Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Lancaster Lancaster Online/LNP. May 3, 2022.

Editorial: Both chambers of the Pa. Legislature need to make lawmakers’ expenses searchable online

Why is everything the Pennsylvania General Assembly does so complicated and convoluted?

The state Senate admirably has been posting senators’ expenses online since September. But not in a searchable form. So you cannot, for example, type in search terms such as “restaurant” or “flight” to expedite your search. You cannot search for the total a senator has claimed in per diems, the flat-rate payments that lawmakers can claim — without submitting receipts — to cover food and lodging.

You have to check each month’s report of each senator’s expenses, line by line, to find the information you’re seeking.

A journalist built a searchable database, on his own, for The Caucus. The bloated, costly and clearly inefficient Legislature can’t figure out how to do this?

Moreover, there’s nothing on the General Assembly’s Senate homepage to direct you to the expense reports. There’s not even a link under a short menu of “Topics of Special Interest.”

The reports, updated monthly, can be found on the Senate’s Right-to-Know Law webpage (which itself is found on a drop-down menu on the Senate homepage).

As The Caucus reported in March, the reports “list the expenses for every senator and all employees under the chief clerk, providing the amount, the payee, the date, the person who authorized the spending and a brief description of every payment. The information includes district office leases, postage, mileage and meals incurred by every senator. It also includes spending on per diems.”

Meanwhile, it took the state House some time to get to the point of voting in favor of transparency. Good for House members for making it a unanimous vote when they finally managed it.

But the two chambers ought to be posting expenses in a uniform way, and in the easiest way for taxpayers to quickly access the information they seek.

Once again, we’d like to remind state lawmakers that they’re supposed to be working for their constituents. Things ought not to be done primarily for their own convenience and comfort level.

“For decades,” Bumsted noted, “legislative expenses have been accessible to citizens and journalists only after filing Right-to-Know Law requests, which typically take up to 35 days to obtain information. In the past, both chambers required journalists seeking the information to copy them by hand.

“An investigative series by The Caucus and Spotlight PA last year detailed how hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money is spent to operate the Legislature. The news organizations’ stories also revealed the lack of transparency and oversight of this spending.”

The state Senate began posting all senators’ expenses online because Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre County, directed it to happen — not because of legislation.

Gillespie told Bumsted that he is not happy the Senate was removed from his bill. “We are equal chambers,” he said. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Poultry-related idioms aside, just how and why the Senate was deleted from Gillespie’s bill seems to be a bit of a mystery.

Gillespie said he was not aware of any agreement with the Senate to remove the Senate from the bill, Bumsted reported. And an aide told Bumsted that Corman’s office was not aware of any conversations between Senate and House leaders on the bill. (See what we mean? Few things are straightforward in Harrisburg.)

“Differences between the House and Senate’s computer systems were cited as one potential reason for excluding the Senate,” Bumsted noted.

That explanation didn’t fly with state Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny County, “who has sponsored a bill almost identical to Gillespie’s original legislation,” Bumsted reported. “Under her bill, expense data from both chambers would go to the Legislative Data Processing Center for publication on the internet.”

As Williams sees it — and we agree — posting lawmakers’ expenses online should be a matter of law and not subject to legislative leaders’ whims.

Williams told Bumsted that she was also concerned about new language in the House bill that gives the House chief clerk broad powers to delete information intended for the webpage. This concerns us, too. Before any such information is deleted, there ought to be strict guidelines in place for deletions, as well as disclosure requirements.

This all should be part of a uniform, accessible, easy-to-find, searchable reporting system.

As we wrote in March, “We shouldn’t have to file Right-to-Know requests to see how state House members are spending taxpayer dollars.”

And we should not need detective licenses to find out how our state senators are spending taxpayer money.

As Spotlight PA has reported, Gillespie’s bill would require not only that expense information be searchable, but that it “include the reason the expense was incurred, who incurred it, and which legislative account was used to provide the reimbursement.”

Real transparency isn’t about half-measures. It’s a guiding ethic and lawmakers ought to embrace it fully.

Unfortunately, in Harrisburg, nothing is that simple.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 30, 2022.

