Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:

Take wait, see approach on state budget

Altoona Mirror

Jan. 12

For the past two fiscal years, Pennsylvania taxpayers have had cause for cautious optimism about the Keystone State’s financial condition for the short and longer terms, going forward.

During numerous months of those fiscal years, which run from July 1 through June 30, incoming revenue exceeded budget projections, sometimes significantly.

It is important to note, however, that the annual months-long Pennsylvania budget-preparation processes have been more harmonious over the past two fiscal years than for a number of years prior, despite the commonwealth’s nagging structural deficit.

Lawmakers and the governor’s office have found sources of money — temporary or otherwise — to help the state “get through” the ensuing 12 months without fiscal crises, unlike in some prior years when credit agencies downgraded the state’s rating.

Still, some Mirror readers might have swallowed hard when they saw the Jan. 3 headline “Pa. ends year on sour financial note.”

Those readers/taxpayers might have gotten the initial impression that the state is about to revert to a replay of the years when assembling a budget dragged on well beyond the June 30 adoption deadline.

The Jan. 3 article reported that December general fund revenue collections were

$91.5 million short of estimate — eye-opening, indeed. The troubling revenue showing for the month more than halved the excess revenue that the state had built up during the first five months of Fiscal Year 2019-20.

Some Pennsylvania residents might have wondered whether the commonwealth’s economic situation really stacks up against the rosy economic news being pitched by the federal government; last month, personal income tax collections checked in at only $18.9 million — less than two-tenths of 1 percent — above expectations.

The point worthy of emphasis now is that it is premature for concern over the state’s money fortunes for 2020-21. There still are nearly six months left in the current fiscal year, and much positive incoming-revenue news could evolve during those months.

There also are some logical reasons why the December numbers might have fallen significantly below projections, one of them connected to the personal income tax.

According to the Jan. 3 article, federal tax law changes made in 2017 might be one culprit. As the article explained, prior to the tax law changes, taxpayers had an incentive to pay their last calendar-year quarterly payment in December in advance of the January due date. However, due to the tax law changes, the inducement might no longer be as strong.

The fiscal report for January should answer that and a number of other questions emanating from the December report.

Although it is premature for pessimism about the future, it is not premature for state residents to begin watching for new predictions tied to 2020-21 budget-preparation, which will gear up in about a month.

Even now it can be said confidently that not even a whisper regarding a state income tax increase is likely during this legislative election year and, based on the past, prospects are zero for a severance tax on the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry.

The five “road maps” to how upcoming budget-preparation will proceed will rest with details — good or bad — in the January-through-May monthly revenue reports.

The December report wasn’t good, but it didn’t ensure doom.

Online: https://bit.ly/35Vsi4E

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No consensus on reducing drug prices

The Citizen’s Voice

Jan. 15

Prescription drug price reduction is supposed be one of the policy areas on which Congress and the Trump administration agree. But an array of proposals from the administration and legislators of both major parties, from Canadian drug imports to Medicare price negotiations with the pharmaceutical industry, have not produced consensus — much less price reductions.

That leaves it largely to the states, which passed scores of drug price-reduction bills in 2019.

In Harrisburg, state Rep. Dan Frankel, an Allegheny County Democrat, plans to introduce a bill to emulate a new program that Maryland launched in 2019, and which several other states since have adopted — a state-operated drug price accountability board.

The board would examine spikes in prescription drug costs, require pharmaceutical companies to justify prices for certain drugs, and potentially set price caps on what Pennsylvanians would have to pay for the drugs at retail.

New brand name prescription drugs which enter the market at $30,000 or more per year or course of treatment;

Under the pioneer Maryland program, the board reviews pricing of any new prescription priced at more than $30,000 per year, existing medicines for which prices increase by more than $3,000 per year, existing generic medicines for which prices increase by more than 200% per year, and any prescription drug that creates funding problems for state-operated health care systems, including Medicaid.

Maryland’s board, in turn, is modeled on boards that many European governments use to assess and limit prescription drug prices.

