Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:

State budget surrounded with anxiety

Altoona Mirror

Oct. 24

The fiscal time bomb challenging the best budget instincts of the Pennsylvania General Assembly keeps getting closer to exploding.

The important question that should be in the minds of state taxpayers is whether lawmakers really have enough time between now and Nov. 30 to fashion a realistic spending plan for the remainder of this fiscal year, which will end June 30 — a budget that won’t end up disastrous for 2021-22 and possibly beyond.

Realistically, there are many deeply troubling money questions now in play for state residents to be exuding confidence about what lies ahead, even though there currently is no stomach in Harrisburg for increasing any taxes.

The estimated $5 billion funding gap staring at the Legislature includes no option for wishing it away. Barring some windfall from the federal government, some painful decisions will need to be made before the end of November, since there will be less of a window for “creative” budget balancing at this time than what existed in those years when lawmakers were tackling much smaller deficits.

Completing the unfinished budget work by Nov. 30 is crucial, since that date marks the end of the current legislative session and, traditionally, new sessions don’t shift into the proverbial high gear until early January.

As a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf pointed out earlier this month, failure to complete budget work by this session’s end date could necessitate employee furloughs and put on hold critical payments needed to keep the state government operating properly.

Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, was on target when he observed that “if Dec. 1 comes and there’s no state budget, then things start to collapse. It just gets to be a very, very ugly situation.”

The General Assembly is not the root cause of the financial tension with which the Legislature is trying to cope.

Nevertheless, lawmakers are the people responsible for solving the state’s problems, and shifting that responsibility to a new session having a number of newly seated members unfamiliar with state budget preparation is not a situation that should be forced to exist.

There is some good news cloaked within the challenges with which lawmakers will be dealing in the race to final budget passage.

The partial, $25.8 billion budget package assembled by the General Assembly months ago during the worst of the pandemic did provide a full year of funding for numerous public school programs, colleges and universities, debt payments and pension costs.

How lawmakers and the Wolf administration will address everything else remains the big question. State residents would be hard-pressed to recall a time when challenges of such great proportion were facing the state.

Hopefully, successfully dealing with the fiscal work ahead will make the General Assembly a better, more capable Legislature for addressing the other challenges it surely will face, going forward, pandemic-related or not.

Most important now, however, is that the budget deadline — the ticking time bomb –continues to loom, yet lawmakers’ current attention span is more focused on election campaigning than on budget completion.

Troubling.

True, the uncertainty over how the presidential election will shake out — and how the successful presidential candidate might try to help address Pennsylvania’s fiscal needs — provides some wait-and-see opportunity before final budget decision-making, but not much.

If there ever was a time when bipartisanship and compromise were indispensable in budget preparation, that time is now.

Online: https://bit.ly/3jGBoZP

___

Fracking’s fate with markets

The Citizens’ Voice

Oct. 26

Natural gas and the fracking used to produce it are important to Pennsylvania. But fracking’s future does not lie with whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is the next president. As with coal, which Trump farcically promised to save while campaigning in 2016, fracking and natural gas are at the fate of the markets.

There is little doubt, as Biden said recently, that gas is a transitional fuel. It is far cheaper than coal and generates only about half of as much air pollution, so it has supplanted coal as the primary fuel for power generation. U.S. mines produced 743 million tons of coal in 2016, when Trump vowed to revive the industry. This year, the industry will produce just over 500 million tons.

At the same time, oil and gas are under market pressure from the rise of renewables and technology. NFL fans this year might have noticed ads for a rebranded GM Hummer, which once was a gas-guzzling SUV; now it is a fully electric pickup truck. Every auto producer on the planet has invested heavily in electric vehicles, which already are taking over market segments in Asia.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency issued a report Thursday that solar power is now the cheapest form of energy to develop, due to technological advances and economic developments.

The IEA projects 43% more solar output by 2040 worldwide than it expected in only 2018, because solar power is 20% to 50% less expensive than originally projected, depending on types of systems and locations.

The question for gas, oil and fracking is “when” rather than “if.” Fracking will survive Biden if he is elected, but ultimately it will not survive market forces favoring renewables.

Online: https://bit.ly/3jAndFN

___

Trump’s rally in Lancaster County brought unnecessary risks at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising

LNP

Oct. 28

President Donald Trump held a campaign rally Monday afternoon at Lancaster Airport near Lititz. He spoke for roughly 90 minutes before a crowd of several thousand people who turned out despite rain and gray skies. Trump was preceded on stage by U.S. Reps. Lloyd Smucker of the 11th Congressional District and Scott Perry of the neighboring 10th. Election Day is Tuesday.

President Trump pronounced “Lancaster” correctly, we will give him that.

