Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Altoona Mirror. February 3, 2024.

Editorial: Data focused on young drivers can save lives

This weekend’s editorial is about potential harm and actual harm, from a couple of different vantage points.

For example, widespread uneasiness at this time continues to focus on vaping. Questions and concerns about it have been on the minds of people young and not-so-young for about as long as vaping has existed, but numerous uncertainties about it still abound.

Reflect on how attitudes about traditional cigarettes have changed since a U.S. surgeon general’s report about the dangers cigarette smoking poses was released 60 years ago.

Now, some public health experts have started to push for a surgeon general’s report on whether vaping is as safe or not-so-safe — dangerous — as some people believe.

An Associated Press article published in the Jan. 16 Mirror reminded readers that, based on available evidence, most scientists and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration agree that electronic cigarettes are far less dangerous than traditional cigarettes.

Nevertheless, those scientists and FDA officials don’t intend for that opinion to mean that e-cigarettes have been determined to be harmless, because such a determination has not been made.

A surgeon general’s report is what is seen, potentially, as their most valuable resource, for now.

Speaking about valuable resources, what if there was a resource enabling someone to determine how likely a young driver might be to crash? In fact, there now is such a resource, according to the Jan. 16 Wall Street Journal.

As with any concerns they might have about their sons and daughters vaping, many parents are more concerned about their children’s driving habits.

Wrote Julie Jargon in the Jan. 16 Journal:

“Many of us might think we can predict what kind of drivers our kids will be, but it’s impossible to know whether teens will brake too hard or steer straight when they finally are able to drive. Insurance companies have apps to track teen driving, but that information only comes after they’re on the road.”

According to Jargon, the resource mentioned is able to predict crash likelihood was developed by researchers of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, reportedly in response to the reality that driving is one of the most important health care issues for teenagers.

The newly developed tool, which researchers say is essentially a realistic car simulator, was found able to predict accurately crash risk in newly licensed drivers.

And researchers are not stopping there. This spring, they plan to study which interventions, such as behind-the-wheel training or online driver education, are most effective in helping teens improve driving skills.

The researchers hope to offer the virtual assessments in doctors’ offices around the country, where teens approaching driving age could take them as part of their annual checkups.

Already, however, researchers have offered the tests to doctors’ offices in Pennsylvania and parts of Connecticut and New Jersey, as well as to traffic courts in Ohio.

Researchers believe exposing young drivers to possible crashes is a good way to see how they react to real-life road crises. That is a logical conclusion.

Meanwhile, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 made up just 5% of all licensed U.S. drivers in 2021, but they accounted for 8.4% of fatal traffic crashes.

What can be learned from addressing these two long-unresolved issues effectively can help “pave” a road for solving other issues.


LNP/LancasterOnline. February 4, 2024.

Editorial: Despite the steep odds and political risks, Harrisburg must act to protect democracy before the presidential election

Remember when presidential election years didn’t come with feelings of dread?

We may have complained about the unceasing political advertisements, but the presidential debates, the party conventions and each voting fixture on the calendar offered an opportunity to watch as, state by state, Americans decided whom they’d choose as their parties’ presidential nominees. It was democracy in action and though it could be nerve-racking and tedious, it also inspired faith in the durability of our electoral system.

The confidence most of us used to feel about democracy’s staying power was shattered Jan. 6, 2021, when a president who’d lost his reelection bid incited thousands of his supporters to try to violently halt a step in the process of peacefully transferring presidential power.

Now that same person is vying for the White House again, even as we’re still trying to recover from the 2020 election and its lingering effects: the seeds of distrust he and his minions planted about our election processes; the toll that ginned-up distrust took on election officials; the new assumption that election results from here on out will be disputed and subjected to disinformation, legal challenges and illegal attempts to overturn them.

As Spotlight PA reported, election directors worry the commonwealth is unprepared for what lies ahead, and said there are “a few concrete changes that would shore up Pennsylvania’s system against frivolous fraud allegations” as the 2024 election approaches.

