Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

PennLive. January 26, 2024.

Editorial: Thanks to the people trying to stop the wars around the world and within our own communities

War is raging around the world, and we’re heading into an election season that threatens to be as mean and divisive as the one in 2020. It’s fair to ask is anyone working to stop the fighting and bring our warning political factions to some common ground of decency and mutual respect.

The answer is yes, but they need some help.

PennLive is trying to set the right tone with the weekly Battleground PA podcasts on the 2024 election season that are carried on YouTube and on podcast platforms like Spotify. PennLive’s Outreach & Opinion Editor Joyce M. Davis leads a lively debate each week with Republican Jeffrey Lord and Democrat Rogette Harris, who do their best to model civil political discourse on issues that can make anyone hot under the collar.

And there are many community leaders hard at work trying to unite instead of divide us. The Baha’i community is chief among them. They deserve to be applauded for the many activities they sponsor in our region from their annual “Harmony Walk “to the “Celebrating World Religion Day” at 3 p.m. Sunday at Penbrook United Church of Christ, 56 Banks St., Harrisburg.

While people of different religions are shooting at each other around the world, Harrisburg’s Baha’i community is partnering with the Interreligious Forum of Greater Harrisburg to bring them together to share their beliefs through music. They’re even streaming the event live on Facebook for the world to see how Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Bahai’s and followers of so many other faiths can not only tolerate each other but find joy in sharing their cultures and faith.

The Baha’i are not alone in working as peacemakers in our region. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is known for its good works that include an annual blood drive on Sept. 11, neighborhood cleanup drives, and community dinners. Ahmadiyya Muslims are holding a “Voices for Peace” dinner at 5:40 p.m. Saturday to pray for peace in the Middle East, and they’re throwing open the doors at the Hadee Mosque, 245 Division St., to anyone who would like to attend.

Politics is a big divider, but Braver Angels is actively at work in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation organizing conversations among people of opposing political views to lessen tensions and learn how to simply talk to each other. Braver Angels Lower Susquehanna Alliance is sponsoring an event 10:30 a.m. - 1:45 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, at the Bosler Memorial Library, 158 West High St. in Carlisle. Their theme is spot on: “Depolarizing Within.” If any progress is to be made in reducing the divides among us, it must start from within.

We also laud the good work of Beth El Temple that is pulling together interfaith leaders for its annual Freedom Seder. Each year, Beth El calls people to share a meal together and discuss top issues impacting our community, with a focus on issues of social justice and civil rights.

This year’s Freedom Seder is being planned for 6 p.m. Sunday, April 16 at the Beth El Temple, 2637 N. Front St. People from diverse political, racial, faith, and cultural perspectives will demonstrate how to disagree without turning it into hate. They’ll eat, sing, and pray together in full knowledge they are unique human beings who see the world differently. But instead of screaming and cursing each other, they will take time to speak softly and listen with open minds.

We urge our readers throughout the commonwealth to take note of what the Baha’i, Ahmadiyya, Braver Angels and Beth El communities are doing to promote peace here and abroad. We’ll live in a far better world if we all try to do the same.

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LNP/LancasterOnline. January 26, 2024.

Editorial: Failure to deliver 268 Lancaster County mail-in ballots on time is worsened by Postal Service’s failure to explain it

OK, everyone, do yourselves — and county election officials and our nation — a favor. Mark your calendars, whether they’re paper or digital, for Monday, April 8, and Monday, Oct. 21. In capital letters, write or type: POST MAIL-IN BALLOT.

This is to remind you not to take any chances with U.S. Postal Service delivery of your mail-in ballot. Make sure you mail your ballot at least two weeks before the April 23 primary election and the Nov. 5 general election. Because, apparently, that independent federal agency no longer can be counted on to fulfill the swift completion of its appointed rounds. (For the record, that’s not really the U.S. Postal Service motto. Which is just as well, because the resolute efficiency it describes is clearly a vestige of the distant past.)

