media feeds. We needed that big-hearted, can-do, all-American sprit to win this fight. But it soon soured as groups, some funded by dark money, politicized measures to fight the pandemic from school closures to masks to business shutdowns.

It is true some mitigation strategies missed the mark, did harm or over-reached, not surprising given the unprecedented nature of the crisis. But bad actors also leveraged flaws and sowed disinformation to splinter our will and undermine efforts to force the virus into retreat.

Wolf weathered heavy Republican criticism for his pandemic mitigation orders and in the May primary voters amended the state constitution to limit the governor’s power to extend emergency orders.

Opponents said response to the pandemic should be a matter of liberty and individual responsibility not executive fiat. So over the summer, Wolf left it to school districts to decide whether to order students to wear masks when schools reopened.

As school boards and medical advisers crafted their safety plans, public meetings in too many spots across the state and nation devolved into appalling spectacles with parents voicing anger, abuse and even threats of violence.

Opponents cast face masks as oppression.

In the end, only about 50 of the state’s 501 districts adopted mandatory mask policies.

With cases mounting rapidly among children and the start of the new school year fast approaching, Wolf asked the Legislature in August to return to Harrisburg to pass legislation requiring masks in schools and child care centers as advised by the CDC. When they refused, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam mandated wearing masks and did so with the support of more than a dozen medical and education experts and agencies statewide, including the state’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This moment offered lawmakers, so often at odds with Wolf, an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to ending the pandemic and protecting children by making a tough, unpopular call. They ducked, saying safety measures should be decided on the local level. While we agree generally, here the administration’s mandate is responsive to the growing threat posed by delta and also relieves school boards from having to contend with the rage that wrongly surrounds this issue.

Members of the House returned to Harrisburg to seek ways to fight the mandate. Three lawsuits against the mandate are now pending.

GOP House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff wrote that mitigation decisions should be made surgically by local officials because the total case counts vary so greatly statewide. What matters more are rates of vaccination and spread and those conditions don’t bode well in many small rural counties.

Children are more at risk in areas of low vaccination. Reports document that some infected by delta are becoming seriously ill. Some have died and some are suffering rare, related conditions. Is the risk worth it?

The country is at war with the virus but students are not being asked to sacrifice as generations past have. There is no draft. No rationing. No blackouts to hide from German bombers as in WWII England. There is, instead, a chance to learn a valuable life lesson about unity, sacrifice and the common good.

We agree liberty is at stake – that of the virus to spread, endanger children and those they encounter. Each successful transmission gives it fresh chance to mutate, possibly into a vaccine-resistant strain.

Our school districts proved resourceful when the virus hit in March 2020 and they pivoted to online learning. But too many districts contended with inadequate technology and internet access and other practical challenges.

Kids suffered. Learning suffered. Parents juggling their own employment from home suffered. Employers lost out, as women exited the workforce to meet child care duties.

We don’t have to go back. We just need to do the right thing and follow the mask guidance. Not forever — just until the virus abates thanks to safety protocols, increased vaccinations, or we get a vaccine approved to protect our youngest.

The freedom that matters most for children now is freedom from COVID. Don’t complicate it.

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Altoona Mirror. Sept. 21, 2021.

Editorial: Address turnpike ‘leakage’

Probably no one with any real understanding or logical suppositions surrounding the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s switch to all-electronic tolling subscribed to the shortsighted notion that the travel entity would not experience serious challenges in ensuring that a superior toll-collection record would be achieved quickly and painlessly.

However, even the most pessimistic skeptics probably didn’t fathom a situation as mind-boggling as the one emanating from an internal turnpike report issued in July: that more than $104 million in tolls went uncollected last year.

The report in question was obtained through a Right-To-Know Law request filed by the Associated Press. Actually, the general public of this commonwealth had a right to see the report without the AP having to pursue access.

This is September. Clearly, if the Turnpike Commission, which is responsible for the toll road’s operation, had intended to make the report’s contents known to the public — to be transparent about them, acknowledging the public interest involved – it would have been forthcoming with the facts within a couple of weeks at most, without a news organization first having to pursue them.

That said, some politicians’ reactions to the report also are bases for important questions and for contemplating an hypocrisy factor.

But first, some of the report’s troubling facts, as reported in just one paragraph of a front-page AP article printed in Wednesday’s Mirror: “Last year, license plates could not be identified in 1.8 million Pennsylvania Turnpike rides, bills were undeliverable in just over 1 million instances, and motor vehicle agencies failed to provide vehicle owner addresses more than 1.5 million times. An additional 6.7 million transactions were marked as ‘not paid.‘”

Also, the problem was detailed broadly in this way: “Nearly 11 million out of the total of about 170 million turnpike rides generated no revenue for the agency in the year that ended May 31.”

