LNP/LancasterOnline. October 23, 2022.
Editorial: Pennsylvania’s bloated and expensive Legislature gets shockingly little done. This has to change.
These were all proposed by members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly during its 2021-22 session:
— A resolution honoring the retirement of Villanova University men’s basketball coach Jay Wright.
— A resolution honoring the late Philadelphia Phillies great Dick Allen.
— A resolution designating May 24, 2022, as “State Working Animal Day” in Pennsylvania.
— A resolution honoring the life and accomplishments of an 18th-century Pennsylvania botanist named Humphry Marshall.
We are big fans of Wright, Allen and animals. And we’re sure Marshall was a marvel of his time.
According to Pennsylvania Heritage, a quarterly published by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Marshall “has been called the Father of American Dendrology, the study of wooded plants.”
So that’s impressive.
But we’re rooting for legislation that actually would improve the lives of modern-day Pennsylvanians and institutions. Like property tax reform. Charter school funding reform. Commonsense gun regulation. We want to see safer state roads. And improved broadband access in rural parts of the commonwealth.
Unfortunately, our feckless and bloated state Legislature doesn’t seem to be in the business of delivering legislation that’s actually necessary.
As Carol Kuniholm wrote in last Sunday’s Perspective section, “Pennsylvania’s full-time Legislature is among the bottom five in the country in average number of bills passed per year and percentage of introduced bills enacted, according to FiscalNote, an information services company.”
That’s despite the fact that it is the largest full-time legislature in the United States. And, as reported earlier this year by The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication, Pennsylvania’s legislators are the third-highest-paid in the nation, behind only their peers in California and New York.
Despite their already-high pay, state lawmakers are set to receive historically large automatic pay raises that are expected to push their base salaries above $100,000 for the first time.
As The Caucus reported in August, Republican state Rep. Bryan Cutler of Drumore Township, the speaker of the Pennsylvania House, as well as Republican state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, could see their salaries climb to more than $162,000.
In total, the raises for legislators alone could cost Pennsylvania taxpayers an additional $2 million next year.
Lawmakers also get generous benefits and can claim — without submitting receipts — per diems, flat-rate payments covering meals and lodging, for every session day they travel more than 50 miles from their homes for legislative business.
A conservative estimate of the state Legislature’s annual spending: $350 million.
We don’t get much for our money, except for a Legislature that is quick to criticize other institutions and parts of state government for inefficiency but is reluctant to address its own.
As The Caucus reported in April, the state Legislature couldn’t even pass legislation that would prohibit pet stores from selling commercially bred dogs, cats or rabbits.
As that publication noted, “Being anti-puppy-mill is about the easiest gimme in politics.”
Despite drawing numerous co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, the bill (Victoria’s Law) was consigned to languish in committee.
The Caucus article explained why. Lawmakers voted Jan. 5, 2021, to adopt the rules “that would govern how the chambers operate for the next two years. Those rules give enormous power to a small group of legislative leaders. They can single-handedly set the legislative agenda, fast-track favored bills and bury legislation, even if it has the support of a majority of the 203-member House and 50-seat Senate.”
The rules are adopted quickly during the post-holiday haze, when most of us aren’t paying attention to what seems to be procedural inside baseball, but actually has a profound impact on how Harrisburg operates (or doesn’t). Committee chairs are given the ability to place a stranglehold on legislation, so hardly anything gets accomplished.
Many “good solutions that would benefit all Pennsylvanians are blocked in committee by chairs who act like petty tyrants,” Kuniholm wrote last Sunday, “ignoring the pleas of advocacy groups or repeated requests from their own colleagues.”
And the prospects for legislation proposed by the party out of power — Republicans have controlled the state Senate since 1994 and the state House since 2010 — are even dimmer than the odds that most opponents face against the Philadelphia Eagles this season.
As Kuniholm noted, “Many part-time legislatures, some with sessions just a few months long, pass far more bills with far more public input, addressing specific concerns with no partisan drama or legislative delay. Pennsylvania’s legislative process has become a game of partisan control focused on who gets credit, who stays in power and who gets the largest donations and gifts.”
In December 2018, this editorial board expressed the wish that our state lawmakers would “work hard and swiftly on Pennsylvania’s intertwined broken systems of educational funding and local property taxes. There must be an aggressive timetable to fully implement the bipartisan fair funding formula for all school districts. And, regarding property taxes, there must be relief for all (especially senior citizens) who receive these oft-crippling annual bills.”
