Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:
The Philadelphia Inquirer on symbols of Independence Day
We mark this Independence Day by a clash of symbols.
On one hand, we have President Trump's multi-million dollar military parade rolling its tanks, fighting vehicles and jets through Washington. To help pay for it, $2.5 million was taken out of the budget for the National Park Service, which has already been decimated by cuts - including a 14 percent whack in the president's latest budget. Those cuts hit especially close to home here in Philadelphia, home to Independence National Historical Park, which should be the crown jewel of all national parks, but which is crying out for attention and resources.
We first shone a light on the sad state of Independence Park two years ago, when we found deferred maintenance, shabby grounds, closed exhibits and shuttered restrooms. We bemoaned the condition of a place that all Philadelphians — all Americans — should consider an inspiring and sacred space: the park that embodies and celebrates the birth of our nation.
Two years later, conditions are slightly improved, primarily because a local landscaping company donated $300,000 worth of landscaping and plantings. BrightView Landscapes, a national firm based in Blue Bell, recently replaced nearly 100,000 square feet of damaged sod, and replaced dried out vines and empty planters on Independence Mall with vibrant greenery. This act of philanthropy is notable. On one hand, we wish more companies would step up to help; on the other, isn't it our own civic responsibility to care for this important asset?
On the whole, as Philadelphia magazine recently pointed out, Independence Park is still in woeful shape. Too many exhibits and buildings are closed, as the park struggles with $51 million in deferred maintenance.
Still, as the visitor numbers prove, people are hungry for the story of our nation and the symbols of its beginnings. Independence Park saw 5 million visitors in 2017, and 4.5 million in 2018.
That hunger is mirrored in our national park system. According to a recent report in USA Today, the number of visitors to the national parks have reached record numbers; 318 million visits in 2018. Meanwhile, the number of Park Service rangers has decreased by more than 20 percent since 2005. We love to visit our national parks. We need to love them in ways that make a difference, like demanding that more of our tax dollars go toward maintaining them.
Congress has recently introduced a bill that would allocate money for the backlog of repairs to Independence Park and parks across the country. The Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, cosponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans, would establish a fund from revenues from oil, gas, coal or alternative energy development on federal land and water to deal with the staggering backlog of repairs and maintenance.
Two years ago, reflecting on the potential for Independence Park, we pointed out "As democracy itself seems increasingly under stress, it's time to create an inspiring and uplifting experience that not only provides a coherent narrative of our founding, but inspires the next chapters of our democracy and our future."
Those words are truer than ever. And today, of all days, we should take them to heart.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Border Patrol agent's social media posts
While people may disagree on immigration policy, the American public with one voice should condemn the disturbing posts maligning migrants and Latino members of Congress that rogue Border Patrol officers posted as part of an illicit Facebook group.
The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general is investigating the racist, sexist, sexually explicit and cruel posts exposed by the New York-based news outlet ProPublica. But there is no time for a drawn-out inquiry. U.S. Customs and Border Protection itself must quickly identify those who created the group and made offensive comments — and then it must mete out the stiffest punishment possible.
The agency's reputation, already tainted by reports of poor living conditions in detention centers on the southern border, is on the line. Worse, the offenders' misconduct further inflames a debate over immigration that has torn the nation in two. Their idiocy and bigotry have pushed compromise, solutions, reforms — progress of any kind — further out of reach even as migrants continue to stream into overrun detention centers.
The Facebook group's very name — "I'm 10-15," police speak for alien in custody — is abhorrent. Although people in medicine, law enforcement and many other fields risk becoming desensitized to the people they encounter on the job, the Border Patrol officers' posts are beyond the pale. They include jokes about the migrant deaths that have agonized the nation, with one writing about a 16-year-old, "If he dies, he dies." The youth did, in fact, die.
Members of the group also mocked last week's widely disseminated photo of a man and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande, asking whether the image was fake because the"floaters" looked "clean."