The Postal Service website asserts that the “American public can rely on the United States Postal Service’s over 650,000 employees to fulfill our role in the electoral process.”

Forgive us if we’re unconvinced.

The county voters affected by the November ballot delivery fiasco appear to have done everything right. They completed their mail-in ballots and put them in the mail in what should have been plenty of time to arrive at the county elections office by 8 p.m. on Election Day. But it took two weeks after the ballots were postmarked in Harrisburg for them to be delivered to the Lancaster County Voter Registration & Elections Office in downtown Lancaster, roughly 40 miles away. As we noted in a previous editorial, it would have taken someone maybe two days to walk the ballots from Harrisburg to Lancaster.

And now the Postal Service still is failing to explain the ridiculously long delivery time.

County Commissioner D’Agostino said last week that the Postal Service plans to conduct a “real-time” review of the process during this year’s elections to “ensure that they are effectively and efficiently handling mail-in ballots.”

This is fine, but it won’t answer questions about what happened in the last election.

D’Agostino noted: “From interactions of late with the Postal Service, it appears they’re taking the matter seriously and desire to ensure that their process ultimately delivers voters’ ballots as expeditiously as possible.”

Postal Service officials should be taking this matter seriously. Delivering election ballots is a sacred trust. The agency’s website says it has a “robust and tested process for proper handling and timely delivery” of election mail. But clearly, some aspect of that process failed somewhere in Harrisburg and/or Lancaster in the days leading up to the Nov. 7 general election and, as a consequence, voters were disenfranchised.

Mike Stevenson, president of the Pennsylvania Postal Workers Union, told LNP ' LancasterOnline that he checked in with a local union leader based in Harrisburg about the issue, and was told that Oct. 30 — when the 268 mail ballots were postmarked — was a slow day for first-class mail, and no mail delays were reported in the Postal Service’s tracking system.

“Were they simply sent someplace else? Did they go out on the dock and go out on the wrong truck? Because that’s pretty much the only thing we can think of,” Stevenson said.

Either hypothetical explanation would be unsatisfactory, of course, because this was hardly regular mail. Still, we appreciate that Stevenson at least seems concerned about what happened. And we truly appreciate how hard mail carriers work and how dedicated most are to providing excellent service.

Our concerns lie with Postal Service officials who have failed to demonstrate publicly that they understand the gravity of this matter. An emailed statement from the Postal Service’s regional spokesperson in December struck us as unacceptably blase.

That same spokesperson confirmed that he had received questions from LNP ' LancasterOnline last Tuesday, but he did not offer any substantive comment by press time that day. Additional questions from a news reporter drew only this response Friday: “We have no other further information at this time.”

Why rush, right? It’s only a matter pertaining to American democracy.

As Lisi reported, the total of 268 delayed and thus uncounted mail-in ballots updates a previous estimate — of 100 to 150 — given by county officials in December.

If even one mail-in ballot had been unnecessarily delayed, it would have been too many.

No-excuse mail-in voting, enacted in Pennsylvania in 2019, offers voters a convenient and secure way of casting their ballots. But it only works if the Postal Service does its job of getting mailed ballots to the county elections office in time to be counted.

When the Postal Service fails in that essential task, it ought to explain itself thoroughly — and publicly — to restore voters’ trust.

That hasn’t happened. So, until we get evidence that the Postal Service is up to the task, please resolve to mail your ballots early this year.

It would be helpful, too, if the county commissioners — who serve as the Lancaster County Board of Elections — would reconsider the April 2022 decision to eliminate a ballot drop box that enabled voters to quickly drop off their ballots just inside an entrance to the Lancaster County Government Center. Voters now must park their vehicles and pass through security before dropping off their ballots in the county elections office farther inside that building.

Voting should not be a hassle. And the right to have one’s vote counted should not be lost to a system’s failure. Ever.

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Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. January 30, 2024.

Editorial: Gov. Shapiro gets it right with his public transit funding push. But more is needed.

