Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Inquirer. April 9, 2021.

Editorial: Transitioning away from fossil fuels means transitioning away from housing injustice

In January, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Philadelphia’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The science is clear that it is not only imperative to meet the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions but that the city must make a significant portion of this reduction in the coming decade.

The bad news is that even if the city were to install solar panels on top of every available roof in Philadelphia, it still wouldn’t be enough to meet the city’s ambitious climate goal.

But the good news is that Philadelphia can make huge headway toward zero emissions by addressing racism, inequality, and unsafe housing.

The built environment is responsible for 75% of Philadelphia’s carbon footprint. The city is unique in terms of its diverse and old housing stock, as well as a high ownership rate, more than 50%. But many houses are not up to code. According to the Healthy Rowhouse Project, 235,000 homes in Philadelphia have leaks, 90,000 have cracks in the walls or floors, and 77,000 have inadequate heating.

A Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia study found that between 2015 and 2017 nearly 75% of low- or moderate-income homeowners who sought home-repair loans were denied.

These housing hazards are bad for health and deserve fixing on their own merit, but they also hinder efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and contribute to poverty. Uninsulated homes require more energy, leading to higher utility bills in a city where 40% of households are considered housing cost burdened.

The current framework to expand renewables via solar leans on financial incentives and is typically used by more affluent homeowners. This poses a risk that renewable energy will become a luxury good. Communities that historically have experienced the most harm from fossil fuels and energy production could be priced out of the benefits of solar.

For State Sen. Nikil Saval, a Democrat from Philadelphia, it is important to connect the climate crisis to the housing-affordability crisis and school-toxicity crisis. He has a point.

In 2017, the Philadelphia School District partnered with the Philadelphia Energy Authority to renovate three high schools. Two years later, students had better-ventilated, better-lit, and hazard-free schools — while the School District reduced its energy costs by $375,000. When PEA teamed up with the Art Museum, the city’s single largest energy-consuming building reduced energy costs by 24%.

For a low-income household, this kind of cost savings can be transformative.

There is a lot of money coming from the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, and starting as soon as next year, revenues from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That money should be invested strategically to expand renewable energy in an equitable way and to ensure that every house in the city is not wasting energy — at a time that the cost of utility bills increases. A good guiding principle, according to Christine Knapp, the director of the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability: efficiency first, renewable second.

Another available funding source could be gained by diverting the fossil fuel subsidies that Pennsylvania generously gives, which totaled $3.8 billion in fiscal year 2019, according to a PennFuture analysis.

To ensure equity, and speed of change, some laws need to change. Pennsylvania currently won’t allow for community solar, meaning that if you don’t live in a single-family unit, own your home, and have funds for the full project, solar is prohibited. A bipartisan group of state representatives, including Philadelphia Democratic Rep. Donna Bullock, circulated a cosponsorship memorandum for a bill to allow community solar projects that nearby residents could buy electricity from. A Penn State study found that community solar could generate 11,000 jobs and $1.8 billion in economic activity.

Rep. Chris Rabb, Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, and Sen. Katie Muth circulated cosponsorship memorandums, in their chambers, for a new standard of 100% renewable energy by 2050. If passed, Pennsylvania will join states like Virginia and New York that made similar commitments.

Transitioning the economy from its dependence on burning fossil fuels to one that runs by harnessing energy from the sun and wind is an existential challenge — in the most literal sense. Conversations about climate change often center on the sacrifices needed to facilitate this transition. What’s far too often neglected are the sacrifices of the status quo in the form of poor housing, high bills, and bad health.

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Erie Times-News. April 12, 2021.

Editorial: The bad news from ‘Good News!”

Pennsylvania’s public and private educational institutions have spent 2020-21 stuck between the rock of health officials’ guidance and the hard place of parents who want normalcy restored at their kids’ schools.

But we believe what happened this spring at Beaver County Christian School carries an important lesson — that school officials who choose to improperly administer or liberally interpret state mandates to placate parents do so at their own risk.

In August, the Pennsylvania Health Department announced that students would need to wear masks at all times. There were a few exceptions — while eating or drinking, if the mask interferes with the safe operation of equipment or performance of a task, and in the event that a student needs a socially distanced “face-covering break” lasting no more than 10 minutes.

The Department of Education also noted exemptions could be given to students with “a medical or mental health condition or disability, documented in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or IDEA, that precludes the wearing of a face covering in school”. Those accommodations should be made “in partnership with the student’s health care provider, school nurse and IEP/504 team.”

The same month, Steve Wellendorf, the head principal of Beaver County Christian School, sent an email to parents that essentially told them they could get around the mask requirement during instruction time if they notified the school that their children were facing anxiety over the mask interfering with their ability to learn and interact.

”...(Y)ou can refer to the attached sample letter that I have included. We will not require any type of additional documentation...” the principal stated in the email.

