- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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TIME FOR PENNSYLVANIA LOCAL POLICE TO JOIN THE RADAR CLUB, May 22

The summer travel season will mean millions of people crisscrossing the Northeast, many entering and exiting Pennsylvania on interstate highways and two-lane byways.

People driving into Pennsylvania encounter a road safety system unlike any other in the United States - with state police tracking vehicle speeds using radar but with municipal officers denied that tool.

An investigative report - “On The Radar” - compiled by news outlets owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. and based in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Ohio, shows that political opposition to allowing municipal police to run radar persists despite lobbying from statewide groups representing local departments, and despite evidence that allowing the use of radar broadly would enhance safety.

The situation is unreasonable for local police and should be corrected by Pennsylvania lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Some local Pennsylvania police even resort to a ridiculous setup with milk jugs posted along the road to reflect headlights of passing vehicles at set intervals.

One argument against radar use by local police has been that the practice would be seen as a revenue opportunity first, and a safety tool second.

But local police say their jurisdictions would receive only a fraction of any ticket fees, with the bulk - $125 off the top - going to the Pennsylvania Transportation Trust Fund.

“We only get $18 per ticket,” Joe McGranaghan, mayor of Shamokin Dam in Snyder County, Pa., told CNHI?reporter John Finnerty. “It would be tough to balance our budget with that.”

Indeed, while motorists - both Pennsylvania residents and cross-border visitors - paid $43 million in fines and court fees in 2014, the state government received $33 million of that total.

However, police in the Keystone State wrote nearly 300,000 speeding tickets in 2014, and half of them were written by municipal officers using stop-watch style systems such as Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder (VASCAR) or Acutrack.

“It’s not about making money,” Police Chief Nicholas Zakucia said in Geistown Borough, Cambria County, Pa. “It’s about reducing accidents and saving lives.”

Tourism agencies say Pennsylvania is the fifth-leading destination state in the country.

National transportation data show Pennsylvania is among the deadliest states - behind only Texas and California - for speed-related crashes. Many of those fatalities occur in areas patrolled by municipal police departments.

“It’s a concern because we know radar (is a) much more efficient and effective tool for speed enforcement,” Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Dane Merryman said. “The significance of that lies in the impact speed enforcement can have on preventing accidents or reducing severity of traffic accidents.”

State College Police Chief Tom King said radar would be especially useful for officers patrolling areas near schools or shopping centers.

“The speed limits are there for a reason,” King said. “Everyone except the person who gets a ticket can benefit from speed enforcement.”

In Keyser, West Virginia, City Police Chief Karen Shoemaker said radar is a critical speed-enforcement weapon for her officers.

“It’s an effective tool that stops a lot of people from speeding,” she said. “Radar is a deterrent that helps control (speeding) and protects the citizens.”

There are bills in the Pennsylvania legislature in 2015 that would allow the use of radar for speed enforcement by local police departments.

That has happened before - basically every year for decades - but none of the bills has become law.

“It just comes down to, is safety more important than other considerations?” said Pa. state Rep. Bryan Barbin, a Democrat from Johnstown, who is a co-sponsor of House Bill 71, which would expand the use of radar in Pennsylvania to “any police officer.”

If lawmakers vote to expand the use of radar, municipalities would face costs if they chose to add the tool.

Radar units cost $4,000, plus training expenses, Somerset Borough, Pa., Chief Randy Cox said. Other enforcement systems run from $60 at the low end to around $2,000 he said.

“Different states have different ways of doing things,” Allegany County, Maryland, sheriff Craig Robertson observed.

In this case, Pennsylvania’s way is the wrong way.

It is past time Pennsylvania gave its local police departments the radar option - and the stronger tool for reducing speeds and saving lives.

“We give them guns … but we won’t give them radar?” McGranaghan said.

“I think it’s offensive to the entire municipal law enforcement community that the legislature, for 40 years, has refused to allow radar use,” Cox said.

Municipal police and elected officials have been asking the Pennsylvania General Assembly to permit them to run radar for decades.

