Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Aug. 1, 2021.

Editorial: Gov. Wolf should have negotiated with the GOP on election reform

The good news for Pennsylvania voters is that Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican leaders may yet begin negotiations on an election reform bill. There are several areas of concern for local election officials that need to be addressed.

What’s baffling is why the governor didn’t attempt to work out a deal months ago and is only now acknowledging that there could be room for compromise on the voter ID component that led him to veto a reform bill just weeks ago.

Mr. Wolf opposed the bill because of new voter ID restrictions sought by Republicans. But he made a startling about-face in a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying he’s now open to adopting stricter ID laws.

“I’m sure out there is a reasonable voter ID solution to say ... you need to show that you should be voting here,” Mr. Wolf said in the interview. “And I’m fine with that. The formula in (the Republican bill), in my mind, was not it.”

What’s astounding, and inexcusable, is that Mr. Wolf never attempted to discuss a compromise with Republican leaders before vetoing the bill, saying he didn’t trust that they would negotiate in good faith. As the state’s top executive, Mr. Wolf had — and has —an obligation to work with legislative leaders to do what’s best for the commonwealth’s residents. Refusing to even discuss compromises with Republican leaders is a dereliction of that duty.

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, the author of the reform bill, reflected an appropriate sentiment when he told The Inquirer: “I’m dumbfounded. I’m literally dumbfounded.”

The bill proposed by Mr. Grove would have required that those voting in person show ID, a shift from current law that only requires proof of ID when voting for the first time at a polling place. It is worth noting that the ID requirements in the Republican bill were less restrictive than those passed in other states. The proposal would have required officials to provide free voter ID cards and to accept signed affidavits if a voter doesn’t have ID at the polls.

The fact is that an overwhelming majority of Americans support a requirement for showing a photo ID in order to vote. A poll by Monmouth University in June reported that 80% of respondents support a photo ID requirement, with only 18% opposed to it. We’ve grown accustomed to producing a photo ID for everything from renting a car to boarding a plane, so flashing an ID to exercise the right to vote does not seem overly restrictive.

Beyond the voter ID issue are other matters of concern to local election officials, namely more time to begin pre-canvassing mail-in ballots rather than waiting until Election Day. The proposed bill would have allowed county election officials to start pre-canvassing five days before Election Day, a move that would speed up the vote counting process.

The bill would also have moved up both the voter registration deadline and the deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot, something local officials have requested. And it would have increased pay for poll workers.

We’re not sure what prompted Gov. Wolf to back away from the line in the sand he drew regarding voter ID. It may have been the Republican threat to put the ID issue before voters in the form of a state constitutional amendment.

No matter the reason, negotiations on changes to state election law need to take place with both sides willing to accept some compromises with the intent of improving the process. Better late than never, but such negotiations should have happened months ago.

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Philadelphia Inquirer. Aug. 2, 2021.

Editorial: As Pa. overdose deaths persist, the opioid settlement brings promise and peril

Attorney General Josh Shapiro didn’t get the reaction he probably hoped for from Philadelphia. On July 21, Shapiro announced that a group of attorneys general have reached a settlement agreement worth up to $26 billion with Johnson & Johnson and three major U.S. pharmaceutical distributors — Cardinal Health, McKesson, and the Conshohocken-based AmerisourceBergen — for their role in fueling the opioid overdose crisis.

The upshot: as much as a billion dollars for addiction treatment in Pennsylvania over 18 years, nearly a quarter of which could be paid next year. But to get its share of the money, Philadelphia will need to drop its lawsuits against the companies — two are ongoing, one brought by the city and one by the District Attorney’s Office.

Immediately after the announcement, Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement saying he is “extremely disappointed” that Philadelphia wasn’t consulted during the negotiations that led to the settlement. In addition, the mayor said that “the money provided for in the settlement is too little and will be paid over too long a period of time.”

Both Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and his counterpart in Allegheny County, Stephen A. Zappala Jr., filed separate lawsuits asking a judge to rule that Shapiro can’t force them to drop their suits against Johnson & Johnson and the distributors if the state formally agrees to the settlement terms.

Shapiro’s office argues that the settlement is the best Pennsylvania can get and that the risk of counties filing separate lawsuits — and the potential of being mired in years of appeals — isn’t worth it.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

The overall $26 billion figure and the $1 billion to Pennsylvania are upper limits. And the clock is ticking to reach those benchmarks — states have 30 days to decide whether they will join the settlement; localities have another 120 days after that. The pool of available funds for the settlement will ultimately be determined by the number of parties that agree to its terms — the fewer the states and municipalities that participate, the smaller the financial returns.