County election officials want to be able to pre-canvass mailed ballots — that is, inspect, open and count them, but not record or publish the results — before 7 a.m. on Election Day. This is not a big ask, or one with any partisan implications, but polarization in Harrisburg has sunk efforts to make it happen.

According to Spotlight PA’s reporting, the state’s Election Code is old and needs to be updated for this electronic age. But getting the state Legislature to pass election reform has been a Sisyphean struggle. Bills that might garner bipartisan support often are doomed when partisan provisions are tacked on.

“They just literally can’t pass a bill that is nondescript, it’s like it’s not in their DNA. And I do not understand why,” Thad Hall, director of elections in Mercer County, told Spotlight PA.

We understand why, and it’s tragic.

Any attempts to make elections run more smoothly this year would make Republican lawmakers a target for harassment from the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. Consider the pressure that was exerted on state House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, of Drumore Township, when he was House speaker, to try to overturn the 2020 Pennsylvania election results. As Cutler told the U.S. House select committee that investigated the events of Jan. 6, his refusal to subvert democracy brought protesters to his district office and home, and his personal contact information was published online.

Even benign election changes seem unachievable at this point.

For instance, officials told Spotlight PA that they’d like to see an earlier deadline for requesting a mail ballot — voters currently can apply for a mail ballot up to a week before Election Day.

While we think voters should have as much time as possible to request mail-in ballots, we saw in the most recent election — when the U.S. Postal Service failed to deliver 268 completed mail ballots to the Lancaster County elections office in time for them to be counted — that there needs to be some cushion in case the process breaks down at any point.

Forrest Lehman, the director of elections in Lycoming County, told Spotlight PA that his primary concern is strengthening the system against misinformation and “protecting our post-election processes and our certification processes from people who want to prevent democracy from functioning.”

Like other county election officials in the aftermath of the 2020 election, Lehman had to deal with dubious recount requests, onerous records requests and litigation from election-deniers who had swallowed the Big Lie that the presidential election had been stolen.

Lehman told Spotlight PA that he wants the state Legislature to update the cost to file a recount petition from $50 (a price set in the Election Code decades ago) to more than $1,000, today’s equivalent sum adjusted for inflation. This seems very reasonable, given the staffing costs of administering a recount.

The Lycoming County director of elections believes there should be a penalty for counties that fail to certify elections. And he suggests that there be specific criminal penalties for anyone who harasses or tries to intimidate county election officials and poll workers.

The harassment of election officials diminishes our electoral system. A Brennan Center for Justice survey last April found that 21% of local election officials either began serving after the 2020 cycle or said they were very or somewhat unlikely to serve in the 2024 cycle. The upshot, according to that organization: Many “election officials have left the field, and more plan to go.”

Lehman told Spotlight PA that he and others suspect that 2020 was “just a dress rehearsal” for this year’s election.

That’s our fear, too. Hence the dread.

State lawmakers ought to be working across the aisle to protect elections in our commonwealth. Elected leaders in Pennsylvania — the birthplace of American democracy — should feel a special responsibility to help save it. Free, fair and secure elections are essential; if we lose them, we’ll lose everything.

Journalist threatened

We were appalled by the conduct of Elizabethtown resident David Baker, who threatened to “come after” an LNP ' LancasterOnline reporter last weekend at the Democratic Committee of Lancaster County’s endorsement convention.

Baker, who had been seeking the Democratic nomination to run against U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker in the 11th Congressional District in November, subsequently apologized for his actions and ended his campaign.

The incident occurred Jan. 27, after Baker demanded that comments he made be treated by LNP ' LancasterOnline reporter Jaxon White as off the record.

A source can’t just insist, after sharing information, that it be withheld from publication — there has to be an agreement beforehand to keep any statements off the record.

When White understandably declined Baker’s request, an irate Baker yelled at White: “I will come after you (expletive). I will not stop.”

Tom O’Brien, chair of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee, said in a statement last Sunday that Baker’s comments and behavior were “inappropriate and unbecoming of any Democrat.”