Some serious, comprehensive, effective remedial actions are needed — quickly — to resolve what the commission refers to as “leakage,” but which can be described more accurately as catastrophic failure of a dam.

Judging from politicians’ initial reaction to the report, there are grounds for questioning whether there is full understanding of the turnpike’s financial issues. Perhaps the better question is why certain facts regarding the toll road’s financial condition are being ignored conveniently amid the so-called concern being expressed over lost tolls.

For instance, state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the turnpike’s revenue bleed has been a concern of his for years, that the new figures show a need for action, and that the Legislature should do more to pressure the turnpike agency to fix the bleed.

What he did not express was outrage over the fact that the turnpike has been providing hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the state Department of Transportation under a failed plan to impose tolls on Interstate 80.

What he also did not acknowledge was that the turnpike’s indebtedness probably would be a small fraction of what it now is, if the Legislature had ended the subsidization requirement on PennDOT’s behalf immediately when the I-80 proposal failed to materialize.

“Free rides take toll on Pa. turnpike” was the headline over Wednesday’s Mirror article.

Those free rides also are an affront to those paying excessively higher tolls necessary to compensate at least in part for the toll revenue losses.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. Sept. 18, 2021.

Editorial: Wildlife corridors help all species

Pennsylvania, Penn’s Woods, still is among the most forested of all states. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 58% of the state’s land is wooded.

That translates into an abundance of wildlife, as hunters, hikers, bird watchers, nature photographers and, unfortunately, drivers all know.

Even though the state is heavily wooded, wildlife habitats often are divided by roads, housing subdivisions, fences, other structures and physical infrastructure that make life difficult for animals and, often, for humans who encounter them.

Nationally, there is a growing trend to help animals and humans alike by establishing wildlife corridors, which can take many forms.

Often they connect divided pieces of habitat, such as an overpass or underpass across a highway to allow animals access without traffic counters that often are deadly for animals and people alike. That would be especially helpful in Pennsylvania where, according to the insurance industry, drivers have a 1-in-63 chance of hitting an animal on a highway — the third-highest rate nationally.

Unobstructed streams are important corridors, as are reserved patches of woods, waterways and fields along flyways for migratory birds.

Pennsylvania has several wildlife corridors, most famously in Elk County to accommodate the movements of the nation’s largest wild elk population. Long stretches of the state also are part of the vast Atlantic Flyway for billions of migratory birds.

State Reps. Mary Jo Daley, a Montgomery County Democrat, and Aaron Kaufer, a Luzerne County Republican, have filed a resolution to fund a study of conservation corridors.

The Legislature should approve it with an eye toward maintaining the state’s rich biodiversity amid climate change, and to better protect humans and wildlife.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sept. 20, 2021.

Editorial: Preserving a piece of Black history

There’s a piece of history and Black culture in the Pittsburgh area that’s worth saving, a project that has already garnered some national support and initial grant money, but now needs the backing of the community to preserve a significant structure.

A century-old house on Apple Street in Homewood is the birthplace of the National Negro Opera Company and served as its headquarters starting in 1941. Black musicians and entertainers stayed or visited the Queen Anne-style home through the years, including Count Basie, Lena Horne, Cab Holloway and Duke Ellington. Famous Black athletes such as Joe Louis and Pirates Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente were visitors as well.

The National Negro Opera Company has strong ties to the Pittsburgh community. It was the first African-American opera company in the United States, and its first performance was at the former Syria Mosque in Oakland.

The owner of the property, Jonnet Solomon, bought the house in 2000 and has been working to raise money to restore it ever since. Her efforts have been admirable, but there’s still a long way to go.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the nation’s most endangered places last September and Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission is asking for a restoration plan for the house before granting its approval as a historic site.

Ms. Solomon’s architect estimates it will cost $2 million to restore the house as a museum and cultural arts center, but she says the cost is actually closer to $3 million. Fundraising for the restoration got a big boost in April when the Richard King Mellon Foundation provided a $500,000 grant, and in July the Washington-based African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund added $75,000 more.

Unfortunately, the clock is ticking on just stabilizing the structure, let alone beginning the restoration work. The house, built in 1894, has been abandoned for nearly 50 years and is deteriorating daily. Holes in the roof allow rain inside and the water damage threatens the structural integrity of the building. The side porch has collapsed and the building has been vandalized through the years.

For now, Ms. Solomon and her team are working on a revised plan to submit to the Historic Review Commission for approval, a plan that would outline what work could be done with money on hand and how much more needs to be raised.

When the Richard King Mellon Foundation announced its grant earlier this year, it released a statement saying it hoped the “initial gift will inspire other Pittsburgh community leaders and leaders across the nation to support Jonnet in this noble quest.”

The restoration project is one that deserves and needs community support before another piece of the city’s Black history slips away.

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