Editorial: The perverse logic of capital punishment

Singapore’s execution Wednesday of a mentally disabled Malaysian man for drug smuggling sparked international protests and outrage. Executing a man who no longer threatens his government or community — especially one with a child’s mental capacity — isn’t justice. It’s murder, even if sanctioned and disguised by an irrational and barbaric law. Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, 34, was found guilty of trafficking about 43 grams of heroin, an amount with a street value in much of the world of little more than $20,000.

Texas has already executed two prisoners with mental disabilities. Now it seeks to execute Melissa Lucio, a Latino mother of 14, who was convicted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. New evidence, however, raises doubts about her guilt, suggesting police coerced a false confession from her. This week, an appeals court stayed her execution.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf paused the state’s killing machine in 2015, imposing a moratorium on executions. But the state’s death-penalty statute remains active; defendants continue to be tried under it, despite the enormous costs it exacts from taxpayers, the grave risks of executing the innocent, and the specter of numerous botched executions around the country. Roughly 100 prisoners — half of them Black — remain on Pennsylvania’s death row. With the moratorium on executions set to expire when Gov. Wolf leaves office in January 2023, legislators must abolish the state’s death penalty this year.

In April, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala made the ill-advised decision to seek the death penalty in two separate murders: one involving Karli Short; the other, Christi Spicuzza, an Uber driver. To be sure, both cases involve egregious offenses, but they don’t alter the fundamental practical and moral problems posed by a costly and ineffective death penalty statute, for which there is no evidence — none — that it deters violent crimes or serves any useful purpose.

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, Pennsylvania has sentenced more than 400 people to death — at a cost of $1 billion, former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale reported in 2020. That’s an average of more than $300 million per execution. Meanwhile, 10 Pennsylvania prisoners on death row have been exonerated.

The perverse logic of capital punishment represents the victory of rage over reason. Capital offenses, almost always involving murder, make any relatively normal person retch. At issue, however, is not whether certain people deserve to die — an unknowable calculation, except, perhaps, by a Higher Power. The real issue is whether the state has the right, without the pretext of self-defense, to snuff out a life. Even if it can claim such a prerogative, government must answer an equally compelling question: Is the death penalty prudent public policy?

In Singapore, Texas or Pennsylvania, the answer to both questions is a resounding no.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. April 28, 2022.

Editorial: Property tax reform is long overdue

Pennsylvania property owners need better friends in Harrisburg.

On Tuesday, the state House of Representatives passed a bill with the kind of overwhelming majority that is usually only seen for naming bridges after fallen soldiers. A legislative body that tends to vote along party lines on almost everything threw those allegiances away with a 198-5 tally.

What gains that kind of consensus? Corporate tax cuts.

But not everything that passes in Harrisburg becomes law. Gov. Tom Wolf has gotten very good at exercising his veto pen. That is unlikely to happen this time. If the bill passes the Senate — which seems likely given the issue has bipartisan support in that chamber, too — the governor has indicated he is optimistic about a final deal.

The proposed change would reduce corporate income tax from 10% to 9% — and, if the state can afford it, down to 8%.

There is a reason this is enjoying such popularity that extends beyond lobbyists. The idea of cutting business taxes has long been a governmental carrot to lure companies. It is used strategically in business parks and other places designated for development or to encourage new business, such as Keystone Opportunity Zones or Keystone Innovation Zones. It was a major tent pole of the federal tax cuts in 2017.

There is logic to it. We need businesses to provide jobs, to buy services from other businesses creating other jobs, etc. Pennsylvania is losing a seat in Congress because the 2020 census showed its growth is sluggish compared to states with booming industries. Counties like Westmoreland are strategizing ways to attract both corporate and individual residents. Lower tax rates make the state attractive for relocation.

So the issue is not that the tax cut is necessarily a bad idea.

It’s that everyone is jumping on board to help when the issue is corporations. However, Pennsylvania homeowners have been begging for decades for solutions when it comes to property taxes and school funding. Where is the unanimity in solving that problem?

It was supposed to be fixed by the legalization of gambling. It hasn’t been. Almost 20 years after those promises, the state’s aging population is still waiting for that help.

Legislators and leaders need to lock themselves down and find answers because that, more than corporate tax cuts, is the way forward. It helps the people. It makes home ownership more attractive, which stimulates the economy, including construction. It would fund education.

And let’s not forget — businesses own a lot of Pennsylvania real estate.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. May 3, 2022.

