Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice. April 16, 2022.

Editorial: Legislators lose lease on patience

Nearly 20 years ago, when state Sen. Ed Helfrick was asked why he thought it was appropriate to spend more than $600 of public money every month for his lease of a Mercedes-Benz ML 320, he revealed the fundamental problem when he responded: “I don’t think I should have to drive something less just because I’m a legislator.”

Most of his constituents and other Pennsylvanians had to drive something less, of course, while paying Helfrick’s lease to a grateful car dealer in his district.

In 2017, police in suburban Harrisburg stopped a since-retired representative in a state-leased vehicle and asked if he had been drinking. He said he had, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but that it was “part of my job.”

Some lawmakers over the years at least have recognized the bad optics inherent in a man of the people driving around in a people-funded car that the people can’t afford for themselves.

A former state representative from Scranton, for example, once acknowledged that he had a state-leased SUV for jaunts to Harrisburg, but had the good sense to leave it in his garage and use a lesser conveyance to go to political rallies, chicken dinners, fundraisers, civic events and funerals in the district.

That latent capacity for embarrassment, coupled with public pressure and changing economics, gradually has eroded legislators’ preference for state-leased vehicles. Almost all legislators used to have leases, but this year only 26 of 203 representatives and 11 of 50 senators have them.

Economics have changed in that taxpayers reimburse legislators for gas mileage when they use their own vehicles for public business. The state pays the IRS-allowed rate of 58.5 cents per mile, which means that some legislators would fare better financially driving their own vehicles rather than leasing.

In a vote that was a few decades late, the House voted 183-16 on Wednesday to eliminate state-funded car leases for legislators, which put Pennsylvania in league with 48 other states. That’s just one aspect of much broader expense reforms that lawmakers should enact, but it’s a start.

But the bill might not have such an easy drive through the Senate, where several top Republican committee chairman are among that chamber’s legislators that have state-funded leases.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. April 19, 2022.

Editorial: Keep lottery transparency

State Sen. John Yudichak, an independent from Swoyersville, seems somewhat confused about government transparency. He recently said that he respects the need for transparency regarding operations of a multibillion-dollar state agency while introducing a bill to eliminate it.

His bill would forfeit the public information rights of 13 million Pennsylvanians and cede to a handful of extremely lucky private individuals the right to withhold public information.

Under the bill, anyone who wins $1 million or more in the state lottery would have the option to keep his identity secret. Only the winner’s city and county of residence would be disclosed. Now, the state Open Records Law rightly holds that the identity of lottery winners is public information.

That requirement is not frivolous. Its purpose is to thwart corruption. Disclosing winners’ names is a fundamentally sound method to help ensure that lottery games are on the up-and-up.

Yudichak says he wants to protect big winners from scammers. But the lottery easily could offer winners guidance on how to avoid scams without sacrificing transparency.

“While recognizing the importance of transparency in Pennsylvania Lottery operations, I believe it is equally important to protect our lottery winners’ privacy and protect them from criminals and scam artists... ,” Yudichak declared.

That’s false equivalency. Transparency and secrecy aren’t equal initiatives for an agency that sold $5.3 billion in tickets, cleared $1.3 billion and paid $3.5 billion in prizes during the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Transparency is far more important for Pennsylvanians and should remain in place.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 16, 2022.

Editorial: Pa. can benefit from onshoring strategic manufacturing

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscored the importance of a national industrial policy that President Joe Biden should embrace in his second year. Such a policy should include more rare earth metal production and semiconductor chip manufacturing on these shores. That’s good for national security and for Pennsylvania’s economy in particular.

Now, U.S. manufacturers are almost completely reliant on China and its client states for the rare earth metals that are essential to, among many other things, batteries, electric cars and solar panels. For the past several years, public and private agencies have promised that such elements can be refined from coal mine waste, in which Pennsylvania is uniquely rich. With $140 million in funding from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, it’s time to follow through on those promises.

Pennsylvania is also well-situated to relieve American dependence on foreign-made semiconductor chips, which are the currency of the digital age. Congress should pass the proposed $52 billion in incentives to onshore this essential industry; concerns about government inefficiency and favoritism, such as those raised by Sen. Pat Toomey, fade with a more uncertain and dangerous international scene.

Right now, by far the biggest producer of chips is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which owns the world’s largest foundry in Hsinchu on the island’s west coast. In the wake of Russia’s aggression, however, reliance on a small country that is eyed greedily by its much larger neighbor — in this case, communist China — feels like a risky bet.

COVID-related semiconductor shortages already roiled the car market last year; a larger disruption, such as loss of access to Taiwan-made TSMC products, would cripple the American economy.

