Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Lancaster Online/LNP. June 15, 2022.

Editorial: As cost of farmland soars, next generation of farmers finding ways to get a foothold

Farmland in Lancaster County is valuable — increasingly valuable — in more ways than one.

It’s essential to the county’s farming heritage and because of its contributions to putting food on people’s tables. It ensures that the Plain populations and others raised in farming communities have a means of making a living.

And many new farmers from disparate backgrounds continue to find creative ways to take advantage of the good soil here, despite its rising cost.

In 2017, as Sauro reported, “local farmland was valued at an average of $18,285 per acre, according to the USDA’s nationwide Census of Agriculture, which is taken every five years. ... At that time, Lancaster County’s per-acre land values already were well above statewide and national averages, which then were $6,470 and $4,030, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.”

Sauro noted that Lancaster County “has outpaced those averages in every USDA Census of Agriculture since 2002.” Another agriculture census is slated to be conducted this year.

What makes farmland here so valuable is partly Lancaster County’s “status as a leading agricultural community in the nation, experts said,” Sauro wrote. “It’s often billed as the most productive non-irrigated farming county in the United States, and farmland makes up more than 60% of the county’s entire landscape, according to the Lancaster County Agricultural Council.”

And there’s the benefit of Lancaster’s desirable farmland being so close to a vital infrastructure of farm-supporting businesses and markets, Sauro noted. Those support businesses themselves are crucial to the fabric of Lancaster County, and its economic successes.

Finally, there’s this factor: Farmland here becomes available for sale relatively infrequently, so the laws of supply and demand are at work.

Here you would expect the tale to turn into one of woe — of most would-be farmers being priced out of the region, and of farmland being devoured by commercial and residential development. And there certainly has been plenty of the latter.

But as Sauro found, it’s actually pretty difficult to buy farmland for development in Lancaster County.

“Many Lancaster County communities have implemented agricultural zoning restrictions, an effort to ensure that certain farm-heavy areas cannot easily be developed for nonagricultural uses,” he wrote.

And “more than 100,000 acres in the county have been permanently protected through preservation organizations, such as the Lancaster Farmland Trust, which purchase development rights from willing property owners, placing deed restrictions to guard against the loss of farmland.”

We think this is wonderful. The Lancaster Farmland Trust has been tenacious in its efforts to preserve farmland. And it should be difficult to turn a piece of farmland into yet another shopping center or high-end housing development.

What we found encouraging about Sauro’s reporting, though, is that the lack of availability of large tracts of farmland has not locked all young farmers out of the agriculture business.

Certainly, it’s daunting for some. We can empathize with Bryan and Brittany Donovan, who told Sauro that they finally settled in Montgomery County after a frustrating lack of progress finding and affording farmland in Lancaster County.

“It’s pretty infuriating when you are trying to grow your business and you are like, ‘I can’t find anything. I’m stuck,’ ” Bryan Donovan said. “The only way you can keep growing is if you find an acre here, an acre there. You are farming all over the place.”

But in many other cases — and because the acreage they seek to purchase or rent is smaller — new farmers are finding success here; often, they have chosen to cultivate one or a couple things and do it very well. So perhaps they’re growing vegetables or making cheese or raising beef cattle for Lancaster County’s farm-to-table restaurants, instead of trying to do all three.

Among the successes, Sauro noted the story of Tyler and Joella Neff, who were able to purchase 20 acres in Bainbridge for their niche beef, poultry and pork operation.

It took patience, planning and hard work, but they were able to achieve their goal.

“Like others, they started out on rented land, and they pursued additional revenue streams,” Sauro reported. “Eventually, they found more land to rent within the county, continuing to farm multiple plots as they grew.”

This kind of creativity, laced with the necessary foundation of sweat equity that hails back to the beginnings of agriculture here, shows that the definition of farming is evolving in a positive way. In a way we should embrace.

And it’s encouraging that programs exist to help nudge this evolution.

Pennsylvania’s Next Generation Farmer Loan Program, administered here by the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, is one such program cited by Sauro. It assists 10 to 12 new farm properties in Lancaster County each year.

“This is a program that Lancaster County sort of dominates,” Economic Development Company President Lisa Riggs said. “The program that we run here... is actually like a national leader.”

It seems only right that Lancaster County, home to the nation’s most productive farmland, is also leading the way in making sure there’s a strong future for agriculture in the decades ahead.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 20, 2022.

Editorial: State reps, keep your hands to yourselves

Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone and be kind to one another. That’s the way Lt. Tim Cotton ends every post on the famous Facebook page of the Bangor Police Department in Maine. It’s good, normal advice. It’s too bad some of our elected officials apparently don’t follow it.

State representative Kate A. Klunk, R-York, has proposed an addition to the legislative rules governing the legislators’ professional conduct. The current rule allows the chamber to take action against members who sexually harass other legislators and employees of the House of Representatives, independent of criminal proceedings.

That’s obviously too narrow. Legislators hold power over many people they work with who are not employed by the legislature. These people want or need something from the legislators, who can be tempted to use this power in sexually exploitative ways. Ms. Klunk wants to add a line to the current House rules to include sexual harassment of anyone with whom a legislator does legislative business, and with anyone while they are in the House’s facilities.

She’s absolutely right: Legislators don’t stop acting as legislators when they leave the Capitol. The chamber should be able to enforce professional standards of conduct on its members wherever their business takes them.

The rules already forbid them from abusing their office financially. But exploiting others sexually is at least as much a crime against the people and the institution as demanding kickbacks. It degrades the House’s ability to do the work it is supposed to be doing.

