- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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STATE ELECTION LAW RESTRICTS VOTERS’ CHOICES

In November’s election, will you have to choose between candidates only from the two major parties or will smaller parties get candidates onto the ballot, too?

That question will be decided soon. The deadline for the Green and Libertarian Party candidates to file signatures to get on the ballot is Friday.

If past is prologue, Pennsylvania voters will have less choice than those in many other states.

State laws here pose some high hurdles to candidates trying to get on, or stay on, the ballot.

The issue isn’t so much the number of signatures required. This election cycle, would-be candidates running statewide had five months to collect the necessary 16,638 signatures from registered voters.

That’s more than eight times the 2,000 signatures major party candidates have to get. But in a state of almost 13 million people, 16,000-plus signatures is not an unreasonable test, or an insurmountable barrier.

The biggest hurdles come at the next steps in the process.

Once the signatures are turned in, sharp-eyed political partisans and their lawyers typically go to work. If they think the minor party candidate’s presence on the ballot hurts their prospects, they’ll comb through the signatures, looking for any excuse to invalidate them and knock the candidate off the ballot.

In the signature review process, courts may require the minor party to provide a small army of volunteers or staff to be present, for work that can take weeks.

If the minor party loses and gets tossed off the ballot, it can be forced to pay the attackers’ legal fees, a risk that can exceed $100,000.

That actually happened to presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2004 and the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2006.

The legal standard for imposing fees in these cases is fearfully vague - whatever a court concludes is “just.” No proof the candidate committed or condoned fraud or cheating is required.

Three minor parties - the Constitution, Libertarians and Greens - have sued to strike down some of Pennsylvania’s most restrictive ballot access rules. They have pointed out that the mere threat of having to pay such huge legal fees can be used to scare a minor party opponent out of the race.

As a federal appeals court noted in a ruling on their case earlier this month, “a shrewd lawyer engaged on behalf of three private challengers affiliated with the Republican Party expressly threatened to move for upwards of $100,000 in costs if the Libertarian Party went forward with its nomination efforts.”

The court noted that the 2010 Libertarian nominee for lieutenant governor, Kat Valleley quit the race, citing fear of paying big fees for losing a signature challenge. The Green Party’s candidate for the same office in 2006 quit for the same reason after her signatures were challenged.

It’s clear that the fee rule has a chilling effect on those trying to exercise their First Amendment rights to run for public office.

A lower court dismissed the minor parties’ lawsuit, citing technical, procedural reasons. However, the case was reinstated this month by a federal appeals court.

Richard Winger, a national expert on ballot access, says the number of signatures Pennsylvania requires is not out of the ordinary. (In statewide races, it’s 2 percent of the turnout in the previous election.)

But when it comes to how a party stays on the ballot going forward, he says Pennsylvania is the worst.

No other state says a party gets bumped off the next election ballot if it doesn’t have at least 15 percent of a state’s registered voters. Winger says that standard would disqualify Democrats from automatically appearing on the ballot in Idaho and Utah, and Republicans from automatically making the ballot in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Winger also criticizes the threat of high legal fees if a minor party loses a signature challenge.

“In Pennsylvania, the (ballot access) law has gotten worse and worse and worse.” Prior to 1971, Winger says, Pennsylvania “used to be ideal.”

By controlling the legislature and governor’s office, the two major parties basically get to write state election rules. It’s no surprise minor parties don’t get much slack when trying to get on the ballot.

If Pennsylvania voters are going to get more choice at election time, it will come as courts scrutinize the state’s ballot access laws. It’s the courts’ job to make sure those laws don’t stack the deck in the electoral process by violating the constitutional rights of minor parties and their supporters.

-PennLive.com

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FEDERAL RAIL MANDATE WILL MAKE OIL CARS SAFER

The latest federal proposal to improve the safe transportation of flammable liquids by rail would require oil shippers to use stronger tank cars by October 2017. Cars carrying crude oil, ethanol and other petroleum products would be retrofitted to include thicker steel shielding and better thermal protection, which are designed to result in less product release and smaller fires in the event of an accident.

The U.S. Transportation Department’s welcome mandate comes in the wake of a year of heavy spills and catastrophic derailments. Notable instances condemned by federal regulators include the derailment of a train in Vandergrift in February that poured 10,000 gallons of oil onto the tracks, and a runaway train crash that killed 47 people in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic last July.

The Railway Supply Institute - charged with the representation of tank car manufacturers in North America - has greeted the proposal with silence.

In turn, industry officials have protested that the rapid upgrade could create a temporary shortage of cars that would truncate the production of oil.

That is short-sighted. From a cost-efficiency standpoint, the curtailment of future train accidents would save the federal government an estimated $2.63 billion - slightly exceeding the cost of $2.59 billion that would be needed to upgrade the 98,000 oil cars now operating in North America to standards set by the Association of American Railroads.

Even a net loss in income would be negligible in comparison to the threat posed by these derailments to the environment, private property and security of communities. When safety is at stake, the first duty of government is not to maintain industry’s profit, but the well-being of people.

-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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70 MPH? DON’T RUSH IT

York County drivers could have a lot riding on 100 miles of two interstates in northern Pennsylvania.

