LNP/LancasterOnline. September 3, 2023.
Editorial: Fancy, expense-paid trips and free Phillies World Series tickets benefit state lawmakers, not their constituents
Sometimes, the principle of the thing matters more than the actual money involved. That’s the case here.
More than $175,000 in gifts for 45 state lawmakers might seem like chump change, as gifts to politicians go. After all, that’s significantly less than the cost of just one of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ luxury vacations aboard a Republican megadonor’s yacht.
But we Pennsylvania taxpayers would be the chumps if we dismiss this as no big deal.
Consider the $1,300 trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, that Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument, of West Hempfield Township, accepted from the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Florida think tank also known as ExcelinEd.
Launched by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the foundation champions “education choice” — the use of public money to enable students to attend private, including religious, schools. Aument, the state Senate Republican majority whip, is among those pressing for the passage of a new private-school tuition voucher program in the commonwealth.
Aument said his trip to Salt Lake City for an education summit benefited taxpayers by informing his policymaking.
As last Sunday’s article pointed out, that’s a typical argument made by lawmakers who accept gifts.
“The National Summit on Education is a nationwide conference for legislators, educators, and stakeholders to come together to discuss successful education policies and share pathways to replicate that success back in their home states,” Aument said in his written response to questions from Renno and O’Neal.
One education blogger described the summit more succinctly as the “Jeb Bush Charterpalooza.” Aument’s trip to a summit of what we’re guessing were mostly like-minded thinkers benefited only the taxpayers who share his views on charter schools and school choice.
Then there were the gifts accepted by state House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Drumore Township.
Cutler accepted more than $6,500 in transportation and hospitality costs to attend events held by the National Conference of State Legislatures in Paris, France, and Healthcare Information Management Systems Society in Orlando, Florida.
“Respectively, these legislative educational opportunities allowed Rep. Cutler to engage with lawmakers from across the country to learn about best practices and to further gain a better understanding of the changing global landscape of the healthcare industry and how that might impact legislation,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The “changing global landscape” apparently required that these “legislative educational opportunities” be offered in Paris, rather than Pottstown, and in Orlando, rather than Erie.
According to Renno’s and O’Neal’s reporting, “The National Conference of State Legislatures covered $5,547.50 of Cutler’s airfare, lodging at the Hotel du Lion D’or near the Louvre Museum in Paris and meals.”
We hope Cutler enjoyed the croissants and freshly squeezed juices at breakfast, and the avocado, salmon and chicken “tasting boards” available for room service delivery. Travelers on Tripadvisor raved about the hotel’s proximity to the Louvre (where the “Mona Lisa” hangs), the Jardin des Tuileries (beautiful gardens) and the Musée D’Orsay (a trove of impressionist paintings).
Republicans, of course, aren’t the only ones accepting pricey gifts.
As last Sunday’s article noted, state Reps. Manuel Guzman of Berks County and Joshua Siegel of Lehigh County received 2022 World Series tickets worth nearly $2,000. We presume these Democratic lawmakers are Philadelphia Phillies fans, as their benefactors were Phillies minor league teams. We are Phillies fans, too, but we cannot think of a legitimate government-related reason why Guzman and Siegel needed free tickets to watch Bryce Harper hit postseason dingers in person.
As Manheim Township resident David Ehrlich wrote in a letter to the editor published today, “I’d love to know how the people of Berks and Lehigh counties benefited from their state representatives attending a World Series game. Our state legislators are very well paid for what they do (or don’t do), and if they want to attend a conference or a sporting event, they can pay for it out of their own pocket.”
Ehrlich asserted that these “mostly career politicians think it’s OK to accept what are essentially bribes — let’s call these what they are — and they rationalize that it benefits their constituents for them to do so.”
He’s right about this. He’s also right that members of Pennsylvania’s nominally full-time Legislature are well compensated: $102,844 is just the base salary (not including the daily expenses for which they can be reimbursed, without submitting receipts). Legislative leaders such as Cutler and Aument make significantly more.
By way of comparison, the median household income in Pennsylvania is around $70,000.
As Renno and O’Neal reported last Sunday, “Session after session, a few Pennsylvania lawmakers propose bills to ban or restrict gifts. This year’s attempt is a bipartisan bill by Democratic Rep. Jared Solomon of Philadelphia and Republican Rep. Paul Schemel of Franklin County. The bill has been stuck in committee since March.”
Color us shocked that the lawmakers who receive generous — and automatic — cost-of-living pay increases every year aren’t in a rush to turn off the gift faucet. Or to make it easier for constituents to search the state Ethics Commission website for the lawmakers’ statement of financial interest documents on which gifts valued at more than $250 and travel reimbursements of more than $650 must be disclosed.
Instead, they continue to gaslight us by asserting that the trips and outings gifted to them are valuable for purposes higher than their own personal gratification.
Former Republican state Rep. Katie True, who resides in East Hempfield Township, punctured the notion that gifted trips are an essential way for lawmakers to gather information on complex subjects.
“If lobbyists will come and sit in your office and talk with you for even an hour, you’re pretty well briefed on what’s going on,” True said in last Sunday’s article.
And that, the aptly named True pointed out, “costs nothing.”
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. September 3, 2023.
Editorial: State needs to join federal and local efforts to address predatory real estate companies
Predators in the wild prowl around the edges of a herd of animals, waiting to pick the vulnerable. They may lie in wait, camouflaged until it is time to pounce.