Another concern: Pennsylvania has a long history of dipping into issue-specific funds to patch budget holes — from the tobacco settlement money to revenues from fracking on public land.

Shapiro is right that Philadelphia shouldn’t make a decision about the settlement alone — but that doesn’t mean that joining the settlement is the obvious conclusion. The faster Shapiro and Gov. Tom Wolf set a process to facilitate the distribution of funds within the state, with safeguards to ensure that they go toward opioid treatment, the more informed local governments’ decisions would be.

In the meantime, every day nearly three people die of an overdose in Philadelphia and another 10 throughout the state. There are lifesaving measures that the state is still not taking — for example, passing syringe exchange legislation and establishing supervised injection sites. No amount of money that might eventually come from a legal battle will bring back the lives lost during a period of protracted haggling and negotiations.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizen's Voice. Aug. 3, 2021.

Editorial: State should extend opioid emergency

Months after a majority of voters in the May primary election approved a referendum to limit the governor’s ability to declare and manage emergencies, state legislators who sought the change have an early opportunity to prove that they are up to the job.

Republican lawmakers passed the referendum because they were upset over the restrictive measures that Gov. Tom Wolf imposed during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At that time, the governor had the authority to declare an emergency and renew it every 90 days, and the Legislature could revoke it only with a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

Due to the constitutional amendment, a governor’s emergency declaration expires after 21 days unless lawmakers reauthorize it, and they can terminate an emergency at any time.

Unlike the full-time governor, though, the allegedly full-time Legislature has a part-time schedule. Neither house has a session scheduled until September.

Before the COVID-19 emergency declaration in March 2020, the state had been under an emergency declaration regarding the opioid addiction crisis, which Wolf first declared in January 2018, and had renewed a dozen times.

The emergency enabled the state to share prescription data and set prescription limits, increase treatment access, increase access to the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, and establish safe disposal methods for unused drugs.

Prior to the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state and the medical and treatment communities had made progress against the opioid scourge. But the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected treatment access while increasing social isolation, driving the renewed surge in opioid addiction and overdoses. Drug overdoses killed 93,000 Americans in 2020, a 29% increase over 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That included 5,172 people in Pennsylvania, 16% more than in 2019. About 65% of overdose deaths are due to opioids.

Wolf wants to renew the opioid emergency. But the vacationing Legislature would have to do so under the new amendment. Legislative leaders should answer Wolf’s call to reconvene by Aug. 26 to renew the emergency declaration.

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Altoona Mirror. July 28, 2021.

Editorial: Fracking puts its industry over your health

For years, evidence has mounted that fracking is at least associated with adverse health effects, including a rare cancer cluster among children in Western Pennsylvania.

Instead of stopping potentially risky activity, states like Pennsylvania that sit on gas-abundant shale formations have been commissioning studies and allowing drilling to continue.

In other words, fracking has been declared safe until proven otherwise — at risk to Pennsylvanians and residents of other fracking-heavy states.

That would have been bad enough.

But a bombshell report has revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed oil and gas companies to use toxic chemicals in their fracking fluids despite warnings from government scientists about the potential dangers.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of thousands of human-made chemicals that don’t break down, earning the nickname “forever chemicals.”

Among them are PFOA and PFOS, which according to the EPA have been linked to cancer, liver, and immune problems, and impact on fetuses and breastfeeding babies.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Physicians for Social Responsibility, a health-care professional environmental advocacy group, found that in 2011 the EPA approved the use of PFAS and PFAS precursors — chemicals that break down into PFAS — in fracking.

It found that these chemicals have been used in more than 1,200 wells in six states between 2012 and 2020.

Physicians for Social Responsibility couldn’t find evidence that PFAS or their precursors have been used in fracking in Pennsylvania, but that should give Pennsylvanians little comfort.

Pennsylvania law allows oil and gas companies to exempt from public disclosure the chemicals they use under the guise of trade secrets. And the same companies that have been found to use these chemicals in other states, such as Chevron and Exxon, also drill wells in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection told this board it can identify the chemicals registered as trade secrets — a list of about 430 substances.

In that case, DEP should immediately audit the list and publicly disclose whether any PFAS or their precursors have been used in Pennsylvania fracking.

PFAS are a known problem in Pennsylvania waters, with tests suggesting that they pollute 72% of the sampled water in Philadelphia’s collar counties. Some physicians say no level of PFAS in water is safe.

When the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tested commonwealth water sources for PFAS in 2019, it focused on areas where contamination was deemed likely, such as near military bases. At the time, the connection to fracking was not public.

There was no testing in some fracking-heavy areas like Washington County.