It’s time the lawmakers listen and respond.

- The Tribune-Democrat of Johnstown

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WORLDVIEW: AN IRAQI CHRISTIAN OASIS AWAY FROM ISIS, May 24

The news from the Middle East has become so grim I am always looking for a bright spot.

So, on a recent trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, it was a relief and a surprise to come across an upbeat story in an unexpected place: a church in Erbil that houses Christian refugees from northern Iraq who barely escaped the ISIS invasion in August.

The first hint of something unexpected was the shrieks of children’s laughter when I entered the Mar Elias churchyard. The next surprise was seeing young boys and girls playing volleyball together on a paved court under improvised night lights, a sight I’d never seen in the gender-conscious Middle East.

This scene was a far cry from the dark days when ISIS overran ancient Christian towns in Nineveh province and 60,000 Christians fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they crowded into cheap apartments or churches or squatted in unfinished buildings.

The Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims but not Arabs, welcomed the Christians but couldn’t cope with the influx (having already accepted 200,000 Syrian refugees and previous waves of Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul).

At Mar Elias, 110 families, 564 people in all, jammed into its large grounds in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil. Mar Elias is a Chaldean, or Eastern-rite Catholic church, but the refugees included other Catholics and Syrian Orthodox. They were a confused angry crowd with hundreds of traumatized children.

“We had to use the church garden and an unfinished mall,” recalled Father Douglas Bazi, an ebullient Iraqi cleric with a brush cut and a short salt-and-pepper beard, wearing black slacks and an electric-blue short-sleeved shirt.

But when relief agencies finally sought to move the refugees into rental apartments or makeshift camps, a strange thing happened. “People here refused to move,” Father Douglas said.

Under the priest’s direction, and with the contributions of local Christian volunteers, the refugees had morphed into a close community. With help from charitable groups and local volunteers, Father Douglas had moved them into brightly colored trailers - he uses the British term, caravans - which line the edges of the churchyard.

And, gradually, the children began to laugh.

Having seen other, desolate refugee camps filled with desperate Christians (or Muslims) bereft of hope, and living in confusion, I can assure you that Mar Elias is not the norm.

What Father Douglas had decided to do was focus on young children and teens. “To focus on the adults in a time of chaos is a waste of time,” he told me. “I care about the kids. They are our revenge and our promise.”

When the children arrived with their families “they were lost,” the priest recalled. “They were aggressive, and the boys used bad language.” There was no sense of order. He was determined to keep the kids busy, although the government was unable to provide formal schooling until two months ago. He set up programs staffed by volunteers from Ankawa and from among the refugees, to teach English, French, music, dancing, and acting - all the things that ISIS had banned.

He forbade families from sending their children to work. He insisted that girls and boys learn and play sports together, another repudiation of ISIS ideology - and something uncommon even among Iraqi Christians. He created a camp library in two trailers with donated books and computers and a huge chessboard, putting students in charge.

He has just acquired another trailer that will become a kindergarten and plans to set up a sports arena for the kids in another building.

Still, Father Douglas has given himself an uphill task in an uncertain time.

“The future of Christians in northern Iraq is vague and the challenges great,” I was told by Chaldean Bishop Bashar Warda in his Erbil residence.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled to Erbil from Baghdad over the last decade to escape violence and church bombings, while Chaldean clerics were murdered in Mosul during the violent years after the U.S. invasion.

But the latest exodus has raised questions about the very survival of historic Christian communities in Iraq. Bishop Bashar has worked frantically with Christian charitable groups to raise money to cope with the refugees from Mosul and Nineveh, but the money is running out as the months are passing. So he agonizes over whether and when these destroyed communities can be rebuilt or repopulated, even if ISIS is ultimately defeated.

Until the violence in nearby Syria is halted, and the jihadis driven out of Mosul, there is no way Christian refugees can return home.

As for Father Douglas, he says he can’t say whether it’s better for Christians to stay or emigrate abroad, where they would lose touch with historic communities that have endured for generations.

