Lancaster Online/LNP. December 21, 2022.
Editorial: The power struggle in the Pennsylvania House is unseemly
Instead of “yea” and “nay,” we fully expect members of the Pennsylvania House to start saying “nuh-uh,” “shut up” and “you shut up,” while sticking out their tongues.
The tussle between Democrats and Republicans over the majority in the state House is unseemly.
Emphasizing that a majority of legislative districts — 102 — voted in the midterms for Democrats to represent them, Democratic House Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia had herself sworn in as House majority leader Dec. 7 in an unpublicized ceremony.
Then McClinton promptly scheduled all three special elections for Feb. 7.
In response, Republican state Rep. Bryan Cutler, the now-former House speaker from Drumore Township, filed a lawsuit to block those special elections.
He subsequently had himself sworn in as House majority leader in a pointedly public ceremony, and filed the paperwork to hold two of the special elections May 16, the same day as the municipal primary and, according to Spotlight PA, the last possible date under state law.
Cutler previously had scheduled the special election to fill DeLuca’s seat for Feb. 7.
We understand why Cutler and his fellow Republicans were miffed by McClinton’s swearing-in. The Democrats clearly have a math problem: When the new legislative session begins, the GOP will hold a 101-99 majority.
But delaying two of those elections until mid-May would be ridiculous and antidemocratic. (To be clear, we’re talking about democracy with a small “d.”)
What about the citizens of those two legislative districts? Don’t they deserve representation before May?
Frankly, for state House Republicans to seek the maximum delay in scheduling the two special elections — for seats the Democrats have a good chance of winning — reeks of partisan manipulation. And Cutler’s belligerence in this matter reveals that, for all his talk of bipartisanship and election integrity, his real concern seems to be retaining power for as long as possible.
He had claimed that Democrats had launched a “paperwork insurrection” by having McClinton sworn in prematurely as House majority leader. How does that same claim not apply to him now?
If the two special elections are delayed until mid-May, the two-year terms of the winning candidates will be seriously truncated. The winners will barely have a chance to find the bathrooms in the state Capitol before it will be time to campaign for reelection.
But the clock will be ticking for Republicans, too. As Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso reported, one of the GOP’s 101 House members will be running in a Jan. 31 special election to fill a state Senate seat. If she wins as expected, and a Democrat wins DeLuca’s seat in February, the chamber will be evenly divided.
So House Republicans may have a very narrow window in which to “act on one of their top goals — amending the constitution,” reported Brad Bumsted, Harrisburg bureau chief of The Caucus, an LNP Media Group publication, in the Sunday LNP ' LancasterOnline.
Given that “his caucus ran the abortion ban and Voter ID amendment late at night on a Friday immediately preceding summer recess, we know that standard practices of good governance don’t apply when the Republican leader (Cutler) is in charge,” said McClinton spokesperson Nicole Reigelman.
She was referring to state constitutional amendments that Republicans have proposed as an end run around the veto power of, come January, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro.
As Bumsted explained, “Constitutional amendments require passage in two consecutive legislative sessions and then approval by the state’s voters.”
Five proposed amendments were passed in a package by Republicans in July. If any of those amendments are going to be on the May primary ballot, they must pass in both chambers of the Legislature one more time.
Because Democrats aren’t likely to bring them to the floor for a vote, Republicans may see the first weeks of the new legislative session as their final chance to do so.
The proposed amendments would, as Spotlight PA explained:
— Establish that the state constitution does not grant the right to a taxpayer-funded abortion or any other abortion-related right.
— Require voters to show ID whenever they vote in person or include proof of ID when they vote by mail.
— Require annual election audits by the state auditor general.
— Allow the General Assembly to block a proposed regulation with a simple majority.
— End separate elections for lieutenant governor, allowing gubernatorial candidates to choose their running mates.
It’s a matter of speculation as to which of those five proposed constitutional amendments now are priorities for state House Republicans.
The abortion one was, for sure, until Republicans in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. were defeated by abortion-rights candidates in the midterms. In politics, principles often are abandoned when reality collides with personal interest in the pursuit of power.
Because their margin for error is tiny, House Republicans are likely to prioritize the constitutional amendments that will draw the support of most of their caucus members. As Bumsted reported, there will be 49 new members in the next session, 23 of them Republicans, who did not vote on the amendment package in the 2021-22 session.
However Republicans choose, their decision will be inherently unfair to the Pennsylvanians who voted for Democratic House candidates in the midterms.
That said, Republicans have a point when they note that the Democrats would not be in this bind had two of their candidates, Summer Lee and Austin Davis, not chosen to run for other offices while also seeking reelection to the House.
Ten days ago, we implored state House Democrats and Republicans to halt their angry rhetoric and partisan bickering. We asked them to grow up and work together to find a solution to the power struggle.
In a better world, state House Democrats and Republicans would be working together to hammer out an agreement on the special elections and House operations in the interim.
Unfortunately, the matter now is in court, because the state Capitol does not exist in a better world.
Scranton Times-Tribune. December 27, 2022.
Editorial: Freeze state gas tax, or dedicate it
Pennsylvania lawmakers have a remarkable talent for evading accountability.
■ They won’t increase the state government’s percentage of school funding because that would require increases in state taxes. Instead, they leave it to local school boards to raise property taxes and absorb the political blowback.
■ They incessantly have expanded gambling without regard for the social dysfunction it produces, thus increasing revenue from taxes that are embedded in the bets, untraceable to the lawmakers.
■ They have increased their own pay to a base rate of more than $100,000 a year without a vote, through automatic annual increases tied to an inflation index. This year, the increase was 7.8%.