The Maryland law applies only to local and state government employees, but an effort is under way there to expand it to all Marylanders. The Pennsylvania program should be written to apply to everyone.

Drug prices continue to be a principal driver of health care inflation, which ripples through the rest of the economy, including in the costs of government-funded health care benefits.

The Legislature should establish the board as a means of establishing pricing accountability.

Online: https://bit.ly/2RlGDCb

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New machines boost voter confidence

Erie Times-News

Jan. 15

Attacks on U.S. elections should not surprise, given the power they convey.

This nation’s history of voter restrictions and suppression and other tactics to skew results runs deep from the poll taxes of the Jim Crow South to modern disenfranchisement strategies – voter identification provisions and purges that target poor and minority voters.

The act of voting powers our democracy and given the high stakes – the apportionment of resources and influence – the path to full access and participation has been uneven and rocky.

In 2016, hostile foreign actors entered the fray to convincing effect. Russian trolls spread disinformation campaigns on social media that inflamed voters’ divisions and informed their choices. Russia also attempted to interfere directly, by unsuccessfully trying to hack into voter registration records in 21 states, including Pennsylvania.

With none of those threats to our democracy eliminated, there is plenty to worry about as the nation heads into the pivotal 2020 presidential race.

But amid this atmosphere it appears that voters can feel secure where it matters most: the voting booth.

As reporter Kevin Flowers detailed, due to state and federal mandates issued in response to the attacks on our elections in 2016, Erie County, along with all other counties in Pennsylvania, now has a new electronic voting system that protects the integrity of the election in at least two ways. The voting machines are not connected to the internet, so they are not at risk of being hacked, and they generate a paper ballot that is scanned into a computer and tabulated. If there is question regarding the scanned results, the totals can be verified the old-fashioned way, by counting the paper ballots before an audience.

These machines, 320 voting machines and 320 ballot scanners, cost nearly $3 million, but the expense, partially offset by state and federal funds, is well worth it.

This is a fraught period for our democracy. Preserving access to the voting booth and ensuring accurate counts is foundational to its continued legitimacy. As our nation’s demographics change and power begins to shift with them, we must thwart homegrown efforts to rig the system in favor of any one group.

We must also treat foreign attempts to influence and derail our elections with the same vigilance and resolve we would any other kind of foreign attack. The first step is creating a secure balloting system, like the county and state have done with these voting machines.

After that, we should take whatever steps are needed to identify clearly for the voting public any foreign propaganda that seeks to manipulate them. It is not harmless noise, but an insidious assault on American hearts and minds. Shoot it down.

Online: https://bit.ly/2u7mrfh

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Is there Pipeline woes: DEP needs to be vigilant in monitoring company

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jan. 15

Violations of state environmental rules. Underground drilling that caused a number of sinkholes. Poor construction and oversight practices. A pipeline explosion that destroyed a house and threatened a neighborhood.

Energy Transfer Corp. has not exactly been the best of business partners as it constructs major natural gas pipelines across Pennsylvania.

The state Department of Environmental Protection put a hold on the company’s requests for environmental permits after the September 2018 explosion, effectively shutting down several pipeline projects. It wasn’t until earlier this month that DEP reached an agreement with the Texas-based company to resume permitting, but only after fining Energy Transfer $30.6 million — one of the largest fines ever issued over an oil and gas project — for the pipeline explosion.

The agency needs to remain vigilant in its oversight of a company that has thus far shown a less-than-stellar work history in the commonwealth.

The explosion in Beaver County was caused by a landslide that ruptured the Revolution pipeline, which connects natural gas wells in Beaver and Butler counties to a processing plant in Washington County. The pipeline had been activated just days before the incident.

An investigation by environmental regulators of Energy Transfer and its contractors found that poor construction practices led to the disaster. More than two years before the incident, the company knew the site had “high susceptibility to slope failure,” but that information was not provided to the engineers who submitted the permit requests.

After a landslide several months before the explosion, the company did not consult with engineers or geotechnical experts on how to stabilize the ground. Instead, crews moved the soil from the landslide back uphill. When the soil slid down it again, it ruptured the pipeline and caused the explosion.

