Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

York Dispatch. June 14, 2021.

Editorial: Awful ‘audit’ idea hatched by GOP in Pa.

It seemed only a matter of time before Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania hopped on the “election audit” bandwagon.

Turns out, they’ve been on it all along.

While the ballot-smearing circus in Arizona has been getting most of the headlines, a stunning report by The Washington Post reveals that the democracy-undermining practice originated in Pennsylvania.

It will come as small surprise to anyone following the 2020 elections and their sorry aftermath that one of the ringleaders is state Sen. Doug Mastriano. The freshman Republican from Franklin County has worked tirelessly this past year to disenfranchise his own constituents in service to disgraced, disgraceful former President Donald Trump.

It was Mastriano, recall, who orchestrated a post-election Gettysburg panel last November to trumpet unfounded allegations of voter fraud from Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others; who called for Pennsylvania’s Legislature to overturn Trump’s loss in the state; who plotted with Trump more than a dozen times in the weeks after the president’s overwhelming electoral defeat; who was in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6 along with thousands of other Trump-obsessed insurgents; and who has backed a variety of politically motivated, unnecessary voting restrictions.

He also wasted taxpayer money to fly to Arizona this month, where an ongoing farce dressed up as an audit of 2020 elections ballots — solely from a county that favored Democratic President Joe Biden — has drawn widespread derision, even from Republicans.

It was not Mastriano’s first encounter with such shenanigans, according to the Post.

In the months following last fall’s election, Mastriano was among a group of Pennsylvania Republicans who, the Post writes, “targeted at least three small counties, all of which Trump had won handily. Their proposal was unorthodox: to have a private company scrutinize the county’s ballots, for free — a move outside the official processes used for election challenges.”

Only rural Fulton County bit.

“Since we believe in transparency, we agreed to let them come in and do the audit,” wrote county Elections Director Patti Hess — a laughable assertion given, as the Post reported, “the residents of Fulton County initially had no idea that their ballots had been scrutinized.”

It was only after reference to “a Third-Party Analysis Team” was made in minutes of a county commissioners meeting that the issue was elevated.

Meanwhile, a draft report from the “audit” company, West Chester-based WAKE Technology Services, Inc. — which went on to assist Cyber Ninjas with the Arizona audit — cited just two inconsequential “issues of note,” yet a final, revised version cited five problem areas.

So: A private firm given access to state and federally certified elections machines finds alleged “issues” and uses them to plant suspicion and undermine voter confidence, the better to justify ever-increasing partisan voting restrictions.

If that sounds like what’s going on in Arizona, that may be less a coincidence than Pennsylvania being something of a dry run.

“The previously unreported lobbying (in Pennsylvania) foreshadowed a playbook now in use in Arizona and increasingly being sought in other communities across the country as Trump supporters clamor for reviews of the ballots cast last fall, citing false claims that the vote was corrupted by fraud,” notes the Post.

Mastriano is now calling for an Arizona-like audit here, an idea quickly rejected by Gov. Tom Wolf and state Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, who chairs the House’s State Government Committee, which oversees elections issues.

That opposition is welcome, but not as welcome as the day Mastriano eventually joins the past president he so slavishly emulates as a former office-holder. He has repeatedly shown Pennsylvania’s voters he does not value their presence or opinions. Come November 2024, they must return the favor.

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Altoona Mirror. June 14, 2021.

Editorial: Anticipating collision on state budget

During “regular” years, Pennsylvania lawmakers spend the month of June trying to scrape together enough money to produce a balanced state budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1 — or at least a budget that on the surface appears to be balanced, even if it really is not.

This year the challenge does not revolve around scraping together enough money to balance incoming revenue with the money that will be outgoing.

Instead, the important task lawmakers and the governor’s office face is to ensure that whatever new and surplus funds are available, as well as routine incoming funds, are spent properly.

Rather than “properly,” a better word probably is “sensibly,” since no one can be sure what the money situation in the commonwealth will be beyond the upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year, for which the state is blessed with $7.3 billion from the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law in March plus an anticipated $3 billion budget surplus.

Of concern needs to be whether any budget decisions of prior years still have “chisels” capable of chipping away at some of the good revenue news that is greeting 2021-22 fiscal preparations.

A front-page article in the June 8 Mirror reported that the state used nearly $4 billion in one-time cash — much of it federal coronavirus aid — to prop up the current 2020-21 spending plan.

