- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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THERE’S AN EASY CURE FOR THE CONTROVERSY OVER ‘RELIGIOUS FREEDOM’

Indiana’s newly enacted “religious liberty” law has provoked nation-wide controversy, largely because its chief champions are religious conservatives who have complained about businesses being forced to serve gay and lesbian customers who are planning same-sex weddings.

If the point of passing a bill like that really is about protecting religious liberty, not about discriminating against gays, there is a simple way to defuse the controversy:

Include a disclaimer that the bill does not override any current or future state or local law banning discrimination against others in business or commerce.

Doing that takes away the one compelling objection against this new wave of religious liberty bills. It would bring the discussion back to where it was in the 1990s, when the first set of religious liberty laws, including the 1993 federal act, were passed, with overwhelming bipartisan support. Pennsylvania passed a similar law in 2002.

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was prompted by a US Supreme Court decision that outlawed a small Indian tribe’s traditional religious practice. That ruling denied the tribe the freedom to continue using an illegal drug, peyote, even though it was a well-documented religious tradition.

Since the federal law and similar state laws were passed, they have been reining in government attempts to do things like limit the length of prisoners’ beards, deny Jewish prison inmates Kosher food, prevent a Sihk from carrying a ceremonial knife on his federal job, and stop genuine religious use of other illegal drugs.

But in the current discussion, those kinds of freedoms are not what supporters seem most eager to protect. Much of the talk involves how religiously conservative bakers, florists and wedding photographers are no longer free to deny their services to gays or lesbians planning to have same-sex weddings.

The fact-checking service Politifact found there are important differences in wording of the Indiana law.

Earlier this month in Georgia, when a committee vote added a non-discrimination amendment to the religious freedom bill, supporters abruptly pulled the measure. Rather than producing a climate of nearly unanimous support, as in the 1990s, the non-discrimination provision put the entire bill’s fate in doubt.

Defenders of Indiana’s law claim it is the same one as Bill Clinton supported as president in 1993 and Barack Obama voted for as an Illinois state senator. However, the fact-checking service Politifact found there are important differences in wording of the Indiana law. Unlike earlier versions, Indiana’s extends the religious protections into the realm of commerce and business, and allows the law to be invoked against other persons or businesses, not just government actions.

All that helps explain why conservative religious groups are so eager to see bills like the one in Indiana become law. The Indiana bill has drawn support in the conservative religious media, such as The Christian Post and from religious blog readers.

As Politifact noted, “Proponents of this law are pushing the measure as a way that businesses can seek protection ‘for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage.’”

When Indiana Gov. Pence signed the controversial bill, he did so in private, in the presence of three anti-gay rights activists who’d helped promote the bill.

As far back as 2010, when he was still a US Congressman, Pence gave a speech to a Christian values group saying he supported “defending traditional marriage” and “securing religious liberty” literally in the same breath.

If states want to make sure Jewish prison inmates can get Kosher food, Sihk government workers can carry their ceremonial knives, and Indian tribes can use illegal substances in religious ceremonies, more power to them.

But legislatures should draw the line at any “religious freedom” measure that even remotely suggests it’s OK to discriminate against citizens who are gay, lesbian or transgender.

- PennLive.com

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TWO VIEWS, ONE SOLUTION

State Senate Republicans apparently need a governor of the opposite party to convince them of their own party’s proposals. They are considering resurrecting a key provision of a pension reform plan that they failed to embrace after Republican former Gov. Tom Corbett first proposed it.

Indeed, one of the enduring mysteries of Corbett’s single term is why he could not get traction with the Republican-controlled Legislature on policy initiatives rooted in Republican philosophy. The big two of those issues were breaking the state government’s booze monopoly and reforming public pensions.

Gov. Tom Wolf, the Democrat who soundly defeated Corbett in November, has proposed a pension reform plan that deals with revenue and administrative issues to partly rein in runaway costs that are stressing the state budget and driving up school district property taxes statewide.

The key word is “partly.” Wolf’s plan deals with excessive administrative costs and the state government’s and school districts’ failure to fully fund the pensions. It ignores another key leg, however - the Legislature’s gratuitous award of excessive benefits in 2001. Lawmakers raised their own benefit by an unheard-of 50 percent and cut in hundreds of thousands of teachers and state employees for 25 percent, creating unsustainable benefit levels. Even before they did so, benefits under the public plans were superior to almost anything to be found in the private sector.