But much of the rest of his speech at the Lancaster Airport on Monday was a mix of inaccurate, negative, false and mystifying statements.

He talked about RINOs — the term for Republicans in name only — whom he called “the stupid people.” He disparaged former President Barack Obama’s rhetorical skills, shrugged at the notion of Obama as handsome, and asserted that his predecessor is drawing small crowds these days (he didn’t mention that this was by design to limit COVID-19’s spread).

Trump talked about wanting the United States “to be a developing nation also,” like China, so it could get the same considerations on trade. He talked about preferring limousines to motorcycles.

He falsely claimed that Pennsylvania doesn’t allow poll watchers — which it does. State election law just requires that they be registered to vote in the county where they are watching the polls and be certified by that county.

He also implied that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would do something nefarious with Pennsylvania ballots. “This is the guy who’s in charge of ballots, right, in this state. So what do you think he’s going to do with the ballots?”

Pennsylvania’s chief elections official is not Wolf, but Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar. And elections are run by the counties; in Lancaster County, the chief elections official is a Republican, Randall O. Wenger, who runs an efficient and nonpartisan operation.

Trump expounded on what he believes to be an unprecedented record of presidential accomplishments, foremost among them a thriving pre-pandemic economy and now a recovering one. But he devoted relatively little of his speech to the elephant at the rally (and we’re not referring to the GOP mascot).

He spoke of COVID-19, of course. But he didn’t give it nearly the attention it deserves.

He didn’t offer words of sympathy for the loved ones of the 442 Lancaster County residents who have succumbed to the illness, according to county Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni, or for the loved ones of the 8,696 Pennsylvanians whose lives have been lost, according to the state Department of Health.

Instead, he boasted about feeling “like Superman” the morning after he received Regeneron’s antibody treatment, which is not available to most other COVID-19 patients.

He falsely claimed that 99% of Americans who get COVID-19 recover from it. He didn’t acknowledge that more than 226,000 Americans have died of the disease. Or that medical experts believe it can have lingering health effects.

He suggested, contrary to medical evidence, that there are established cures for COVID-19. And he claimed that a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready to be distributed to Americans before the end of the year, “maybe substantially before.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said he believes a vaccine won’t be widely available until “several months” into 2021.

The president referred to COVID-19 as “the China virus,” “the China plague,” language that those tracking attacks on Asian Americans say fuels the rise in hatred they’re seeing.

The president also claimed that if Joe Biden “and the Democrat socialists are elected, they will delay the vaccine, delay the therapies, prolong the pandemic, and close your schools and shut down your country.” He also asserted that the Democrats suddenly will forget about COVID-19 on Nov. 4, the day after the election, and reopen the economy. (Even if you believe him, it has to be one or the other.)

In our view, the most worrying aspect of the Trump rally was the fact that it was held at all.

Pennsylvania is experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases. As LNP ' LancasterOnline reported Tuesday, “The rate of new coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania jumped 24% in the past week, compared with the week before, according to Department of Health data.”

Lancaster County, fortunately, ranked 36th among the state’s 67 counties for its rate of new cases. But two of our neighboring counties, Lebanon and Berks, made the top 10 in new case rates.

For the third time in a week, Pennsylvania set a new daily record for new coronavirus cases Tuesday. “The pace of new cases in the state now exceeds that of the pandemic’s spring peak,” LNP ' LancasterOnline reported.

We know that people from outside our county came to Monday’s rally.

We also read last week’s USA Today analysis that found that COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate in at least five counties — including Pennsylvania’s Dauphin and Lackawanna counties — after Trump held rallies there. In Lackawanna County, “the coronavirus growth rate jumped from less than 3% before his visit to more than 7% afterward,” that newspaper found.

In Wisconsin, local doctors implored the Trump campaign to cancel its Tuesday rally because of concerns that it might become a superspreader event. The rally went on nonetheless.

Who might have made such a plea here? The county lacks a public health department. Our congressman, Smucker, attended Monday’s rally, appearing on stage without a mask.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — who told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, “We are not going to control the pandemic” — attended the rally. He wasn’t wearing a mask, either, at least in the picture captured by an LNP ' LancasterOnline photojournalist.

Trump actually boasted about the crowd that had turned out to see him. “We have crowds nobody’s ever seen ... in the history of politics,” he crowed.

That might have been something to applaud in 2016. But we doubt any applause will come from the nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and other medical providers who will be asked to risk their lives to treat rallygoers — or others with whom they have close contact — should they be hospitalized with COVID-19.

We sincerely hope the rallygoers and those close to them remain healthy, not least for the sake of those health care professionals.

But, aside from those directly behind the stage, most of the rallygoers spurned masks and gathered within inches of one another. Social distancing seemed to be as unpopular as Democrats at the rally.

