- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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WHILE FIDDLING ON BIG ISSUES, LEGISLATURE STIRS TROUBLE ON OTHERS

While the Pennsylvania Legislature fiddles and fails to do anything about big issues (such as the state’s huge pension shortfall or loosening antiquated restrictions on alcohol sales), lawmakers seem to have plenty of time for measures that make it harder to clean up the state’s air and waterways.

Earlier this month, the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee delivered a one-two punch on that score.

Oct. 6, it approved a misguided House bill that makes it easier to mow down trees or churn up the ground within buffer areas alongside the state’s most environmentally valuable streams and lakes, including Class A wild trout streams.

The same Senate panel also sided with industry in its fight against impending federal rules to slash carbon dioxide pollution from power plants. Members voted 8 to 3 for a House-passed measure that would give the Legislature veto power over whatever anti-pollution plan the state uses to comply with the new federal rules.

Both bills run contrary to the principles established by two consecutive Legislatures and Pennsylvania voters.

The bill’s supporters apparently fear that whoever is the next governor might put together a carbon dioxide pollution control plan that actually controls the pollution that drives global warming.

Both bills run contrary to the principles established by two consecutive Legislatures and Pennsylvania voters when they approved the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Commonwealth’s constitution.

(Article I, Sec. 27 reads “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”)

The people’s water is not going to stay “pure,” and the “natural values” of currently protected waterways are not going to be preserved, if the Legislature makes it even easier to take apart the buffer zones that protect them. Letting an industry-friendly Legislature veto an air pollution cleanup plan is not going to produce clean air.

Supporters of the blast-the-buffer-zone bill, which passed the House 144 to 59, say it allows more flexibility for protecting water while allowing easier development. They note that buffer zone acreage that’s developed would have to be offset with replacement acreage elsewhere within the watershed.

But that’s like tearing off a room from a house and saying, “No worries, we’ll provide a replacement hut somewhere else far away.”

Having new trees downstream won’t stop the flooding, erosion or influx of pollutants that’s caused when an upstream patch of woods is torn up.

In any event, current rules do allow flexibility. Buffer zone projects of one acre or less are exempt. And the conservation group Trout Unlimited reports that the state has granted waivers for waterside buffer zone work in 48 percent of cases since 2010.

As for the coming of tighter carbon pollution rules in the electric power industry, it’s true they will put a strain on the state’s aged coal-fired generating plants. The rules will discourage the use of coal, because when it’s burned, it produces about twice as much carbon pollution as natural gas does.

Shifting away from coal will probably will drive up electricity prices somewhat, since electricity from coal is artificially cheap - the price doesn’t reflect all the harm inflicted on those who mine the coal, or on those who breathe the pollution caused by burning it. Nor does cheap coal reflect the full price of the damage inflicted on land and water when it is mined - not to mention the way coal contributes to the long-term consequences of warming the planet.

Industry critics say EPA’s carbon pollution goals for Pennsylvania are literally impossible to reach, and even if they weren’t, it would cost too much for too little benefit.

It’s a familiar refrain when an industry is pushed to change business as usual because some of its profits come from pushing costs onto others with less political clout.

Asbestos, acid rain, air bags and catalytic converters in cars, lead in paint and gasoline, benzene, vinyl chloride - industry fought regulations on them all, using the highest plausible estimates of compliance cost.

Then when it can time to live with the new rules, the affected industries found the cheapest possible way to comply.

What EPA wants states to do with carbon dioxide pollution may require some fine-tuning to be both realistic and affordable. Miners and other workers who are displaced should get help making the transition to new jobs.

But power plants are the nation’s single largest source of the carbon dioxide that’s warming the planet. The country won’t make progress against global warming unless the nation’s power producers, including those in Pennsylvania, do their part.

- PennLive.com

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THIS IS NOT TIME WELL SPENT

Do the numbers 58 and 64 mean anything to you?

Well, that’s the number of days the Pennsylvania Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, are scheduled be in session this year.

Now, let’s be clear, those aren’t the only days our legislators work during the course of the year. They attend a wide variety of committee hearings and are present for all kinds of events back home when they’re not in Harrisburg.

