Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Oct. 17, 2021.

Editorial: Time to rein in quid pro quo culture of Harrisburg

The culture of Harrisburg would be best described as “clubby.” After legislative sessions at the State Capitol on Third Street, lawmakers and their staffs often head toward the wide selection of establishments on Second Street and elsewhere to socialize and strategize — and to attend the constant fundraisers happening around the city.

But it’s not just those with offices in the capitol who make up this scene: It’s also the lawyers and lobbyists who make their living by befriending and influencing legislators from around the state for whom Harrisburg becomes a second home. Members interact constantly with lawyers and their firms — which often have in-house lobbying operations — who host events, collect campaign checks and discreetly communicate information.

This is the social scene that underlies and helps to explain SpotlightPA’s recent reports about the cozy and secretive relationship between the state Legislature and politically connected law firms. According to the reports, the Legislature spent nearly $10 million of taxpayer money on outside counsel over the past two years alone, with most of the details of the cases and relationships shielded from public scrutiny.

Further, several of the most-patronized firms gave millions in campaign contributions to the same members and party caucuses who later hired them — again, on the taxpayer’s dime — for legal work.

Now, it is important to note that nothing that has been reported thus far, unseemly as it might be, is illegal under state law. But that’s exactly the problem. For too long legislators have benefited from lax regulations that make their lives easier by streamlining their personal, professional, legislative and political relationships — but at the expense of the transparency and frugality we should expect from those who steward public resources.

They haven’t done anything about it for the simple reason that the status quo works just great for them. And it’s not necessarily a conspiracy: In many cases it’s just friends doing business with friends. It’s time, however, for more state oversight of these relationships.

The City of Philadelphia has a campaign finance law that could serve as a model. The law restricts businesses and individuals who contribute to political campaigns beyond a threshold figure from receiving lucrative public contracts. It’s a simple fix that plugs up the pay-to-play pipeline, and, according to one analyst, it radically changed the culture of Philadelphia political giving.

The culture of Harrisburg, meanwhile, tends to be cyclical. There are periods of intense scrutiny and heightened fear, such as during and after the Bonusgate investigations undertaken by then-Attorney General Tom Corbett. Then there are periods of comfort, where habits of casualness and, sometimes, carelessness return and dominate the political scene.

We seem to be in the latter phase right now, and it’s time for a shakeup. And it shouldn’t be too much to ask for lawmakers to rein themselves in this time rather than waiting for a less sympathetic outside force to do it for them.

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

Editorial: Charges put accountability in pipeline

In the 15 years that the gas industry has extracted natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, it has become clear that many companies consider fines for environmental damage to be a fundamental cost of doing business.

And in their zeal to nurture the industry, state legislators mostly have gotten out of its way. They have established a web of subsidies to promote gas development while refusing to fairly tax gas extraction and failing to establish industrial best practices as the state’s basic regulatory standard.

The result is a wide range of behavior by companies engaged in various aspects of the process, including drillers/frackers and pipeline companies.

Another result is the suite of criminal charges that state Attorney General Josh Shapiro has brought against the Texas-based Energy Transfer LP, developer and operator of the Mariner East 2 pipeline, at the recommendation of a grand jury. The partially developed pipeline is meant to carry natural gas liquids from the Marcellus Shale gas field in Western Pennsylvania about 350 miles to a refinery on the Delaware River in Mercer County, New Jersey.

The charges contend that the company — which already has been fined more than $20 million since 2017 — used unapproved additives in drilling fluids, and fouled streams, wetlands and private property at 22 sites across 11 counties and failed to report the spills. According to Shapiro, pollutants from the pipeline contaminated drinking water used by 150 families along the route.

Convictions on the new charges likely would result in further fines against the company. But, given that the charges were filed after the company already had paid $20 million in fines, Shapiro obviously is correct in asserting that the charges are not enough to ensure public safety near gas fields and along pipeline routes.