Those in attendance underwent perfunctory temperature checks, and were required to wear masks to get through security, but mask-wearing wasn’t enforced at the rally, so rallygoers were free to cheer and yell, perilously unmasked.

They likely will mock our concern, as they do any concerns that don’t fit the Trump narrative. “The Fake News Media is riding COVID, COVID, COVID, all the way to the Election. Losers!” the president tweeted Monday.

We’re worried about COVID-19 because the highly infectious and lethal disease threatens the residents of Lancaster County. We’d like nothing more than to be able to move on from the subject. But because the Trump administration failed to get the pandemic under control, because the president failed to encourage widespread mask-wearing, because he has ignored and undermined the nation’s top infectious disease experts, we cannot.

Online: https://bit.ly/3oxlzZg

___

But is there a buyer?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Oct. 25

A recent study by the Reason Foundation suggests that Pennsylvania should consider leasing the operations of the turnpike to a private firm in exchange for a large upfront payment.

It’s not the first time such an idea has been floated, but the bigger question is whether there’s a private operator out there that would be interested in such a deal, especially given the current financial condition of the nation’s oldest toll road.

The Los Angeles-based libertarian foundation’s report makes the case that Pennsylvania and eight other states should explore privatization options now because even though traffic — and toll revenue — is reduced on highways because of the coronavirus pandemic, the long-term nature of the leases provides opportunity for profit in the future.

How much money might a lease bring? The study’s author, Robert Poole, estimates the state could bring in a net profit of $2.6 billion for a 25-year lease; $6.8 billion for 50 years; and $10.9 billion for 75 years.

If the concept sounds familiar, it’s because then-Gov. Ed Rendell floated a leasing idea back in 2008, one that had a consortium offering $12.8 billion for what would have been the largest such lease in the country. That proposal stalled in the Legislature, and the group eventually withdrew its offer.

The dramatic drop in the potential profit from a leasing arrangement is due to the problem that has plagued the turnpike for years — debt. The debt total is nearly $14 billion today, much of it because of the Legislature’s requirement that the turnpike make an annual $450 million payment to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for transit-alternative funding. Any potential privatization would require the firm to pay off the debt.

So, would a private firm be interested in leasing the turnpike operations? It’s hard to say. Although more popular in Europe and Australia, there are only five similar leasing arrangements in the U.S., the largest being the Indiana Toll Road, which was leased in 2006 for $3.8 billion. The operator went through bankruptcy in 2014.

And a leasing arrangement of the Pennsylvania Turnpike would raise the question of what happens to the system’s nearly 1,400 employees.

The financially strapped turnpike is projected to lose more than $100 million because of reduced traffic — and lost toll revenue — during the coronavirus pandemic. Compounding its problems is driver frustration with the ever-increasing tolls, which will rise by 6% this year, the 13th consecutive annual increase. Those ever-increasing rates are causing drivers to find alternate routes.

Lawmakers must give every consideration to proposals for ways to improve the turnpike’s financial condition, but they shouldn’t get their hopes up about a potential private lease arrangement. The field of interested parties will likely be very small, and the payout is questionable.

Online: https://bit.ly/3oziibZ

___

Regional health care market evolves

The Scranton Times-Tribune

Oct. 26

Many local residents and the vast Northeast Pennsylvania diaspora marvel at the attention that candidates and national media lavish on the region during presidential election campaigns — all the more so this year because Democratic nominee Joe Biden is a Scranton native and often references the city.

This year has been a little bit different than in past election cycles, though, because the many national media visitors seem to have stopped using “old coal town” as automatic shorthand to describe the city and the region.

And several analyses finally have taken note of the reality on the ground — that the economy has diversified substantially since 1992, when the Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush campaigns first established Scranton and environs as a must-visit en route to the White House.

A nonpolitical event Tuesday underscored the change. Lehigh Valley Health Network and Coordinated Health announced their plan to complete construction of a new, 100,578-square-foot hospital in Dickson City, creating 226 new health care jobs.

It’s the latest major investment in health care that has helped to transform that industry in Northeast Pennsylvania, along with the regional economy. Just 20 years ago, the health care business in the region was anchored by a series of small, independent community hospitals. Since then, the new Geisinger Commonwealth College of Medicine has become established, and major systems including Geisinger Health Network, Community Health Systems and, now, Lehigh Valley Health Network, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Northeast Pennsylvania.

That has been disruptive in some negative ways, as networks shift to meet the market and old alliances fade. But it has helped to push the region toward a much more diverse, stable 21st century economy.

Local civic and government leaders should embrace the change and help wherever possible to accommodate further investments in the health care industry.

Online: https://bit.ly/2HymtnR

___