Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:

North East charts path to future

Erie Times-News

Feb. 10As the 2021 closure of the Mercyhurst University North East campus draws near, the North East community stands at a pivotal crossroads.

We don’t have to look far to see what can happen when the economic engines that sustain small town life pack up and leave.

Recovery is not a given. In fact, it is the exception. And it succeeds usually only when community stakeholders rally with speed, craft a vision and pursue it together, rather than endure loss passively.

Franklin, to Erie’s south, is one such place that sprang into action decades ago as the changing global economy siphoned away manufacturing jobs. It went after funding to finesse its Victorian main street with attractive facades and lighting. It packed a calendar full of events, including the nationally recognized Applefest and the just-ended Franklin on Ice, that are hosted in the graceful parks that flank the soaring twin-towered Italianate Venango County courthouse. Marquee festivals combined with a humming downtown boasting good restaurants, boutiques, a microbrewery, a distillery and a winery enhance life for residents and act as a draw for visitors from afar.

The price of inaction or half measures can be seen in contrast in suffering downtowns throughout this region and beyond. It’s the rotting facades, empty storefronts and quiet calendars that suggest surrender.

It is welcome to see North East spurn the wait-and-see approach and instead embrace Mercyhurst’s departure as an opportunity to restore and refashion its downtown to new purpose.

As reporter Matthew Rink detailed, leaders are pursuing an ambitious multi-pronged, multi-million dollar initiative they have dubbed Sustain North East.

Mercyhurst has requested $25 million in state Revitalization Assistance Capital Program funding to help whomever acquires the campus develop it.

In conjunction with that, the Sustain North East initiative plans to help market the campus and preserve its historic buildings, including the chapel. It will also seek $10 million in RACP funds to overhaul the downtown, restoring historic buildings from the foundation up, improving streetscapes and facades, and installing security cameras and Wi-Fi.

Local capital also will be tapped. The borough, the North East Chamber of Commerce, Downtown North East Inc. and others are looking to raise $1.2 million with the help of a $400,000 Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority fundraising loan.

North East, like Franklin, enjoys an attractive layout and handsome historic architecture. And it has an established tourist trade visitors who ply the grape and wine trails, as Borough Manager Patrick Gehrlein noted.

The cross-sector, forward-looking activism in North East mirrors efforts underway in Erie and smaller communities like Corry and Union City.

It’s smart. It’s intentional. And really, given the price of inaction, the only way forward.

Online: https://bit.ly/2uJzqoj


IRS or Social Security calling? Hang up the phone

Harrisburg Patriot News/Pennlive.com

Feb. 10

In these times of extreme political divides, there are still people willing to reach across the aisle to work together to send us urgent warnings to protect ourselves from scams.

And thank goodness for that.

Even in the midst of the Senate impeachment trial, as lawmakers were hurling insults at each other, U.S. Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Susan Collins (R-Me.) were getting on with the people’s business, organizing a bi-partisan hearing to warn about two scams that are bilking seniors out of their hard-earned life’s savings. Collins is chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging and Casey is the ranking member.

They’ve dubbed these attacks on seniors the “IRS and Social Security Scams”, and they joined hands to make sure the warning is being sent far and wide. Here it is:

When someone calls claiming to be from the IRS or the Social Security Administration and asking you to do anything with your money, hang up the phone.

That’s right. The message from these good senators is that you should just hang up the phone.

Trust us on this: The Social Security Administration will not call and threaten to arrest you because someone has stolen your id.

The IRS will not demand you turn over your bank account number or insist you immediately send money to an account overseas.

Neither the Social Security Administration nor the IRS will ever call you and tell you to go to Walmart and buy thousands of dollars in gift cards.

And neither the IRS nor the Social Security Administration will ever tell you to keep everything secret and liquidate your bank account or face immediate imprisonment.

“No one from the United States government will ever make these types of threats,” Casey said.

You may think you could never fall for this, but many very smart people have.

“Anyone can be the victim of this kind of crime,” Casey said.

At the recent hearing streamed throughout the country, several rational, educated and level-headed people told horror stories of how they let their guard down and found themselves following the instructions of a phony Social Security agent.

One poor woman transferred more than $100,000 to Hong Kong, losing her life’s savings.

These hucksters can be very convincing.

The Social Security scam, as it is called, is now the number one way these phone thieves are stealing from seniors. And they know no shame. Sen. Collins’ mother even got one of those calls, as did a staffer in Casey’s office.

Just expect them to call you or someone you love.