In real estate, the wolves and hyenas are corporations that buy up properties from the desperate. The bait can be the simplicity of the advertising. Someone struggling to pay the mortgage sees a sign on a telephone poll. “We buy houses,” it says, with a phone number, promising a quick way out of a problem. It isn’t always that easy.
Predatory residential property companies can be like those wolves that target the injured deer. There can be aggressive, hard-sell tactics. They might take advantage of the elderly or flout state laws about getting out of contracts, according to ProPublica reporting.
But another problem is when there are too many wolves. In the wild, that can mean overhunting the prey and throwing the ecosystem out of balance. Too many wolves isn’t just bad for the deer. It’s bad for the whole area — including the wolves.
With real estate, that translates to more and more residential housing being snapped up by corporations, lowering inventory and raising prices.
A Tribune-Review story shows that in Allegheny County, the number of corporate-owned homes rose from 9.7% in 2010 to 18% in 2021. In Pittsburgh alone, the jump was 15.5% in 2010 to 24.8% in 2021.
That is particularly alarming amid high housing costs that are pricing people out of rentals, too. Homelessness is also an increasing concern. Like the forest ecosystem, they are all connected in the same web.
It’s an issue being addressed at the federal level by the Stop Predatory Investing Act introduced by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, with support from U.S Sen. John Fetterman, D-Braddock. Pittsburgh City Council is considering it, with Councilwoman Deb Gross, D-Highland Park, introducing legislation which would require the companies to get a license annually with a $200 fee, proof of insurance and a background check.
It’s an issue the state should take steps to address. Pennsylvania licenses people to sell real estate, to arrange funerals. It is one of only eight states plus the District of Columbia that demands registration for upholstering.
The state has taken steps to address predatory lending and rent-to-own schemes, but this is an area that deserves additional attention.
The Keystone State might see more keys put in more families’ hands if there were closer attention paid to predators circling vulnerable owners.
Scranton Times-Tribune. September 5, 2023.
Editorial: Increase free naloxone distribution
One of the smartest things that the state government has done in response to the ongoing opioid overdose epidemic was to lift almost all restrictions on the use of the highly effective antidote naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan.
Opioid overdose victims suffer respiratory arrest, which the antidote reverses. It’s not an addiction treatment, but it saves many thousands of lives.
As the opioid crisis accelerated a decade ago due to over-prescription of opioids such as Oxycontin, naloxone was available primarily in hospital emergency rooms. People suffering overdoses sometimes died en route to hospitals because the law precluded emergency medical technicians and other first responders from administering the drug.
First responders now routinely administer the drug to reverse overdoses in the field. And naloxone now is widely available from pharmacies with prescriptions.
But the nature of the addiction crisis also has evolved, making the need even more pressing.
The leading cause of overdoses now is fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is cheap and abundant, often manufactured in bulk in several other countries and smuggled into the United States. Dealers cut it into other drugs to increase their potency and marketability to addicted customers, who often cannot measure the actual dose they receive.
In Luzerne County, for example, coroners’ records show that of the 80 fatal opioid overdoses there through July, 63 were due to fentanyl — nearly 79%.
Recently, Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre distributed Narcan for free outside its emergency department. Each person received two Narcan kits and Geisinger personnel taught them how to administer the lifesaving medication.
Geisinger’s program was in conjunction with International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug 31. But distributing the antidote is a great idea that Geisinger and all regional health care providers regularly should embrace. The state government should finance the distribution as a life-saving aspect of public health policy.
The scope of the problem is such that almost anyone could encounter a person experiencing an overdose. Putting Narcan into as many purses, pockets and vehicle glove boxes as possible could save even more lives.
Lawmakers also should make it easier to steer someone revived by Narcan into treatment.
Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. September 2, 2023.
Editorial: Quickly finalize new primary election date
State legislators appear to have reached a consensus that Pennsylvania, which long has been a major player in determining the winners of presidential elections, finally will become a player in the primary process that selects the nominees.
Next year’s primary election is scheduled April 23, the fourth Tuesday of that month, long after the nominees likely will be determined due to the outcomes of earlier primaries in other states. That probably is more important on the Republican side given former President Donald Trump’s raft of legal issues and multiple challengers, even though all of them trail him badly in the polls. Democratic President Joe Biden has challengers, but they likely will prove to be nominal, especially late in the primary season.
Another major incentive to move the date is that it conflicts with the beginning of Passover.
A Senate committee finally approved a bill Wednesday that would move up the date to make state voters relevant in the primary season. But, this being Pennsylvania, the date designated by the Republican-controlled Senate committee disagrees with the date favored in the Democratic-controlled House.
The Senate bill would move the date to March 19, the third Tuesday of that month. Meanwhile, a pending House bill would move the date to April 2.
In the vast universe of matters on which the House and Senate disagree — the new financial code bills supporting the state budget that just passed the Senate probably won’t get past the House, for example — resolving the difference over the primary date should be relatively easy.
Timeliness is important because the state Department of State and 67 county election offices need adequate lead time to set a calendar for candidates for many other offices that also will be on the ballot. Prospective candidates need to comply with those deadlines to get on the ballot.
The House should take up the Senate bill and begin to move its own pending version as soon as it returns from recess Sept. 26, or sooner.