For its part, TSMC is already investing in the United States, including building a $12 billion chip foundry outside Phoenix. And U.S.-based Intel is spending $20 billion on a facility outside Columbus. Compare these numbers to the $6 billion Shell is spending on the massive Beaver County cracker plant to understand just how big, and transformative, these investments can be.

As a growing hub of tech research and business, Pittsburgh’s public and private interests should lobby hard for a big piece of the semiconductor pie.

Russia’s aggression has demonstrated the danger of relying on the goodwill of authoritarian regimes for essential products and raw materials. German officials scoffed when former President Donald Trump warned them about their dependence on Russian natural gas during a United Nations address. Now they look foolish. Meanwhile, nations such as Egypt that relied on Russian and Ukrainian wheat because their climates weren’t suitable for mass production are looking at frightening shortages.

The United States has enough natural, financial and human resources that it should need little, if anything, from other countries. There are benefits to trade, to be sure, but the United States should not depend on its adversaries for any major strategic resource or product.

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Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. April 17, 2022.

Editorial: Compassion is hard to come by in Pennsylvania’s broken prison system.

What does Pennsylvania gain from incarcerating a person with dementia, besides footing the bill for their care?

Some people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons are as far as one could imagine from being a threat to society. They can barely take care of themselves, let alone hurt others — and some are terminally ill. The need to care for these people is so great that last year, the Department of Corrections announced a new unit, a first of its kind, specifically to treat those who are imprisoned and suffer from dementia. The unit is in addition to existing long-term care beds, which also provide hospice care.

What does Pennsylvania gain from incarcerating a person with dementia? The obvious answer is nothing. But broken laws, harsh sentences, and a lack of political will mean that there is no way out of prison, no matter how ill or frail one becomes.

The Pennsylvania state prison population is getting older. The Department of Corrections defines an “elderly inmate” as being over 50. A decade ago, this age group accounted for roughly 10% of those in state prisons; now it is 27%. Among those roughly 10,000 individuals who are designated “elderly” behind bars, nearly 2,000 are over age 55 and have already served at least 25 years — and the vast majority are serving life without the possibility of parole. It will take something close to a miracle for them to die anywhere else but in prison.

Pennsylvania has a “compassionate release” law, sort of. The measure allows people who meet extremely strict criteria to be transferred from prison to a hospital, long-term care facility, or hospice. To be granted compassionate release under current law, individuals need to prove, among other things, that they are so ill that their death is imminent and they need care that is better provided outside of the prison. In practice, according to a recent investigation by SpotlightPA, 31 people were granted compassionate release in the last 13 years.

The cost to the state is huge. The average price tag per person for medication alone for an incarcerated individual over the age of 50 is nearly $3,000 a year. That’s double the cost for those under 50. Last year, the State Correctional Institutions in Laurel Highlands and Waymart, where individuals requiring long-term care are imprisoned, accounted for 9% of the entire prisons operations budget — $204 million. That’s despite the two facilities accounting for only 5% of the state prison system’s capacity.

Besides compassionate release, the only other way out of prison for a person serving life without parole is a commutation. Gov. Tom Wolf has signed the most commutations of any governor since the 1970s. But that has resulted in a grand total of 45 life sentences shortened — even though about 1,000 people serving life sentences in Pennsylvania never took a life. And those releases hardly ever have a negative effect on public safety: Study after study shows the lifers whose sentences were commuted or were pardoned rarely go on to commit other crimes.

One possible release valve for the system could come in the form of a medical parole bill introduced by State Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia. Street’s proposal would replace the state’s stringent compassionate release law with a system that allows for consideration of parole based on age, health, and length of time in prison. Another bill, introduced by State Reps. Joanna E. McClinton and Stephen Kinsey, both Democrats from Philadelphia, would allow for a commutation of a life sentence with a majority vote of the Board of Pardons instead of unanimous approval.

Pennsylvania could also do more to help people behind bars to remain healthy. Last year, John Wetzel, then the state’s secretary of corrections, suspended medical co-pays indefinitely. Wetzel left his post last fall, and shortly afterward, acting Secretary George Little lifted the suspension, with exceptions for chronic care and other scenarios. It might seem like not much, but $5 in a prison where an hour of work is compensated with a starting wage of 19 cents per hour can be a small fortune. A bill introduced by State Rep. Amen Brown would end the practice of medical co-pays in prison if passed and signed into law.

The costs are staggering, the public safety benefits are minimal, and the human toll of incarcerating the elderly and infirm is not one the state should have on its conscience. That is the story of Pennsylvania’s aging prison population — but it is one that state officials can change by choosing compassion over complacency.

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Lancaster Online/LNP. April 20, 2022.

Editorial: In Pa. Legislature, even popular bills like Victoria’s Law get stuck because of rules concentrating power in hands of few

Nothing in state government is simple.

Not even a piece of legislation that would prohibit pet stores from selling dogs that come from puppy mills. As Wereschagin noted, “Being anti-puppy-mill is about the easiest gimme in politics.”

