Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sept. 26, 2021.

Editorial: Health care waiver needs to be extended

COVID-19 waivers are a touchy subject in Pennsylvania, where not all waivers were created equal.

In March of 2020, when infections and deaths were increasing at an alarming rate, Gov. Tom Wolf imposed an emergency order that, among other things, required certain businesses to apply for waivers if they wanted to maintain something close to their normal operating hours.

Auditor General Timothy L. DeFoor, in releasing a recent audit of the Department of Community and Economic Development’s business waiver program, said it had been “hastily assembled,” “unevenly administered,” inconsistently applied and a source of great confusion. Problems with that program led to cries from bars, restaurants, hair salons and more, plus two successful constitutional amendments that curtailed the governor’s executive power. The business waiver program ended in June.

Less well-known — and less controversial — are waivers that Mr. Wolf put in place to help health care facilities meet the escalating demand for care. Those are set to expire at the end of September, and their end couldn’t come at a worse time.

The health care waivers allowed doctors and nurses licensed in other states to work temporarily in Pennsylvania, doctors to practice at more than two facilities, nurse practitioners to offer COVID-related prescriptions, pharmacies to operate satellite locations, pharmacy interns and nursing students to give immunizations and more.

Those measures helped meet the demand for care and for vaccinations.

Now Pennsylvania is seeing a resurgence in infections.

While early this summer the number of new daily COVID infections had dwindled to several hundred, the number of new cases daily now hovers near 5,000.

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has seen an uptick in pediatric COVID-19 cases and in respiratory viruses. To expand care, the Lawrenceville hospital set up an outdoor medical tent. Excela Health Frick Hospital in Mount Pleasant, Westmoreland County, also is using a tent to extend care.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is rolling out guidelines for COVID-19 booster shots, and the state’s health secretary has ordered providers to get ready to give them. Children ages 5 to 12 soon will become eligible for the vaccine as well. All of that will increase demands on health care providers, too.

At the same time, health care providers are suffering from burnout, and care centers are struggling to hire adequate staff.

All of those factors combine to demonstrate the importance of retaining the health waivers.

The state Legislature resumes its session today. If we are lucky, members will recognize the urgency of extending the waivers in time to beat their Sept. 30 expiration date. The lives of Pennsylvanians could depend upon it.

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Philadelphia Inquirer. Sept. 23, 2021.

Editorial: The Big Lie gets more dangerous with every step it takes

After this summer’s schoolyard shouting match between Republican State Sen. Doug Mastriano and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman over Mastriano’s attempt at a go-it-alone investigation of the 2020 election results, we all might have hoped that the debate had finally gone away for good. Alas, the Big Lie is back, and it’s more outlandish than ever.

This time, instead of simply undertaking a quixotic quest to find nonexistent voter fraud, Harrisburg Republicans have stumbled onto a tactic that would be dangerous even without its connection to a conspiracy that undermines democracy: Instead of requesting access to voting machines, election fraud truthers are now demanding the Social Security numbers, driver’s license information, and full names and addresses of every single Pennsylvania voter.

This information, beyond the obvious risks to the privacy rights of individual voters, can be used by bad actors to initiate changes to their current voter registration status. According to experts, accessing private voter information like this actually increases the potential for fraud. Furthermore, the nonsensitive and relevant portions of this data are already available publicly, so there seems to be no practical need for this request.

The plan is part of the state GOP’s paradoxical pro-Trump makeover. Typically, when a presidential candidate loses an election, their influence over their political party wanes. But efforts like this underscore the lengths to which Republicans will go to mollify supporters of former President Donald Trump. It might also help Trump remain relevant as he plans another run for president in 2024, but some Republicans have begun to wonder whether these efforts might prevent the party from moving forward. At least one member of the GOP in Harrisburg, State Sen. Dan Laughlin, has begun to realize that the paranoia and fact-free turn into electoral fraud theatrics hurts the commonwealth and may also damage the long-term prospects of his party.

The Big Lie poisons our politics and distracts us from the real problems in Pennsylvania. Thanks to the likes of Mastriano and Republican leaders, belief in the Big Lie, and doubt in our electoral system, is growing. Their refusal to acknowledge basic realities, done in order to avoid alienating the former president’s political base, is to blame for this phenomenon, not any lack of scrutiny during the election process itself.

