Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. July 12, 2022.

Editorial: Gov. Wolf and Pa.’s remarkable budget turnaround

School funding increases and a bigger rainy day fund illustrate how the governor is leaving Pennsylvania in better shape than when he arrived.

Seven years ago, Tom Wolf rode his Jeep into Harrisburg to find a dysfunctional and debt-ridden state. After signing his final budget, Wolf will leave the governor’s mansion and Pennsylvania in a much better place than when he arrived.

The $45.2 billion spending plan boosts education funding by more than $1 billion while paying off $2 billion in past borrowing and cutting the corporate net income tax. Even more impressive, Wolf will leave behind a surplus of about $3.6 billion, while boosting the state’s rainy day fund from $2.9 billion to $5 billion.

Not all of this is Wolf’s doing. Pennsylvania’s fiscal recovery was fueled by increased tax revenues from a rebounding economy and billions in federal stimulus funds from the pandemic. But even still, Wolf has overseen a historic turnaround of the state’s finances.

Wolf inherited a structural deficit of between $2 billion and $3 billion and a rainy day fund of just $231,000. Even worse, his predecessor, one-term Republican Tom Corbett, slashed education funding by $1 billion. An outsized portion of the cuts targeted Philadelphia. Corbett’s incompetence was matched only by his callousness.

Wolf, a Democrat who ran a successful family business before becoming governor, made education his top priority. Since 2015, he has increased school funding by $3.7 billion — despite stiff resistance from the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

As a result, there are plenty of compromises in Wolf’s budget. He agreed to pull charter school regulations aimed at improving ethics and accounting standards that have plagued some poorly run schools. The state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which provides corporate tax breaks in return for donating to private school tuition, will increase by 45% to more than $400 million.

While no governor is perfect, Pennsylvanians should be grateful the understated Wolf — who is smart, honest, and competent — was in charge during such a tumultuous time in history. He led the state through the pandemic and Donald Trump’s attack on the 2020 election. Although some of Wolf’s critics have taken him to task for his rigid handling of the state’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts, it is likely that the lives of many Pennsylvanians were saved as a result of them.

Wolf was forced to repeatedly use his veto pen to stop Republican lawmakers from passing a barrage of dangerous and wrongheaded measures, including curtailing voting rights, outlawing abortion, and expanding gun rights.

Republicans tried a new maneuver last week, approving a late-night measure calling for voters to approve constitutional amendments that would expand the General Assembly’s power to reject elections, require voter IDs, and outlaw abortion.

The Republican legislature’s continued assaults on democracy and abortion rights are a preview of what is to come if State Sen. Doug Mastriano is elected governor.

Mastriano’s qualifications have been questioned by those on the left and the right. His role as an enabler of the seditionists of Jan. 6, 2021, should give voters pause about his fitness for office. He spoke at an event promoting QAnon conspiracies and has spread Islamophobic and homophobic hate.

Mastriano supports banning abortion even in cases of rape or incest. Mastriano has pledged to appoint one of his own handpicked associates to certify future elections, allowing him to effectively override the will of voters if his chosen candidate does not win.

As Wolf was busy working with lawmakers on his final budget, what was Mastriano doing? Mastriano was pushing a bill that would allow for increased voter intimidation while spreading lies about COVID deaths.

Wolf’s competence, compassion, and honesty are worth remembering when casting a vote for his successor this November.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July 12, 2022.

Editorial: New Pa. election rules will make things worse

The state’s new budget calls for $45 million to help counties run their elections, including roughly $4.75 million for Allegheny County. That’s good. But the rules of the “election integrity grant program” that counties must accept to receive the money are ineffective and counterproductive.

For no good or rational reason, legislators and the governor retained the practice of prohibiting counties from starting to count mail-in ballots until the morning of election day. Pennsylvania’s counties have to start the entire process at 7 a.m. This outdated practice unnecessarily delays certification; such delays will only lengthen as more people vote by mail.

Most states “pre-canvass” their mail-in ballots — open and scan the ballots to prepare them for counting — days in advance. That allows them to quickly add mail-in votes to those on election day.

The chair of the Senate State Government Committee says too few Republicans support pre-canvassing to even to bring it up for discussion. They want voter ID, says state Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, but they don’t want quicker, more efficient vote counting.

Besides keeping one bad practice, legislators added another one: Forcing counties to continue canvassing and counting, without stopping, until they’re done.

Legislators clearly didn’t ask the people who actually run the elections. As reported by Jonathan Lai and Stephen Caruso in “Pa. lawmakers agree to election funding deal — with strings attached” (July 10), this rule will create its own problems. For starters, the bill will increase costs to counties by forcing them to hire and train more staff, as well as purchase the best equipment, to get votes counted quickly. Any problems emerging during the count will also give counties little time to fix them.

The state, indeed the nation, needs election results as quickly as possible. The 2020 election showed what happens when states can’t declare a winner within a day or two of the vote. Unscrupulous candidates exploit the delay to claim they’d been cheated. Despite the evidence, partisans become convinced the system is corrupt and the newly elected candidates are illegitimate. That further polarizes the country — something this dangerously divided nation can ill-afford.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. July 10, 2022.

Editorial: Budget passing is bare minimum

The best you can say about the Pennsylvania Legislature’s move on the budget is that it was quick.

That is, if you can call something quick when it’s more than a week late.

On Thursday, seven days after the budget was due, the House finally passed a spending plan with bipartisan support. On Friday, the Senate followed suit.

But this isn’t a reason to celebrate. This is the sub-basement of responsibility as far as the state government is concerned.