Now, Sen. Jake Corman, the Republican majority leader from Centre County, wants to revive Corbett’s entirely reasonable plan to roll back the vastly excessive benefit levels to the merely generous rates that existed before the Legislature’s malevolent tinkering in 2001.

Any benefits that workers earned between 2001 and now would be at the higher rate, but going forward, benefits would be earned at the 2001 rates.

Opponents contend that pension rates never can be reduced, which will come as news to almost everyone in the private sector. It’s especially remarkable in that the same lawmakers who say the rates can’t be reduced going forward increased them retroactively in 2001.

Corman and his colleagues should have implemented the reform when Corbett was in office. Now, they should use the eminently fair proposal in negotiations with Wolf to establish comprehensive pension reform.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

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WHOSE BRIGHT IDEA?

Like a murder of crows or a gaggle of school children, the Philadelphia City Council proved yesterday that it is highly responsive to shiny things with lots of color and movement.

By a 13-3 vote, Council approved a terrible bill that would allow for two giant digital billboards in downtown locations. These are high-definition, full-motion video displays that its sole proprietor, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, describes as a “convergence of art, architecture and advertising.”

Since “giant digital billboards” is not likely to win many fans, Catalyst has named them “urban experiential displays.” The bill approved by Council yesterday has adopted this renaming wholesale, and references to “Urban Experiential Displays” or “UEDs” appear more than 100 times.

The word “advertising” never appears. Not once.

You know something is wrong with an idea when it’s called something bland and nonthreatening instead of what it is. Kind of like the term “IED” referring to homemade terrorist bombs.

Reliance on euphemism is only a small part of our problem, though we rail against it every time a movie theater shows us relentless commercials described as “behind-the-scenes features.”

In fact, the ever-expanding encroachment of commercial messages on the landscape - via TV screens in cabs, elevators and gas stations, on buildings and bus wraps, is one of those elements of modern life that gradually chips away at civilization. It seems too late, too pointless to protest, although we should never give up claiming the right to peace from intrusive advertising.

But that our government has become increasingly complicit in this is troubling. This City Council in particular seems to love the idea. Council President Darrell Clarke has pitched for advertising on municipal property, and Council has complied.

The bill originally called for the digital billboards in numerous locations. Yesterday, Kenyatta Johnson changed his mind about including them in his district. Two remain, in Councilman Mark Squilla’s district - the Convention Center and Reading Terminal Market. Council members who consider downtown as their districts, instead of it belonging to the hundreds of thousands of residents and commuters who navigate Center City each day, and who must confront these things, are short-sighted.

Public space - especially in a growing city - should be sacred and not given away to the highest bidder. The Planning Commission and the Art Commission are charged with achieving a balance of elements to keep the city safe, vital and belonging to us all. The Art Commission must approve each display, but Council has stripped out Planning Commission approval for the giant digital billboard advertising and added insult to injury by charging the commission with providing “technical assistance and input to facilitate development of the UED in promoting the UED’s purpose and goals.”

In other words, Council wants the Planning Commission to promote the goals of a single business entity.

Finally, the financial benefit of the billboards is a pittance - $5 million during 25 years, and that goes to select groups. Not the general fund. Not the schools.

Is it contradictory to criticize this move and then complain about the fact that we are selling ourselves cheaply? Maybe. But an idea that will impact so many should be subject to more public deliberation. If we’re trading our public space, we should at least be getting something valuable in return. A “digital experience” isn’t one of them.

-Philadelphia Daily News.

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A BETTER EAST LIBERTY: A NONPROFIT GROUP BOUGHT BUILDINGS TO FIGHT CRIME

Can a real-estate company be as effective as the police at controlling crime in a blighted community? The transformation of East Liberty suggests so.

A historic neighborhood that decayed in the 1960s, East Liberty is working to reclaim its former status as a desirable place to live and do business. Its resurgence can be attributed, in part, to the work of East Liberty Development Inc. and its philosophy that “crime is a real-estate problem.” The nonprofit’s work is important not only for Pittsburgh, but for crime-riddled communities across the nation that can look to East Liberty for ways to improve their own fortunes.