The state Department of Transportation last week announced a pilot program to raise the speed limits on portions of Interstate 80 in Clearfield and Clinton counties and Interstate 380 in Lackawanna and Monroe counties from 65 mph to 70 mph.

Depending on how that experiment goes, speed limits on other interstates in Pennsylvania - including I-83 - could be bumped up as well.

The announcement came a day after the Turnpike Commission raised the speed limit on a 97-mile stretch of I-76 in central and eastern Pennsylvania from 65 mph to 70 mph.

The commission will study the results of that change, also with an eye toward easing speed limits on other parts of the toll road.

By next summer, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said, 70 mph signs could be added to more than 900 miles on interstates 78, 79, 81, 83, 84 and 90, plus Routes 15, 28, 219 and 220,

If it seems like these changes are happening fast, you’re right. It was just last November that the state’s new transportation spending bill authorized increased speed limits on some highways.

We can only hope the state isn’t rushing the increases along, and that a year is long enough to determine if higher speeds would cause more crashes.

For instance, even if the pilot program shows 70 mph is safe for, say, 21 miles of Interstate 380 in northeastern Pennsylvania, how do we know Interstate 83 from Emigsville to Harrisburg can handle the same increase?

We’re not saying it can’t - in fact, we hope it and other area roads can safely support faster-moving traffic.

But let’s make sure before we open the throttle.

-York Dispatch.

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DEP NEEDS TO IMPROVE ITS TRACK RECORD ON NATURAL GAS INDUSTRY

EDITORIAL: Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection needs to improve its track record on natural gas industry

Express-Times opinion staff By Express-Times opinion staff

on July 29, 2014 at 7:30 AM, updated July 29, 2014 at 7:39 AM

When residents fear safe drinking water is at risk, they deserve answers from state regulators as quickly as possible.

That didn’t happen often enough at the height of the natural gas industry’s boom in Pennsylvania, according to a report from state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

The audit stops short of saying public health was at risk, but says the Department of Environmental Protection failed to adequately monitor the state’s drinking supply between 2009 and 2012 and didn’t keep the public informed quickly enough.

The 146-page report, released last week, describes the DEP as “underfunded, understaffed and inconsistent” in oversight of Marcellus Shale well-drilling activity known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

DePasquale also accused the DEP of failing to issue required administrative orders when it found gas-well operators had harmed the water supply, failing to reassure the public that wells were inspected in a timely manner; and being unprepared to handle complaints from the public.

Under a 2012 law regulating much of the natural gas industry, the DEP is supposed to require gas companies to restore drinking water supplies that the companies contaminated, according to the auditor general’s report.

But in 15 cases reviewed by the auditor general, that happened only once. The DEP says the orders aren’t always necessary because companies voluntarily fix the problems. However, the audit says this practice “raises concerns that DEP chooses to play the role of a mediator instead of a regulator.”

The Corbett administration fired back after the audit was released, saying many of the problems raised have been corrected.

That’s great news, but these problems never should have existed. When you are dealing with the safety of drinking water and public health, plans should be in place from the outset to properly monitor water supplies and update the public on findings.

The audit should serve as a wake-up call to the DEP to do better.

-The (Easton) Express-Times.

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PUBLIC ART ENHANCES CITYSCAPES

Public art enhances cityscapes (YDR Opinion)

Chicago has the Picasso on Daley Plaza on the Loop. Detroit has The Fist, a huge sculpture memorializing hometown hero and former heavyweight champion of the world Joe Louis. Philadelphia has the statue of Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

These are iconic pieces of public art, landmarks that define and reflect the culture of the cities they decorate.

The Picasso, as columnist Mike Royko famously pointed out, reflects the hard-boiled mean-spiritedness that embodies the city with big shoulders. The Fist reflects Detroit’s blue-collar toughness, a city built on muscle and sweat. Rocky - albeit a fictional character - embodies the spirit and attitude of Philadelphia.

They are more than just sculptures. They are symbols for their respective cities.

In York, our public art reflects the city’s industrial heritage and blue-collar ethos, as well as our heritage of artists and engravers.

Steel sculptures made with gears, chains and discarded machine parts adorn downtown. Foundry Park, by the Codorus Creek off of West Philadelphia Street, is home to what’s called The Gear Garden, flowers fabricated from gears.

The art does more than reflect the city. It adds to the city’s culture. It elevates the city and makes residents feel differently about their town. Public art is an important part of the cityscape.

Main Street Hanover understands that. The organization recently announced plans to launch a public art program in downtown Hanover and secured grants from the York County Community Foundation and PNC Bank to commission the first project — a sculpture by local artist Jeff Asper.

Mr. Asper’s design is based on an infinity sign made with a metal frame and re-purposed items from Hanover’s industrial and agricultural roots. (Of course, when many of think of Hanover, we think of Famous Hot Wieners or Utz potato chips, so we can all be relieved that Mr. Asper came up with something more abstract.)

The sculpture will be something of a community effort. Main Street Hanover is seeking donations of industrial and agricultural elements to be included in the piece. That is a terrific idea. While the piece is the vision of the artist, it gives the community a way to be a part of it, to contribute to the creation of a work of art.

Hanover has a lot to offer, a nice square and an active downtown and, of course, the aforementioned Famous Hot Wieners.

Public art can merely enhance that.

-York Daily Record

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