The Humane Society of the United States defines a puppy mill as “an inhumane high-volume dog breeding facility that churns out puppies for profit, ignoring the needs of the pups and their mothers.” They are as horrible as they sound, and Lancaster County sadly is known for them.

No one should be making money off of the irresponsible breeding of cats, rabbits or dogs, and treating them as mere commodities to bring in profits.

Apparently, a lot of people agree with that in principle. But Victoria’s Law, which would seek to eliminate a primary revenue stream for puppy mill operators, remains stuck in the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Why? Why is it dead?” Kelly Herbert asked. “It’s a very popular bill... and it’s just kind of sitting on the sidelines.”

That is because of the idiosyncrasies of the state Legislature.

As Wereschagin explained, a rules structure is in place in Harrisburg that “gives legislative leaders and committee chairs nearly unfettered ability to control the legislative agenda.”

Kelly Herbert’s question — “Why?” — is one we’ve asked many times about the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Why is it so bloated and so ineffective? Why are its members compensated so generously when they’re only nominally full-time? Why do the same people keep getting rewarded with reelection when they fail repeatedly to solve the commonwealth’s problems?

The whys are many; the answers, few.

In this instance, lawmakers say they are trying to address concerns raised by veterinarians, responsible breeders and the American Kennel Club “because I don’t think they want (puppy mills) operating in Pennsylvania either,” Sen. Phillips-Hill, R-York County, said.

More fundamentally, though, there are operational issues that delay good legislation.

In January 2021, lawmakers voted to adopt the rules “that would govern how the chambers operate for the next two years,” Wereschagin explained. “Those rules give enormous power to a small group of legislative leaders. They can single-handedly set the legislative agenda, fast-track favored bills and bury legislation, even if it has the support of a majority of the 203-member House and 50-seat Senate.”

As Carol Kuniholm, co-founder of Fair Districts PA, noted at a recent event in Harrisburg, “Year after year, bills with broad, bipartisan support are blocked by committee chairs and legislative leaders.”

Fair Districts PA has worked tirelessly since 2016 to reform the way the commonwealth handles redistricting. “It quickly became clear that the obstacles to reform were as much internal as external,” Wereschagin noted. “Party leaders, intent on maintaining control over the often-unwieldy process of passing laws through the country’s largest full-time state legislature, wrote operating rules that cement their primacy.”

And, he pointed out, there is no feasible way for rank-and-file lawmakers to force a vote on even the most popular bills.

“There are no mechanisms in place to ensure all legislators have a say in what bills are enacted, and no rules in place to ensure bipartisan solutions get a vote,” Kuniholm said. “So far, in this Legislature, no bills introduced by the minority party have gotten a vote on the House floor. Only one in the Senate was given a final vote.”

The minority party inside the state Capitol is actually the majority party in the state. Democrats long have outnumbered Republicans in Pennsylvania, but because of gerrymandering and structural advantages, Republicans have controlled the state Legislature.

So Republican leaders in the Legislature — including House Speaker Bryan Cutler, of Drumore Township — also control the legislative agenda.

As Wereschagin reported, “Fair Districts PA and the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters want lawmakers to change their chambers’ operating rules to, among other things, require that every bill get at least a hearing, allow rank-and-file members to vote to add a bill to their committees’ agendas, require committee chair selections to be approved by floor votes and give the minority party more say in the process.”

We endorse these proposals. We’d endorse them whichever party was in power in Harrisburg, in the interest of fairness.

But fairness is a noble concept and therefore generally not embraced by politicians.

One issue holding up Victoria’s Law is the lack of resources available to enforce the laws already on the books.

State Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman Lisa Baker, a Luzerne County Republican, told Wereschagin that she’s had both rescue and purebred dogs, and has been “a supporter and protector of animals throughout my career.”

But before proceeding with Victoria’s Law, Baker wants the input of a task force that’s being created to study the state’s animal-welfare laws and enforcement regime. (Paralysis by analysis is real in Harrisburg.)

Baker said there’s not much point in adding a new law when the agencies tasked with enforcing such laws are so underfunded they can’t handle their workload as it is. “The key to ridding Pennsylvania of puppy mills is robust enforcement,” Baker said.

We couldn’t agree more.

But we’re a bit puzzled as to why the underfunding of enforcement agencies is raised in this context as if state lawmakers weren’t the ones who could do something about it.

Last July, Spotlight PA reported that the Pennsylvania Legislature “departed for the summer without voting on bills that would have raised dog licensing fees from $6.50 to $10 per year, an increase advocates say is critical to address insufficient staffing and a dire funding shortfall within the state’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement.”

This should surprise no one: That bill, too, remains stuck in committee.

If only there were a way to get it unstuck.

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