Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Altoona Mirror. December 6, 2023.

Editorial: Don’t delay in divesting from China

A Republican legislator is spearheading a long-overdue effort to end state investment in companies controlled by the government of China.

“For too long, Pennsylvania has invested hundreds of millions in government funds to a regime that continues to trample human rights,” state Sen. Doug Mastriano, former Republican nominee for governor, said to explain his initiative.

China’s abuses are well-documented — from the erosion of self-rule and any hope for democracy in Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan to persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uyghurs and political dissidents and decades of fostering a climate of contempt for basic individual rights.

We appreciate that state Treasurer Stacy Garrity has led on this issue, divesting the state’s assets for which the treasurer’s office has oversight from entities controlled by China’s dictatorship in 2022.

“I believe it would be smart to do the same across all Commonwealth funds,” Garrity told a reporter for The Center Square for an article the Williamsport Sun-Gazette last week.

We agree.

Other states like Arkansas and Indiana have also led the way on divesting from China, while Pennsylvania and others have made progress, correctly, on divesting from Russia as well.

These efforts provide a template Pennsylvania can use to further eliminate or at least tighten any loopholes on investments in Chinese-controlled enterprises.

These past efforts have demonstrated that it is not an issue that can be resolved overnight.

But with this sort of protracted timeline an aspect that legislators must clearly recognize, the need to begin the process as soon as possible is only greater.

An opportunity for Pennsylvania and other states to take a stand against tyranny and for America’s principles of liberty is before us.

There is no good reason to wait.

___

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. November 30, 2023.

Editorial: It’s time to overhaul the outdated, 110-year-old law that slows down building projects in Pa.

Enacted in 1913, the Separations Act was intended to protect tradespeople from being underbid by general contractors for public construction projects. The result in modern times is unnecessary delays.

It is hardly a secret that many of Philadelphia’s public schools are in a state of abject disrepair. Frankford High and Southwark Elementary were both closed because of asbestos. Roughly four out of 10 city schools lack air-conditioning. Basic repairs take weeks, and school officials put the system’s total maintenance backlog at $4.5 billion — a seemingly insurmountable sum for a cash-strapped district.

Thankfully, there’s a way to shorten the timelines and shrink the costs of these desperately needed repairs. It is time to overhaul the Separations Act.

The Separations Act is a state law enacted in 1913 that requires governmental agencies to utilize so-called multiple-prime bidding for all public works projects over $4,000. “Multiple-prime” means signing four separate contracts for plumbing, electrical work, heating, and ventilation, instead of bringing in one vendor to handle all the work.

When the law was crafted 110 years ago, it was designed to protect tradespeople from being underbid by general contractors for building projects.

The result in modern times, however, has been long delays as multiple contracts are signed, and a state of extended disrepair for important public works projects.

In virtually every other state, public entities use general contractors to streamline the construction process. So instead of having a state or local agency identify a range of plumbers, electricians, and other laborers one by one, a general contractor selects the workers and supervises the project, which can save time and money. The bigger and more complex the work is, the more it can benefit from the assistance and oversight of a skilled and experienced general contractor.

For instance, imagine building a new public school. After the building’s foundation is laid and the exteriors are framed, the next step is finishing the interior, which includes plumbing, electrical wiring, heating and ventilation work, and drywall. Without proper coordination, time, money, and materials may end up being wasted. By having a single person responsible for all the major components, public agencies can ensure work is done in the proper order — so that, for example, walls are not installed until after the electrical work and plumbing behind them is completed.

These challenges are why Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that still requires multiple-prime bidding in all public projects. Two other states — Illinois and New York — require multiple-prime bidding under certain, clearly defined circumstances.

While the Separations Act may be relatively obscure, the coalition of partners seeking to abolish or suspend it is broad. Beyond the expected support from builders’ associations, there are also good governance groups, education groups, and sustainability organizations that have endorsed the reform as a way to improve the sometimes cumbersome procurement process for public works. The School District of Philadelphia has also pushed for reform.

There’s also precedent that this kind of change can have positive results. Longtime labor leader Pat Gillespie, who led the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council for 33 years, agreed to a suspension of the Separations Act in order to expedite the construction of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the early 1990s. The move helped bring down costs to manageable levels for the state and ensured consistent work for his membership going forward.

