- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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DO WOLF AND THE LEGISLATURE GET THE VOTERS’ MESSAGE ON EDUCATION?

If there is one clear message from this year’s race for governor in Pennsylvania, it’s this: The way the state funds K-12 schools is neither fair nor adequate.

From the Delaware River to Lake Erie, voters saw class sizes swelling, school programs being slashed, and teachers getting pink slips, while school districts imposed painful property tax increases. Education was THE issue in the race and it cost Republican Tom Corbett his job - all in a year when his party romped to victories nationwide by running against President Obama and a disappointing economy.



While the state underfunds schools in general, some districts suffer a lot worse than others.

The key variable driving Pennsylvania’s school funding decisions is not what students need to get a good education - it’s politics. Communities with a friend in the Legislature or Governor’s office do better. Pennsylvania is one of only three states that has no set formula for sending money to schools.

That ad hoc, politically-driven system is grossly unfair, and there’s now evidence to suggest it may be racially biased as well.

If the commission does its job, it will confirm what’s already obvious - school funding is inadequate and unfair.

Pennsylvania supplies “dramatically higher per-student funding in districts with predominantly white populations compared to economically similar districts with more racial diversity,” according to a new study by the Philadelphia education advocacy group POWER.

For a brief time in recent history, Pennsylvania did fund schools using a standard formula with defensible criteria, such as poverty levels, non-English speaking students, and size of the local tax base.

It was part of a six-year plan to reach full, adequate school funding as defined by a non-partisan study commissioned by the Legislature in 2007.

But along came the Great Recession, and Gov. Tom Corbett. When the economic crash hammered state tax collections, Corbett and the Legislature abandoned the school funding formula. They’ve never restored it.

Each year, school districts are left guessing how much state money they’ll get. They scramble at the last minute to nail down their budgets, instead of figuring out how best to educate students.

The Legislature knows school funding is a problem. This year, it created a well-balanced panel, including equal numbers of Republican and Democratic lawmakers from across the state, to recommend a better system.

But the commission’s report won’t come until June, leaving little time before the June 30 deadline for setting a new state budget, which includes school funds.

If the commission does its job, it will confirm what’s already obvious - school funding is inadequate and unfair - so its work is not an excuse for waiting.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf and his budget-writers should work closely with the commission on a non-discriminatory funding plan for the coming school year. It needs to ensure ensures a greater share of money goes to districts with high proportions of disadvantaged students and a weak local tax base.

When the commission’s report comes in, legislators can take refine the initial school funding plan and wrap it into the final budget.

In the governor’s race, voters heard a lot about who was to blame for the financial struggles of the state’s schools. That’s a dead issue now.

Having elected Wolf, a Democrat, and a Republican Legislature, voters expect them to work together on a fair and transparent way of funding schools, so that every Pennsylvania student can get the “thorough and efficient” education promised by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

- PennLive.com

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GAMBLING PROBLEM

The gambling business is built on bettors’ willful suspension of belief in the laws of probability. If state officials approve another Philadelphia casino, they will be showing a similar capacity to ignore the inevitable.

The state gambling board is scheduled to meet next week “for the purpose of considering an award” of a second city casino license …. But the fortunes of the region’s existing casinos have turned so sour that even the politicians who aided and abetted state-sanctioned gambling are urging otherwise.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who signed Pennsylvania’s gambling law and has asserted that only “simpletons” and “idiots” could fail to appreciate its wisdom, told The Inquirer last week that he wasn’t sure Philadelphia needs another casino. He said the gambling board should slow down and seek input from Gov.-elect Tom Wolf. With SugarHouse taking bets on the Delaware waterfront and three other casinos near the city’s borders, several suburban legislators expressed similar reservations.