So he will keep pursuing his goal: Give children the skills and a mind-set that will enable them to survive the coming years of hardship. “If I lose one kid, I lose the future,” he insists.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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ROUGH COUNTRY: PENNSYLVANIA’S RURAL ROADS NEED MORE ATTENTION, May 25

Country roads, take me home?” For the 27 percent of Pennsylvanians who live in rural counties, the old John Denver song may sound a bit optimistic.

Rural Pennsylvania roads and bridges rank among the most perilous in the country, with substandard pavement on 18 percent of roads and structural deficiencies on 25 percent of bridges. A report released last week said the crisis has real consequences, increasing traffic fatalities, stifling commerce and making it more difficult to visit some of the best vacation spots here and around the country.

Pennsylvania has taken steps to address the problem, but it can’t do it alone. Although the state will spend $899 million over the next three years to replace 558 state-owned bridges, that will still leave thousands of state- or locally-owned spans in need of repair.

TRIP, the Washington, D.C.-based transportation research group that produced the report, blamed Congress for the mess, saying it does not appropriate enough federal money to maintain the country’s rural transportation network. The motorist advocacy group AAA said the quickest way revenue could be obtained was through an increase in the federal gasoline tax. Set at 18.4 cents per gallon and used mostly to fund infrastructure projects, the tax rate has been unchanged for the past two decades.

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Legislature and then-Gov. Tom Corbett enacted a major transportation funding package that is helping to address the overall repair problem, but more must be done. Members of Congress who represent the Americans who use those fabled country roads should join the effort to bring the federal gas tax into the 21st century.

- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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THEIR VIEW: COLLEGE DOESN’T NEED TO BE FREE, May 25

Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator and Democratic presidential candidate from Vermont, says spiraling college tuition is “a national disgrace.” He’s running on a promise of free in-state tuition at all public colleges and universities, to be paid for by a new federal tax on financial transactions, including stock, bond and derivative trades.

As the parent of a high school senior, I can’t dispute his assessment of college affordability. Too bad his cure would be worse than the disease, even if it weren’t politically unrealistic.

Tuition increases have outstripped inflation at both public and private nonprofit institutions for many years. Though the recent, dramatic rise in tuition at public universities reflects post-recession budget cutbacks by some states, the reasons for the long-term trend are complex.

Economist William Baumol has famously argued that college-level instruction inherently requires large inputs of highly skilled labor, making it relatively resistant to automation and hence to productivity increases. In that way, higher ed is like health care. And, as with health care, the government has responded with a fragmented, opaque array of subsidies, much of which get captured by service providers and added to their cost base - rather than improving affordability as intended.

Sanders’ solution, which he says would cost the Treasury $47 billion in its first year, amounts to a single-payer system for higher ed - with pros and cons analogous to those of such a system for health care. There’s a certain appeal in replacing the current, convoluted array of grants and loans, funneled through individuals, with just one revenue stream directed at institutions. (Well, 1½: Sanders would have Washington pay two-thirds of the funding and state governments the rest.) Setting a single out-of-pocket price - zero - would indeed make it easier to attend school.

Over time, however, the Sanders plan might make U.S. higher education more accessible but less excellent. Having ruled out price as a means of allocating scarce educational resources, his plan would have to rely on aggressive administrative controls, lest students flood the system and drive up costs - requiring further federal subsidies.

The case of tuition-free Germany, which Sanders holds up as a model, confirms this. Centralized budgeting by state education authorities is key to that country’s system. Alas, as University of Albany higher-ed policy analyst Ben Wildavsky explains, “Government funds become spread too thin. That reduces quality and often limits capacity. As a result, well-off students, who tend to be better prepared academically, are more likely to get scarce spaces.” Overall, German institutions are considered good, not great; few show up on global “top 50” lists, for what that’s worth.

Germany also rations access to higher ed through tracking - selecting a college-bound minority at an early age while putting everyone else on course to less-exalted training. This is one reason that fewer German youth finish college than do American youth, despite not having to pay tuition. At the same time, Germany tends to accumulate “eternal students”; its now-abandoned recent experiment with charging tuition was an attempt to make them either graduate or leave.