There is an appetite among some trades unions today to forge a similar agreement on behalf of the city’s schools. Just as the Convention Center was meant to spur tourism at a time when Center City needed more foot traffic, there is a recognition from some labor leaders that the civic need for improved school facilities outweighs the benefits of a favorable bidding process. Given the urgency for city schools, in particular, implementing a waiver of the Separations Act should be prioritized.

But change shouldn’t stop there. Despite its obscurity, the consequences of this outdated law are felt all over our commonwealth. We should enact real reform by doing away with the Separations Act altogether.

___

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 4, 2023.

Editorial: Kayden’s Law is compassionate and humane, but its effects may be limited

A bill broadening the scope of factors that judges may use when deciding custody hearings has been moving through Harrisburg for several years with little success. The measure, called Kayden’s Law, is humane and compassionate — but legislators and advocates should not be surprised if it doesn’t change much about child custody decisions in Pennsylvania.

The bill is meant to give judges more factors they can consider when making these decisions, especially regarding abuse. The list of offenses reviewed during custody hearings would be expanded to include charges or convictions for animal cruelty, recklessly endangering another person or interfering with custody proceedings.

However, judges in Pennsylvania are already required to weigh 16 broad factors when deciding these cases, including parental stability, overall family dynamics, relationships between guardians and the preferences of the children themselves. Parents are also required to submit a slew of documents, including their own criminal histories, for consideration. While increasing the scope of charges and convictions to be explicitly considered is a good idea in theory, judges already have significant leeway to interpret parents’ criminal histories holistically.

The basis for Kayden’s Law is harrowing: In 2018, an elementary school student from Bucks County was beaten to death by her father during an unsupervised visit. Her mother had fought a years-long custody battle to protect her from the father, who had made death threats against other family members and bitten off a man’s ear during a fight.

For his violent behavior, he had been banned from Kayden’s school. Yet the judge in the case didn’t think his volatile behavior extended to Kayden herself, and this naivete proved deadly.

This tragedy spawned the first version of Kayden’s Law — that did not pass — which would have created a presumption against custody for parents with histories of abuse in the household, no matter how long ago. The proposal was a lesson in the dangers of good intentions alone.

As the ACLU of Pennsylvania pointed out in opposing the measure, it would have denied unsupervised contact between many parents — especially mothers — and their children over long-ago and often very minor violations. The commonwealth has a very loose definition of child abuse and neglect that can be used to criminalize poverty by citing parents for “offenses” like failing to install proper baby gates. Such a conviction could have, years or decades later, triggered unjust separation from a teenaged child.

Altogether, the original version of Kayden’s Law would have significantly limited judges’ discretion in deciding complex, high-stakes custody cases, leading to more traumatic outcomes for children.

The newer version of Kayden’s Law rightly removed the overbroad approach, but in so doing became largely redundant.

To emphasize the seriousness with which the commonwealth takes child abuse generally, and particularly in the case of custody disputes, it will do no harm to pass Kayden’s Law into law. But its effects will not be all its boosters hope for.

___

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. November 30, 2023.

Editorial: Community colleges latest pawns in Harrisburg educational chess game

Pennsylvania has had trouble getting the job done with education this year.

Funding for the various levels of schooling needs to be approved by the Legislature. The governor signs off on it. From there, funding flows into cities and boroughs and townships, doing the job of teaching the next generation of doctors, social workers, engineers, educators and more.

The problem is that before something can be approved, it has to be agreed upon — and getting Pennsylvania legislators to agree on just about anything is like finding a winning lottery ticket. Add the governor — any governor — into the mix, and you are talking winning the Powerball and Mega Millions back to back.

This is nothing new. For decades, Pennsylvania has made a habit of missing the deadline to pass a budget, and education money is often a part of the standoff.

And 2023 has been no different. First, there was your basic budget battle that involved a showdown over a controversial voucher program. That had Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro siding with the GOP-controlled Senate and rocking the boat with his own party majority in the House — until he switched course and rankled Republicans.

When that funding was passed in August, it included money for the schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, like PennWest and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Then there was a separate fight over paying for public higher education, particularly the state-related universities like Penn State and Pitt. That finally passed Nov. 15 — a mere four and a half months behind schedule.