■ They passed off part of their responsibility to fund highways by requiring the Turnpike Commission to borrow more than $13 billion for PennDOT since 2007, which shows up as annual toll increases rather than tax increases. Turnpike tolls will increase by 5% Jan. 1.
Those are just a few examples. Drivers will experience another one in January when an indirect state gasoline tax is scheduled to increase by 3.5 cents a gallon, to 61.1 cents.
Lawmakers voted in 2013 to increase the tax automatically when the wholesale price exceeds $2.99 per gallon. The state Department of Revenue determined that average price statewide was $3.17 per gallon between September 2021 and September 2022, triggering the impending automatic increase.
Gasoline tax increases should flow from specific legislative action based on need, rather than from lawmakers punting to evade accountability for them.
Republican Rep. Joe D’Orsie of Bradford County plans to introduce a bill to freeze the gasoline tax at the current 57.6 cents a gallon, which would give the legislators a perverse opportunity to take credit for reducing a tax that they clandestinely raised.
Meanwhile, PennDOT could use the money, especially since lawmakers had outlawed the agency’s plans to establish tolls on nine bridges to pay for their replacements. Or, the new revenue could be used to diminish the size of the annual turnpike toll increases, or to help pay for public transit.
Lawmakers should freeze the tax or dedicate the revenue for transportation projects.
Uniontown Herald Standard. December 24, 2022.
Editorial: Taking steps to reduce recidivism
The scene played out at least a couple of times in all those tough-as-nails crime thrillers Hollywood pumped out in the 1930s and 1940s.
An inmate leaves “the big house” after serving his time. Once he hops on a bus, a suitcase in his hand and a few bucks in his pocket, the rest of the movie revolves around whether he stays on the straight-and-narrow or gives in to his baser impulses and heads back behind bars.
In real life, unfortunately, all too many prisoners do end up breaking the law after they are released, and many end up being locked up again. The Bureau of Justice Statistics followed more than 400,000 state prisoners from 2005 to 2014, and found that 68% of them were rearrested within three years of their release, 79% were rearrested within six years and 83% within nine years. Many of them were incarcerated again. It’s called recidivism, and, in the words of a 2021 essay in the Harvard Political Review, it “clogs the criminal justice system.”
Of course, making sure that every ex-prisoner follows the law and doesn’t get in trouble is an impossible task, and if people commit crimes that are worthy of jail time, that’s where they belong. But steps can be taken, both by the criminal justice system and individuals working outside it, to lower the recidivism rate.
Last weekend, the Observer-Reporter and Herald-Standard explored the work that Bentleyville native and former inmate Jeffrey Johnson is undertaking to help people who were in the same spot he was in 2015 — fresh from prison and looking for a new start. He and his wife, Shakira, have been building the Johnson-Shaw Foundation, which aims to help individuals work their way back into society and into productive lives after they are released.
Johnson fully understands how challenging it can be. His troubles started in the early 1990s when he played football for Washington & Jefferson College. A two-decade cycle of drugs and incarceration began. It was finally broken in the early 2010s when Johnson discovered books that had an impact on him while he was jailed, and he became determined to help other inmates to stay out of prison once they gained their freedom.
“There were big opportunities for good but bigger opportunities to fall back into your older habits,” Johnson said.
It’s also been found that education programs within prisons help reduce recidivism. The RAND Corporation found in a 2013 study that $4 to $5 is saved for every dollar spent on educating prisoners. Giving inmates marketable skills when they are imprisoned and helping them get jobs when they are released is another way to stop the revolving door at the jailhouse. Allowing prisoners to maintain family ties, and receive treatment for substance abuse problems and mental illness are also necessary steps to reduce recidivism.
America locks up a lot of its citizens — more than 500 per 100,000 people — and has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Whether society would be better served by alternatives to imprisonment for some offenses is a debate worth having. But it’s clear the rate of recidivism needs to be reduced, and the efforts of Johnson and others to make that happen are laudable.
Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. December 22, 2022.
Editorial: Capitol chaos calls for special reform
Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives — 50% too big and heavily gerrymandered in the cause of minority rule — rarely has been a model of good governance in recent years.
But now, with unique election results sowing chaos, that poor governance could grow even worse.
Due largely to fair redistricting following the 2020 census, supported by courts, Democrats managed a net gain of 12 seats in the Nov. 8 election, eking out a 102-101 House majority. But three Democratic seats from Allegheny County now are vacant. Rep. Tony DeLuca died before the election and was elected posthumously. Rep. Summer Lee was elected to Congress and Rep. Austin Davis was elected lieutenant governor, so they resigned their House seats.
The vacancies left Republicans with a temporary 101-99 advantage. Democratic leader Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia and Republican leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County have agreed to a Feb. 7 special election for DeLuca’s seat. McClinton and the state Department of State have chosen that date for the other two special elections, but Cutler wants to conduct those in May, which would enable him to ram through constitutional amendments that, for the most part, should be legislation.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has set Jan. 31 as the special election date to replace Republican Sen. John Gordner, who has resigned to become counsel for the Senate majority. The largely Republican district covers parts of Columbia, Luzerne, Montour, Northumberland and Snyder counties.
That could further complicate the House situation because Republican Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver of Northumberland County has announced her candidacy. If she wins, that will require yet another special House election.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Chris Rabb of Philadelphia plans to introduce a valuable bill that would require the House to schedule special elections to fill vacancies on the first possible day, to prevent manipulation of the date for political gain.
It also would make it easier for independent candidates to run for those vacancies. State law now leaves nominations for vacancies to state and local political parties. The bill would require the Pennsylvania Department of State to conduct a nomination process for independent candidates. There are 1.4 million independent voters, and they are the fastest-growing group by registration. They must be fully included in the process.