The article went on to report that lawmakers might need to find cash to replace much of that $4 billion plus cover approximately $800 million in cost-overruns.

Meanwhile, there are the nasty words “structural deficit” that remain a factor in regard to any major decisions that the commonwealth pursues for 2021-22 and years beyond.

A major source of disagreement in this year’s state budget exercise is education.

Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic allies in the House and Senate want more than $1 billion in new aid to public schools, which translates into about a 20 percent increase. General Assembly Republicans, meanwhile, are advancing a plan focusing more on charter and private schools.

What needs to be emphasized in the schools debate is that whatever additional money is allocated to school systems must be geared toward actually enhancing students’ learning, rather than being used for items that are questionable in that regard.

The June 8 article said Wolf’s goal is to “ensure Pennsylvania begins using its six-year-old school funding formula in a meaningful way for the first time, without cutting funding to districts that have benefited disproportionately In the past from state aid.”

Wolf believes now is the time to move ahead in what he labeled a “historic priority.”

However, Republican lawmakers are focusing on a plan to take away from local school boards at least some of the power to approve charter schools, at the same time ramping up taxpayer financing of private schools through tax credits and vouchers.

The two radically different proposals are paving the way for interesting debate over the next couple of weeks. What is shaking out is an opportunity for compromise in a way that both sides can get some of what they want.

But there will be plenty of room for other compromise as well. The important question is whether having so much extra money this year will help spawn more budget-making give-and-take than what state residents have witnessed for a long time.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. June 14, 2021.

Editorial: Incompetence an emergency unto itself

After politicizing the COVID-19 emergency and orchestrating a constitutional amendment to wrest control of emergency management from the executive branch, legislative Republicans have demonstrated why that is a bad idea.

Last week, the House Republican majority abruptly passed a bill to end Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration regarding the pandemic. Their zeal to zing the governor was such that they apparently didn’t bother to examine the details of the emergency declaration. When the bill arrived in the Senate, senators had to retool it because it had eliminated matters that are important to management of — you know — an emergency.

In voting to void the emergency declaration, the House Republicans also voided a series of regulatory waivers that still are important for the health care community to handle COVID-19. For example, the governor’s declaration waived certain licensing requirements so that hospitals more easily could hire the doctors and nurses that they needed amid the crisis, and some procurement regulations to ensure the fastest possible acquisition of supplies such as personal protective equipment.

The situation demonstrates why the Legislature is ill-suited to manage emergencies, all the more so during this era of political polarization. The expertise and machinery of government resides in the executive branch, which by design executes government policy.

Yet, as if to put an exclamation point on its own preference for politics over competence, the House also passed a bill that would strip the state health secretary of the power to order certain measures during an infectious disease pandemic, including the authority to order travel restrictions, mask-wearing and stay-at-home orders. The Legislature would, in effect, assume the power to make things worse.

Wolf is certain to veto that awful bill. But there is no way to manage the emergency of poor governance by the Legislature unless Pennsylvanians themselves do so at the polls.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 14, 2021.

Editorial: Local companies increasing wages benefits everyone

Political leaders are continuing to debate the efficacy of hiking the minimum wage to $15, but many businesses are beating them to the punch and boosting base wages in an effort to attract new talent to fill vacancies amidst a worker shortage.

In Pittsburgh, several local companies and employers are bumping up hourly wages for workers as they try to coax residents back to work. Allegheny County, fretting over a lifeguard shortage at its public pools, has pushed the hourly rate up to $14 and made certification classes free. Kennywood is sweetening its hiring package with free fries and park games and many positions set at $14 or $15 an hour to bring in more workers for the summer. Larger employers ranging from Best Buy to Amazon to Costco are boosting wages, as well.

This is good news for all Pennsylvanians, as a rising tide lifts all boats. Increasing wages will benefit employees in terms of their bank accounts and well-being.

It’ll help with staff recruitment and retention and should improve quality of service, thereby benefiting both the company as well as customers. It’s possible that some of the increased costs will be passed on to consumers, but as businesses ramp up staffing, swelling revenue could cover the increased wages at least in part.

The labor shortage in Pennsylvania predates the COVID-19 pandemic, but some business owners argue that the current shortage has been exacerbated by the $300 federal unemployment enhancement.