Americans lost more than $38 million in 2019 alone after they answered the phone and were terrified into following instructions from a con artist. Casey and Collins believe the amount of money stolen from senior citizens may be even higher, because often people are too embarrassed to report they’ve been conned.

“The scam always begins with an unsolicited robocall,” Sen. Collins said. And the caller always emphasizes the need for urgent action, and for secrecy. They try to keep the person on the phone, following instructions, doing exactly as they say. Some people have stayed on the phone for hours, afraid they would be arrested and thrown into jail if they didn’t obey.

The good news is this. Once people are alerted, once they are warned about the scams, they hang up quickly.

The IRS scam used to be number one, but after word got out, people knew what to watch out for and the number of victims dropped sharply.

But now, the number of victims of the Social Security scam is rising. That’s why it’s important that we join the senators in sending out the warning.

It is now urgent to increase public awareness about these scams, which means telling everyone, everywhere to watch out.

Kudos to Casey and Collins for not letting the impeachment drama get in the way of protecting their constituents. Now, it’s our turn to get the word out to family, friends and neighbors before these thieves claim another victim.

Tell them this: If anyone calls claiming to be from the IRS or Social Security, don’t waste a second and don’t even blink.

Just hang up the phone.

Online: https://bit.ly/31OnuO4


Process for obtaining Real ID in Pennsylvania should be made easier


Feb. 12

The process of getting Real ID should be made easier. We hope Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and Rep. Lloyd Smucker are paying attention to this reporting and listening to their constituents’ concerns about Real ID.

Sunday’s article noted that more than 33,000 Lancaster County residents have already obtained their Real ID. About 750,000 Pennsylvanians have gone through the Real ID process, and it’s estimated that another 550,000 will do so by October, a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official said.

Awareness has clearly been raised about the Real ID deadline.

But the increase in applicants has been accompanied by a hike in headaches.

Meko told the story of Robert Landis, 82, and Patricia Landis, 77, of Brethren Village. They’ve been married since the Eisenhower administration, and they wanted to obtain their Real IDs.

They took, Meko wrote, “everything they could think of ... to the Department of Motor Vehicles in East Lampeter Township — driver’s license, Social Security cards, Medicare card, birth certificates, voter registration, child abuse history clearances, four paid bills, baptism certificates, state police clearances and residence receipts. They took at least 10 separate documents each to prove their residency and existence.”

Robert Landis got his Real ID.

Patricia Landis did not.

The hitch: She needed to show an official marriage certificate.

“For a Real ID, proof of all legal name changes is necessary — a certified marriage certificate, court order or divorce decree issued by the county’s family court are documents accepted to show those changes,” Meko wrote.

And so Patricia Landis, after an unplanned trip to the Lancaster County Courthouse for a copy of her marriage certificate from six decades ago, finally did get her Real ID.

But they explained to Meko that the “hassle of going from their home to the licensing center, then to the courthouse and back to finally get her identification was exhausting.”

Unnecessarily exhausting, we say.

Patricia Landis noted that it might not have been so exhausting if they were younger.

But we think she’s not giving herself enough credit for being so persistent.

And, importantly, while younger people seeking a Real ID might indeed have more energy for all of the “hassle,” will they have the time?

A married or divorced woman with a job and/or children can’t afford to essentially spend a day running back and forth to government offices to wrangle all the documentation necessary to obtain a Real ID.

We wrote “woman” there because the focus the Real ID process places on documenting all name changes places a disproportionate burden on women, who have traditionally been the ones to change their names in our society following marriage and divorce.

“The more times a name has changed, the more complicated the (Real ID) process can get because each name change must be shown through official documentation,” Meko noted.

We find that burden, mandated by the federal government, to be ridiculous. And, regrettably, there’s little that can be done about it now.

But there are some things that can still be done to streamline the Real ID process.

State Rep. Joe Webster, D-Montgomery County, will introduce a bill in Harrisburg that “would set a uniform fee throughout the state for marriage license copies and would waive the fee for individuals getting copies to apply for a Real ID,” Meko wrote.

We think that’s a good idea. We’d like to see Webster’s bill on the fast track in the General Assembly. Make it law in time to help those who are up against the October deadline.

Beyond that, substantive relief regarding Real ID would likely have to come from the federal level, which is why Casey, Toomey and Smucker must remain attuned to what Pennsylvanians are saying.

PennDOT, responding to a request for Real ID suggestions from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has two ideas. One is to allow people who already have a valid passport to apply for their Real ID online. The other is to make Real ID exceptions for people over the age of 75, given that wrangling a lifetime’s worth of birth certificates, marriage certificates and other documents can be a major burden.