Pipelines are the safest means to transport volatile gas and its byproducts, which otherwise move through heavily populated areas by truck and train. But the Legislature should stop rolling over for the industry and devise a regulatory regime that begins with best practices and severely penalizes those who endanger the public — including prosecution of individuals for multiple company offenses.

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Philadelphia Inquirer. Oct. 19, 2021.

Editorial: It’s long past time for PSERS to embrace transparency, accountability

It only came after an FBI investigation, subpoenas from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and sustained criticism about a lack of transparency from some of its own board members, but the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) has finally agreed to change one of the most fundamental ways it does business.

The beleaguered agency, which manages a $70 billion pension plan for about a half-million working and retired educators, has for years faced criticism from segments of its own board about its investment strategy — which focused on high-fee, “private” Wall Street investments, including hedge funds, rather than more traditional financial tools like stocks.

In a shift, the agency’s board earlier this month approved selling off those expensive investments and moving toward a more conventional portfolio. Historically, the system has had roughly one-fifth of its investments in stocks; most other pension plans have about half of their investments in stocks.

Senior executives at the agency also updated their financial statements to more accurately reflect their involvement in companies that the pension system has invested in, blaming bad legal advice for the earlier omission of that information.

While this board is in favor of moving away from expensive and underperforming investments and toward a more mainstream pension management style, it has become increasingly clear during this crisis that the system’s problems go much deeper than just poor investment strategy or questionable advice from lawyers.

Far more troubling is the continued crusade by some of the agency’s board members and executives to avoid any serious commitment to transparency and accountability. Board member Richard Vague, who also serves as the state’s banking secretary, encouraged his colleagues to approve the change in investment strategy as a way to make news articles “go away.” Other members of the agency’s board sought to impose a gag rule on their colleagues.

The board’s resistance to transparency has grown so pronounced that it has even helped forge an unlikely bipartisan collaboration between former state Treasurer Joe Torsella and his successor, Stacy Garrity. Torsella and Garrity filed briefs in support of State Sen. Katie Muth’s lawsuit alleging that the board has kept information from her. (All three serve on the system’s board.)

Public scrutiny may be inconvenient for those who hold power and control public money, but it is essential — for the sake of both sound fiscal management and effective government policy. And it’s thanks to public scrutiny that the fund is steering away from wasteful and counterproductive investments. Besides the change in investment strategy, one way that the agency can work to restore trust would be to sideline the system’s executives for the duration of the federal probe, a step that this board has previously suggested.

Whether the pension plan’s executives and their supporters on the system’s board like it or not, accountability is a key part of any form of public service. Answering questions about the fund, whether from journalists, the public, or the agency’s own board members, isn’t an intrusion or an inconvenience, it is a key part of making the fund — and democracy itself — work.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. Oct 19, 2021.

Editorial: Powell right to investigate; monitor boxes

Amid the scrutiny that has attended the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania, it’s especially important that Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell has launched an investigation of an incident captured on video at the Lackawanna County Government Center.

County Commissioner Chris Chermak asked Powell to investigate after revealing that a security video had recorded an unidentified man depositing multiple ballots into the drop box on May 17, the day before the most recent primary election.

The ballots are not for the presidential election. And there is nothing to indicate that the ballots themselves are not legitimate. But state law requires individuals to mail or deliver their own ballots when not voting in person.

But given the multiple lies that former President Donald Trump and his acolytes in the state Senate majority continue to spew about the 2020 election — precisely to sow doubt about the process — it’s crucial for public confidence that counties thoroughly investigate whenever a legitimate issue arises.

In a rare case of good timing, the state Legislature authorized unfettered voting by mail just before the COVID-19 pandemic. The system proved invaluable in the 2020 primary and general elections, contributing substantially to massive statewide voter turnout while preventing physical polling locations from becoming coronavirus incubators.

But Trump and his legislative acolytes, almost all of whom had voted for mail-in balloting in exchange for eliminating party-line voting that tended to help down-ballot Democratic candidates, cynically alleged fraud after the election and that, somehow, the state Supreme Court had abused its power in interpreting the state constitution to require the counting of all votes.