Particularly in an election year like this one, news reporting is essential. As members of the editorial board, we play no role in that reporting. But we know this: Journalism is imperative to democracy, and journalists should not face threats or intimidation — from anyone.


Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. February 1, 2024.

Editorial: A gruesome execution in Alabama is yet another reminder of the need to eliminate the death penalty

The grisly details of the death of an inmate, who was killed through a first-of-its-kind use of nitrogen gas, underscore the profound cruelty — and inherent inequities — of capital punishment.

The death penalty is an antiquated and barbaric punishment. Alabama’s experimental use of nitrogen gas to kill Kenneth Eugene Smith last week did nothing to disabuse anyone of the notion that the death penalty remains cruel and unusual punishment in any civil society.

The first-of-its-kind use of nitrogen gas was tried after the state botched an attempt in 2022 to execute Smith by lethal injection. Alabama’s Attorney General Steve Marshall had the gall to claim Smith’s execution was “textbook.”

But eyewitnesses told a different story. Smith’s execution lasted roughly 22 minutes from the time the viewing room curtains opened and closed. He was forced to breathe pure nitrogen through a gas mask to cause oxygen deprivation.

For at least two minutes, Smith shook violently and writhed on the gurney, pulling against the restraints used to strap him down. His eyes were open as he gasped and convulsed. That was followed by five to seven minutes of heavy breathing. The curtain closed 10 minutes before Smith was pronounced dead. The state could not give an exact time of death.

An anesthesiologist at Emory University School of Medicine who has researched lethal injections likened Smith’s death to torture. A similar fate awaits 43 other death row inmates in bloodthirsty Alabama.

Smith, 58, was convicted of the murder-for-hire killing of Elizabeth Sennett in 1988. The Rev. Charles Sennett Sr. paid a man $1,000 to kill his wife. That man recruited Smith and another man, who beat and stabbed her to death.

Some may argue Smith deserved to die. But who deserved to kill him? The state certainly did not have the right to torture him to death. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but everything about the state carrying out a premeditated murder is cruel and unusual.

That is just one reason why the United States should do away with the death penalty, as scores of other developed and undeveloped countries have done over the years. (China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, and the U.S. lead the world in government executions, placing America among brutal company.)

But the strongest argument for ending the death penalty is that an innocent person may die. Indeed, at least 20 people are believed to have been wrongly executed in the United States since 1989. Nearly another 200 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973.

Tens of thousands more people are believed to be in prison for crimes because of wrongful convictions. In Philadelphia, dozens of inmates have been exonerated just in the last five years. One Philadelphia man was released last week after spending 50 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

Taking away an innocent person’s liberty is horrific enough. The chance that they could die is reason enough to do away with the death penalty. Beyond that, the main argument for the death penalty is that it deters crime. But research shows it is not a deterrence. And vengeance is not justice.

Evidence also shows the death penalty is applied unevenly by race and class. The majority of death row inmates are Black or brown. Nearly all death row inmates are poor and cannot afford to mount a strong, let alone adequate, legal defense.

Maintaining a death row is also a waste of taxpayers’ money. Studies show inmates on death row cost about $1 million more than the cost to keep someone in prison for life. California has spent more than $5 billion on its death row, and executed just 13 people.

Pennsylvania has more than 100 inmates on death row but has not carried out an execution since 1999. Last year, Gov. Josh Shapiro called on state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty, as 23 other states have rightly done.

“The commonwealth should not be in the business of putting people to death,” Shapiro said.

Pennsylvania should not aspire to be like Alabama. It is past time to get on the right side of history.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 2, 2024.

Editorial: State landslide insurance would protect region’s hillside homeowners

A landslide in Moon Township has buried one of the western suburb’s busiest roads, stripped a half-dozen homes of their backyards, and may soon collapse two houses completely. However, landslide insurance is not offered in the marketplace, and the state’s mine subsidence insurance program only covers hillside collapses related to mining activity, leaving the displaced homeowners with no recourse.