But another level of postsecondary education is still waiting for its approval: the 15 community colleges, including Westmoreland County Community College, Community College of Allegheny County, Community College of Beaver County and Butler County Community College.

“The delay in state payments may become a net funding cut,” the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges said in a prepared statement.

Statewide, about 230,000 students attend these schools. The combined enrollment of Penn State, Pitt and the 10 member universities of the state system hits about 200,000 students. Those students are the ones who will suffer when the financial delays trickle down.

That’s something state leaders need to consider with their foot-dragging. Lawmakers have been vocal about wanting colleges to keep cost of attending down. That’s admirable given that Pennsylvania tuition is among the most expensive public school costs in the country.

But forcing schools — whether as large as Penn State or as small as a high school-sized community college — into positions in which they need to use lines of credit to keep the lights on doesn’t help students. It hurts them and the taxpayers who work in these schools and the communities they serve.

Lawmakers need to stop using education as a chessboard and the schools as their game pieces. It’s a contest no one wins.

___

York Dispatch. December 5, 2023.

Editorial: Santos types less likely in news-filled Pa.

Congressional Republicans’ season of self-immolation continued last week with the expulsion of beleaguered first-term Rep. George Santos.

The Long Island Republican, who rode a brazenly falsified resume and suspicious financial backing to electoral victory last November, has been a non-stop source of controversy and distraction since landing in Washington.

His dismissal, by a vote of 311-114, was well above the necessary two-thirds and included nearly half of his fellow Republicans (Scott Perry not among them). That they would reduce their slim House majority to just three votes in axing Santos shows just how toxic the ethically challenged serial fabricator had become.

Among the many questions that linger following the welcome departure of George Santos (if that’s even his real name) is this: How could someone who lied so consistently and so blatantly sail through a political campaign without being found out?

Santos lied about:

    1. His work history;

    2. His financial assets;

    3. His college education;

    4. His grandparents fleeing Nazi Germany;

    5. His mother being in the South Tower of the World Trade Center when it was struck on 9/11;

    6. Being a landlord who owned 13 properties; and

    7. His religious background (“I never claimed to be Jewish,” he later told the New York Post. “I said I was ‘Jew-ish.’”).

And yet, he defeated his Democratic opponent in a district that went comfortably for President Joe Biden two years earlier.

That is what can happen — or, at least, what is more likely to happen — absent robust local news coverage. It’s also less likely to happen in communities like York.

Yes, Santos’s 3rd District includes a portion of the New York City borough of Queens. And yes, New York City is one of the nation’s major news centers. It’s also home, in whole or part, to 18 congressional districts. That’s a lot to stay on top of, along with state-level and City Council races, a gubernatorial campaign and competitive House races elsewhere in the state — even for the vaunted NYC dailies.

That’s where local newsrooms come in. At their best, they provide the type of granular coverage of candidates that would quickly refute easily disprovable claims like owning 13 rental properties.

Unfortunately, most local newsrooms are shells of their former selves, if they’re still around at all. Nearly 3,000 newspapers have ceased operations in the past two decades. And those that remain face increasing hostility in the form of harassment, raids and threats from elected officials, and conservative-fanned public vilification.

For all that, George Santos might still be in Congress were it not for his hometown paper. It was the 20,000-circulation North Shore Leader that knew enough about the candidate to “smell a fake,” as publisher George Lally told NPR. The paper uncovered not only the tall tales but more serious forms of dishonesty: campaign finance misappropriations and other fiscal abuses — the type of actions that eventually led to federal indictments.

The Leader published its findings before Election Day but by the time major news outlets, notably the New York Times, picked up the story in December, Santos had already bluffed his way into office.

Still, the paper’s reporting led to increased attention, a House ethics investigation and, ultimately, last week’s expulsion.

A special election will fill the vacancy early next year. In the meantime, the sordid saga is a reminder of the importance of strong local newsrooms.

Central Pennsylvania has seen some unsavory elected officials over the years, but it would be difficult for a George Santos type to avoid the scrutiny of the dogged local journalists at the state’s many newspapers.

This is no guarantee that serial liars won’t collect local votes (as a certain perennial presidential candidate has demonstrated) but they’ll do so with their falsehoods having largely been disclosed.

Robust local news organizations are more important than ever for keeping keep voters informed about those who seek to represent them. What voters do with that information is, as always, up to them.

END