- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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IS THIS FINALLY THE TIME FOR PROPERTY TAX REFORM?, Aug. 1

Day 33 of the Pennsylvania state budget impasse, and neither side is budging.

Issues keeping apart Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican Legislature are as deep as the chasm of education funding shortfalls on which Wolf staked his campaign for governor and as entrenched as opposition to Marcellus hale extraction tax, liquor store privatization and the debate over the best way to solve the public pension crisis.

The differences are so sharp that it seems improbable the two sides can agree on anything.

But, in fact they agree in one area, and it’s an area of great potential for Pennsylvanians.

According to a report released last week by the Keystone Research Center, property tax reform holds promise as the one topic on which the two sides share common ground.

The goal that has remained elusive for three decades in Pennsylvania could be the catalyst to break the budget logjam, a guiding light to compromise and consensus.

The report comes from a study comparing House Bill 504, the property tax plan that recently passed the House, and Wolf’s property tax relief proposal included in his budget plan. (The Keystone Research Center is part of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a liberal think tank in Harrisburg.)

“Gov. Wolf has been very explicitly positive about HB504 and this may be our best chance in a generation for bipartisan compromise and an opportunity to achieve something that has been a top legislative priority for Republicans for years,” Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the research center, said in a call with the media last week.

Furthermore, Herzenberg said, school districts in some parts of the state where legislators have been opposed to property tax reform do “surprisingly well” under Wolf’s plan, adding to the chance for what he calls “our best chance for bipartisan compromise on this issue in a generation.”

The Republican plan provides more relief to commercial and industrial properties, a higher share to wealthier suburban school districts and, in what Herzenberg called a “dollar-for-dollar” distribution, puts all $4.8 billion raised from the higher taxes back toward property tax relief.

By contrast, Wolf’s plan takes a portion of the proceeds from the higher taxes and applies it to the state’s “structural deficit,” leaving $3.8 billion toward property tax relief.

Homeowners in school districts with less property wealth tend to do better under Wolf’s plan statewide, although that is not the case with all districts.

In places like William Penn here in Delco and other low-income districts, Wolf’s plan provides less direct relief than HB504 but provides more aid to address the inequities so the effect on schools would be the same or greater than under HB504.

More important than the differences are the similarities. Both plans use the same basic mechanisms to provide property tax relief - an identical increase in the personal income tax from 3.07 to 3.7 percent, and a slightly different increase in the state sales tax. Wolf’s plan raises the sales tax to 6.6 percent but broadens it to apply to more goods and services, while HB 504 keeps the items subject to the sales tax as they are now but raises the rate to 7 percent.

In both plans, the income and sales taxes in the first year are followed by property tax relief in the following year.

The two proposals demonstrate that property tax relief is common ground on which to start building consensus.

Our lawmakers, Wolf and legislators of both parties, should take a moment and realize their disagreements are not as important as this area in which they are close to agreement.

This best chance for bipartisan compromise can be a starting point to reach an end to this ridiculous impasse that passes for government in Pennsylvania.

- The Delaware County Daily Times

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TOO MANY IN PRISON WHO DON’T BELONG THERE, July 30

Sandra Bland should never have been in jail.

She landed behind bars in Texas because, driving from her home in Illinois to a new job in Prairie View A&M; University, she failed to signal a lane change, and then had the audacity to sass a zealous police officer who pulled her over. An argument ensued. Three days later, Bland, who was African-American, was dead in her jail cell, hanged by a plastic garbage bag.

Investigators are still determining whether Bland’s death was the result of suicide or foul play. But her death is just the latest jail-related tragedy. The National Institute of Corrections found in a 2010 survey that inmates commit suicide at a rate three times greater than in the general population. Like Bland, many of the folks behind bars don’t need to be there. Some are merely being held pending charges that may or may not be filed. Others have committed a nonviolent offense and present no threat. They are there because decades ago the nation adopted strict incarceration rules, so today our prison population dwarfs that of most other countries by an order of magnitude.

But it turns out that mass incarceration does little to improve public safety, while it tears families apart and ruins lives, disproportionately affecting poor and minority communities. Experts are pointing now to a judicial system that uses drug rehabilitation, halfway houses, electronic monitoring or other methods to manage offenders outside of brick-and-mortar jails.

Sandra Bland started her road trip full of hope about working in Texas. She’s now posthumously playing another role in the unfolding human drama dubbed “black lives matter.” Unwise, undeserved incarceration affects people of all races, but blacks and the poor most of all. For these and other reasons, elected officials in Pennsylvania and every other state should look carefully at their mandatory sentencing laws and the policies and practices of their local police departments with an eye to keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail. Reducing the prison population will save money and lives, too.

- The Pocono Record

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A BETTER CHOICE, Aug. 4

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday nominated a better choice to be commissioner of the state police.

Wolf nominated Tyree C. Blocker, who retired in 2005 after working his way up through the ranks of the state police for 30 years. He brings a wealth of knowledge about patrols and criminal investigation, including extensive experience in drug law enforcement, staff services and administration.