If Sanders favors either German-style government management of university budgets or tracking, I haven’t heard about it, though he would eventually cap federal grants to states at the 2019 median. To the contrary, his Senate bill bars state “policies to reduce enrollment.” He even mandates steps that might increase costs, such as replacing adjunct professors with tenure-track faculty.

The premise of Sanders’ program is that educational quality is entirely about inputs. Not a single dollar of federal assistance would be conditioned on performance indicators such as graduation rates or post-graduation earnings.

Which brings us back to Baumol’s theory that college costs are doomed to rise faster than inflation because higher ed can’t readily be automated. Universities can, and should, test that proposition, using Internet technology; and they will, unless a guaranteed flow of government money from Sanders removes incentives to innovate.

These trade-offs might be justifiable if the moral case for “free,” as opposed to affordable, tuition were clear. It’s not. Yes, society benefits from a better-educated populace, but the individuals who get educated benefit the most, in the form of higher earnings. Why shouldn’t they put some skin in the game?

Sanders’s free-tuition-for-all plan heads in the opposite direction. In the name of helping the poor and middle class, it would tax upper-income people who trade financial instruments - and give a lot of it right back to upper-income people who are perfectly willing and able to fund their children’s college.

A financial stake encourages students to study hard; it encourages families to monitor their kids’ schools and hold them accountable. By contrast, “free” tuition, regardless of need, may breed entitlement, indifference or both. If there’s anything young people don’t need, it’s that.

- Centre Daily Times

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RISING CAMPAIGN CASH IN PA JUDGE ELECTIONS MAKES CASE FOR MERIT SELECTION, May 20

If you went to the polls in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary elections and cast votes for appellate court judges — congratulations. You’re part of a small minority of voters who will have a say in the people who make up the state Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts.

One question: Did you have any idea who those people are?

There was only one Lehigh Valley judge listed among 18 hopefuls for appellate court seats — Northampton County Judge Emil Giordano, who is running for state Superior Court.

Otherwise, voters were asked to choose among people recognizable only by name, party and county of residence.

This is no way to select people who play a critical role in interpreting the law. The lack of voter participation, the lack of voter knowledge about candidates, and the impact of campaign cash on judicial elections is an institutional scandal — a failure of the democratic system that no one wants to talk about.

Pennsylvania is one of six states that elects all its judges. Federal courts and most states, including New Jersey, use an appointment process, which is far from perfect. But under a merit selection system, the intent is to identify qualified judge candidates — vetting them through a panel of citizens, former judges and others — and preparing a list from which the governor may appoint, subject to approval by the state Senate.

Advocates for change, including Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, have been pushing for a merit selection system for years, at least for the top three tiers of state courts. We agree with that limited approach. While county and magisterial judge races aren’t immune from the influence of campaign money, local elections allow voters a much greater opportunity to get to know the records and reputations of the candidates.

It’s clear the Legislature isn’t going to be embarrassed into supporting a move to merit selection, which requires a constitutional amendment. If the conviction of Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin for campaign abuses, the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffrey over an email porn scandal, and the infamous “Kids for Cash” scandal in Luzerne County aren’t enough, corruption alone isn’t going to drive reform.

Yet the real scandal here isn’t the few rogues who give people in robes bad names. What’s wrong is that judicial candidates have to put on apolitical fronts to get elected, and use surrogate shills to raise cash through political channels. Money accepted from lawyers and special interests acting on behalf of clients taints the electoral process.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling is opening state judge races to deep-pocketed donors. The result is that tens of millions of dollars will be spent on dubious advertising campaigns that cannot reveal much about the candidates or their opponents, in an attempt to reel in majorities of the 10 to 15 percent of registered voters who ultimately decide these races, with precious little information to go on.

The Pennsylvania way.

Until legislators get behind merit selection — a constitutional change that should be placed alongside downsizing the Legislature, fairer redistricting and other reforms — this is how we will choose judges.

- The Express Times

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