Fortunately, two state lawmakers, Democrat Emily Kinkead and Republican Valerie Gaydos, both of Allegheny County, recently introduced a bill that would fix this gap in homeowner protections. H.B. 589 is a thorough response to a serious problem — an example of what legislation can and should be in Harrisburg.

The Coal and Clay Mine Subsidence Insurance Program was first established 60 years ago to protect homeowners from damage caused by the lingering results of mining activity: cracked foundations, sinkholes, landslides and so on. Since then, however, landslide danger has evolved, especially in southwestern Pennsylvania. The area’s clay-rich soil and steep hillsides are already landslide prone, and as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of rainfall, more landslides will damage more homes.

Pittsburgh is already grappling with this reality. A recent dip in the number of acute landslides should be used as an opportunity for long-term prevention, like the recent Mount Washington work funded mostly by $10 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money that had been secured by the Peduto administration. Another $1.2 million from FEMA will be used to buy 11 South Side homes endangered by landslides along the collapsing Newton Street, which looks more like a state park access road than a city thoroughfare.

The problem is only worsening, and homeowners deserve updated policies to protect them from dangers that may not have existed decades ago. H.B. 589 would kickstart relief for homeowners using a $2.5 million investment from the state’s general fund before setting premiums at a self-sustaining level. Pennsylvania taxpayers won’t be shouldering the burden of the program going forward.

The insurance program would be administered by the three-member Coal and Clay Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund Board, to which H.B. 589 would add two more representatives, one from the state’s Emergency Management Agency and one from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. With these extra voices, the board would craft a landslide mitigation plan for the future, assess current community risk levels and publish guidelines based on their expertise.

The bipartisan effort shows a clear understanding of the current system and offers a cost-effective plan to help vulnerable residents now as well as the future.

The current landslide in Moon Township (represented by co-sponsor Ms. Gaydos) only highlights the need for this new program. Homeowners and their families are being punished for risks they couldn’t have predicted, just like with mine subsidence decades ago. State landslide insurance would respond to the geological reality of Pennsylvania, especially in the west, and to the changing conditions brought on by climate change.


Uniontown Herald-Standard. February 3, 2024.

Editorial: Shapiro plan for higher education could help make it more affordable

Just how unaffordable is higher education in Pennsylvania?

Let Dan Greenstein, the chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, explain: “Our universities are the least expensive of all four-year options in the state of Pennsylvania, and still we’re asking students from middle-income families to spend 44% of their household income on a single student for a single year of college.”

Pennsylvania is among the least affordable states in the nation when it comes to higher education and that goes hand-in-hand with the fact that it ranks 49th when it comes to public spending on colleges and universities. It’s no wonder that students and their families are becoming increasingly wary of higher education if the cost of a bachelor’s degree also means carrying a millstone of debt around their necks for decades on end.

Gov. Josh Shapiro recognizes this is a problem. “We need to rethink our system of higher education,” the governor said last week as he unveiled a sweeping plan to overhaul higher education in Pennsylvania. Some of the details on funding were not revealed, but that will likely occur in the weeks ahead. Of course, it’s also open to question how much of it will remain intact as a 2024-25 budget gets thrashed out in the Legislature. Nevertheless, Shapiro’s plan has real promise.

First, it would confront the problem of affordability by capping tuition at $1,000 per semester for students in low-and middle-income households. It would also bring the commonwealth’s 15 community colleges and the 10 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education under one governance structure, and boost Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency grants for those students who are working toward degrees at private institutions.

Shapiro’s proposal also envisions further consolidation of administrative functions. Would that mean more campus mergers, like the one that brought together California, Edinboro and Clarion universities into PennWest University? We’ll have to see. The governor would also like to see funding for the four state-related universities – Penn State, Pitt, Lincoln and Temple – be based on performance metrics that would include the number of first-generation students who graduate from them.

Simply put, something needs to be done about higher education in Pennsylvania. Enrollment at schools within the State System of Higher Education has dropped by 30% over the last 10 years, and by 37% at community colleges. For a governor who wants to “get stuff done,” Shapiro deserves credit for getting the conversation started.