And the victims deserve a recourse that’s more immediate than the court system. Just as victims of workplace harassment can appeal within their company, even if the offense isn’t a crime, so people involved with our state government should be able to appeal for protection or justice without waiting on the courts.

Further, expanding the scope of House rules makes it clear that the chamber takes this kind of corruption especially seriously. That should induce some members to act more respectfully and discourage at least some of those with bad motives from seeking office in the first place.

The proposal was referred to the Rules Committee on April 5th. It’s encouraging, given how slow the state legislature has been to police itself on other matters, that Ms. Klunk’s resolution is a subject of bipartisan negotiations. Yet it has not gone further.

Leaders Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, should make make it a priority to agree on strong language to protect the vulnerable from some of the most powerful people in Pennsylvania: themselves.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. June 20, 2022.

Editorial: Funding formula is PaSSHE pipe dream

Will a new formula redistribute state university money in a way that works?

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s governing board unanimously approved the funding proposal on Wednesday. It would follow what seems like an obvious plan, directing the money based on enrollment at what will be 10 universities spread over 16 campuses.

The issue is that the formula should work — but only if the universities get $75 million more than they had for the 2021-22 school year.

A Pennlive story quotes Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Michael Driscoll, who helped create the formula, as saying it “doesn’t work” at the present funding level of $477.5 million.

“It’s just a matter of (which university) runs out of money first and then who follows,” he said.

If the people who created the formula recognize that it isn’t viable without a 15.7% increase in state funding, it hardly seems like something that should have passed without a single vote against it.

State university funding is seldom — if ever — delivered at the requested amounts. It doesn’t happen for the big dogs — state-related universities Pitt, Penn State and Temple. It seems unlikely to happen for the struggling state system that already has consolidated six of its colleges into two “new” universities that are clearly in name only. Pennsylvania Western University marries the schools in California, Clarion and Edinboro. Commonwealth University does the same with Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield.

So what happens if the governor and state Legislature perform their annual budget knife fight and end up giving the state system exactly the same funding it’s already receiving, or just a bump of a few percent?

Creating a formula that depends on a theoretical ideal increase is like buying a house based on the paycheck you want rather than the paycheck you have. It’s setting up a situation unlikely to work in the long run.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. June 21, 2022.

Editorial: Coffin nail for smoking in casinos

State legislators addicted to easy money long ago rolled over for casino operators who claimed that they couldn’t make money, and provide the state government’s vigorish, without accommodating gamblers who are addicted to tobacco.

So legislators carved out an exception for casinos to public health law that proscribes smoking indoors just about everywhere else. Doing so also exposed untold numbers of nonsmokers, especially thousands of casino workers, to toxic secondhand smoke.

Now, a new casino-industry study on smoking should be the final coffin nail for the state’s benighted policy.

The report by Las Vegas-based casino consultant C3 Gaming found that banning smoking in casinos has a negligible effect on gambling revenue: “Data from multiple jurisdictions clearly indicates that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue. In fact, nonsmoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”

Exposure of the smoking-is-revenue myth might be one of the few positive results of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with a host of other changes that casinos had to make to reopen amid the pandemic, state regulators temporarily banned smoking to ensure that patrons remained masked. Gambling houses not only did not lose money, but found that nonsmoking gamblers and especially, employees, appreciated the change.

Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Act allows smoking on up to 50% of a casino’s gambling floor — the special-interest exception — but bars it in restaurants, bars, lobbies and all other indoor areas.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “there is no risk-free level of secondhand smoke, and even brief exposure can cause immediate harm.” It reported that 41,000 Americans still die each year from causes related to second-hand-smoke exposure, costing the economy $5.6 billion a year in lost productivity.

In 2022, according to the CDC, about 12.5% of Americans old enough to gamble in casinos also smoke. The new study demonstrates that most of that minority who gamble will continue to do so regardless of whether they are allowed to smoke at the casino. Legislators always were wrong for gambling with people’s health for the sake of gambling revenue. They should seize the chance to make amends by ending the exemption.

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice. June 20, 2022.

Editorial: Leave trial locations to courts

Given the state’s political structure, it’s natural to think of the Legislature in terms of the major political parties. But that’s just part of the story. Individual lawmakers often are wholly owned subsidiaries of much narrower interests — gas, guns, unions and so on.

Those interests pay millions of dollars to lobbyists and in campaign contributions to enshrine their preferences in law. It’s why Pennsylvania is the only gas-producing state not to impose an extraction tax on natural gas, why the state allows schoolteachers to strike, and so on. The public interest commonly plays second fiddle to the narrow interests that call the tune.

Now comes state Rep. Rob Kauffman of Franklin County, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, with a proposal to take that special-interest power to an absurd new level.

The state constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, establishes three separate and equal branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial. Kauffman proposes a constitutional amendment by which the Legislature could stomp on the judiciary in favor of the insurance industry and other corporate interests, at the expense of people who have sued those interests.

At issue is venue for civil litigation, the question of where civil lawsuits are adjudicated. It was a major issue in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the insurance and health care industries contended that trial lawyers, representing people alleging medical malpractice, “venue shopped” to file the cases in counties where they were most likely to succeed and with histories of large payouts. Broadly, that meant Philadelphia.

The state Supreme Court issued a rule in 2002 that civil litigation must be filed in the county where the alleged injury occurs. But Kauffman wants the Legislature — 253 politicians — to take over the venue decisions now handled by judges.

Pennsylvanians who have a constitutional right to a fair trial instead would have a right to a trial in a venue determined by politicians beholden to the powerful interests being sued.

That is a parody of justice and equal treatment under the law. Kauffman should desist, or his colleagues should summon what’s left of their regard for democratic separation of powers, and kill the proposal.

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