- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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WHEN PENNSYLVANIA LEGISLATORS ASK FOR YOUR VOTE, ASK THEM THIS

As Pennsylvania legislators come your way this fall, courting your vote in November’s election, here’s a question you may want to ask them:

Given the scandal involving the four Philadelphia Democratic legislators who were secretly recorded taking cash gifts from a lobbyist, why haven’t you passed a law banning the practice?

Pennsylvanians were shocked to learn that as long as the legislator doesn’t promise anything in return for a gift of cash, and discloses taking more than $250 from any one influence-seeker, it’s perfectly legal.

When asked, your friendly legislator running for re-election may blow you some smoke, saying “We did something about cash gifts.”

And it’s true, the Senate passed an ethics rule banning its members from taking any gift in the form of cash (including checks and gift cards).

However, the ban lasts only until this particular legislature adjourns. There’s no guarantee the ban will be renewed next year. And the ban is just an internal Senate rule that doesn’t carry the force of law. Nobody will go to prison for breaking it.

The Pennsylvania House did something even more lame. The House set a rule banning its members from taking gifts of U.S. currency. Taking other forms of cash - gift cards, pre-paid debit cards, checks - is still OK for your friendly state representative.

All of which might prompt you to ask your re-election-seeking legislator: “Why are you allowed to take unlimited amounts of gifts, as long as you disclose them long after the fact?”

In response, your legislator may talk about a reform bill that would slash the size of a gift a legislator can take without reporting it. The trigger for reporting would drop to $100.01 for travel and lodging, and $50.01 for other gifts.

However, that bill never budged in Harrisburg - more than nine months after it was introduced, it is still stuck in its first committee. And in classic Pennsylvania fashion, the “reform” bill would create a new avenue for future abuse. As now written, the proposed “reform” would let legislators take an unlimited number of those gifts under $50 without ever reporting them. A legislator could dine and drink every night on a lobbyist’s tab, as long as the bill for any one outing did not exceed $50.

If pressed on that point, a legislator running for re-election may say he or she supports plans by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi to pursue a bill next year that bans all gifts from non-family members.

Setting a clear, easy-to-enforce line - no gifts, period - is the right standard, but the “We’ll do it tomorrow” timing is all too convenient politically. It’s like the offer from the Popeye cartoon character Wimpy, who says he’ll gladly pay Tuesday for a hamburger today.

Pennsylvania legislators had plenty of time to choose to do the right thing, which is ban all gifts - and they didn’t.

You might want to ask your friendly local legislator who’s running for re-election to explain that.

- PennLive.com

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COSTS SOAR AS PENNSYLVANIA KEEPS 500 PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICTS

This campaign season is consumed by the question of whether Gov. Tom Corbett actively cut school funding by $1 billion or passively allowed that amount in federal subsidies to expire without replacing it. Either way, school districts were down $1 billion in the year after Corbett took office.

Obscured by the debate are some of the more fundamental questions regarding school costs and governance, including pension reform, benefit costs and the most basic issue of all regarding school costs: whether Pennsylvania needs 500 public school districts.

An unfolding case in Western Pennsylvania demonstrates that the state does not need 500 districts. In Allegheny County, the Moon Area School District, with about 3,600 students, has raised the idea of a merger with the nearby Cornell School District, with just 650 K-12 students in a single building.

It’s at least the third time in the last 25 years that one or the other district has raised the prospect of a merger, but the small districts remain distinct.

Moon, which recently closed an elementary school, wants to take advantage of the economies of scale that would come with a merger, including reduced administrative costs and more efficient use of facilities.

Cornell has not expressed much interest, but if the merger happens, it would be the first since the Center Area and Monaca districts merged in 2010 to become the Central Valley School District - the first voluntary merger of two school districts in state history.

State lawmakers should take their cue from that. As rising local property taxes replace the lost state funding and fund runaway pension obligations created by the Legislature itself, lawmakers should take on the issue of efficient school administration.

State law should fight, rather than accommodate, the costly duplication of services inherent in tiny adjacent districts having separate administrations, purchasing, transportation, athletic programs and facilities and so on.

That does not mean the creation of huge districts. There are many cases, such as the Moon-Cornell example, where two tiny districts could merge and remain small while increasing efficiency and spreading the tax burden.

The Legislature should call on the state Department of Education to identify those districts and then mandate mergers where appropriate, to reduce the costs of education at the local level.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune.

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WEED LAW IS RIGHT STEP

The time it took to reach a compromise on marijuana arrests in Philadelphia was worth it. It should lead to a dramatic reduction in the thousands saddled with debilitating criminal records for possessing small amounts of the drug for recreational use.

That will be particularly important in the city’s African American community, which, as the legislation’s sponsor, Councilman Jim Kenney, pointed out has been inordinately targeted for marijuana arrests.

Kenney questioned why fraternity boys and tailgaters at Eagles games weren’t arrested as often. Last year, 83 percent of the 4,000 people arrested in the city were black, even though studies show marijuana usage runs evenly among racial groups.

Even as he acknowledged that discrepancy, Mayor Nutter would not initially sign Kenney’s bill when Council passed it in June. But he and Kenney ironed out their differences, leading to the landmark compromise bill passed last week, which becomes effective on Oct. 20.

The new law calls for those caught with less than 30 grams, or about an ounce, of marijuana to be fined $25. However, smoking marijuana in public carries a $100 fine or nine hours of community service. Nutter wanted the stiffer penalty for public use.

The approach makes sense. While marijuana use does carry some apparently minor health risks, treating recreational marijuana users like drug lords went overboard. Criminal records stemming from pot busts have kept thousands of young people from obtaining student loans, joining the military, or getting jobs.