DEP previously fined Energy Transfer for environmental rules violations in connection with the Mariner East natural gas liquid pipelines stretching across the southern part of the state and heading to terminals near Philadelphia. Underground drilling led to a number of sinkholes in Eastern Pennsylvania and resulted in more than $12 million in civil penalties.

When DEP first placed a halt on permits for Energy Transfer, Gov. Tom Wolf assured Pennsylvanians that the company would be held accountable.

“There has been a failure by Energy Transfer and its subsidiaries to respect our laws and our communities,” Mr. Wolf said. “This is not how we strive to do business in Pennsylvania, and it will not be tolerated.”

That commitment to oversight and accountability needs to be a top priority for environmental regulators as pipeline projects continue throughout the state. Anything less is unacceptable.

Online: https://bit.ly/387Dlt4

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Each of us can help limit spread of flu

Reading Eagle

Jan. 15

As we reach the middle of winter, the dreaded flu season is heating up all over Pennsylvania, including Berks County and nearby areas.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported in early January that confirmed cases had jumped to 518 for the season, up 65% from the previous week. As of the week ending Jan. 4, there were 25,362 laboratory-confirmed flu cases across Pennsylvania, officials said. That was up 68% from the week before, which had seen an increase of 56% from the previous week.

A total of 477 flu-associated hospitalizations and 13 flu-associated deaths had been reported statewide as of early January. The state reported 10 of those who died were age 65 and older, two were between 50 and 64 and one was between 19 and 49. As of late December, there were at least 6.4 million flu cases nationwide, 55,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Penn State Health St. Joseph and Reading Hospital have reported seeing significant increases in flu patients in recent weeks.

Penn State Health has been having some flu patients admitted to the hospital, in most cases due to other conditions such as diabetes or lung issues that make them more vulnerable to the flu’s side effects, said Mari Driscoll, infection control coordinator.

Hundreds of other people have gone to the hospital seeking treatment for symptoms of the flu. Most were told to rest, drink lots of fluids, take Tylenol for fevers and possibly Tamiflu if the flu was detected early enough.

Most years the A strain of the flu hits locally first and brings more severe symptoms than the B strain, which arrives late in the season, Driscoll said. But this year the B strain has already been just as prevalent as the A type, with similar symptoms.

Driscoll said St. Joseph also has been admitting patients with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which can be as bad or worse than the flu, sometimes causing serious respiratory problems and typically affecting young children and older adults.

Reading Hospital also has seen an unusually higher number of B-type flu cases with symptoms similar to A cases, said Dr. Debra Powell, chief of the section of infectious disease. And the hospital has had a lot of RSV cases.

The flu season usually peaks locally about the 10th or 12th week of the year, but this year it will likely hit earlier, maybe by early February, Driscoll said.

The evolving nature of the flu makes it difficult to predict what’s going to happen. But regardless of when the worst of it hits or which strains strike, there are steps each of us can take in the interest of personal and public health.

For starters, that means getting a flu vaccination. It’s not too late to do so, and both local hospitals urged those who haven’t received a flu shot to do so now. There’s no excuse to skip it. There was a time when people assumed they had to make an appointment or attend a special clinic to get vaccinated. But today it’s widely available at local drugstores as well as most doctors’ offices and drug stores. It’s the best way to prevent flu and its potentially serious complications.

Remember that getting the vaccine doesn’t just protect you from getting seriously ill, it reduces the likelihood that you’ll spread it to someone else who may face serious danger from contracting it.

Driscoll said this year’s flu vaccine seems to cover the strains most commonly being seen by doctors. Even in years when the vaccine proves less effective, doctors say it still makes flu symptoms easier to tolerate.

Another step people can take, regardless of whether or not they’ve been vaccinated, is to wash hands frequently to avoid spreading the flu or other viruses.

Yes, we know this is one of those messages that people tend to tune out because they hear it year after year, and they see it as just another flu season. But for some of us it’s a matter of life and death. Let’s treat it that way.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Rj2YAh