Editorial: Fix business tax structure, not just rate

Pennsylvania’s corporate tax rate is higher than those of 42 of the other 43 states that tax corporate income. At 9.9%, it’s lower only than that of neighboring New Jersey’s 11.5%.

But there is another difference regarding Pennsylvania’s corporate net income tax, in that most corporations manage not to pay it.

The law technically exempts only nonprofits, homeowners’ associations, agricultural cooperatives, business trusts and membership organizations. But large corporations use accounting techniques to get around the tax, funneling income from their Pennsylvania businesses to “parent” companies registered in low-tax or no-tax states. Such techniques broadly are known as the Delaware loophole, for business tax haven Delaware.

Most states, including such business-friendly enclaves as Texas, have eliminated such dodges by changing their income-reporting standards. But Pennsylvania lawmakers stubbornly cling to the evasion techniques while lamenting the high tax rate.

The objective should be to reduce the rate without reducing needed government revenue by spreading the tax burden as broadly as possible, which would require changing the tax structure to eliminate the Delaware loophole.

Instead, the House has passed a bill to reduce the corporate tax rate by just over 10%, from 9.99% to 8.99%. It also provides that if the state government general fund has a surplus in coming years, the rate would drop by another 11.1%, from 8.99% to 7.9%, by 2025. According to the bill’s financial analysis, each percentage-point reduction would cost the state Treasury between $400 million and $450 million a year.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also wants a corporate tax rate reduction, and regularly has included them in his proposed budgets. But he wisely has tied reductions to reforming the corporate net income tax structure.

In previous years, the administration has estimated that the government could reduce the corporate net income tax to 6.99%, a 30% decrease, by reforming the structure to eliminate the Delaware loophole and spread the tax burden without severely reducing government revenue.

The matter likely will be determined in impending budget negotiations, which should result in a compromise that reduces the corporate tax rate while reforming the tax structure.

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Uniontown Herald Standard. May 1, 2022.

Editorial: It’s time for Pennsylvania to open its primaries

Let’s say you’re a voter in Pennsylvania and you like the cut of David McCormick’s jib, or you believe that John Fetterman would be a breath of fresh air in the U.S. Senate.

The problem, though, is that if you are one of the growing number of voters in Pennsylvania not affiliated with either of the two major political parties, you will not be able to cast a ballot in the primary election coming up on May 17. The commonwealth is just one of nine states in the country that has closed primaries. This means that nearly 1.3 million registered voters, a full 15% of the 8.7 million adults who are on the voter rolls, are going to have to sit on the sidelines in two weeks as candidates are chosen to be Pennsylvania’s next U.S. senator and governor, along with congressional candidates and a whole array of legislative seats.

In communities where one party is dominant, the primary can be the most competitive race, with the fall general election little more than a formality. And, as we saw last year, ballot referendums can end up on the primary ballot, shutting out independent voters from decisions on amendments to the state constitution and other questions.

Is it fair that unaffiliated voters – the fastest-growing bloc of voters in the state – should be left out of the process? We don’t think so. At a moment when voting rights are under increasing threat, it’s time Pennsylvania opened its primaries and let all registered voters cast ballots.

Legislation that would make that happen has advanced in Harrisburg before, but has never quite made it over the finish line. The news site Spotlight PA reported this week that a group calling itself Ballot PA, a coalition that includes the League of Women Voters and Common Cause PA, is pushing to end closed primaries, which have been the rule in the state since 1937.

David Thornburgh, executive director of Ballot PA and the son of the late Gov. Richard Thornburgh – the kind of moderate, level-headed leader many look back on with nostalgia – told Spotlight PA, “The primary election really is often the only election... so if you don’t get to vote in the primary, you basically don’t have a vote. It’s hard to find a better example of taxation without representation.”

In a time of intense polarization, advocates believe opening primaries would allow for more middle-of-the-road candidates to come to the fore, since they would have to appeal to a larger slice of the electorate than the partisans that turn out for primaries.

Thornburgh said, “It shouldn’t be a surprise that the people who get elected in those elections are themselves, in fact, representing the extremes of both parties. To my mind, allowing 1.1 million less-partisan voters to participate in those elections broadens the base, increases competition for votes, and forces candidates to speak to a broader cross-section of the electorate.”

Opening our primaries won’t be a silver bullet that will bring peace to our rancorous politics, both in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. But it would certainly help nudge us in a better direction.

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