- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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PROSECUTE THE BANKERS, June 1

When a self-described cabal repeatedly engages in what the attorney general calls “brazenly illegal behavior” and pleads guilty to criminal acts, it is reasonable to expect its members will get some jail time. But not in the paradoxical world ruled by mega banks and paralyzed by fears that being too harsh with banks deemed too big to fail might implode the economy.

Consequently, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Citigroup, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which recently pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate international currency markets, will collectively pay only $5.7 billion in state, federal and foreign fines for a scam that ran six years and netted them $85 billion. A fifth bank, UBS, cooperated with investigators and pleaded guilty to a charge in a separate investigation.

Currency manipulation inflates the cost of imported consumer goods ranging from phones to clothing. That means Americans who purchased these items have already paid for the banks’ crimes. But they will pay even more. The banks will likely charge higher service fees to recover the cost of their fines.

That’s not justice. Some people busted for small amounts of marijuana face jail time. Was no one in the executive suites aware of the banks’ criminal acts? These sweetheart plea deals are hardly a deterrent to future misdeeds. Before the deals were even struck, the banks extracted assurances from banking regulators that their businesses would in no way be inconvenienced by the guilty pleas.

The whole affair is proof that this nation hasn’t taken to heart lessons learned from the subprime mortgage scandal that was one of the primary causes of the 2008 recession. Financial institutions were let off the hook while millions either lost their home or saw its value plummet. The banking industry’s avaricious recklessness wiped out retirement accounts and created record unemployment from which the nation is still trying to fully recover.

Lofty speeches from the White House and Congress led to promises to better regulate financial institutions, but too little has changed. In fact, last year President Obama and Congress signed off on a deal, authored by Citigroup lobbyists, that rolls back a ban on banks using federally insured funds to gamble on highly speculative stock derivatives. That leaves taxpayers in the lurch to cover stock losses.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch has promised to aggressively pursue financial crimes, but it’s hard to know what that means based on the Justice Department’s track record under her predecessor, Eric Holder. Maybe Lynch should take a hint from prosecutors in Iceland, where four top bankers were jailed, or Ireland, where two bankers were recently convicted.

The United States should just as easily find the will and a way to get tough with greedy bankers, and prosecute the ones responsible for crimes.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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ANOTHER BUDGET STALEMATE BREWING, June 2

Passing a budget is one of the core responsibilities of state government. Yet, Harrisburg lawmakers have never seemed too fussy about honoring the June 30 budget deadline. If they meet it, fine, but if not … oh, well, there’s always tomorrow.

During Democrat Ed Rendell’s eight years as governor, June 30 came and went without a budget on a regular basis. Things improved during the Corbett administration with both a Republican governor and Legislature. But now, with Republicans still in control of the House and the Senate, a new Democratic governor has made some big bucks promises that threaten yet another budget stalemate.

Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf built his successful campaign on a vow to infuse huge new sums of money into public education. To do that and address a large budget gap, Wolf wants to increase the sales and personal income taxes and impose a new severance tax on the natural gas industry. Republican lawmakers, who wear their aversion to tax increases like a badge of honor, want no part of higher taxes. Unlike Wolf’s higher-spending, higher-taxes budget proposal, the Republicans reportedly are preparing a bare-bones budget that contains none of the higher levies Wolf is asking for.

This is the classic set-up for a great deal of down-to-the wire budget wrangling that in the end may not produce an on-time spending plan both sides can live with. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County said the timing of a budget agreement will depend on Wolf. “Could it be done in July? Absolutely,” said Scarnati. “Could it go on until August or September or October? (It could) if they continue to use the Rendell playbook.”

At this point, odds are Wolf is determined to act more like Rendell than his immediate predecessor. And that means Scarnati is dreaming if he thinks the state will have a budget by July 1.

If the fiscal year begins without a budget, a 2009 court ruling allows Wolf to keep the paychecks coming for state employees. But without some sort of stopgap spending bill - the kind that’s become routine in Washington - the money tap would stop for public schools and many social service providers.

Perhaps a good way to force an on-time budget agreement would be to put the executive and legislative branches in the same position as the schools and social agencies: As long as a budget impasse continues, lawmakers from the governor on down and their staffs would not be paid.

Were such a provision in place, late budgets would be a thing of the past.

- The (Doylestown) Intelligencer

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WATCHING WATER EVERYWHERE, June 1

Some residents have been paying much higher sewer bills in recent years to improve water quality in critical bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay.

Due to ambiguities in the Clean Water Act created a decade ago by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions, those hard-won, expensive gains could be negated by events upstream, where tributary streams and bodies of water that feed them might not come under the law’s jurisdiction.

Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers issued a final rule to resolve the uncertainties and ensure that connected water systems, rather than individual streams, comply with the Clean Water Act.

Nationwide, because of the uncertainty created by the court decisions, up to 60 percent of wetlands, streams and other bodies of water have been in a regulatory limbo.

The new rule clearly defines and protects waterways that affect the health of downstream waters. That is critical. In Pennsylvania, the rule adds protection to drinking water used by about 8 million residents.

Also, the rule extends protection to specific bodies of water that have been shown to affect the quality of downstream waters.

Opponents of the new rule claim it adversely affects agriculture by expanding regulations to previously unregulated water used for irrigation and drainage.

That is not the case. The rule does not require any new permit of any agricultural enterprise, maintains current rules covering irrigation and specifically excludes water use relative to planting and harvesting crops and moving livestock.