The county commissioners have authorized a limited number of drop boxes to be placed around the county for voters to deposit their ballots. The new investigation also is a call for the commissioners, the Bureau of Elections and the sheriff’s office to establish a more robust monitoring and security system for the drop boxes.

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York Daily Record. Oct. 17, 2021.

Editorial: Bullying is a problem that’s worth stepping up to solve

Some days the world’s problems feel so big that we fixate on surviving them instead of solving them. No judgment. We’ve all been there.

But the next time we’re tempted to passively ride out one of society’s many injustices, we hope we think of North Penn School District mom Jennifer Diffley, who proved the old adage that one person truly can make a difference.

It’s fitting that we highlight Diffley’s story as we reach the center of National Bullying Prevention Month. That’s where it begins.

In late September, Diffley authored a courageous and impassioned, 1,200-word Facebook post pleading for an end to what she characterized as persistent bullying of the high school marching band — the North Penn Marching Knights — at and near the bleachers before, during and after football games.

Diffley’s claims of students being booed, heckled, targeted by flying objects, shoved, spit on and otherwise mistreated may have related, specifically, to what happened at an Aug. 25 pep rally and a Sept. 22 home game, but her words clearly struck a chord with young people and their parents everywhere.

Every case of bullying is different, but the fact that her Facebook post was shared more than 1,100 times demonstrates that its applicability extends far beyond a single community in Montgomery County.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people. In fact, 19% of high schoolers seriously considered suicide in 2019, according to a 2020 CDC survey, with half of all mental health cases starting at around age 14.

There are various reasons for this, but we’d suggest that bullying behavior, whether it’s in person or online, can erode victims’ self-esteem and sense of belonging so profoundly that their lives begin to feel unbearable.

In her Facebook post, Diffley points out that marching band “embraces all of the kids that the world is crying out to be embraced — those marginalized communities as well as those neurodiverse, differently abled and typical kids. All in one group, all supporting each other, all holding each other accountable emotionally and physically.”

They put in countless hours learning their parts and rehearsing their shows so they can share their talents in a way that promotes school spirit and contributes to the fun and the excitement of game day. High school football games ought to bring a school community together, not be a place where a segment of that community is targeted for ridicule.

Diffley closes by entreating parents to “talk to your kids that are going to the game. If you can’t convince them to be kind, convince them to not be cruel. This is where those ‘stander uppers’ they‘ve learned about in all of those Olweus anti-bullying lessons come into play.” (Dan Olweus was a Swedish-Norwegian psychologist and bullying research pioneer. His Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is probably the topic’s gold standard.)

At the risk of oversimplifying the reasons young people engage in bullying behavior, which can include stress, trauma, low self-esteem, trouble in the home and insecurity about their own sense of belonging, we believe Diffley’s “convince-them-not-to-be-cruel” advice ought to be followed by every parent in every state of every country on Earth.

Hopefully it makes as much difference as her Facebook post did when officials at North Penn School District saw it.

In the wake of Diffley’s post — and other reports from the Sept. 22 game — Superintendent Curtis R. Dietrich emailed parents a statement that assured them the district won’t tolerate bullying at its schools, fields or stadium, and informed them that the district reviewed hours of surveillance camera footage that resulted in four students being barred from attending events at the stadium for the rest of the year. Other disciplinary measures were taken against additional students who were identified.

The marching band has since been “overwhelmed” by messages of support — and loud cheers — from students at North Penn and from kids in music programs at neighboring high schools, who sent notes and small gifts. The district is also making small but appreciated changes in the stadium to give the band a better experience at games.

All because Diffley and others had the fortitude to follow a simple piece of advice: “If you see something, say something”.

In addition to striking a needed blow against bullying at North Penn and beyond, they’ve also shown us what can happen if we focus on solving problems instead of surviving them. We can all take something from that.

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