Clearly, this sort of undiagnosed and undocumented mask anxiety isn’t what state health department officials had in mind when they set “mental health conditions” as grounds for an exemption.

Yet, Wellendorf told the Beaver County Times that “a decent amount” of the BCCS community used the letter to eschew masks during classes. Students were told to still wear them in common areas.

The school’s move, the Times reported, “came from parents concerned about their children and teens spending eight hours a day behind sometimes uncomfortable and restrictive coverings.”

For a while, things were quiet. But at the end of March students started getting sick. An outbreak of COVID-19 traced to spring musical “Good News!”, which ran March 17-20, sent all students home for virtual instruction until after Easter.

Wellendorf said he is unsure if students in the musical were socially distanced or wore masks or face shields at practices and performances, saying “I was not in during rehearsals.”

Multiple musical cast and crew members across most grade levels, including the lead, ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

It’s likely that at least some of those infected students were in classrooms for hours surrounded by unmasked pupils due to the school’s high number mask exceptions that were — we’ll say it — groundless.

All that, plus Wellendorf’s saying he doesn’t know whether students followed mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines during play practice, makes his assertion that “Our thing is to err on the side of caution” laughable.

By bowing to parents’ pressure to normalize the student experience this year through liberal granting of mask-wearing exemptions, we believe the Beaver County Christian School created a climate that was, at best, lenient, and, at worst, lackadaisical about the need to mask up for safety.

And that’s just the sort of climate that allows COVID to thrive.

We implore school leaders throughout the commonwealth to put student safety first. Telling parents how their kids can circumvent a portion of the state’s mask mandate sets a tone that undercuts their ability to do that.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. April 11, 2021.

Editorial: Time to revisit the county charter’s restrictions on public service

Luzerne County’s Home Rule Charter was drafted 11 years ago amid a far-reaching public corruption probe that sent three county judges and a county commissioner to federal prison. More than two dozen other officials and contractors were also charged in various play-to-play schemes involving local governments and school districts.

For the Luzerne County Government Study Commission that produced and promoted the charter, curbing the entrenched cronyism that fostered that culture of corruption was paramount.

The charter approved by voters in November 2010 set strict guidelines restricting county employees, former and current county officials and people doing business with the county from serving on its numerous boards, authorities and commissions.

The concept remains sound. But the recent difficulty in finding a qualified candidate to chair the county Election Board raises the question of whether some of the charter’s restrictions should be revisited.

The four members of the Election Board appointed by the county council had to postpone naming a fifth member to serve as chairman after the county solicitor determined all three applicants had conflicts that would bar them from serving.

Under the charter, in the four years prior to appointment, no board member may have held elective office or worked for government on any level, sat on a county authority, board or commission, worked as a contractor or consultant with the county or served as an officer of a political party.

It is true that recent controversy on the Election Board has probably scared away some qualified candidates. Last month, the county council removed two board members after they tried, in clear violation of the charter, to place a council member and fellow Republican in the chairmanship while the two Democratic seats on the board were vacant.

That case shows home rule hasn’t totally removed blatant political maneuvering from the courthouse. Still, barring someone who might have served on a school board or borough council three years ago from volunteering for public service on a county level seems overly broad, as does the restriction on contractors. Would it be a corruption risk for someone whose company sells tires to the Luzerne County Transportation Authority to serve on the county Farmland Preservation Board?

The charter has done an admirable job in establishing a more efficient and transparent system of county government, but perhaps it is time to consider whether some of its more restrictive measures are denying the county some useful expertise.

Charter amendments can be placed on the ballot by a council majority for approval by voters. In fact, voters approved four amendments in 2016, including removing a restriction on county contractors or their employees serving on authorities. The same year, voters rejected a similar amendment that would have done the same for county boards and commissions.

One of the advantages of home rule is the ability to reevaluate and adjust the county charter. With a coming election to fill five of the 11 county council seats this year, now is an opportune moment to reopen the debate on some of the charter’s restrictions on county service, both in front of council and before the voters.

It might be time to strike a new balance.

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York Dispatch. April 11, 2021.

Editorial: Rein in Pa. legislative per diems

For a gang that could hardly be more flinty when discussion turns to raising the state’s paltry minimum wage, Pennsylvania’s state lawmakers have few qualms about padding their own accounts — at state taxpayer expense, no less.

The country’s largest full-time legislature, whose members’ $88,000-a-year salaries are the third-highest salaries in the nation, pads its coffers through an additional measure that’s largely unavailable to Joe and Jane Public: per diems.

These daily reimbursements — a generous $178 on days legislators are conducting state business more than 50 miles from home — are not only exorbitant, they’re poorly monitored. Receipts? State lawmakers don’t need no steenkin’ receipts! They simply apply for reimbursement.