At least one commenter suggested hurling burritos at Latino members of Congress during the group's tour of a detention center, and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., an agency critic, was the subject of crude and sexually explicit remarks. President Donald Trump pointed out that some Customs and Border Protection employees are upset with congressional critics — but who cares? Government employees don't get to second-guess their overseers, and that is the role Congress plays. The Facebook group signals the need for even greater oversight.
Now, the agency and its supporters say that the offensive posts don't reflect the sentiments of most hardworking border officers. Also, some of those who made the offensive remarks may just have been letting off steam after a hard day's work, without really meaning what they wrote.
All of that may be true. But the posts reflect a broken culture that the agency must correct. And it isn't just on display at the southern border. Anyone who travels internationally knows that American border and customs workers are ruder and less professional than many of their foreign counterparts. It's time for the agency to re-evaluate its hiring practices, root out the rotten apples and develop better stress-management programs for employees who struggle with job-related stress.
The politicians and pundits rushing to condemn the Facebook offenders also should pause to take stock of their own conduct. Political polarization has created an environment in which crude talk passes for candor and offensive behavior for toughness. This is the wrong example to set for border and customs agents, even the best of whom must struggle at times to enforce the law in a respectful way.
Scranton Times-Tribune on political corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania
Yet again, a Northeast Pennsylvania politician who claimed to offer integrity, transparency and progress has delivered instead bribery, extortion and criminal conspiracy.
This time it's good riddance to former Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright, who resigned Monday and is scheduled to plead guilty today in federal court to grotesquely using his office's power for personal financial gain, to punish political opponents, and to shake down people trying to do business in his struggling city.
His name now lengthens the dispiriting dishonor roll comprising disgraced Luzerne County judges who traded teenagers' futures for personal financial gain, Luzerne and Lackawanna County commissioners who shook down vendors and characterized it as how business is done, and most recently, the chief financial officer for the Scranton School District charging his family's vehicle repairs to taxpayers.
The full breadth of Courtright's betrayal of his city will be known, ideally, later today when federal authorities conduct a press conference in Scranton to discuss the case.
But those details already are another example of the region's corrupt political culture.
Incredibly, in his previous position as tax collector, Courtright watched as former Lackawanna County Commissioners Robert Cordaro and A.J. Munchak used their positions for political and personal gain, were convicted and sentenced to long federal prison terms — and then decided, beginning as soon as he took office as mayor in 2014, to use his position in roughly the same way.
Ed Pawlowski, the former mayor of Allentown, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for similar conduct, and Vaughn Spencer, former mayor of Reading, faces an eight-year term for the same thing.
The challenge for the city government is not simply to provide municipal services, but to finally rise up against the culture of corruption that permeates local politics.
That challenge falls primarily to city council. Pat Rogan, the council president, is now interim mayor as council goes about the business of appointing a replacement for Courtright.
To begin with, that process must be completely open and transparent. And it must be followed by a housecleaning of the Courtright administration, a general hiring process devoid of politics, much more intense scrutiny of contract bidding and awards, and zero tolerance for misuse of public power at any level.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on gerrymandering in the U.S.
Whether you are in a casino or a courtroom or state house, stacking the deck is wrong.
You don't get to load up your hand with aces. You don't get to put your best friends on your jury. And you aren't supposed to carefully, surgically carve out a constituency that is exactly the people who will keep voting you into office and exclude the people who won't.
That's what gerrymandering is. It isn't breaking the rules. It's taking the rules and rearranging them into something that does what you want it to do, like a ransom note cut letter by letter out of other words.
And so some people were surprised when the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled this week that gerrymandering on the basis of party wasn't something they could control.
The very obviousness of political gerrymandering makes that understandable. It's out there. It's not secret. Redrawing the lines with state elections is often an openly stated goal. How can the Supreme Court not recognize that?
Because it is possible for both sides in an argument to be right.
Associate Justice Elena Kagan was right in her stinging dissent, saying "The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government."
