Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Altoona Mirror. February 10, 2024.

Editorial: Anticipating NTSB report on East Palestine

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the February 2023 Norfolk Southern train derailment at East Palestine, Ohio, near that state’s border with Pennsylvania, probably will not be complete until this summer.

But as an Associated Press article printed in the Feb. 2 Mirror showed, the scrutiny being accorded the after-derailment decision

-making process is destined to produce valuable information for guiding railroads’ handling of such dangerous, health- and life-threatening events, going forward.

If there is one shred of proverbial silver lining stemming from the Ohio derailment, it almost certainly will be beefed-up preparedness for responding more quickly to something amiss than what occurred at East Palestine.

It is reasonable to make such an assumption even though Norfolk Southern does not appear to have been grossly unprepared or grossly negligent in regard to the situation leading up to the accident or regarding what was done in its aftermath.

Still, how it responded must be subjected to thorough evaluation for the benefit of itself, other railroads and people and communities who someday might find themselves in the path of such potential tragedy.

That includes places like Altoona and Johnstown, where train traffic is an ever-present reality.

The big question that continues to swirl around the East Palestine derailment is whether officials overreacted in deciding to blow open five tank cars filled with toxic vinyl chloride — tank cars that those officials feared might explode.

That decision led to a huge plume of allegedly dangerous black smoke, effects from which residents still are rightly fearful, on behalf of their short- and long-term health.

As the Feb. 2 Mirror article reported, the officials who made the decision have continued to defend it, saying that they made the best call they could with the information they had available.


But meanwhile, the company that made the chemical told investigators it believed the vinyl chloride remained stable and wouldn’t have exploded.

The problem was that company’s opinion apparently was not shared with key decision-makers.

Obviously, the best communication channels were not in place at the time of the derailment, and that needs to be further evaluated and rectified.

For some East Palestine residents, the pace of the derailment probe probably is being regarded as too slow, but it really isn’t. The accident in question was a complicated mess that has needed to be sorted out virtually fragment by fragment.

Although the NTSB is blaming an overheated bearing for causing the derailment, there has been a question about why trackside detectors that spotted a bearing heating up on one of the railcars did not trigger an alarm early enough for the crew to stop the train before the derailment.

The final NTSB report is going to be interesting reading when it is released, but the accident and its aftermath are going to remain on the front burner of discussion for long after that.


PennLive. February 10, 2024.

Editorial: Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections should rethink its policy of scanning mail sent to prisoners

Pennsylvanians know our state is influential. Some of us know we’re the center of the universe. People around the nation and the world care about what we say and do.

When we declare we’ve solved a problem, even without proof, some will seek to imitate our alleged success. That’s why the Prison Policy Initiative says our declaring a solution to the problem of drugs in prisons is so disturbing. It’s not true.

The Prison Policy Initiative, a respected non-partisan, non-profit national organization, is calling out the state Department of Corrections for touting a program to address the problem of drugs in state prisons by stopping direct mail deliveries to prisoners.

DOC officials said drugs were reaching inmates through the letters they receive, some of it -- they claim -- miraculously infused into the very paper families sent to their loved ones in prison. So, in 2018, Pennsylvania moved to stop letting prisoners receive the actual mail their families sent. Instead, they began sending it to Florida to be scanned.

Now, instead of getting a hand-written letter sent directly from his mother, a young man gets a photocopy of what she sent.

Instead of getting a perfumed card from his wife a few days after she mailed it, a man facing years behind bars gets a blurry picture weeks later. Many poor families have to depend on snail mail because they simply can’t afford what prisons charge for emails and texts.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s research, all of this has cost Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $4 million a year. The company raking in the dough is not even in Pennsylvania. We’re sending our prisoners’ mail to Smart Communications in Seminole, Fla.

The Prison Policy Initiative points out one important fact: drugs still are getting into state prisons. So even though $4 million of tax dollars is heading to Smart Communications to scan letters from distraught wives, mothers, and children, it hasn’t solved the drug problem.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people in Pennsylvania prisons are unable to have the simple respite of a letter sent from home, grease stains and all.