Our Inquirer colleagues who report on Harrisburg have chosen not to call this process an “audit,” a prudent decision, and this board does not want to give the issue any more attention than it deserves. By demanding sensitive information from Pennsylvania voters, Republicans have made their obsession too dangerous to ignore.

This board applauds the efforts of Attorney General Josh Shapiro, State Sen. Tony Williams, and others who have pledged to go to the state Supreme Court if necessary to stop GOP attempts to violate the privacy of voters. We also recognize the efforts of lonely Republicans like Laughlin and Philadelphia’s own City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who have been honest about the election. Ultimately, though, the end of this fever dream will only come when Republican leaders stop lying to their constituents.

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York Dispatch. Sept. 23, 2021.

Editorial: Pennsylvania doesn’t need Texas abortion ban

Reverberations from the Supreme Court’s incredible, indefensible decision to let Texas’s draconian new abortion law stand are being felt as far as Pennsylvania, where efforts are already underway to replicate the all-but-complete ban.

The decision also ensures the issue of reproductive rights will receive outsized prominence in next year’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections in the state.

But first things first.

The Texas law, which bans all abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy — before most women even know they’re pregnant — is clearly unconstitutional. Women in America have had the right to obtain abortions prior to fetal viability since the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision.

Unfortunately, that right is in name only in many parts of the country. State laws that mandate 24-hour waiting periods, one-sided “counseling,” and parental notification (and, in more than half the country, consent) for minors, along with stringent limits on facilities, physicians and insurance, make abortions all but unattainable in vast swaths of the country.

Add to that the fact that six states have but a single clinic performing abortions and the ability of many women — especially those without adequate insurance or the means to travel — to exercise this right is non-existent. All of which makes a mockery of the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that states could not impose an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion.

That mockery is now being magnified in Texas, courtesy of the Republican-led legislature and GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who took time off from their campaign of voter disenfranchisement to enforce pregnancies on the women of their state, even — shockingly — those who are victims of rape or incest. (There are no exceptions under the new law.)

To get around the constitutional guarantee enshrined in Roe and affirmed in Casey, the Texas law deputizes private citizens to sue — for $10,000 — anyone performing or even assisting in an abortion. (And the definition of assisting is absurdly broad; an Uber driver dropping someone off at a health facility could, theoretically, be sued).

If it seems odd that any anti-abortion buttinski suddenly has legal standing to sue a complete stranger over a private health matter, that’s because it is. Unprecedented, in fact.

That aspect of the new Texas law will likely wind up in court. (It better; and it better be struck down or we could be on the cusp or a frightening new era of vigilante lawmaking where copycat Republicans use the citizen-enforcement model to sidestep all manner of constitutional concerns.) In fact, it is confounding that the Supreme Court would let the Texas law stand without it being argued — not only before the high court but any court.

Taking advantage of this opening, lawmakers in Pennsylvania and other states are rushing to replicate this affront to women. In fact, state Sen. Doug Mastriano has already sponsored a bill that, like the Texas law, would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected (about six weeks). He’s using the Supreme Court’s failure to halt the Texas law as a rallying point for the Pennsylvania measure.

No, thanks. Pennsylvania doesn’t need Texas’s horrific, hurtful anti-abortion measure any more than it needs Arizona’s nonsensical “audit” of the 2020 election.

Pennsylvania needs lawmakers who will honor and respect the women of this state by not promulgating laws that would require them to carry to term the offspring of their sexual assailants. Pennsylvania needs lawmakers who will not cede the duties of the state and the courts to payday-hungry bounty hunters. Pennsylvania needs lawmakers who will not echo the worst impulses of a party hellbent on limiting the rights of Americans.

The Department of Justice has brought legal action against Texas’s anti-abortion law. Good; it should be summarily struck down. As should the idea of even entertaining such a law in Pennsylvania.

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Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. Sept. 24, 2021.

Editorial: Charged with rape, Thomas must step down as Somerset DA or be removed

Jeffrey Thomas will have his day in court to challenge charges that he raped a woman in a Windber Borough home.

But he should not spend one more minute in a Somerset County courtroom as the district attorney.

State Police in Ebensburg charged Thomas on Wednesday with a brutal attack on a woman in Windber – allegations that include rape, indecent assault, strangulation, simple assault and criminal trespass.

Police say Thomas entered the home on the night of Sept. 18 after being told he wasn’t welcome, then struck the woman in the face, pulled down her top, grabbed her by the neck, bit her and then raped her.