You have to think, though, that the low number of session days has something to do with the Legislature’s failure to deal with a whole host of issues, including pension reform, property taxes, legalizing medical marijuana and privatizing our alcohol distribution system.

Take the fall session. It was reported that lawmakers were coming back for four weeks of work starting Sept. 10. Sounds like something should be able to get done in four weeks, right? However, all told, the legislators will only be in session for 12 days.

The typical schedule for lawmakers goes something like this. They usually get into Harrisburg Sunday night. On Monday party leaders meet with the rank-and-file to decide what they want to try and get done that week. Sometimes a vote will be taken late in the day, but usually this is pretty much a setup day.

The real work days are Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s when lawmakers debate the issues of the day and, in some cases, actually vote on them. Those days are usually hectic, with most lawmakers putting in long hours. On Thursday, most legislators head back home. Friday, they’ll spend most of the day in their offices, meeting with anyone and everyone. Saturday is usually a day for family activities.

The problem is that only two days of the week are actually set aside to get anything done of real substance. And keep in mind that the Legislature is only in session for somewhere between 15-20 weeks a year.

Many lawmakers will tell you that they’re as busy, if not more so, at home than in Harrisburg. That’s probably true to some extent. They attend all sorts of activities and events, trying to stay in touch with their constituents. Certainly, at least in theory, that’s a good thing. But you have to wonder if at least some of that work is directly related to their getting re-elected.

So, aren’t legislators getting paid for what basically amounts to campaign work?

Remember too, we’re paying legislators a salary of $84,012 these days, plus a nice array of benefits. Shouldn’t they be focusing on legislation and trying to get something done? There’s no doubt, lawmakers are busy people, but is all that time spent back home really in the best interests of taxpayers?

In the end, though, you can’t blame individual lawmakers for the low number of session days. The schedule is set by leaders of both parties, and they can do no more about it than most employees can do about their work schedules. It’s also not a Democrat or Republican thing. Both parties have used the same general schedule for years now.

It’s more of the general culture of the state Legislature. It’s been widely accepted by everyone in Harrisburg as the only way of doing business.

But you have to wonder, given the number of complex issues legislators are faced with, if it’s really the best system.

Legislators need to start thinking outside the box. Maybe they could hold session days on Thursdays or just be in session for more weeks.

It’s clear that the current schedule isn’t working, and changes are in order.

- Beaver County Times

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FREE SPEECH VS. COUNTY POLICY

We could use more cops like Central Bucks police chief James Donnelly. In fact, we could use more cops like Donnelly in the government. We’re thinking county government. And here’s why.

When Donnelly was summoned to the county courthouse in Doylestown last week to remove a couple of stubborn activists from the sidewalk, Donnelly didn’t show up club in hand. He showed up hand extended and politely greeted activists James Babb and Andrew Rumbold.

After a brief and uneventful discussion, which was captured on video, Donnelly left. And the activists, who were handing out leaflets about the rights of jurors prior to Donnelly’s arrival, remained at their public post - fliers and rights intact.

Questioned by our county reporter about his decision, this is what the chief said: “Clearly, the public sidewalk is public property. County policy does not trump the U.S. Constitution.”

Amen!

The policy to which Donnelly referred had been recited by Bucks County Security Director Christopher Daley for the activists’ benefit and coincided with a threat to call police if the two didn’t play by the rule. And the rule, according to county policy, is that demonstrators and the like are to conduct their business at the corner of Court and Main streets, about a two-minute walk from the main courthouse entrance. In other words, pretty much out of the flow of courthouse foot traffic. And likely out of the view and minds of anybody entering or exiting the courthouse, including county officials whose offices can mostly be found in the courthouse.

So if the point of a demonstration - or, in this case, leaflet dispersal - is to garner attention and get people thinking about whatever cause the activists are behind, the county-mandated site for that activity is counterproductive to the cause. Maybe officials didn’t have that in mind when they banished activism to an off-site location. But we suspect they did.

Either way, Chief Donnelly, in our view, was correct in allowing the activists to remain on the “public sidewalk.” And county officials are correct in their decision to now review the policy. We believe the outcome of that review should be a change in policy, a change that won’t infringe on the First Amendment right to free speech, as the current policy does.