The Prison Policy Institute says it’s no small matter to people who desperately need to maintain connections to their families to keep them both healthy and sane.

Some of our readers might say, who cares. If they’re in prison, they deserve to pay for their crimes. Point well taken. Except, most of the people behind bars will get out one day. Most of the people in prisons today will be back in our communities after a few years of pain, stress, and trauma. What kind of person will they be when they get?

What kind of person do we want returning to our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods?

The Prison Policy Initiative says studies show the more connections prisoners maintain with their friends and family in prison, the better their chances of not returning when they’re out.

Pennsylvania DOC officials have promoted letter scans to the nation as the solution to drugs in prison, the organization says, without the solid data to back it up. And since Pennsylvanians are so respected around the nation, many states followed our lead, although we’re told at less cost than the $4 million we pay to the Florida company.

The Prison Policy Initiative has raised serious questions about our policy of scanning prisoners’ mail. It has raised valid warnings about the serious repercussions to the health and mental stability of people in state care. And they have well noted the influence we have had on policies impacting prisons across the nation.

The Prison Policy Initiative says its years of investigations have not found any proof that scanning letters reduced the amount of drugs entering prisons. In some cases, they argue, just the opposite happened.

We call on state officials to rethink the policy of paying $4 million a year to a Florida company to scan letters that families send to their loved ones in Pennsylvania prisons. At the very least, we call on the Department of Corrections to provide some proof that scanning the personal letters of prisoners is solving the drug problem within prison walls.

Without such proof, the Prison Policy Institute is right to warn Pennsylvanians their tax dollars are being wasted. And Pennsylvania officials are abusing their influence by spreading misery at home and misinformation throughout the nation.


LNP/LancasterOnline. February 11, 2024.

Editorial: Shapiro’s proposed budget takes important, overdue step on behalf of children in Pennsylvania’s low-wealth schools

This is how the budget process works in Harrisburg: The governor lays out his priorities in a budget address (and it’s always been “his” — Pennsylvania is one of just 18 states that never have elected a female governor).

The lawmakers in the governor’s party cheer for the prospects of funding their favorite programs. The lawmakers in the opposing party insist that the governor’s priorities are misplaced and that he shouldn’t aim to spend so much or so little. The parties bicker for months, often missing the June 30 budget deadline, because unlike the rest of us, lawmakers aren’t penalized for tardiness in paying the state’s bills — taxpayers and state-funded organizations pay the price.

Rinse and repeat, year after year.

Given how everyone so predictably plays their roles, it might seem as if this is a low-stakes drama with only political winners and losers.

But real Pennsylvanians suffer when the services meant for them are consistently underfunded. That’s the case for students in the commonwealth’s low-wealth school districts, which include the School District of Lancaster. And those students can’t wait any longer for politicians in Harrisburg to ensure they get the education they were promised by the state constitution.

This is why we were gratified that Shapiro has proposed a more than $1.1 billion increase in basic education funding as part of the 2024-25 state budget.

As LNP ' LancasterOnline’s Ashley Stalnecker reported Wednesday, “Nearly $900 million of that increase is part of what will be a yearslong effort to eliminate a $5.4 billion gap in funding for Pennsylvania public schools.”

Shapiro is proposing this funding boost for a reason: Last February, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer — who ran for the bench as a Republican — ruled that “the current system of funding public education has disproportionately, negatively impacted students who attend schools in low-wealth school districts. ... As a result, students in low-wealth districts do not have access to the educational resources needed to prepare them to succeed academically, socially, or civically.”

This, the judge ruled, was in violation of the state constitution, which guarantees all students a “thorough and efficient” education.

Last month, a slim and partisan majority of the 15-member Basic Education Funding Commission — which was made up of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and Shapiro administration officials — recommended that the state immediately begin to close a school funding gap it assessed at more than $5 billion, phasing in the increased aid over seven years.

