Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 20, 2023.
Editorial: Davis’ clumsy handling of clemency firings raises questions, but Shapiro’s move to strengthen the process is encouraging
Advocates for more humane, just and cost-effective ways to grant pardons and commutations in Pennsylvania were understandably concerned after Lt. Gov. Austin Davis fired two commutations specialists who had themselves received commutations from life sentences in 2019. George Trudel, 56, and Naomi Blount Wilson, 72, were hired by former Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to serve as liaisons between his office and the more than 5,000 state prisoners serving mandatory life sentences in Pennsylvania.
Their departures, effective Feb. 28, could suggest that the administration of Gov. Josh Shapiro is less committed to clemency for prisoners who have turned their lives around, and who could better serve Pennsylvania in the community, instead of in prison, where they each cost taxpayers more than $40,000 a year.
Mr. Davis raised the temperature further when he refused to comment on, or even acknowledge, the firings. He refused to take responsibility for them, even though his name was on the letterhead of the separation letter. Even more ludicrously, his office refused to answer a routine question about who has the authority to hire and fire employees of the board, suggesting Mr. Davis, a former state representative, isn’t ready for prime time.
One of his few official duties as lieutenant governor is chairing the Board of Pardons, which hears applications for clemency. Commutations reduce sentences; pardons eliminate convictions.
The optics of the firings are bad, but they don’t necessarily mean Mr. Davis and Gov. Josh Shapiro are less committed to clemency, or the real value ex-offenders bring to any process that affects prisoners. Poor work performance could have precipitated the dismissals. The public doesn’t know whether Mr. Davis unceremoniously dumped the two employees, through no fault of their own, without thanking them for their service or bidding them farewell, as Mr. Trudel alleged.
It’s worth noting, however, that Mr. Shapiro, aside from including $10 million for indigent defense in his new budget, allocated an additional $350,000 for the Board of Pardons to hire more staff to process applications and reduce backlogs, the governor’s office said.
Adding 17% to the board’s $2.1 million annual budget is encouraging. It should result in more applications receiving a timely review and, ultimately, more deserving commutations and pardons. The board reviews up to 750 applications a year.
Mr. Davis’s clumsy handling of the dismissals of two people who exemplified the importance of second chances, and undoubtedly brought a valuable perspective to the clemency process, doesn’t mean the board will not function more effectively and efficiently than ever under the Shapiro Administration. To make sure it does, however, the Board of Pardons will need more scrutiny from legislators and the public in the coming months.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. March 21, 2023.
Editorial: What is the value of tradition in deer hunting?
The start of deer season is not just a date on the calendar.
It is a lot more complicated than that. It involves the science behind how deer move and feed, where they live and when they breed. It is part of a management process that looks to keep a necessary part of the ecosystem thriving. At the same time, it’s important to limit them enough to protect crops and stop oblivious animals from plowing into traffic.
But in that intricate balance, has the Pennsylvania Game Commission lost sight of some other important aspects?
You cannot forget the economic impact of hunting. Outdoor sports contribute significantly to the state’s economy, with estimates putting hunting and fishing alone topping $1.5 billion.
When it comes to hunting, deer season is king. No one is traveling to the Keystone State to spend a week shooting squirrels. Use the words “hunting season,” and for many people, the word “deer” is implied, even though there is heavy activity in other quarry like turkey and bear.
In 2019, the commission moved hunting season for the first time in decades. Instead of opening on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the first day was moved to the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
The idea was to give more people who work during the week a chance to get into the woods and participate in a sport that is just shy of a religion in some parts of the state. And the commission would point to its 2020-21 numbers as proof. The number of deer harvested went up 16%, from 375,000 to 435,000.
OK, but should we take numbers from almost anything in 2020 at face value? The pandemic turned most statistics into confetti. Many people weren’t working, freeing them up to hunt more. People were encouraged to spend more time in socially distanced outdoor activities.
Even if the deer harvest is up, let’s not forget the money.
“A year ago, I’d estimate we lost between $12,000 and $15,000 in business that weekend,” said Eric Vandyke, owner of Arrowhead Outdoors & Hardware in Tionesta, Forest County. “When the opener was on Monday, people would come up to camp, do projects and be around more often. Friday and Saturday were very busy days, and we’d even put extra staff in the store.”
A Saturday start also puts the start of hunting season into direct competition with Black Friday and Small Business Saturday. Are there dips in revenue in other areas that could be attributed to hunting camp activity?
We also can’t forget tradition. For many opposed to the move, it’s about culture and custom — about Thanksgiving leading into a second mini holiday. And as to the commission’s argument about days off, have you tried to get anything done on the Monday after Thanksgiving? It’s practically a state holiday.
The 2023 start date will be decided next month. Should tradition and money be the deciding factor? Not necessarily. But they should definitely be a part of the conversation.
Scranton Times-Tribune. March 21, 2023.
Editorial: All aboard? State affirms rail project
It’s not the same thing as a train arriving at the Scranton station, but the Shapiro administration’s decision to make PennDOT the lead agency in the effort to reestablish passenger rail service to New York resolves one of the most persistent problems with the project.
For decades, long before the passenger-rail effort was tied to Amtrak, the state government was a major impediment to service restoration. New Jersey’s government gradually has extended the necessary tracks east of the Delaware River, but Pennsylvania’s government never had committed fully to the project.