New state funding alone will not save public transportation in the region. Addressing public safety issues on SEPTA and finding a regional funding solution are critical.

Gov. Josh Shapiro took the first step in stabilizing public transportation in the region by announcing that he would ask for new state funding for public transit, out of which SEPTA will receive the largest share.

With draconian service reductions and steep fare increases on the horizon because of expiring federal funds and ridership numbers that remain below pre-pandemic levels, the inclusion of a five-year, $1.5 billion commitment is a welcome lifeline.

Still, this new funding infusion alone will not save public transportation in the region. Indeed, it will only allow SEPTA to maintain a status quo that already fails to deliver the kind of high-quality service Philadelphians deserve.

Moving ahead, the transit agency needs to provide safer, cleaner service that engenders trust among riders. It’s also essential that governments in the five counties where SEPTA operates work together to develop a regional funding solution that can support the transit system as it strives to grow and improve.

Fortunately, Shapiro seems to understand this.

The governor is urging SEPTA to issue a comprehensive plan to tackle public safety and quality-of-life issues that have prompted many potential riders to avoid the system, particularly along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford subway lines.

Beyond bringing riders back, restoring a sense of order to the system could also help SEPTA financially. Fare evasion, for example, costs SEPTA tens of millions of dollars a year. It is also seen as a precursor to other public safety challenges. Past crackdowns on fare beaters have led to a decrease in felonies committed in the system. In recent years, the agency dismantled some of its penalties for fare evaders. Rolling back some of those policy choices and finding a sensible approach to law enforcement would benefit all.

Shapiro’s funding plan for public transportation would increase the allocation of sales tax revenue dedicated to supporting transit systems throughout Pennsylvania. He is also urging Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties to produce a joint funding solution for SEPTA. That kind of additional support is a critical requirement to improve the transit system as well as receive more federal funding through the bipartisan infrastructure deal.

As SEPTA often points out, virtually every other major transit system in the country benefits from significantly more support from local and regional governments than it receives. Currently, SEPTA garners about $17 per resident, while other agencies average $70. Given the more than four million people who live in the five counties served by the system, increasing the level of local funding could be a game changer for the agency.

Besides just plugging gaps in the system’s budget, that additional funding would allow SEPTA to alleviate a $5.1 billion repair backlog, explore the possibility of constructing a subway line along Roosevelt Boulevard, and consider Regional Rail expansions to cities like Coatesville. It would also help get hundreds of thousands of cars off the road, lessening the demand for expensive projects like the proposed widening of I-95.

With Shapiro taking up the cause, a cleaner, safer, better SEPTA is possible. But more state funding is only the beginning.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. January 29, 2024.

Editorial: On open records, Pennsylvania is embarrassingly out of step

Pennsylvania has some of the most restrictive open records laws in America, needlessly slowing or stopping the public from accessing documents and information that, by right, belong to them. The purpose of public records rules is to enhance accountability and trust, but here they foster suspicion between the government and its citizens.

It’s beyond time to amend these laws to ensure accountability, transparency and fairness – and not just for nosy journalists. Fewer than 10% of public records requests come from reporters: Businesses, legal professionals and everyday citizens should all have efficient access to public records.

Most states have their own specific public records regulations built from the federal FOIA framework. In Pennsylvania, these regulations are known as Right-to-Know laws, or RTK. Unfortunately, their regulatory structure creates two major faults in the system that hamper the timely turnover of public records and limit the accessibility of law enforcement findings.

On the surface, Pennsylvania’s law appears favorable to the public, mandating that agencies respond to all records requests within five business days. Extensions may only be granted under special circumstances, like when records are physically located elsewhere or require outside legal review. But for many agencies, this extension window has instead become the default.

“I’ve seen 30-day extensions taken on something as simple as meeting minutes,” said Melissa Melewsky, the media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “Many agencies routinely take the maximum amount of time allowable by law.”

With no legal penalties for such delays, the de facto waiting period for Pennsylvania public records often extends a month. Denied requests can only be appealed through the Office of Open Records, the state agency which ultimately issues the final determination.