So what Shapiro is proposing is just a first installment in fulfilling the state’s constitutional obligation, as affirmed by the Commonwealth Court.

Republican lawmakers such as Scott Martin, who chairs the powerful state Senate Appropriations Committee, are balking at Shapiro’s proposed budget.

The Martic Township lawmaker is joined in his opposition by fellow state Sen. Ryan Aument of West Hempfield Township.

The Senate Republican majority whip, Aument described Shapiro’s spending proposals as “grandiose” in a statement and asserted that they are “simply not possible without raising taxes.”

Addressing Shapiro’s basic education spending proposal, Aument maintained that past funding increases haven’t yielded improved test scores. He said Pennsylvania needs “systematic changes to the way we educate our kids.”

Aument co-chairs the Pennsylvania Commission on Education & Economic Competitiveness. Both he and Martin have vociferously supported programs that funnel public tax dollars to private-school tuition vouchers.

One more thing: You may hear that Pennsylvania already ranks high among the states in K-12 school funding. But because school property taxes account for most of that funding, districts such as the School District of Lancaster, which can’t raise sufficient property tax revenue, are at a marked disadvantage. When school districts have to hike property taxes to meet costs, this places an increasing burden on older homeowners on fixed incomes — this is why we’ve repeatedly pressed for property tax reform.

While the state’s percentage share of total K-12 spending has grown modestly in recent years, it remains comparatively low. This must change.

We’ve been banging the drum of equitable school funding because we truly believe that it would be immoral to deprive the next generation of Pennsylvanians of the education they will need to thrive in the 21st-century world and workplace.

This is the reality: Many of the commonwealth’s lowest-wealth school districts are growing and have the highest numbers of students — including English-language learners and students with disabilities — facing the greatest challenges. Yet they’ve been asked to make do with inadequate numbers of experienced teachers, school nurses, counselors and other staff, working in crumbling and overcrowded facilities.

The majority on the Basic Education Funding Commission recommended that “adequacy targets” be calculated, so that we know just how much money each low-wealth school district needs to produce the outcomes that adequately funded, successful schools do. Testimony to that commission revealed that the School District of Lancaster’s ratio of students to counselors is 346 to 1 — while the American School Counselor Association’s recommended ratio is 250 to 1. Other testimony revealed that the most inadequately funded districts in Pennsylvania have higher rates of teacher attrition than high-wealth districts and fewer classroom teachers per student.

These are well-defined areas that can and must be addressed, and Shapiro is seeking to do that in his proposed budget. Investing in these schools isn’t throwing money at a problem — it’s addressing specific and increasing needs.

Most Pennsylvanians, Republicans as well as Democrats and independents, believe in fundamental fairness. They also believe in public schools and want to see them equitably funded. They don’t want to see public education intentionally and consistently undermined.

Most Pennsylvanians also are wary of tax increases. Shapiro maintains that his proposed budget won’t require any. Among other measures, he wants to draw on a sensibly small portion of the state’s cash reserves, or rainy-day funds.

It’s been pouring on the students in low-wealth school districts for years. It’s long past time for lawmakers to cease the partisan bickering and fulfill the promise of the state constitution to all of Pennsylvania’s children. Please, just get it done.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 7, 2024.

Editorial: Airport Authority’s successful ‘open records’ delay tactics highlight state law’s weakness

It took the Post-Gazette’s Mark Belko more than two years to acquire public documents from the Allegheny County Airport Authority detailing its unusual use of severance payments to former employees: $2.6 million to 96 employees over eight years. It’s yet another example of the state’s broken open records system, which allows public agencies to keep public records form the public’s eyes, while spending public money in the process.

These findings shed some light onto the tenure of Christina Cassotis, who took over as CEO in 2015 and placed her stamp on the authority in the years since, including a notable increase in direct-flight destinations, a brutal legal fight with Airmall operator Fraport and the construction of a new $1.6 billion terminal. But, because of the agency’s refusal to hand over the documents in a timely manner, the light they shed has dimmed — which was, of course, the point.

