- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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REDUCE THE SIZE OF THE LEGISLATURE? YES PLEASE

The state Legislature took some encouraging steps this week toward restoring public confidence in an institution justly known for its cost, bloat and inaction, as the Senate State Government Committee gave its approval to a pair of proposed constitutional amendments that would downsize Pennsylvania’s 253-member General Assembly.

The panel approved legislation being pushed by the presiding officers in the state House and Senate - House Speaker Sam Smith and Senate President Joe Scarnati, both Republicans of Jefferson County.

If eventually approved, the measures would eliminate 62 positions across the three branches of state government.

Specifically, Smith’s bill would reduce the 203-member House by 50 members. It won House approval last fall.

Scarnati took a separate Senate bill seeking to shrink the 50-member Senate to 45 members and convinced the committee to also eliminate the lieutenant governor’s office, two justices of the seven-member state Supreme Court and four positions on the 15-member Superior Court.

And we say eventually because these steps, while important, are only the first ones on a much longer road.

Any change to the state Constitution must be approved in consecutive legislative sessions and then by voters at a statewide referendum, likely in November 2015.

With voter confidence in the General Assembly at seismic lows, it’s tempting to dismiss this legislation as little more than election year showboating by senior leaders in the General Assembly.

And these proposals have come and gone before.

But we’re also willing to take Smith and Scarnati at their respective word that they are trying to trim costs and make state government more efficient.

If the 62 positions were eliminated this year, state spending would be cut by $6 million with savings on salaries. That does not include benefits and other costs associated with those offices.

With the state facing as much as a $1.2 billion deficit, that’s an encouraging, if small, step in the right direction.

But two very important questions remain: Even if lawmakers approve one of the two measures this year, does that mean they stand a chance in the legislative session set to begin next January?

Smith, a House veteran, is set to retire at year’s end, robbing his bill of a very influential steward. And it’s not clear if there’s anyone who will take up the cause - lawmakers, as they are, being historically reluctant to vote themselves out of a job.

And if actions in other states are any guide, the proposals face long odds.

Only four states - Idaho, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Wyoming - have reduced the size of their General Assemblies since 1990, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“When a change in the size of a Legislature is considered, debate typically centers around three major themes: representation, efficiency and cost,” the organization’s program principal, Brenda Erickson, told PennLive this week.

While Maine and Montana’s General Assemblies had size-reduction legislation introduced during this 2013-2014 session, she said, “these proposals, however, are more common closer to the time when Legislatures consider legislative reapportionment/redistricting.

For example, in 2011, legislation to change size was introduced in at least 12 states, Erickson noted.

And only two or three states in the country’s history, including New Jersey, have ever eliminated its lieutenant governor’s office and they have since reinstated it, according to the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

Those aren’t encouraging odds. But they are proof, at least, that such actions can take place, and that the operations of state government can continue.

In an interview with PennLive, Senate State Government Committee Chairman Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said he believes the time is right in Pennsylvania to consider the reduction proposals.

And any error in the legislation could be corrected in next year’s legislative session. If all went to plan, changes in district boundaries would take effect with the 2020 redistricting.

In the name of savings, efficiency and public confidence, lawmakers should approve one of the downsizing proposals in this session.

And, with Smith’s retirement, Scarnati should ensure that the push continues in the next legislative session so that the amendment can be placed on the statewide ballot as soon as possible.

- PennLive.com.

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FINANCIAL TIME BOMB WITH SCHOOL PENSIONS

The pension time bomb in Pennsylvania is a $50 billion funding liability loaded with politically explosive issues.

Trying to change pension benefit packages in the Public School Employee Retirement System faces objection from the teachers’ union, a powerful force in state politics and a strong defender of public educators’ financial security.

On the other side of the equation are school boards trying to balance budgets with growing pension costs and mounting pressure to keep down property taxes and maintain programs in the classroom.

Maintaining the status quo, however, has created a financial time bomb in a system that pays out more in benefits to public school retirees than it takes in. The pension shortfall in Pennsylvania is $50 billion, up from $40 billion a year ago.

The issues are complicated and have far-reaching implications. But at the heart of the pension crisis are issues very close to home: your tax bill, your child’s class size and the programs in your local school.

The struggle to balance local school budgets starts with the skyrocketing pension obligation and comes down to reducing teacher staff.

Examples are everywhere: The Perkiomen Valley proposed teacher furloughs that have caused a community uproar and the proposed cuts in art programs and elementary band at Daniel Boone are just two.

“It is the number one problem in Pennsylvania and it’s not easily fixed,” said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, referring to the pension shortfall.

This year, local schools must pay about 21 percent of their total payroll into the pension fund.

In order to deal with the growth in that percentage, schools eliminate staff to reduce payroll.