And did they ever apply in 2020. According to an investigation by Spotlight PA, legislators raked in nearly three-quarters of a million dollars between the pandemic-induced shutdown last March and the end of the year. This despite the fact both state houses conducted much of their business remotely and per diems are customarily used for expenses incurred when lawmakers travel on state business. (This doesn’t include mileage, by the way: there’s a separate 58-cent-per-mile reimbursement for that.)

Nearly 20 state lawmakers padded their incomes by more than $10,000 last year through this perk. And while this legal syphoning of state resources is one of the few bipartisan practices in Harrisburg, Democrats proved particularly adept at it. A pair of Democratic House members — Mark Longietti of Mercer County and Christopher Sainato of Lawrence County — collected more than $24,000 apiece.

Unseemly at any time, the practice is particularly selfish coming at a time when the majority of state residents were forced to tighten belts and otherwise sacrifice during a pandemic that shuttered businesses, erased jobs, and stagnated economic activity.

The optics weren’t lost on everyone in the state Capitol. A quartet of Democratic state senators, including three from Central Pennsylvania, introduced a bill last summer urging colleagues to suspend per diem benefits for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.

“At a time when more than one million Pennsylvanians are unemployed, state lawmakers should be setting an example by suspending per diems,” said one of the four, state Sen. Tim Kearny of Delaware County.

State lawmakers, it will come as no surprise, were not interested in any example setting.

The refusal to reconsider the use — and, potentially abuse; without any meaningful transparency, who knows? — of per diems is infuriating. Legislative efforts to reform or even curtail the practice over the years have been consistently ignored.

The public deserves better.

At the very least, legitimate accountability must be incorporated into the process. Perhaps it’s possible to amass tens of thousands of dollars in expenses at a time when state business is being conducted largely remotely and restaurants and hotels are operating on a limited basis. But no business owner worth his or her salt would sign that reimbursement check without asking for receipts. Why must Pennsylvania’s taxpayers be forced to do so?

Transparency begets accountability, and accountability begets responsibility. Pennsylvania’s legislative per diem system could use healthy doses of both if taxpayers are going to feel confident that hundreds of thousands of their dollars each year are going toward the legitimate support of state business and not into the wallets of lawmakers who already lead much of the nation in legislative largesse.

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Altoona Mirror. April 12, 2021.

Editorial: Approaching state finances with caution

Pennsylvania’s revenue situation can be likened to what every day can be seen on the Weather Channel.

One financial report sees storm clouds bearing down on the commonwealth; then, out of the fiscal atmosphere, rays of sunshine break through the clouds and portend calmer, pleasant weather.

Regardless of the “weather” forecast, state government, as well as the people whose taxes finance it, need to feel uneasy about what lies ahead on the Keystone State’s money front.

That is especially true regarding Pennsylvania’s upbeat financial report for March, which was detailed in a Capitolwire article printed in the April 2 Mirror.

“It’s no April Fool’s joke,” the article began. “If revenue collections continue as they have been lately, the state could end fiscal year 2020-21 with a sizable excess in General Fund revenue.”

But the article contains two paragraphs that should cause taxpayers to take a few steps back from euphoria. Meanwhile, it’s what the article did not say that merits frowns rather than smiles.

The paragraphs in question contain the troubling information “before spending overages for the current fiscal year have to be addressed” and “concerns about a sizable structural deficit, due to many one-time funding sources used to balance the FY2020-21 state budget.”

Then there is the paragraph noting that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, as part of his FY2021-22 state budget proposal, made a $941 million supplemental appropriation request for the state Department of Human Services.

That’s a “nice” way of saying that what has been budgeted for human services has not been enough to pay for the services being provided.

Then there is the abyss containing the “creative financing decisions” of past years that enabled the Legislature to produce what appeared to be balanced budgets when, in reality, those decisions amounted to merely a thumb in a weakened financial dike.

At the same time, those decisions put additional stress on that dike — stress not capable of being resolved in the short term.

Taxpayers never have been given a full, clear accounting of how the creative budget-balancing decisions of the past continue to affect what the state is and is not able to accomplish.

Meanwhile, the commonwealth is facing a serious transportation-funding dilemma starting in about a year as the Pennsylvania Turnpike is relieved of delivering a big chunk of money to the state Department of Transportation as the result of the state’s misguided — ultimately federally rejected — attempt to toll Interstate 80 with no financial obligation to Washington.

The bottom line is that, for the above reasons and others, the sunny picture that the March financial report portends to provide really is not as reassuring as many people might think. The words in that first April 2 paragraph “if revenue collections continue as they have been lately” should have sounded an alarm for all who read them.

Even with all of the federal money that might come as the result of President Joe Biden’s stimulus efforts and his infrastructure initiative, if it is passed, Pennsylvania has a lot of financial catching-up to do.

That category “structural deficit” contains many expensive long-term obligations that the commonwealth will be hard-pressed to deal with in coming years.

Therefore, don’t be misled by descriptions such as “above-estimate collections.”

A truly rosy Keystone State fiscal “weather” report still is nowhere on the radar.

END