Restoration advocates originally devised a plan dependent upon the state governments to rebuild the once-busy line across the Delaware through Stroudsburg to Scranton, with New Jersey Transit as the operator.
Now, due largely to the rail-friendly Biden administration and the federal infrastructure law that has committed $66 billion to Amtrak upgrades, the federal government would pay for 80% of line reconstruction and Amtrak would operate the service.
Friday, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright of Lackawanna County, and Larry Malski, president of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, announced that PennDOT will be the lead agency this week when advocates submit an application for Scranton-New York to be a new Amtrak rail corridor. Malski’s organization and New Jersey Transit will be co-sponsors. The Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development Program will make the call.
Advocates believe the region will have a strong application due to decades of groundwork on the previous restoration plan. But the state commitment long had been the key missing piece.
Amtrak itself has conducted a preliminary study finding that the line has a ready market among businesspeople, college students and tourists interested in outdoor recreation. The line would produce about $87 million a year in economic activity in the region, it found.
The progress still is on paper rather than on restored tracks, but PennDOT’s participation makes rail service far more likely. Credit the governor for recognizing the potential, the Biden administration for its commitment to passenger rail, and committed rail advocates such as Cartwright and, especially, Malski, who have persisted in the face of repeated disappointment.
Uniontown Herald-Standard. March 16, 2023.
Editorial: New rules spell out an obvious miss in House ethics
If Pennsylvania legislators ever wonder why they might not be seen as completely trustworthy, they need only to look to their track record of how they govern others versus how they govern themselves.
The most infamous example is always the 2005 pay increase – passed at 2 a.m. without any comment or oversight despite more than doubling paychecks.
But that is hardly the only instance.
For years, wresting information from lawmakers about their own expenses has been like pulling teeth. Even when it was provided, it often was incomplete or half-hearted. They also can avoid detailing expenses with a hefty per diem. Former lawmaker Chris Sainato of Lawrence County racked up $1.9 million in reimbursements over 19 years.
Likewise, legislators have a tendency to nod along in agreement at the suggestion of a gift ban. When it comes time to pass one, it never seems to get done. Maybe that’s because they are too busy taking trips to Wyoming with a skill game company or to Europe on the Pittsburgh Symphony’s dime.
New rules for the state House of Representatives show exactly how politicians will not just gerrymander the law for their own election and power but also gerrymander the law – drawing improbable shapes around simple ideas that ultimately protect them from consequences.
The rules were adopted after Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, stepped down from his two-month speakership and handed the gavel to Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia. Among them was a new rule that should never have had to be spelled out.
It is now acknowledged that harassment can happen to people who don’t work for you. The language specifies that harassment is prohibited against “any individual.”
This comes after an SEIU lobbyist was unable to file ethics complaints against a lawmaker because previous rules demanded complainants be House members or employees.
This is utterly ludicrous as representatives’ work brings them into constant professional contact with, among others, senators, elected officials from other levels of government and taxpayers.
Pennsylvania has spent more than 10 years in a very public sex abuse spotlight because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, followed by multiple grand jury reports regarding Catholic church dioceses. Changing the state constitution to better protect victims and allow them to find justice has been the work of the past five years.
And that’s without even mentioning the #MeToo movement. One of the most spectacular examples of that was the Bill Cosby case in Montgomery County.
No one in the House thought maybe cleaning up the language and closing the loopholes of their own guiding principles would be a good idea?
At least it’s done now – but not unanimously. The new rules passed along party lines, with Democrats in favor. Republicans say they aren’t strong enough.
The GOP members may have a point. There is always room for improvement, but you can’t wait for perfect when you are looking for accountability.
Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. March 21, 2023.
Editorial: ‘Voter suppression’ hearing will generate little but noise
It’s unclear what, if anything, will be learned from the March 28 Congressional hearing on the shortage of paper ballots in last November’s election.
But the Republican-majority Committee on House Administration has made its intentions clear by labeling the session a “look back” at “Government Voter Suppression in Luzerne County.”
The committee seems to have jumped to the conclusion that voters were denied the right to cast ballots and that the shortage was in some way deliberate. But the case, just like every other GOP-fueled “election integrity” conspiracy, is unproven. In fact, the Republican district attorney charged with investigating the matter has yet to issue a report.
However, there is scant evidence that anyone was told they couldn’t vote or that election outcomes were impacted. Provisional ballots were available in the precincts that ran out of paper and the polls were kept open an additional two hours on Nov. 8. Inconvenience does not equal disenfranchisement.
What is the purpose of the hearing then? Quite obviously for committee members to drive false media narratives with five-minute speeches disguised as questions, floating accusations that will never pan out.
With a tenuous grip on just one chamber of Congress, Republicans can do little beyond offering a never-ending circus of showy hearings that will go nowhere. Just like “Fast and Furious.” Just like “Benghazi.” Just like “Hunter’s laptop.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Jackson Twp., who is not a member of the committee, but plans to participate on March 28, said the hearing is intended to “get to the bottom” of what happened on Nov. 8.
It is more likely the hearing will merely augment the misleading fog of election skepticism that Meuser, Donald Trump and their allies have cultivated non-stop since 2020. It will play well on Fox and Newsmax, but in the end amount to nothing.