A survey released last week by Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators showed that “nearly 60 percent of school districts have furloughed staff since 2010-11, with more than 40 percent of these furloughs affecting classroom teachers,” according to the release announcing the survey’s release.

“With about one in seven districts planning furloughs of classroom teachers for next year, fewer teachers continues to mean increasing class sizes, which has occurred in 64 percent of districts since 2010-11,” the release stated.

Next year, according to the PASA/PASBO survey, school districts anticipate eliminating or reducing 370 academic programs, which is in addition to 783 academic program reductions that have occurred since 2010-11.

The reductions include advanced placement courses, business education, foreign languages, music, kindergarten, physical education and special education.

Several state proposals are afloat in Harrisburg to at least slow the rate the crisis is growing. Gov. Tom Corbett tried last year to get a reform package moving but failed to get any legislative traction on the issue.

But legislative enthusiasm and public support to tackle the issue are lacking.

The hard task of reducing the pension shortfall and stabilizing local schools’ expense growth must be addressed. Doing nothing is not an option anymore - our children’s future hangs in the balance.

- The (Hanover) Evening Sun

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HIKE CIGARETTE TAX, TAX SMOKELESS TOBACCO TOO

State elected officials should raise the tax on cigarettes. While they are at it, they should impose a tax on smokeless tobacco.

Philadelphia state Sen. Anthony Williams is proposing a hike in Pennsylvania’s cigarette tax to $2 a pack, a measure that has bipartisan support. Legislators say that even estimating a 15 percent drop in sales due to the price hike, the higher tax could bring in a much-needed $200 million to help lower the state’s deficit.

Lower cigarette sales were already in evidence last year. But raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes serves a health purpose, too. Numerous studies have shown - and tobacco companies acknowledge - that the higher the overall price, the less likely young people are to smoke.

Meanwhile there’s smokeless tobacco, which has enjoyed a tax exemption in the Keystone State. There’s no legitimate reason not to tax chewing tobacco and snuff; every other state does. And like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco is not essential, and carries health risks. Raising taxes on it will serve the dual purpose of providing more tax revenues and giving purchasers pause over whether they really want to indulge in this harmful habit.

Pennsylvania legislators must pass a budget by June 30. They face as much as a $1.7 billion deficit.

Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco do no good and do much harm. Lawmakers should not hesitate to raise the existing tax on cigarettes and to levy one, for the first time, on smokeless tobacco. Pennsylvania needs these tax revenues, and if it means fewer tobacco users, all the better.

__ Pocono Record.

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‘DISTRESS’ ISN’T MERELY STATE DEFINITION

Many state legislators apparently believe that the problem facing the state’s officially distressed cities is that they are called distressed cities.

The House voted Tuesday to amend Act 47, the distressed city law, that would require cities to shed their distressed city status after five years in the “program” - for lack of a better term - but does nothing to help them do so.

Act 47 has not been effective in helping the state’s 20-plus cities designated as “distressed.” But the objective of amendments should to be improve the law to have the state government actually assist cities by dealing with the factors that contribute to their financial problems.

That list is endless, but it would require heavy lifting by the Legislature. Instead, the House has passed a law that simply puts a five-year limit on the distress designation, after which cities would have to devise a three-year exit plan leading to solvency or bankruptcy or, in rare cases, a dissolved government.

It offers few tools to actually achieve that. Local governments would be able to petition the court to add temporary tax increases. Apparently, the lawmakers believe that the distressed city governments don’t impose enough taxes. And the bill doesn’t address what would happen if some cities emerge from distress and, as a consequence, drop the temporary taxes. It’s not back to square one; it’s back to square zero.

The bill provides for state analysis when a city is headed for distressed status. That mirrors the current situation in Scranton, where the government is in full study mode, even though it has been distressed since 1992 and the foundational roots of that distress are well understood.

Cities in Pennsylvania don’t need more pressure from Harrisburg; they need more help. There is much the Legislature could do:

- Mandate consolidation of services among local governments to reduce administrative costs.

- Reform the convoluted local municipal pension system. Pennsylvania has more local pension plans than any other state and a quarter of the national total.

- End Pennsylvania’s status as the state with the highest number of local government units per person, which inherently drives up costs.

Specifically regarding Scranton, the state government should recognize that the city government is a victim of its adherence to state law. Under the Doherty administration, the city government faithfully carried out the specific requirements of Act 47 until the state Supreme Court’s bum decision that invalidated the effort, based on a single word in the law. That exponentially accelerated the city’s financially crisis, but lawmakers are content to let the city alone deal with the consequences of a poor state law, compounded by a poor state court decision.

The list goes on. Truly helping cities requires far more than threats.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

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