In devising a strategy for East Liberty, ELDI looked to the “hot spot” theory of crime, which says that 3 percent of addresses account for half of all police calls. The company set out to buy 200 “nuisance properties,” with the goal of physically improving the buildings and land while replacing hands-off slumlords with “no-nonsense” property managers.

Two employees lived in East Liberty and were able to help foster and witness the transformation that took place after the properties changed hands. They also worked with longtime residents to kindle a greater sense of community, encourage self-policing, and to physically improve vacant properties by cutting grass and picking up trash. The results were phenomenal. From 2008 to 2012, crime in East Liberty decreased by 49 percent and home prices doubled.

There are other factors at play in the area’s revitalization, including new high-profile residents Whole Foods, Target and Google. There’s also a worrisome question: Where did the criminals go?

“I don’t know where the crime goes and I really don’t care,” said one resident who has lived in East Liberty for 40 years. Law-enforcement officials, of course, do have to care about where the crime goes, and the nonprofit now has new challenges, such as how to maintain diversity and keep rents low. But those are good problems to have, and East Liberty Development Inc. deserves kudos and continued support.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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POPULATION GROWTH DOESN’T HAVE TO HURT

Judging by comments made online, many are concerned that Lancaster County’s expected growth will lead to sprawling development.

The worry, sometimes put indelicately, is that Lancaster County is becoming an outer suburb of Philadelphia. That might lead to overdevelopment that could destroy a key aspect of our quality of life: farmland that is both productive and scenic.

The good news is, even with population growth of 10 percent or greater every decade since 1960, Lancaster County’s quality of life remains high.

The latest evidence is our recent ranking as a finalist for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize.

And, according to James Cowhey, Lancaster County planning director, our municipalities have plans for growth that should work to prevent sprawl.

The operative word there is “should.”

Cowhey said Lancaster County’s plans for growth are considered among the best in the nation. Municipalities have zoned for growth in sensible places - away from productive farmland and near water and sewer lines.

But it’s hard to trust these vaunted plans when developments of McMansions spring up along or near major arteries, swelling local traffic.

With the return of those who served in World War II and the reduced cost of automobiles, people wanted detached, single-family homes, a lawn to mow, a fence to paint, and the like. Zoning and building codes were written to accommodate that demand.

Now, with demand for rental housing on the rise, those codes need to change, Cowhey said.

Local officials must be urged to change the zoning for new developments. To keep new developments from contributing to traffic, new rules should encourage multiuse developments - allowing food and clothing stores, higher-end job-creating businesses and restaurants to be built alongside multifamily housing.

According to an analysis released in 2013, single-family, detached houses account for more than 55 percent of the county’s housing, and the majority of permits issued are for single-family units. Yet demand for such housing over the next 15 years is expected to fall to 40 percent.

The analysis - performed by Clinton, New Jersey-based Zimmerman/Volk Associates for the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership and Lancaster County Planning Commission - also found a shortage of rental housing and a coming demand for more multifamily units.

With retiring baby boomers selling their homes, there could be a glut of single-family homes because many of the hoped-for buyers will be looking to rent apartments or buy condominiums instead.

Experts fear that misperceptions about multifamily and mixed-use developments prevent officials from zoning for them.

The Urban Land Institute published a look at myths and facts about such housing.

Myth: Apartments draw more families that send children to schools, thereby raising property taxes.

Fact: An Urban Land Institute study found that the number of school-age children per development of single-family homes averages 64, compared with 19 per mid- to high-rise apartment building and 21 per garden apartment. That’s because multifamily housing tends to draw mostly childless couples, singles and empty nesters.

Myth: Apartment complexes lower property values.

Fact: Some research shows they increase property values, especially if they include businesses that provide high-paying jobs.

Myth: Multifamily units cost more in services.

Fact: Multifamily units make more efficient use of water and sewer lines, placing a smaller burden on the systems and lowering costs for everyone.

Lancaster County is a great place to live. That’s why it convinces many people to stay and others to come here to live.

Plans are in place to grow without sprawl. We just need to encourage our local officials to change the zoning to make smart growth work.

- LNP newspapers.

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