Look, we get the concerns about security. Everybody does. We live in a world brimming with danger. And it is not uncommon to overreach in trying to cope with that danger. The policy banning free speech from the “public sidewalk on public property,” as Chief Donnelly put it, is a clear example of overreach. It is now up to county officials to rein it in.

As they review the policy, we encourage them to do so with a copy of the U.S. Constitution in hand. If they don’t have one, they might want to call a certain local police chief. He seems to know it pretty well.

- The (Doylestown) Intelligencer

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HELP DRIVERS SEE THE LIGHT

There they sit every morning and evening - long lines of cars backed up at red lights along busy stretches of local commuter routes, often in deference to empty cross-streets.

Commuters to Scranton, especially, have been frustrated by the timing of lights in a new downtown system that works well along some streets but poorly along others.

And across the region, an array of aged traffic signals from town to town present an array of issues. Timing is suspect at some, daylight visibility at others and so on.

Perhaps because traffic signals are such a common feature of daily life, many drivers don’t realize what goes into one. Each is unique, engineered to its location. And each includes much more infrastructure than is obvious by the signal itself, so that the average cost to install one is about $200,000.

Upgrading signals, then, is an expensive proposition, but not as expensive as not modernizing them. According to TRIP, a national nonprofit traffic research organization, commuting delays and congestion costs Northeast Pennsylvania drivers about $158 million a year in fuel, lost time and related costs. And replacing a signal is a far less expensive way to improve traffic flow than other remedies, such as lane-widening.

So there is a substantial economic upside to keeping the traffic moving. And due to a new state transportation law that will produce substantial new revenue, PennDOT has launched a new grant program to expedite the modernization of traffic signals. It will split the cost of replacements with local governments in an effort to replace as many signals as possible, as quickly as possible.

Local governments with signals at high-volume intersections should seize the opportunity to improve traffic flow, thus the environment and the local economy.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

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EARLY PRESENT FROM FISH PANEL

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is trying to lure back more people to fishing.

In an unprecedented move, the commission has lowered the price of residential and nonresidential fishing licenses for the 2015 season by $1, beginning Dec. 1.

It also has lowered the cost of 3-year and 5-year licenses by $3 and $5 respectively. But there is a catch. Those licenses must be purchased in December.

The discounts will apply to gift vouchers for annual licenses purchased throughout 2015 and to multiyear licenses purchased in December.

“We believe the price cut will catch the attention of many people who haven’t fished in a few years or who have wanted to try fishing,” John Arway, the commission’s executive director, said.

At a time when the cost of just about everything is rising, this news comes as a pleasant surprise.

“The price of a fishing license hasn’t increased in nearly a decade, since 2005,” Arway said.

“Fishing has always been an affordable and fun family activity that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. If we can capture the attention of potential new and returning anglers, we know they’ll be surprised at how inexpensive it is to fish and how easy it is to enjoy the sport.”

Currently, the commission sets aside Memorial Day and July Fourth as fish-for-free events in the commonwealth. A license is not needed to cast a line on those two days, which is well-received by state residents.

The commission and groups that work hand in hand with it are trying to make fishing more attractive in the Greater Johnstown region. In the past year, Weaver Run, which meanders past Windber Stadium, has been added to the list of state-approved, stockable trout waters. And Quemahoning Creek is undergoing a transformation to make it more fishable through the addition of habitat such as root balls, boulders and other riprap.

About 850,000 licenses are purchased in Pennsylvania every year. However, a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 showed that 1.1 million people 16 years old and older had either fished in the state in 2010 or planned to fish in 2011.

“This 250,000 gap and the anglers who do not purchase a license every consecutive year represent a segment of potential customers who may better recognize the value of a license at a discounted rate,” said board President Norm Gavlick.

At the discounted rate, an annual fishing license for a resident is $21.70.

For nonresident, the price would be $51,70. A three-year resident license would cost $61.70, three-year nonresident, $151.70; five year resident, $101.70; and five year nonresident, $251.70.

If you have an angler, or several, in your family, you may want to take advantage of the lower cost to purchase fishing licenses as Christmas presents.

“We will actively promote the multiyear discount during the holiday season as the perfect gift for former and would-be anglers on everyone’s shopping lists,” Gavlick said.

- The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

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