Let’s pretend that the lawmakers and executive branch are schoolchildren. Based on the playground brawl behavior they sometimes exhibit, that shouldn’t be hard.

If we were parents of these kids, their report cards wouldn’t merit a “My Honor Student Goes to the State Government” bumper sticker. The best we could hope for would be a participation trophy.

We should not be excited that this year’s highly predictable budget battle delayed the work of the government by only a week. As a state of people who must pay our bills on time or face the consequences of shut-off power, disconnected phone, foreclosed houses or hungry kids, we should be irate that once again our leaders have failed in the one task they absolutely must do every year.

We should be just as angry that they have had no problem fitting in a limitless supply of political posturing. There always seems to be time to stage a fight with the other side — or sometimes even with different factions within the same party.

Pennsylvania is the cradle of American democracy. It is the nursery where the unique form of government we call our own was born with the Declaration of Independence and baptized with the U.S. Constitution. Pennsylvania has been a consistent leader on the national stage. Where the state leads, the country often follows.

And so it is demoralizing to measure the success of this basic task not by how well it is done but by how much or how little it failed.

Yes, Harrisburg, you managed not to drag the budget process out to the point where school districts had to take out tax anticipation loans and libraries had to decide what days they would close because they couldn’t keep the doors open. Bravo. Here’s your trophy.

Maybe next year there could be a budget that comes on time. But history tells us we are more likely to see another schoolyard tantrum instead.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. July 12, 2022.

Editorial: State needs red flag law

The gun law that President Joe Biden and legislators celebrated Monday at the White House is far from what is necessary to diminish gun violence in this country, especially mass shootings. Without a ban on military-style semiautomatic rifles and high-capacity magazines, the death toll likely will mount.

There are some good attributes to the law. It significantly increases funding for community mental health treatment, for example, which is badly needed regardless of the gun issue.

But Pennsylvania isn’t even eligible for funding under one of the law’s central features because too many state legislators won’t recognize the vast public interest in diminishing gun violence, allowing a minority of gun-rights absolutists to prevail.

The state does not have a “red flag” law, under which 19 other states and the District of Columbia have been able to take thousands of guns out of the hands of people whom courts have deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

A study by Veronica Pear of the University of California, Davis, found that between 2016 and 2019, for example, local authorities used that state’s red-flag law to confiscate weapons from 58 people who had threatened to use them to commit mass murders.

Broward County, Florida — home to Parkland, where a mass murderer killed 17 high school students in 2018 — filed 255 red flag petitions and seized more than 400 guns in the law’s first year.

State lawmakers should pass a red flag law on its merits. And under the new federal law, the state will be eligible to receive $750 million in community violence prevention funds, mental health support, and more. They also should create a program to train local police and prosecutors in applying the law.

Red flag laws protect gun owners’ rights. Every step includes due process under the law. It is irresponsible for state lawmakers to reject one.

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Uniontown Herald Standard. July 10, 2022.

Editorial: Commonwealth Court made right call on bridge tolling

Last week, the bell tolled for bridge tolling in Pennsylvania.

In a decision without any dissenters, Commonwealth Court placed a permanent roadblock up against a plan by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to electronically toll nine interstate bridges, including the span on I-79 at the Bridgeville exchange. According to the court, the Public-Private Transportation Partnership (P3) Board did not seek community input on the plan to toll the bridges before it was announced in February 2021. Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote that this violated the provisions of Act 88, which authorizes public-private partnerships for transportation projects.

She also pointed out that the plan appeared to have been approved on the basis of a “four-page PowerPoint recommendation from DOT that failed to delineate which, or how many, pieces of public infrastructure the initiative would affect.”

There is, of course, the possibility that the ruling could be appealed to higher courts, but it’s tough to imagine PennDOT would have better luck elsewhere, and PennDOT released a statement after the ruling saying that the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf wants to talk with the Legislature about alternative ways to fund transportation work without having to rely on the gasoline tax. This doesn’t sound like PennDOT and the administration are itching to keep the bridge-tolling battle alive.

In fairness, there is a strong argument to be made that the gas tax is inadequate to meet Pennsylvania’s many transportation needs right now, and it will be even less so in the future. It’s an inconsistent funding source, vehicles have been getting better gas mileage and electric vehicles that can operate without gasoline at all are looming over the horizon. There does need to be some serious discussion in Harrisburg about how the money can be found to fix all the roads that desperately need patching, and build the thoroughfares that are needed to have a functioning 21st century infrastructure. But that discussion should not include having already hard-pressed drivers and the communities in which they live and work shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden.

It was never announced how much a toll would have been had the plan been approved, but $1 or $2 for each drive across the bridge was mentioned. Let’s assume $2 would have been the toll – that would have worked out to $4 for each work day or $20 a week. That’s not much in and of itself, but add it up over 49 weeks in a year, subtracting two weeks for vacation and another week or so for holidays, and you get close to $1,000. That’s an amount that many families would be hard-pressed to pay, especially in the face of rising costs for food, housing and other day-to-day necessities.

And even before Commonwealth Court revealed its decision, both leading gubernatorial candidates realized that bridge tolling was kryptonite. Democrat Josh Shapiro said he was “absolutely opposed” to tolling, and Republican Doug Mastriano said, “PennDOT was planning to move forward with few details about how expensive these tolls were going to be and without approval from the General Assembly.”

The I-79 bridge at Bridgeville was built in 1965 and last refurbished in 1998. It’s just one of many bridges in the commonwealth that need repair. Our infrastructure needs to be funded. But it needs to be paid for in a way that is fair to everyone.

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