The rule is a restoration of the original intent of the Clean Water Act, rather than a regulatory expansion. Members of Congress who oppose it instead should recognize that connected bodies of water require uniform regulation.

- The Standard-Speaker

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GOV. WOLF’S PIPELINE TASK FORCE HOLDS PROMISE, AND CONVEYS IMPORTANT MESSAGE ABOUT PA, June 1

Pipeline companies generally target the simplest, least expensive routes on which to build.

And why wouldn’t they? They’re seeking to maximize profits. And open spaces are much easier to negotiate than developed ones.

So, in Lancaster County, that means there’s a bull’s eye on farmland that’s been preserved with taxpayer dollars and charitable donations.

We’re hopeful that this might change, now that the governor has created the Pipeline Infrastructure Task Force.

The task force won’t be developing a comprehensive pipeline infrastructure plan - it would be “impossible to plan a full build-out of the infrastructure over the next seven decades” of expected fracking in Pennsylvania, says John Quigley, acting secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The aim, he says, is to convene a “collaborative conversation” with representatives from the natural gas industry, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, local and county government, environmental groups and other “stakeholders.”

He hopes that out of that collaboration will come best-practice recommendations for planning, locating and routing pipelines to avoid, or at least minimize, impacts on the environment and communities.

The task force also will aim to develop best practices related to construction methods, and pipeline operation and maintenance - and to public engagement on pipeline concerns.

Which is not to say that individuals from every community affected by pipelines will have a seat at the task force’s table.

Quigley expects there to be about 33 or 34 members, and subcommittees, too. “It’s a challenge to everybody involved to make sure we get it right.”

This challenge must be met if the task force is going to live up to its promise. We’ll be keeping an eye on how representative the task force is as it comes together.

Quigley says FERC officials have indicated they want to take part. We hope the task force gives the commonwealth added standing with that agency, which makes the ultimate call on natural gas pipeline proposals.

And we hope the task force’s report, which Quigley says Wolf expects around February, will factor into any future pipeline proposal affecting Pennsylvania that goes before FERC.

At the very least, the establishment of this task force sends the message that Pennsylvania isn’t the Wild West; it will have expectations and standards that pipeline developers will need to meet if they want to be seen as good corporate citizens.

But what comes out of the task force will be recommendations, not regulations. If the natural gas industry spurns the recommendations, what then?

“We’ve seen this kind of collaborative approach work before,” Quigley maintains, pointing to the siting standards developed for the wind industry by a collaboration he led at the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

He says it will be not just a collaborative process, but a transparent one, in which the aim will be to ensure “all sides feel heard and paid attention to.”

Karen Martynick, executive director of Lancaster Farmland Trust, plans to seek a place at the table.

Someone should be there to represent the concerns of those working for farmland preservation. Someone needs to convey the importance of Lancaster County’s rich preserved farmland and the taxpayers’ investment in it.

Martynick says the task force “has the potential to be helpful.”

It will be good, she says, to have a plan for what the state’s pipeline infrastructure “could and should look like.”

Here’s hoping that could and should are enough.

- Lancaster Online

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PRIVATE GROUPS MAY ADMIT OR REJECT ANYONE THEY WANT, May 29

Just three years ago, the Boy Scouts of America, with some assistance from the U.S. Supreme Court, reaffirmed its long-standing policy of banning not only gay leaders but also gay members.

The high court, in a 5-4 ruling, said that under the First Amendment of the Constitution, the private organization has the right to expressive association.

Less than a year later, in the wake of a vote in which more than 60 percent of Scout leaders supported lifting the ban on gay members, the youth organization decided that no boy could be denied membership based on sexual orientation alone. It left intact, however, the prohibition against gay adults serving as Scout leaders.

Now it appears that policy may be up for review in the near future.

Robert M. Gates, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, at the group’s annual meeting earlier this month in Atlanta, said if the organization is going to survive, it must lift its ban on gay leaders.

Gates, a former secretary of defense and director of the CIA, added, however, that religious and other organizations that sponsor Scouting programs, must be permitted to establish their own rules for adult leaders.

“Such an approach would allow all churches, which sponsor some 70 percent of our Scout units, to establish leadership standards consistent with their faith,” Gates said. “We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this.”

Although Gates stopped short of making a formal proposal to the organization’s national board of directors, it is clear that he is trying to walk a very fine line between establishing a welcoming policy and offending Mormon, Roman Catholic and other church officials.

“I support a policy that accepts and respects our different perspectives and beliefs,” Gates said. “I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement.”

For more than a century Scouting has developed a reputation as a wholesome organization that has helped keep boys physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight, at it says in the Scout Oath. But of late Scouting has been losing members.

There are roughly 2.6 million boys and girls participating in Scouting today. That is down significantly from its peak in the 1960s of nearly 7 million participants, all of them boys.

It is somewhat ironic that membership took a 6 percent hit two years ago, when the organization announced it would accept openly gay boys.

Gates’ comments should come as no surprise. Even as the Scouts announced their prohibition on gays three years ago, two members of the national board said they would try to work from within to change the membership policy.

The changes that have taken place in Scouting seem to reflect those that have taken place in society during the same time, as gays, lesbians and same-sex marriage have become more and more accepted. Clearly, however, those changes have not taken place without stirring some strong objections.

Regardless of what the Scouts do, one thing remains certain: As a private organization, Scouting has the right to accept or reject anyone for any reason.

- The Reading Eagle

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