The most glaring evidence of a casino collapse is in nearby Atlantic City, which has lost a third of its casinos in less than a year. This week, on the eve of a “summit” on Atlantic City’s future convened by Gov. Christie, State Senate President Steve Sweeney proposed several measures to stabilize the city’s finances. But Sweeney and Christie are also threatening to compound the gambling glut by allowing a casino in northern New Jersey.

Pennsylvania now hosts as many casinos as pre-crisis Atlantic City, and its gambling revenues seem to have peaked. The overall slot machine take has been falling since 2012.

Just as Pennsylvania poached New Jersey gamblers, Ohio, Maryland, and other nearby states are competing for Keystone State wagerers. In fact, one of the would-be owners of Philadelphia’s next convenience casino has one in Baltimore and hopes to open another in New York.

Especially as gambling migrates inexorably online, this losing game can only generate more failed casinos, followed by more wrongheaded government bailouts. New Jersey officials are already talking about propping up Atlantic City gambling with more state breaks and guarantees.

Pennsylvania’s gambling board has hesitated to add a casino for years, and its chairman, Gregory Fajt, has acknowledged the signs of market saturation. He and the other members must understand that this is not the time to saddle Philadelphia with another casino. As the gaming governor himself might put it, they would have to be simpletons not to.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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CIVIL FORFEITURES NEED MORE OVERSIGHT

State law allows county officials to seize money or property believed to be connected to crime. The practice is called civil forfeiture and here, as across the country, it’s on the rise. The Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office has generated millions in forfeiture proceeds in recent years and has a $1.75 million surplus. The proceeds help to fund the Lancaster County Drug Task Force, which the DA says still is underfunded.

In theory, the idea of seizing cash and other assets from drug dealers and then using the proceeds to fight the drug scourge seems like a perfect kind of justice.

But as critics across the country are pointing out, the practice of civil forfeiture is ripe for abuse.

And even two former Justice Department officials who helped create the asset forfeiture initiative in the 1980s have expressed alarm at the way it’s being used.

Writing in The Washington Post, John Yoder and Brad Cates maintained that civil forfeiture has become a fundraising activity for some law enforcement agencies, rather than “an even-handed effort to enforce the law.”

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman acknowledged the potential for abuse in an interview with LNP.

“If it’s being abused as a means of generating revenue, then you have a problem,” Stedman said.

He said that Lancaster County - unlike many other counties - waits until a person is convicted and a direct appeal is denied before it files forfeiture petitions to allow the county to keep the assets.

The reality is, though, that property once seized seldom goes back to its owner.

In many cases that’s appropriate; the money or assets are connected to the sale of drugs. Where that’s not the case, there is a process to file for the return of your property. If your request is denied, you’ll likely need to hire an attorney.

If you’ve lost hundreds of dollars, and you don’t have much to begin with, are you likely to chance losing hundreds more by hiring an attorney?

Most people don’t even try to get their assets back; some feel powerless to fight for their return.

Consider the case of Theresa Campbell, whose son pleaded guilty to possession of drugs with intent to distribute.

In the course of raiding the family home, police took $300 from Campbell’s purse.

Police said Campbell helped her son to hide drugs during the raid but she wasn’t charged with any crime.

She never got her money back.

Consider, too, Barbara and Ralph Spring, who are raising their grandsons after their daughter Jessica died of a drug overdose.

They would have liked to have had their daughter’s Jeep Cherokee to transport their grandkids. Or they might have sold it and put the proceeds toward their grandkids’ college savings.

But a drug dealer they don’t even know ended up with the vehicle. After he was arrested, he surrendered the Jeep to the police.

It was later sold by Lancaster County.

The District Attorney’s Office published a brief legal notice stating that anyone with a legal claim to the vehicle should come forward.

But the Springs didn’t see the notice. County officials might have tried calling them - they’ve had the same phone number for 20 years, they told LNP - but the brief legal notice was the only notice that’s required.

Sometimes, it seems, legal and right are not the same.

Stedman defends civil forfeiture as an effective way of stripping assets from drug dealers, and of funding enforcement.