Blame us for being naive in thinking state lawmakers would work “hard and swiftly” on anything, except making their own lives easier (like making pay raises automatic and gerrymandering legislative districts so they can retain power). Because none of those things we wished for have come to fruition.
Kuniholm noted that all 203 state House seats and half of Pennsylvania’s 50 Senate seats are on the ballot Nov. 8. She urged voters to ask candidates for the state General Assembly if they will press for new procedural rules in January that actually will enable the passage of important legislation. This is an excellent idea.
“When bipartisan solutions are ignored year after year, our economy, our health and our future are put at risk,” Kuniholm wrote. “Pennsylvania can’t afford two more years of an unresponsive, unaccountable state Legislature.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. October 20, 2022.
Editorial: After decades of discriminatory enforcement, rethinking marijuana laws is long overdue
In issuing pardons for those convicted of simple possession, the president took a significant step toward ending years of racist treatment.
President Joe Biden has taken the first steps to move beyond more than 50 years of failed drug policy. Earlier this month, the president directed his administration to begin the process that would remove marijuana from the list of the most dangerous illicit drugs, which includes heroin and LSD, and effectively eliminate a federal ban on using cannabis.
It is about time.
Ever since President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 and launched the war on drugs, Americans have suffered the consequences — especially people of color. Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges than their white counterparts, even though both groups use drugs at roughly the same rate.
The American Civil Liberties Union has called the drug war “the New Jim Crow,” a view validated by former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s admission that the Nixon White House “had two enemies” — activists opposed to the Vietnam War and African Americans.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black,” Ehrlichman said in a 1994 interview with the journalist Dan Baum. “But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Ultimately, the war on drugs put millions of Americans in jail, and cost taxpayers billions of dollars to pay for policing and prevention efforts. And through it all, millions of Americans continue to use illegal drugs anyway, with marijuana by far the most popular. Banning drugs simply hasn’t worked.
Other efforts to rethink drug laws, like Philadelphia’s decriminalization campaign, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, and the legalization of recreational cannabis in New Jersey were undermined by the federal prohibition. Marijuana’s place on the so-called “Schedule I” list of the most dangerous drugs compels cannabis dispensaries to do business in cash and muddles regulation efforts. It also creates hurdles for scientific studies of the drug.
While supporters of continued marijuana restrictions have pointed to the potential side effects of heavy marijuana usage, such as depression and schizophrenia, it is partially due to generations of prohibition that we know less than we could about how cannabis affects the brain.
In addition to signaling a move toward relaxing the ban on marijuana, Biden also issued pardons for those convicted of simple possession — a move that represents an end to decades of racially discriminatory treatment. Despite a longtime parity in usage, Black adults in Pennsylvania are eight times more likely than white adults to be charged with marijuana possession.
Like his moves to forgive student loans, invest in infrastructure, support Ukraine, fight inflation, and guard against climate change, Biden’s concern for restorative justice in his pardons is another milestone of his term so far. But the work of balancing the scales after decades of a failed war on drugs isn’t over yet.
Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow Biden’s lead and pass the Street-Laughlin bill, a bipartisan cannabis legalization measure focused on equity and fairness — two qualities often in short supply during a half-century of misguided drug policy.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 23, 2022.
Editorial: Pa. House should quickly pass financial literacy bill
A bill before the state Senate would require Pennsylvania high school students to pass a half-credit financial literacy class. It’s a smart move that Michigan passed in 2018; it’s time to get it done here.
Senate Bill 1243, already approved by the House, would require financial literacy courses to teach the true cost of credit, how to choose and manage a credit card, prepare and file tax returns, and the rudiments of borrowing for big-ticket items, such as cars. Classes would explain home mortgages, personal insurance policies, credit scoring, credit reports, and planning and paying for post-secondary education.
Financial literacy classes would start in the 2024-2025 school year. By taking them, Pennsylvania high school students would know more about personal finance than many — if not most — adults.
The Financial Health Pulse Report from the Financial Health Network estimates that only 31% of Americans are financially healthy, including only 54% of people making over $100,000 a year. Financial illiteracy can make an upper-middle-class salary less comfortable than it looks. Meanwhile, 55% of Americans are “financially coping,” which means an unexpected expense could make them financially insecure.
The report states only 15% of Black Americans are financially healthy. Exposing all Pennsylvania students to the financial literacy curriculum could help correct that inequality.