He was charged in Somerset County and housed in the Cambria County Prison overnight until he was released on bail Thursday. He will have a preliminary hearing on Wednesday.

Thomas’ attorney, Ryan Tutera of Pittsburgh, declared his client innocent of the charges.

“Jeffrey has worked very hard to protect the rights of victims in Somerset County and it’s hard for me to believe these allegations are true,” Tutera told The Tribune-Democrat following Thomas’ arrest.

“We believe there’s more to this story than what is being told.”

Whether Thomas is eventually acquitted of the charges or not, he can not continue to represent Somerset County as its top prosecutor.

He should step down immediately to allow the county courts to move forward, and to focus on his own legal battles.

If he chooses not to step down, the Pennsylvania legislature or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should step in and take steps to remove him from the office.

According to Pennsylvania law, as our Dave Sutor reported: “If the district attorney is convicted of any crime for which that individual may be sentenced to imprisonment by separate or solitary confinement at labor, the office shall be declared vacant by the court.”

Somerset County can’t wait for that process to play out.

Other ways the office could be vacated:

— The Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania could investigate Thomas, as happened in Bradford County, where a district attorney was accused of sexually assaulting women he had encountered previously in his private law practice. The Supreme Court temporarily suspended the DA’s law license before be pleaded guilty to intimidation, promoting prostitution and obstruction of justice before resigning in May.

“Maybe (Bradford County) is a precedent for this, because that sounds kind of familiar,” Duquesne University School of Law professor Bruce Ledewitz said. “It’s not so different, is it?”

— In addition, the Pennsylvania Senate could consider impeachment of Thomas.

“It’s either the Senate impeaches him or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would rule he can’t hold the office,” Cambria County Solicitor William Barbin said.

Ledewitz said if Thomas steps down of his own volition and one of the office’s deputies is elevated, “he has the advantage of retaining his salary.”

Thomas has a history of unsavory behavior during his time as Somerset district attorney, from a conflict with county administrators over having beer in his office to an obscenities-laced tirade when he believed area merchants didn’t handle his daughter’s birthday party adequately.

After those incidents in 2020, we said in this space that Thomas was unfit to serve as district attorney.

Now he faces very serious criminal charges.

In their criminal complaint, police said the alleged rape victim also told them Thomas came to the home with beer, and that they had smoked marijuana together at some point.

Thomas campaigned for the district attorney’s office on a pledge to crack down on drugs and put more dealers behind bars.

Tutera said Thomas is “entitled to fairness, and I’d ask the public to withhold any judgment.”

Ultimate judgment may eventually come from a jury, if the case goes that far.

But Thomas can not function as Somerset County’s top prosecutor until that happens.

He must step down now or be removed.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. Sept. 25, 2021.

Editorial: Wetzel achieves significant prison reform

Before Gov. Tom Corbett appointed John Wetzel as secretary of the state Department of Corrections in 2011, the job primarily was about operations.

But across the Republican Corbett and Democratic Wolf administrations, Wetzel made the position an engine of major prison and criminal justice reforms. Now, he leaves a vastly different system as he resigns to start a nonprofit organization to press further reforms.

The fundamental difference in Wetzel’s method was that he approached the system in terms of human costs rather than budgetary costs alone. He advocated ends to draconian mandatory minimum sentences and probation policies that helped drive the state prison population past 51,000 and its cost to taxpayers beyond $2 billion a year.

Due to that advocacy, coupled with reform-minded legislators and judges endorsing and implementing alternative sentencing and probation and parole reforms, the state prison population is about 7,000 lower, 14%, than it was when Wetzel took office.

His tenure was not without controversy. He closed several prisons, including one in Luzerne County, which reduced prison employment in areas where the institutions were important to local economies. And the prison system, like most nationwide, struggled to deal with COVID-19.

As an organizational matter, the prison system is a distinct part of the state government. But Wetzel knows that the system is the business end of multiple failures of government and society much earlier in the lives of the people who end up in prison.

He’s a strong advocate for better early education, better access to mental health treatment, and greater access to training and opportunities to continue reducing the prison population, beyond the internal reforms to the criminal justice and prison systems.

As Pennsylvania corrections secretary, Wetzel was a national leader in criminal justice and prison reform, a status he likely will retain as he departs a system that is substantially better than the one he took over a decade ago.

END