Blocker, 62, currently owns a fitness company. He’s the second nominee Wolf has proposed as commissioner. The Senate derailed the governor’s first choice.

In June, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected Wolf’s nomination of Marcus Brown along nearly straight party lines. Critics cited concerns that included Brown’s decision to wear the police uniform even though he had not gone through the Police Academy and his liberal views on law enforcement. The troopers’ union opposed his nomination, raising doubts among some senators about his effectiveness as a leader.

Shortly after Wolf’s office announced the latest nomination, the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association issued a brief statement congratulating Blocker.

“We look forward to working with Major Blocker on the critical issues facing our department and the 12 million citizens we serve,” the statement said.

The Pennsylvania State Police, the first uniformed agency of its kind in the nation, has a $1 billion annual budget. It has about 4,700 sworn employees and about 1,800 civilian workers.

The new nominee is a better fit for the state police and he has the union’s support. The commissioner needs to be respected by those under him and that’s what appears to be happening now. His nomination should be approved.

- The (Somerset) Daily-American

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LIONS’ STAND: MORE IS NEEDED THAN ZIMBABWE’S HUNT SUSPENSION, Aug. 4

As welcome as the news is that Zimbabwe has suspended all wildlife hunting in light of at least two questionable recent lion kills by Americans, it’s going to take a much more aggressive approach to prevent future slaughters.

Officials in Africa, who last week charged a guide in the death of a beloved lion named Cecil, now are investigating whether a Murrysville doctor killed a lion in a second possibly illegal hunt.

Zimbabwe made its decision even though it incensed some in the big-game hunting trade and will cost the nation dollars from some big-spending tourists.

It would have been impossible for the country to avoid responding to the international furor over the killing in July of Cecil, who lived in the Hwange National Park animal sanctuary but was shot outside by Minnesota dentist Walter James Palmer. Although Mr. Palmer has maintained that his expedition had the necessary permits, Zimbabwe officials charged his professional guide, Theo Bronkhorst, with failing to prevent an illegal hunt. If convicted, Mr. Bronkhorst could receive up to 15 years in prison.

Now Zimbabwe officials are alleging another illegal lion kill, this one in April by Jan C. Seski of Murrysville, an independent physician who has practiced in various Pittsburgh hospitals. Dr. Seski was a client of Headman Sibanda, a land owner who was taken into custody on charges that he permitted hunting where it was not allowed.

Hunters, including Americans, who kill exotic game illegally should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. African animals that are protected by various hunting restrictions should not be taken as trophies, regardless of the steep price any hunter pays.

As more details of the Palmer and Seski safaris become known, it will take more than Zimbabwe’s hunting suspension to save animals. Changes in U.S. law, such as extending restrictions on the import and export of animals being considered for inclusion under the Endangered Species Act, may be needed to keep Americans from contributing to the bloodshed.

- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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BETTER FUELS THAN FOSSILS, Aug. 3

Energy policy dinosaurs are trying to trample new Environmental Protection Agency rules designed to cut carbon pollution from its most prolific source: coal-fired electricity plants.

Republicans in Congress and 10 governors are fighting the Clean Power Plan, which would regulate carbon dioxide from coal plants. Each state is supposed to draft its own plan. Some governors say they won’t, but that would only result in the Environmental Protection Agency’s writing a state plan for them.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans threatening to attach budget riders that would kill the federal air-quality plan are setting the table for a showdown that threatens another government shutdown.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been especially insistent. His lawsuits to block the federal plan have failed, but he is seeking yet another hearing to make the specious argument that 15 years isn’t enough time to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 30 percent of 2005 levels.

Pruitt’s histrionics ignore the consequences of failing to act. The new EPA rules could save up to $93 billion in health-care costs by 2030 while preventing 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in children.

Carbon pollution contributes to global warming, which can no longer be dismissed as a fantasy, even by elected officials who appear to be owned by the fossil-fuel industry. Global warming’s impact can be seen in melting glaciers, rising sea levels, droughts, wildfires, and floods, which have taken lives and cost taxpayers billions to repair damages.

The first five months of 2015 were the hottest on record. The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998. Without preventive action now, we can expect more heat waves with devastating effects on people and wildlife. Ocean water will become more acidic and less hospitable for corals and crustaceans. On land, expect more invasive plants and insects that devastate forests.

Opponents of the new emissions plan are calling attention to the jobs in coal and supporting industries that will be lost once the EPA rules go into effect. But a recent Economic Policy Institute analysis indicates that there would be a net gain in employment due to jobs created in the clean-energy and conservation sectors.

In other words, instead of fighting the emissions plan, the governors who oppose it should be putting down their bullhorns and picking up their phones to talk new energy companies into coming to their states to help absorb expected job losses. Workers facing unemployment can be retrained for clean-energy jobs, especially in technical fields that could grow significantly.

There’s no need for this country to act like some dinosaur waiting for climate change to make it extinct. The Clean Power Plan will help accelerate the development of clean, safe, and profitable energy sources that wean us off toxic fuels.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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