Representative democracy doesn't work if it's not representative. If we exclude women, we have rules made that don't understand women's needs. If we exclude people based on their race or ethnicity or cultural background, we do the same. We have something that has all the words from the Constitution, but is made up of jagged pieces snipped from here and there.
But Chief Justice John Roberts was also not wrong in his majority opinion: "We have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority."
The Constitution doesn't specifically say the portioning of districts has to be fair to the minority political party. We protect people on the basis of those other things that are innate to who they are.
But politics can change on a dime. Your vote doesn't have to correspond to your party. Look at today's politics, where moderates on both sides say their parties have receded from the middle like a tide, retreating to further and deeper fringes. There is no way to draw districts around that.
The court needs legislators at all levels to either spell out better laws that protect people of all parties, or be willing, when they are the majority, to be fair to the opposition.
And if they won't, we have to show them all that we care more about representative democracy than we do about winning, and regardless of district or state or party, vote in people who won't stack the deck.
York Dispatch on Pennsylvania Senate brawl over homelessness
There was little for anyone to be proud of in the Pennsylvania statehouse last Wednesday: Not Republican senators, whose attempts to bully though a benefits-cutting measure were crass, craven and cruel; not Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who let the proceedings run off the rails; and especially not Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, whose efforts to shout down a fellow lawmaker were as churlish and childish a display as are likely to be found among elected officials.
The tawdry proceedings centered around Republican efforts to end the state's decades-old General Assistance program, which provides monthly cash assistance of about $200 to some of Pennsylvania's neediest citizens. Republicans have long targeted the program, which Gov. Tom Wolf's office estimates would help more than 10,000 state residents next year at a cost of approximately $24 million (about 0.07 percent of the state's $34 billion budget).
Minority Democrats attempted to attach amendments to the bill to carve out continued support for certain recipients — military veterans, domestic-abuse survivors, people with disabilities and the like.
That Republicans were less than receptive to these amendments did not come as a surprise. But much of what followed did.
First, Corman put forth a motion to block Democrats from offering the amendments. When Democrat Fetterman, who presides in the Senate, essentially called time out and left the rostrum to confer with Republicans, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, orchestrated what Fetterman later termed a hostile takeover.
"With the rostrum empty, Scarnati — who typically runs the floor when the lieutenant governor is absent — grabbed the gavel, called the chamber back to session and asked for a vote on Corman's motion," reported PennLive. "As a clerk began the roll call, Democrats stormed off the floor."
They eventually returned, but Fetterman refused to allow the vote on Corman's motion, instead recognizing state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery County, a leader in the fight to maintain General Assistance. She then read a letter from a beneficiary of the program — although it was difficult to hear.
For almost the full three minutes she spoke, Corman voiced his displeasure from the floor. Loudly.
"You need to do your job, Mr. President," Corman shouted at Fetterman, who continued to acknowledge Muth. "Bring the chamber to order, Mr. President. It's not a partisan job. You need to follow the rules."
It was a quite a dispiriting display. And one that must not be repeated.
First thing's first: Corman, whose 34th District includes Centre, Mifflin and Juniata counties and part of Huntingdon County, owes Muth an apology.
Whether the GOP leader was technically correct that the vote on his motion should have been called, the manner in which Scarnati hustled it before the body was, at the very least, underhanded. The spectacle of a veteran white male lawmaker bellowing over a freshman female counterpart was unsettling and, frankly, unbelievable. A 20-year veteran of the Senate should know better than to behave in a manner so belligerent, aggressive and flat-out rude.
Second: Fetterman, who is in the midst of his first go-around running the Senate, needs to better acquaint himself with parliamentary procedure. All matters before the Senate must be handled by the book. In overseeing Senate proceedings, Fetterman cannot act in a partisan manner. But it is clear majority Republicans can and will if given an opening.
The measure to end the program was eventually approved, 26-24. Two Republicans joined Democrats on the losing side.
Also on the losing side that day: Decorum, professionalism and respect.
When it comes to debating, amending and voting on legislation in the Pennsylvania State Senate, all sides can and must do better.