One thing that is clear: Ms. Cassotis runs a tight ship — so tight that the public can barely see through the cracks.

The Post-Gazette first filed a Right-to-Know request in October 2021, seeking names of employees who received payouts, their amounts, and their dates.

Every third party agreed the severance information was public, from the state’s Office of Open Records to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and the state Commonwealth Court. The airport authority finally stopped appealing and released the information in November 2023, when the case landed at the state Supreme Court.

This episode is particularly frustrating because the meaning of the payments is unclear, and not obviously illicit — but the long delay in securing the public documents has made getting at the truth much more difficult.

We can say that the payouts were unusual: Over the same eight years, the rest of the Allegheny County bureaucracy paid only five severance agreements, to the airport authority’s 96. They could be defensible as a cost-effective, if ruthless, management strategy. Or they could indicate a CEO using her power to remove or silence dissenters — and using public money for the purpose.

The Post-Gazette’s reporting revealed mixed reactions among former employees. Most spoke anonymously, with some saying they felt their termination or forced retirement was retaliatory in some way. Others were happy with the deals they received.

As we have previously emphasized, Pennsylvania’s open records laws are weak and easy to skirt. The appeals process runs long, making reporters’ search for interviews, documents and meeting information more difficult. Recalcitrance among public agencies is essentially rewarded: For the cost (in public money) of their lawyers’ time, the airport authority delayed the release of public information by two years, making its ultimate revelation less illuminative than it might have been.

This reflects badly on the authority’s commitment to transparency, but above all on state law’s ability to make public agencies do the right thing. If public records in Pennsylvania can be withheld during years of frivolous litigation, they aren’t really public at all.


Scranton Times-Tribune. February 11, 2024.

Editorial: Let the sun shine in: Boost solar farms in our region

A new day is dawning for solar power in Pennsylvania, but some local officials have yet to wake up to the fact, judging by the rejection of two recent proposals for solar farms in our region.

The Commonwealth has lagged behind other states in the development of solar and other renewables, ranking 50th in production over the past decade, the nonprofit PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center reported last year. While the solar industry grew 12-fold nationwide since 2013, Pennsylvania’s solar output merely tripled and solar still accounts for less than 1 percent of energy generated in the state.

But with the Shapiro administration’s commitment to shifting 30% of power production to renewables by 2030 — the current figure is 8% — solar is sure to become a bigger player in the energy sector in our region and statewide.

There are currently at least eight solar farms proposed for our region, four in Schuylkill County and two each in Luzerne and Lackawanna.

The Taylor and Scranton projects in Lackawanna County are tied up in legal disputes after development plans were rejected by the zoning boards in those municipalities.

A Lackawanna County judge recently overturned the Taylor Zoning Hearing Board’s denial of a request to construct a 17,000-panel solar farm in that borough, sending it back to the board for reconsideration. The judge ruled the board, in its written decision, failed to provide adequate reasons for its findings and conclusions.

There was some public opposition to the project from borough residents, but that is not unusual and should not be the deciding factor in such cases. Solar farms, after all, are the least intrusive and most passive of energy projects. They also offer a productive use for environmentally damaged sites, of which our region has many. The Taylor project, for example, was to be sited on the former borough dump, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency superfund site.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has recognized that local governments might need help dealing with new issues that will arise as solar and other renewables become a more prominent feature on our energy landscape. DEP, in conjunction with Penn State Extension, has developed a “ Municipal Officials’ Guide to Grid-Scale Solar Development in Pennsylvania,” which outlines the environmental, economic and tax impacts of solar farms and offers proposed changes in municipal zoning laws that would establish firm parameters for such projects and avoid costly litigation. It should be required reading for municipal officials across the state.

Solar energy could be an environmentally benign driver of economic growth in Northeast Pennsylvania, a region that has experienced extensive damage from energy production in its history. Our municipal officials must be prepared to manage these projects in a responsible, reasonable way, learning from that past while looking to the future.