Give credit to city District Attorney Seth Williams for blazing the trail to the new law. Four years ago, he announced he wouldn’t seek jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana, noting that those cases added stress to the already overloaded judicial system.

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who reacted negatively to Kenney’s original bill making marijuana possession the equivalent of a ticketed offense, says he’s on board with the revised law. The compromise doesn’t prohibit some cases from being prosecuted under the state’s more stringent marijuana statute, which brands users with a criminal record, a $500 fine, and up to 30 days in jail.

The city’s new law puts Philadelphia where it belongs, among the more progressive parts of the country. So far, 21 states and the District of Columbia have downgraded marijuana charges or legalized it to some extent. New Jersey has legalized marijuana for medical use. That’s a step that Pennsylvania, which has a medical marijuana bill in the Legislature, should also take.

The city’s new marijuana law is proof that Nutter and Council can compromise, which doesn’t happen often enough. By putting aside politics and working together, they have written groundbreaking legislation that protects the public while recognizing today’s realities.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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RAIL PORT PLAN FOR BETHLEHEM WORTHY OF PUBLIC SUPPORT

Getting everyone to the table to talk about establishing an inland rail port in South Bethlehem - an intermodal hub that would give the Lehigh Valley a direct link to ocean-going trade - has been relatively easy. What will it take to get it done?

More coordination. More negotiating. And assurances by the valley’s state and federal legislators to make sure the public funding side of a proposed public-private partnership will be forthcoming.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is on board with the idea of a rail link between the Port of Newark and the intermodal yard off Route 412 in Bethlehem, which would include a U.S. Customs freight office. The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. has been facilitating a discussion with the Port Authority and the other parties involved - Norfolk Southern, which operates the rail line, and Lehigh Valley Rail Management, which owns the intermodal center.

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez, who attended a meeting last week with Port Authority officials, said they remain interested in the rail port scenario that was first floated last year. LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham said the big variable in the plan is whether the intermodal owner can get the funding needed for expansion.

There are at least two reasons why this plan deserves regional support and consideration for tax credits.

Sending shipping containers by rail directly to Bethlehem (with the Coast Guard providing security inspections at Newark and elsewhere) has the potential to take thousands of trucks off the road, particularly Interstate 78, and reduce fuel consumption. A bump in local truck traffic to and from the Bethlehem port should be manageable once the Route 412 widening and improvements are completed.

If having a local port is good for the Lehigh Valley’s many distribution centers, it’s even better for manufacturers that rely on exporting and/or importing, and for recruiting new manufacturing firms and start-ups, which tend to bring high-value jobs.

The Port is Bethlehem is, by its nature, a pipe dream. Turning it into a workable connection to overseas trade is another step in the Lehigh Valley’s emergence in economic development, employment and public transportation. Our state and federal legislators, along with local leaders, the LVEDC and the parties directly involved, should be keeping their eye on the target and seeking ways to make the intermodal expansion a reality.

- The (Easton) Express-Times

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AMERICA’S NUKES: A TIMELY EFFORT

The Obama administration’s foolhardy drive to cut America’s nuclear deterrent ironically is giving way to a welcome, large-scale effort to modernize and revitalize U.S. warheads, missiles, bombers and submarines.

A gleaming new $700 million warhead plant near Kansas City, Mo., opened early and under budget, The New York Times reports. It’s one of eight major sites slated for upgrades along with “12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers and 400 land-based missiles” over the next three decades.

Much of this upgrading is a price paid by the administration to secure GOP votes for Senate ratification of its New START treaty (a treaty of appeasement, by any other name) with Russia. And some of it, such as the Kansas City plant, was begun by the Bush administration.

Yet, this White House still frames these upgrades as creating a smaller arsenal to ease further reductions. But with Vladimir Putin’s adventurism chilling U.S.-Russia relations, China’s continuing territorial provocations and other factors, even it realizes this is no time to weaken national defense.

Citing troubles with other upgrade projects, critics say the estimated $1 trillion overall cost of modernizing nuclear weapons and delivery systems is unaffordable. But what America cannot afford is to let its nuclear deterrent’s credibility and reliability slip. And if that’s the result of circumstances forced on a reluctant administration, so be it.

- Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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HIDDEN COSTS: HEALTH CARE SURPRISES MUST COME TO AN END

The United States spends almost twice as much of its gross domestic product on health care as other industrialized countries - 16.9 percent in 2012, says the World Health Organization. That’s why all efforts to get to the bottom of America’s rising health care tab are in the national interest.

One initiative, by U.S. Attorney David Hickton in the Western District of Pennsylvania, is to create a team of four prosecutors who, with the FBI’s help, will crack down on health care fraud. Hickton told the Post-Gazette last week that this will be “a huge commitment of resources.”

Other causes of overspending are not necessarily rooted in fraud, but in aggressive attempts by medical providers to use regulations to obtain reimbursements from health insurance companies and their customers. The Post-Gazette has reported on Pittsburgh cases in which patients who receive treatment or an exam in a physician’s office are billed not just for the doctor’s work but also for costly “facility fees” from an affiliated hospital without the patient’s prior knowledge.

Another form of hidden cost was the kind experienced by a bank technology manager who last year underwent three hours of neck surgery for herniated disks. The New York Times reported that he researched the anticipated charges and his insurance coverage in advance and was not surprised later at bills of $56,000 for the hospital, $4,300 for the anesthesiologist and $6,200 from the primary surgeon. Nothing prepared him, however, for the $117,000 bill from an out-of-network “assistant surgeon.”

Such “drive-by doctoring” makes a mockery of health care price controls, according to the Brookings Institution, a policy think tank, and fuels the country’s $2.8 trillion in yearly health care costs.

That’s why the efforts by Hickton on the criminal front should be matched by the scrutiny of Congress on the civil end when it comes to controlling America’s hidden health care costs.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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