The DEP doesn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of the revelation. Asked by this board to comment on the latest findings, a DEP spokesperson responded: “DEP continues to investigate the potential impact of PFAS in the environment and is in the process of developing draft regulations to address them.”

The lack of any more specific comment by DEP, or comment by Gov. Tom Wolf, to the potential contamination of Pennsylvania water with toxic “forever chemicals” should be shocking. But it’s not.

The story of PFAS in fracking is about multibillion-dollar oil and gas corporations’ management having more sway over the EPA than the people it is intended to protect. That’s also largely the story of fracking in Pennsylvania. In 2019, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a grand jury report that blasted DEP for being too cozy with the oil and gas industry.

The to-do list to respond to these revelations is long. Pennsylvania started a rulemaking process around PFAS in 2019 that needs acceleration.

Sen. Katie Muth told the board the EPA should promptly test water sources and drilling fluid waste sites in Pennsylvania for PFAS and other contaminants — we agree, and DEP should be involved as well.

Dr. Ned Ketyer, a Pittsburgh-based pediatrician and board member of Pennsylvania’s Physicians for Social Responsibility, told this board the revelation should lead to an immediate moratorium on fracking.

At minimum, law should change to demand full disclosure of all chemicals used throughout the life cycle of a natural gas well.

The EPA, in prioritizing industry over its mandate to protect the environment, has infringed on Pennsylvania’s right to pure water and our health and safety — another institution to do so for the benefit of fracking, a declining industry propped up by subsidies.

It’s past time to declare fracking unsafe until industry can prove otherwise.

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Harrisburg Patriot-News/PennLive. July 30, 2021.

Editorial: Some questions need to be answered about the prosecution of Judge Sonya McKnight

Once again, a video of a police stop has revealed the truth and allowed justice to be served. This time, it happened in Harrisburg, and the victim was a Black woman who happens to be a judge.

Sonya McKnight has been under investigation for more than a year, accused of tampering with evidence, official oppression, and obstruction of law, after she tried to help her son who had been stopped by police.

The charges cast a shadow on an otherwise stellar career of public service and subjected her to accusations that she blatantly misused her power as a Magisterial District judge.

Judge McKnight suffered the weight of these charges personally and professionally, suspended from her seat on the bench and not allowed to perform the duties Harrisburg voters elected her to do. But the voters re-elected her, despite the charges.

They apparently knew what Senior Judge Stephen B. Liberman concluded last week. Sonya McKnight was innocent.

In fact, the Harrisburg community knows Sonya McKnight well. She’s been a contributor, someone with a winning personality and a commitment to public service. Harrisburg voters either ignored what police said about Judge McKnight, or they didn’t believe it.

Turns out, the community was right.

But it is baffling that two Harrisburg police officers could get it so wrong, if the judge is right.

The night they stopped McKnight’s son, and he called her to the scene, police saw an “agitated” Black woman “storm” toward them, angry that police had pulled over her son.

But that’s not what the video showed.

That night, police saw a belligerent Black woman bent on taking control and on intimidation.

That’s not what the video showed.

And police said McKnight even went so far as to remove evidence from the scene without their permission.

That’s not what the video showed.

The discrepancies were so great between the video that captured reality and the conflicted testimony of Officer Farida Kingsboro, attorney Brian McMonagle felt compelled to ask, “Do you want a lawyer?”

It is surprising that not only did McMonagle believe his client had done nothing wrong, but so did Harrisburg Police Commissioner Thomas C. Carter. In fact, the city’s top cop said so, under oath.

So, it compels us to ask some troubling questions:

— If the police commissioner thought the good judge had done nothing wrong, how is it Officer Kingsboro thought so?

— With such a flimsy case, why did the Attorney General’s Office decide to prosecute the case?

— And why did Judge McKnight have to suffer through months of accusations and aspersions that apparently were so baseless, the judge threw them all out without hesitation? Bear in mind this is a judge who said he’s never done that before in his entire career.

Judge McKnight is thanking God and her community for standing by her during this ordeal. So are we.

Her attorney said the exoneration “restored my faith in the justice system. ” Maybe so. But the case has done nothing to restore the Black community’s faith in police.

Instead, it has raised serious questions about how these police officers could so misinterpret what they saw and so misjudge the intentions and actions of a woman many in the Harrisburg community respect and admire.

There’s another question it is reasonable to ask: how many lesser-known people without a top-notch attorney have been victims of police misjudgment?

These questions are worthy of an official investigation, as are the contradictions in Officer Kingsboro’s testimony.

Of course, we all should be grateful. We know things could have turned out far worse. Judge McKnight got to win her case in a court of law with a fair-minded judge.

Not everyone gets that chance.

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