We like those ideas, though, as PennDOT Deputy Secretary Kurt Myers noted, this is the federal government we’re talking about. Change, if it even happens, won’t be quick.

So Myers’ best suggestion for those who need Real ID is to get started on the process as soon as possible. (Sooner, perhaps, if you are a woman who has ever changed her name.)

As a final note, we applaud state Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin for hosting a pair of Real ID information sessions today in Lititz. That’s an excellent way to serve constituents. It’s so helpful, in fact, that both sessions, which required pre-registration, are already full.

Given that level of local interest, additional sessions in the near future would be a great help.

Online: https://bit.ly/2SlrMt9


School choice and the fight for public education’s soul

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Feb. 10

The political and philosophical divides that the election of President Trump exposed often play out as a fight for the soul — and the meaning — of the country.

It’s perhaps not surprising that we are also seeing a fight for the soul of education in this country. That battle got particularly heated last week on a number of fronts.

During last week’s state of the union address, Trump reiterated his support for school choice — promoted by his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — and his support for the “Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act.” Those scholarships would be funded by tax credits, meaning public dollars would be used by students to pay tuition for private and religious schools. Pennsylvania already has a massive educational tax credit program that diverts $110 million in revenues to private schools; Governor Wolf has vetoed an expansion of this program, which drew Trump’s criticism during the speech.

The true rift that Trump underscored in his speech was not just over the separation of church and state that such scholarships challenge, but his reference to “failing government schools.” This derisive and dismissive reference to public schools shows that the president lacks an understanding and appreciation for the purpose and aspirations of public education. He is clearly unfamiliar with the importance the founding fathers placed when they created a system of public education, or with the words of President John Adams:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

The tax credit support of private and religious schools has ignited a fire that burns brightly alongside the debate about charter schools vs. traditional public schools. And here, too, Pennsylvania is at the forefront, with one of the largest charter school systems in the country. Roughly 180 schools now educate about 140,000 students at a cost of nearly $2 billion a year.

Since Pennsylvania’s first charter law in 1997, there has been little reform that would improve oversight and accountability. In his budget address last week, Governor Wolf outlined proposals that would increase spending in education and include reforms to the charter law, including reassessing how charters are reimbursed for special education students.

One of the most promising announcements was Wolf’s intention to create $200 million in scholarships for students of the state system universities. He intends to fund scholarships by re-purposing dollars that go into the state’s Race Horse Development Fund. Since gambling was legalized in the state, this troubled industry has received a staggering $3 billion in revenues from slot machines. Scrutinizing that investment and the priority we’re placing on horses over children is long overdue.

The challenge is that both horses and charter schools have loud and vocal constituents. Those who believe in the promise of public education and the value of investing in it should get on the phone to their representatives and add their voices to the debate.

Online: https://bit.ly/31LMSnM


Who decides on war?: Congress needs to reclaim authority on military action

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Feb. 12

Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R.-Ky., expressed grave disappointment with the answers they received when they questioned the Trump administration’s rationale for last month’s attack that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Mr. Lee was so upset that he was prepared to support a resolution offered by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., saying that authorizations to use military force passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002 do not justify further military action against Iran.

Unfortunately, the House went first, passing both a repeal of Congress’ 2002 authorization that preceded President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and a measure that would deny funding for further military action against Iran without congressional approval. It’s unfortunate because those votes late last month were mostly along party lines, with only 11 Republicans supporting the first and only four supporting the second.

Growing the backbone to reclaim Congress’ constitutional power to declare war should not be a partisan issue. And it is not.

On CNN last month, Mr. Lee explained the premise of Mr. Kaine’s proposal: If the president wants to take further military action against Iran following the attack that killed Gen. Soleimani, he needs an authorization to use military force or a declaration of war by Congress. The resolution would insist upon it.

Congress’ 2002 authorization votes, which the public at the time understood to be about an Iraq then led by Saddam Hussein, have since been used to justify military actions in Syria by President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump. And the authorization was initially cited in support of the strike that killed Gen. Soleimani, although the Trump administration has since walked that back, citing self-defense under international law and the president’s constitutional role as commander in chief.

While the president appears likely to veto anything he sees as encroaching on his ability to defend the nation and its military, the Senate should pass the Kaine resolution. It should do so on an overwhelming and bipartisan vote, and the House should then pass that resolution. Limited to Iran, it would be a baby step toward Congress reclaiming its war powers under the Constitution, but it would be a step in the right direction.

Online: https://bit.ly/38poydN