Compare this process to Ohio’s. Instead of sending appeals to a special office, Ohioans may immediately file suit for denied requests. From that moment forward, penalties of up to $100 a day start accruing for the withholding agency – a strong incentive to get things settled.

Pennsylvania’s RTK laws are also fragmented. Police body camera footage, and its dissemination, is controlled by a separate law called Act 22. That law has its own set of arbitrary guidelines, asking agencies to weigh “the public interest in disclosure” versus the “interests of the Commonwealth” and “the law enforcement agency.” These subjective considerations are no doubt different for an officer, a journalist or a victim – yet police departments get the ultimate say.

Requesting access through Act 22 is also needlessly tricky. For example, applicants can only submit requests within 60 days of an incident, and only in person or through physical mail — in other words, you can only use old technology to access the fruits of new technology.

Pennsylvania desperately needs to rethink penalties for noncompliant public agencies and to prioritize the speedy delivery of public documents. It’s also crucial to ensure that body-worn cameras fulfill their promised role as tools of transparency.

Pennsylvania was founded as an outlier in liberty. Now it’s an outlier in secrecy.

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Uniontown Herald-Standard. January 27, 2024.

Editorial: ‘Junk fees’ snatch money from consumers’ wallets

It’s 10 a.m. on the day tickets to the hotly anticipated concert go on sale.

It’s forecast to sell out quickly, so you have multiple tabs open on your computer, and you’re going from one to the other, hitting “search” for tickets.

Finally, you land two excellent seats in the lower deck of the arena and you’ve got a couple of minutes to complete your purchase. Thanks to the additional fees for “convenience,” “service” and “order processing,” the tickets you thought would drain about $500 from your wallet will now take about $600.

Are you going to just forget about it and walk away? Heck no. You grit your teeth and buy them. You either pay the additional money or you don’t go to the show.

A recent survey by Consumer Reports found that most Americans have been confronted with hidden fees in one form or another over the last couple of years, and 96% of those who have had to deal with them find them to be very annoying. The only thing that’s surprising is that it wasn’t a unanimous 100% who are irritated by them.

And it’s not just concert tickets that are weighed down by additional fees. Hotels, resorts, airlines, landlords and cable TV providers are among the businesses that use them. Michelle Henry, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, stated before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee last summer that what have been called “junk fees” throw up roadblocks for consumers when they are shopping around for the best price.

A report released by the office of Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey this week described it this way:

“Consider searching for a coat online and finding that Cheap Gear Shop sells it for $50, while Honest Clothes Mart sells the same product for $60. A Pennsylvania mom on a budget would understandably want to buy the cheaper option, but after entering all of her billing and shipping information, she finds that Cheap Gear Shop requires a $7.50 ‘delivery fee.’ Cheap Gear Shop also charges a 4% ‘credit card processing fee,’ even though there is no other way to buy the coat from this online store. There is also a 5% ‘online service fee’ and it is unclear where that money goes.

In buying from Cheap Gear Shop, a budgeting mom would end up paying $62 for a coat, instead of the upfront price of $60 from Honest Clothes Mart, which does not charge fees. This kind of pricing disadvantages both the consumers and the honest merchant, which appears more expensive at first glance, while rewarding the merchant who conceals information.”

Many American consumers, particularly those who live paycheck-to-paycheck, have also been hit with bank overdraft fees that can sometimes tack $25 to $40 onto the cost of a purchase. It’s estimated that the country’s largest banks take in $8 billion in overdraft fees every year and they have provided such a windfall for financial institutions that one Minnesota bank CEO christened his boat the Overdraft. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has proposed rules that would limit overdraft fees, to a point where banks would be able to only break even on them.

In October, Rohit Chopra, who leads the CFPB, noted that “Americans are willing to pay a competitive price for great products, because that’s how a fair economy works.” Part of that fairness should be upfront honesty about the price consumers actually have to pay for whatever they buy.

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