Some states are reinstituting a requirement that people receiving unemployment benefits provide proof of job search activities as a way to wean folks off unemployment as the threat of the pandemic wanes due to the rising number of vaccinated residents.

Increasing wages is another way to push back against employment hesitancy. One telling story involves Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, which raised its wages to $15 an hour in May to goose staffing for the summer months when families have more of a hankering for frozen treats. The shop received more than 1,000 job applications within days.

Such anecdotes seem to support an argument for increasing the minimum wage, but, in effect, individual companies deciding to do this for themselves negates the need for a federally mandated minimum wage hike. As more companies raise their wages in the area, pressure will increase on their competitors to raise wages to attract talent or risk losing out.

The net result should be a better-paid, larger and more loyal workforce as the U.S. continues to rebound from the pandemic.

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Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. June 11, 2021.

Editorial: Greater emphasis still needed on vaccinating staff at prisons

Vaccination levels continue to lag for corrections staff at several area state and county prisons, reflecting a troubling statewide trend.

But is the problem apathy or inconsistent accounting?

In announcing this week that the Cambria County courthouse would not be returning to pre-pandemic practices anytime soon, President Judge Norman Krumenacker pointed to low vaccination rates by staff at the county jail as one contributing factor.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Cambria prison board, Warden Christian Smith said 30 of the jail’s 115 employees – or 26% – had received COVID-19 vaccines.

Krumenacker said the number could be as high as 38 employees – still just 33% – which moved the judge to say: “That’s beyond my wildest imagination. I don’t want to start transporting prisoners from the jail to the courthouse. I don’t wish to open up Pandora’s box.”

After touring the State Correctional Institution at Somerset and the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands on June 2, reporter David Hurst heard a similar story for vaccinations of state prison staff – 24.8% at SCI-Somerset and 31.4% at SCI-Laurel Highlands, based on Department of Corrections data.

As meager as those numbers might be, the local prisons are ahead of the statewide rate of 21% – with SCI-Fayette (10%) and SCI-Albion (8%) pulling down that number – according to the DOC.

By comparison, more than 70% of the inmates at the two state prisons in Somerset County had been vaccinated against COVID-19 – a higher rate than seen in the county’s public population.

SCI-Somerset Superintendent Eric Tice said management can’t force staff to get vaccinated.

“I’m a firm believer in personal choice,” he said. “It’s their decision to make. It’s on us to continue educating them and offering them the opportunity to get vaccinated.”

However, he also noted that employees are “the variable” for infection levels within the penitentiary – because they’re the ones coming and going with risk of external exposure to the virus.

The exception would be inmates transferred in for medical treatment at SCI-Laurel Highlands, which has had 500 staff or inmate virus cases, Correctional Health Care Administrator Jennifer Schrock said.

Tice said: “We’re the ones bringing this virus into the prison and we’re the ones who can take it home ... without even knowing it.”

He and Major of Guards Jeff Shaffer said they know of staff who have gotten vaccinated on their own, meaning the state statistics aren’t accurate.

John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, blamed Gov. Tom Wolf’s rollout plan for vaccines – which he notes did not prioritize shots for prison staff when vaccines first became available.

“There was never a policy from the Wolf administration to vaccinate all corrections officers, even though we clearly should’ve been a priority and repeatedly asked for priority status,” he said in a statement shared by the Harrisburg public relations firm La Torre Communications.

“Many of our members, including myself, went and got vaccinated on our own,” Eckenrode said. “They don’t collect that data, so there really isn’t a way to quantify how many officers have been vaccinated.”

That point is valid. The state should include in its data those officers who have been vaccinated outside the prisons where they work – and the corrections association should gather and supply accurate figures.

We call on the PSCOA and the DOC to work together to accurately track all prison staff who have been vaccinated – by the state or on their own – and to educate and motivate the rest to get the shots for the sake of their places of work and their own families.

At the county level, Krumenacker said the Cambria courts will continue to require individuals attending hearings to be masked, and will continue to employ teleconferencing technology to minimize in-person interaction and to limit prisoner transports.

“I’m going to follow the science more than the politics,” Krumenacker said.

The biological science says vaccines are bringing down the levels of COVID-19 in our communities and allowing for a return to more normal activities.

It’s not rocket science to hypothesize that we need a greater commitment to vaccines for those who work in our jails and prisons.

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