Critics, however, call the practice “policing for profit.”

It turns on its head a basic tenet of American justice: Law enforcement doesn’t have to prove that cash and other property are connected to crime.

The property’s owner has to prove that it is not.

In other words, the property is guilty until proven innocent.

Civil forfeiture feeds the perception that the rights of ordinary citizens are trumped by law enforcement.

And that perception leads to cynicism and distrust of our legal system.

There’s a way to counter that perception: Appoint an independent ombudsman to review civil forfeitures, and streamline the appeal procedures.

No one is going to cry for the convicted drug dealer whose assets were seized and then used for the excellent purpose of investigating and charging other drug dealers.

Seizing the property of those who are convicted - or at least charged - seems entirely appropriate.

But those who live with criminals, or care for them, shouldn’t be viewed as guilty by association.

And neither should their assets.

- LNP

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WAKE-UP CALL: RECALLS ARGUE FOR TIGHTER REGULATIOSN ON AUTO SAFETY

General Motors may be breathing a sigh of relief. It’s no longer the only car company embroiled in a recall controversy.

The recent recall of millions of vehicles made by manufacturers for defective air bags is not as egregious as GM’s ignition switch foul-up. But it calls into question the ability of automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to keep motorists safe.

The federal agency said that 7.8 million vehicles are potentially affected by defective air bags made by the Japanese supplier Takata. The defect can cause the air bags to explode and send shrapnel into the vehicle. Bad bags are linked to the deaths of at least three passengers and injuries to others. Honda and Toyota, automakers with reputations for quality and reliability, have recalled the largest numbers of vehicles.

Federal regulators were so ill-equipped to help consumers that NHTSA is under fire from Congress for its handling of the air bag case. The agency now faces review by the Department of Transportation.

NHTSA opened an investigation of the air bag defect after Honda issued its second recall in 2009. But it closed that investigation just six months later and did not reopen it until this year.

The agency deserves credit for warning vehicle owners, even as automakers have delayed some recall notices pending the availability of supplies. But it should not have reached this point. NHTSA should use this incident to tighten oversight and close loopholes that let automakers avoid reporting defects.

When something appears amiss, such as recalls for the same issue, it likely is. Regulators should not wait for deaths to rise before they act.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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WHAT REALLY HAPPENS WHEN YOU GET SHOT?

Would young people wielding guns in Erie think twice about the physical and emotional damage they are inflicting on their families and friends - as well as the dangers they impose upon themselves - if they had a firsthand view of a hospital trauma team working to save a shooting victim’s life?

In Philadelphia, teenagers watch in silence as a young man volunteers to lie down on a stretcher at Temple University Hospital. After the teenager is in place, a trauma surgeon matter-of-factly explains that this is the same stretcher where doctors scrambled to treat Lamont Adams after he was shot more than a dozen times outside his grandmother’s house.

The trauma doctor shows where the bullets hit the teenager, who was known for his bright smile and sense of humor. Now he is remembered as one of Philadelphia’s many victims of gun violence. Shortly after being rushed to the emergency room, he died, three months before his 17th birthday

His grandmother, Jenny Clark, did not want Lamont’s death to be in vain. She cooperated with Temple University to help create Cradle to Grave, which tells Lamont’s story and lets young people step into his shoes by lying down on that hospital stretcher. …

In Philadelphia, gun wounds are so common that several years ago, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that military doctors came to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to learn better methods to care for wounded soldiers. “It’s a little sad that my hometown is proving to be an urban battlefield,” Dr. Pat Riley, the hospital’s chief of trauma, said at the time.

Of nine homicide victims in the city of Erie in 2014, eight were shot, including Tyshaun Thrower, 20. He was killed Oct. 24 at East 22nd and Holland streets. Many more people are treated at local hospitals for gunshot wounds that harden their youthful hearts and break the hearts of their loved ones.

- Erie Times-News

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