Financial stability decreased this year, for the first time in five years. Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, Americans’ financial health generally improved during 2020 and 2021, due to cash infusions from the federal government — including expanded child tax credit payments that should be made permanent.
Now, however, financial health has returned to pre-pandemic levels and, with galloping inflation, probably declining further. In addition, interest rate increases will likely continue, making all debt more expensive.
With easy access to credit, the need for financial literacy — understanding the true cost of debt and compound interest — is enormous. Nothing would help students more in preparing for the practical realities of today’s world.
The state House should fast-track this bill, and send it to Gov. Tom Wolf before the end of the year.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. October 23, 2022.
Editorial: Is getting the most votes the best measure of a coroner?
The coroner’s office in a Pennsylvania county is where the justice system and public health collide.
Coroners are responsible for investigating the deaths that aren’t from an acknowledged and medically attended reason. They determine whether someone died of an overdose. They have been an important part of evaluating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. They note when a death is the result of an accident.
And, yes, they are the arbiters of whether a death was due to homicide.
The importance of the role makes it a little surprising that there aren’t more requirements for it. In most counties, coroners are elected officials, like county commissioners or school board members. The requirement for the job is getting the most votes — and being 18 and a resident of the county in question.
There is a 32-hour basic education course for new coroners. After that, there are eight hours of continuing education each year.
A forensic pathologist, on the other hand, has a minimum of 13 years of post-secondary education: college, medical school, residency, an additional year of residency specifically in forensic pathology. Only then can they take the test that allows them to testify in court that they are board certified in their field.
Only five counties — including Allegheny County — appoint a coroner or medical examiner.
A Spotlight PA investigation shows there are only five accredited coroner or medical examiner offices out of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Most coroners come to the job not from the medical or legal field but from the funeral home industry.
So is electing a coroner the way to go? And if so, should there be more hurdles to getting the job?
We elect judges and district attorneys who also have jobs with specific demands. But to run for DA or to get a seat on a court, you must have been admitted to practice law.
Why isn’t the same true of coroners rather than just having a post-election class in the basics that is less than the equivalent of one standard three-credit college course?
This is something state lawmakers should consider. Maybe rather than requiring an expert in forensic pathology, the requirement could be one of expertise in either the law side or the medical side of the job. Maybe it could just be about requiring better minimum accreditation.
Might changing the requirements impact the number of people who run for coroner? Perhaps. But making allowances for existing coroners and applying changed demands to the newly elected could ease that transition.
However, the responsibility shouldn’t skew to those in the running to get the job but toward the people served by the office.
Scranton Times-Tribune. October 19, 2022.
Editorial: Law should ensure salary transparency
Like many of his counterparts, Penn State head football coach James Franklin is the highest paid employee of a public institution in his state. Nationwide, according to ESPN, 28 football coaches and 12 basketball coaches are the highest-paid employees of state- or state-affiliated institutions in their states.
Unlike most other states, however, Pennsylvania does not require public disclosure of salaries in a way that makes them completely transparent.
As recently reported by Spotlight PA, Franklin is known to make a guaranteed $7 million a year under his most recent contract extension. Yet his name does not appear on Penn State’s list of its 25 highest-paid employees, reporting that is required by state law.
According to Penn State, the law requires reporting only base pay. It considers Franklin’s base pay to be $500,000, with $6.5 million in “guaranteed supplemental pay.” Several other Penn State football coaches are paid more than $1 million a year, but their names do not appear on the top 25 list because their base pay is less than $662,000 a year, the lowest salary to make the list.
Spotlight PA reviewed documents from Penn State’s 2020-2021 tax filings, and discovered that three coaches were among the school’s highest-paid employees: Franklin, $7.6 million; former men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers, $2.1 million; and former assistant football coach Brent Pry, now Virginia Tech’s head coach, $1.6 million.
Penn State’s website noted that the coaches, and highly compensated professionals at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, are paid from funds generated by intercollegiate athletics or health system operations, rather than from tuition revenue or state government appropriations. But the state Right to Know Law, which covers such disclosures, does not make an exception for that case.
The need for greater disclosure is evident in that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro supports a bill introduced by his Republican opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, to clarify reporting requirements and extend the mandate from the top 25 earners to the top 200 at Penn State and other state-affiliated schools — the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University.
This is a simple matter of disclosure. The Legislature should update the requirements.
Credit: Source link