- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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HAVE WE HAD ENOUGH CORRUPTION?

Have we had enough yet?

Are we sick enough of the casual corruption that seems to underlie every level of government in Pennsylvania to rise up and demand change?

State Treasurer Rob McCord, who will plead guilty to federal extortion charges, is just the latest in a long list of corrupt state political leaders.

Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Former House Speakers Bill DeWeese and John Perzel.

Former Revenue Secretary and Democratic state House leader Stephen Stetler.

Former Sen. Vince Fumo.

Former Rep. Mike Veon.

Former Sen. Bob Mellow.

And so on. The list of Pennsylvania politicians who violated the public’s trust and were sentenced to jail or other confinement is disheartening.

Recent studies consistently put Pennsylvania in the top 10 of most corrupt states - with the likes of Illinois, New York and Mississippi. A report last year said corruption in the 10 sleaziest states costs each citizen about $1,300 a year.

In Pennsylvania, we tut-tut about it, maybe make a gallows-humor joke, then go back to the sports page. It’s expected. It’s understood.

And so it comes as exactly no surprise when it turns out the state treasurer - the guy in charge of our money - was shaking down a law firm and a property management company for big donations to his gubernatorial campaign.

Actually, after seeing Mr. McCord’s arrogant and reckless primary campaign, it comes as even less of a surprise. He shamelessly tried to tag Tom Wolf as a racist because of his links to York Mayor Charlie Robertson, who was charged in the 1960s race riot case. It was a ridiculous campaign smear, and thank goodness voters saw through a politician who was desperate and flailing.

Yes, Pennsylvania dodged a bullet when it chose Mr. Wolf over Mr. McCord. Imagine the spectacle of FBI agents showing up at the inauguration and slapping cuffs on our brand new governor.

Phew - lucky us!

OK, but what are we going to do about this corruption?

Well, electing Mr. Wolf was a first step in the right direction.

One of his first moves in office was to impose a ban on gifts for his administration. Other state agencies such as the Liquor Control Board and the Turnpike Commission (another den of corruption and waste) have since followed suit.

So far, the Legislature has not imposed a gift ban - and let’s hope it’s quickly shamed into such a sensible ethics measure. It just defies credibility to think that lobbyists and others doing or seeking to do business with politicians would give gifts such as trips and tickets to events (which Gov. Tom Corbett routinely accepted) without some “understating” of future considerations. (Unlike Mr. McCord, usually the parties to such transactions were smart enough not to spell out such “considerations” on the phone.)

A gift ban would be a start. But there are many other ways to cut corruption that our leaders have failed to enact. How about campaign finance limits? Pennsylvania has none. That’s how Mr. McCord could put the squeeze on would-be donors to the tune of $25,000.

Gov. Wolf has proposed limiting campaign contributions to $5,000 - along with improved transparency. Many have rightly noted the irony of a rich guy who gets elected with massive donations of his own money wanting to tighten the spigot for future candidates. But it’s still the right thing to do.

Gov. Wolf also proposed reforming the “crony contract” system with law firms, requiring a strict bidding process. Other needed changes include per diem reforms in the Legislature and redistricting reforms to stop gerrymandering.

Granted, laws and regulations can never completely eliminate corruption. Those who want to enrich or aggrandize themselves will simply break the law.

But the least our leaders could do is put ethical best practices in place that might slow the parade of pols to the penitentiary that we’ve seen here over the last couple of decades.

- The (Hanover) Evening Sun

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SHIP AGROUND: MCCAIN PROPOSAL WOULD HURT PENNSYLVANIA RIVER AND LAKE JOBS

America needs more domestic manufacturing jobs, not fewer. That simple fact is reason enough to oppose Sen. John McCain’s attempt to rewrite federal law regulating the production and operation of vessels that use U.S. waterways. But it’s not the only reason to reject his effort.

The Arizona Republican, a longtime advocate for changes to the 95-year-old Merchant Marine Act, last month proposed an amendment to the Senate’s version of the Keystone XL authorization bill. It would have invalidated part of the Jones Act, which says ships, barges and other craft that travel the country’s rivers and lakes must be built, owned and primarily staffed by Americans if they are carrying commercial goods between U.S. ports.

The senator says the act is archaic and “hinders free trade, stifles the economy and hurts consumers.” That last claim is based on his assertion that it costs more to transport goods using American labor than foreign-flagged ships.

Although Mr. McCain’s amendment in the pipeline bill failed, he is expected to bring the issue up again. If he succeeds, it could spell the end of the American ship-building industry, threatening 400,000 jobs, both directly in construction and by extension in shipping and the supply chain, according to the AFL-CIO.

Plenty of operators in Pennsylvania and Ohio could be hurt. Businesses along the shores of Lake Erie make their living by repairing vessels that sail those waters, and the Pittsburgh region still is home to similar activity. A Washington County company in 2013 christened two new tugboats built in its shipyard, the first in decades. Then there are the crews that work on ships and barges that traverse the rivers of Western Pennsylvania.

Protecting jobs from being outsourced to other nations is important, but it’s not the only value of the Jones Act. Having a well-trained workforce that can design and repair ships is a strategic national security asset, too. That’s why Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told reporters that outsourcing shipbuilding would put “our entire U.S. fleet in jeopardy.”

Mr. McCain’s proposal is shortsighted and should be abandoned.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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TRACKING FRACKING: BESIDES AN EXTRACTION TAX, WE NEED SOME REGULATORY OVERSIGHT

We support newly elected governor Tom Wolf for restoring a moratorium on natural-gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on state parklands. His action last week reversed a move by Gov. Tom Corbett, a guy who never met a fracker he didn’t like, who lifted an earlier ban on the activity less than a year ago.

Allowing fracking in state parks was not so much letting the fox into the henhouse, but cooking the chicken and frying the eggs for him. And while we applaud the outcome, we wish that such a critical environmental issue wasn’t subject to the political pingpong game that has marked gas extraction in this state and elsewhere.

Fracking - which shoots powerful chemicals and water into the ground to break up shale and release natural gas as well as oil - continues to raise concerns about environmental and public-safety impact, including water-supply safety. New York recently banned it outright, for example, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo citing health concerns.

According to a new Pew Research Center study that measures the public’s and scientists’ views on science issues, only a minority of both favor increased fracking. Still, the country as a whole is in the middle of a fracking boom, mirrored by Pennsylvania’s own explosion of growth since 2008. There are now so many states tapping into their own shale formations that a debate has begun over the need for federal regulations. That’s an important debate to have.

The patchwork of laws from state to state, the inconsistent oversight and regulation here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and the scale and speed of the drilling boom demand more cautious and careful scrutiny of long-term effects on humans and on the environment. Yet, there’s another environment to consider that could push the debate over fracking further underground.

As anyone who has filled up a gas tank lately or paid a gas heating bill can attest, there have clearly been benefits to the boom, with increased supply driving down prices. We should recognize, though, that there’s something dangerous about driving around with cheap gasoline prices: It can lull us into thinking we have solved our long-term energy problems. But we haven’t. Market prices are destined to fluctuate, and although we may have a relative glut at this moment, that moment isn’t destined to last.

That’s why we hope that the governor moves with equal alacrity on his support of a tax on fracking. This is likely to launch a long battle, since even the pro-fracking Gov. Ed Rendell failed to get an extraction tax passed in the General Assembly before leaving office. The extraction fees that are now paid by those drilling in Pennsylvania certainly help - as of 2013, they have generated about $630 million. But these fees are a fraction of what the state should be getting for laying bare its land, environment and public safety in the long term.

Fracking in Pennsylvania is not likely to slow down anytime soon. And although Wolf has said that he wants the fracking tax to help support schools, a portion also should be put aside for better oversight, regulation and study of the long-term effects. As a leader in natural-gas extraction, Pennsylvania also has the opportunity to take the lead in developing smarter energy policies that can provide a better grounding for generations in the future - who will be paying far more at the pump than we do now.

- Philadelphia Daily News

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PENNSYLVANIA LAW NEEDS TO BAR DISCRIMINATION AGAINST LGBT PEOPLE

Same-sex marriage has been legal in this commonwealth since last spring, but gay Pennsylvanians still have reason to worry.

They may marry on a Saturday and then be fired Monday just for being who they are.

It’s time to fix this.

It’s just the right thing to do.

The cause of gay rights has champions on both sides of the political aisle: Indeed, the fight to legalize same-sex marriage across the United States is led by Republican Ted Olson, President George W. Bush’s solicitor general.

In Pennsylvania, House and Senate Bill 300, which would have barred discrimination against LGBT people, had bipartisan support and sponsorship last year. Then-Gov. Tom Corbett was willing to sign the legislation had it reached his desk.

It never did. It went to the House State Government Committee, where Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the Butler County Republican who chairs the panel, refused to schedule a hearing on it. Democratic Rep. Mike Sturla was the only member of the Lancaster County delegation to sponsor the bill.

Its sponsors have signaled their intention to reintroduce the legislation soon. We’re hoping it fares better this year.

It would ensure that elderly gay couples no longer would have to lie about their relationships to live together in retirement communities and assisted living facilities.

It would mean that employees would be judged on merit; sexual orientation would not be a factor in promotion or hiring.

It would allow companies to assure prospective employees that their rights would be protected in Pennsylvania, no matter where in the commonwealth they would make their homes.

“Why would we cut ourselves off from a talent pool that is broad as it could possibly be?” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Gov. Wolf saying last week. “Why would we cut ourselves off from people just because of who they love?”

Wolf was speaking at an Equality Pennsylvania event that was co-sponsored by Dow Chemical Co.

Other businesses that support the anti-discrimination legislation, according to Equality Pennsylvania, include Alcoa, The PNC Financial Services Group and American Eagle Outfitters. The chambers of commerce in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also support it.

Only 34 of Pennsylvania’s more than 2,500 municipalities have anti-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people.

So an employee of a company that has more than one location might find, for instance, that his rights are protected in the City of Lancaster - which is among those 34 municipalities - but not elsewhere in Lancaster County.

It’s time to amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to include protections for those who are gay, bisexual or transgender.

They’re not asking for special protection. They’re asking for the same housing and employment rights that should be accorded to every American, but sadly are not.

Pennsylvania is where American history began. We don’t want to be on the wrong side of history now.

- LNP

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PENNSYLVANIA SHIELD LAW DOESN’T NEED A SPECIAL EXEMPTION FOR GRAND JURY LEAKS

For all their importance in the process of reporting the news, shield laws don’t get a whole lot of press.

Until someone in authority wants to lower the shield, that is.

Simply stated, a shield law protects reporters from being forced to give up the identities of confidential sources, people who provide information with the agreement that their names won’t be revealed.

Reporters have gone to jail to protect such sources. Shield laws are designed, as an extension of the First Amendment, to prevent that very occurrence - and using the threat of it to neuter investigative reporting. Reporters on local municipal and court beats may not use this protection every day, but they still need it. Bob Woodward of the Washington Post needed it when he received background information from Mark Felt - then a top FBI administrator - to shed light on the criminal activities of a president. (Woodward waited 30 years, until Felt publicly admitted his role in the Watergate investigation, to confirm the long-rumored identity of his “Deep Throat” informant.)

Pennsylvania’s Shield Law isn’t under full-fledged attack, but a grand jury investigating Attorney General Kathleen Kane wants prosecutors to be able to drag reporters into court to compel them to corroborate suspected leaks of grand jury testimony - information that is supposed to remain secret until otherwise designated. In a case that dates to a 2009 investigation of a former head of the Philadelphia NAACP - and prompted by an alleged leak of testimony to a Philadelphia newspaper last year - the grand jury has asked the state Legislature to rewrite the Shield Law narrowly, authorizing an exception for “leak” investigations within grand jury investigations.

The argument for this change, the grand jury wrote, is that compromised secrecy in grand jury probes can damage the reputations of those being investigated. Particularly if they end up not being charged with anything.

Funny, that reasoning is related to the principle investigative reporters invoke in doing work with confidential sources - that at times the standard way of collecting news through public or attributed sources isn’t good enough. Sometimes it requires protection of the person offering information about inside government activities, including corruption.

Narrow as it is, the grand jury’s proposed tweaking of the Shield Law is a bad idea. And it’s not really needed. Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, points out that prosecutors already have the power and ability to track down leaks and deal with them.

The grand jury recommends that reporters only be forced to testify if their source has waived the confidentiality agreement. That strikes us as a slippery slope that could be manipulated by prosecutors.

The Pennsylvania Legislature has shown little inclination to strip protections under the 75-year-old Shield Law, and we hope that continues to be the case. Most states still recognize the worth of this extension of the First Amendment - a check on the power of the state, essentially - and it’s a good instinct.

- The (Easton) Express-Times

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