- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

___

STATE MUST GET HANDLE ON OT, Aug. 7

The $250 million in overtime costs Pennsylvania paid out to state workers last year is an eye-opening number.

But until there’s a full analysis of how that figure stacks up against the cost of full-time worker hirings that would have eliminated the need for much or all of that overtime, state residents should delay condemning that seemingly excessive outlay.

Full-time salaries and fringe benefits to which those additional employees would be entitled would exact a heavy toll on the commonwealth’s coffers as well.

Nevertheless, state residents should be aware of such spending. Likewise, they should be aware of why overtime pay has grown so significantly over a short time.

An Associated Press article in Tuesday’s Mirror reported that the $250 million 2015 overtime cost represented an increase of nearly 10 percent over 2014. The article said an analysis of state payroll records by the Sunday Times of Scranton revealed a five-year trend of increased use of overtime.

That time period encompassed both Republican and Democratic gubernatorial administrations.

According to the Scranton newspaper’s data compilation, the increasing use of overtime has been fueled by hiring freezes and unfilled job vacancies.

But there were other causes, too, such as overtime necessitated by implementation of new child-protection laws passed as a result of the Jerry Sandusky and Roman Catholic clergy child sexual-abuse scandals.

Unfortunately, the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese has been a troubling cause of some of that additional overtime spending.

Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia last September was welcomed and uplifting to the state as a whole, but it didn’t occur without cost to government financial resources.

State police staffing for the visit was extensive, and that staffing involved much overtime because of the need to maintain normal police coverage and duties across the rest of the state while the pontiff was here.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s article also emphasized the overtime costs associated with needed around-the-clock medical care at state hospitals as well as prison employee overtime.

Blair County is keenly aware of the prison-overtime issue, having wrestled with it for several years.

A drop in overtime at the Hollidaysburg lockup recently has been deemed “encouraging,” but that has evolved mostly because of the hiring of 12 additional full-time corrections officers.

In essence, the county is paying less from its overtime “pocket” but more from its fulltime “pocket,” although it seems more palatable to be paying straight wages rather than time-and-a-half pay for hours worked beyond the regular eight-hour workday.

That’s an issue for the state to delve into also, due to the more than doubling of state prison overtime since 2010, when it was $49 million. The total amount spent for overtime last year was $100 million.

One encouraging step is the current examination by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget and Finance Committee of the benefits of utilizing prison overtime versus hiring more staff. That study presumably will provide guidance going forward, not only regarding the prisons but other departments as well.

If the state is due any criticism at this point regarding overtime spending, it’s that leaders only now seem to be getting serious about weighing the two options - overtime and additional hiring - against one another to determine which one is most cost-effective.

That task should be a routine exercise.

- Altoona Mirror

___

OUR TAKEAWAYS FROM THE AP’S FLOSSING INVESTIGATION, Aug. 6

To the 220 million Americans who haven’t flossed a day in their lives - rejoice.

The days of lying to your dentist, feeling guilty and being castigated by your floss-superior peers are gone.

For decades, the American Dental Association and the American Academy of Periodontology, with the U.S. government’s blessing, have pushed flossing. Dentists have given out free floss samples and urged us to take two minutes a day to floss. Many of us have come to accept this inconvenient, tedious, sometimes painful ritual as common knowledge.

But, according to The AP, it all may have been for naught.

After poring over research conducted over the past decade, The AP found that the evidence for flossing is “weak, very unreliable,” of “very low” quality and carries “a moderate to large potential for bias.” The studies “used outdated methods or tested few people. Some lasted only two weeks,” and “one tested 25 people after only a single use of floss.”

The story could’ve been juicier. The billion-dollar “big floss” business wasn’t conspiring with the government. The pro-gingivitis lobby was not crushed by a cabal of anti-plaque forces.

Nonetheless, the report caught the attention of anti-flossing and “team floss” advocates alike.

Bim Adewunmi, freelance journalist and blogger, tweeted: “Floss & flossing are two of (the) most important things in my life. I will wrestle anyone who says it doesn’t work. I will literally fight you.”

Dave Bry wrote about his own flossing battle in a Guardian column: “I struggled, and failed, to find a daily flossing routine. It was hard to remember. And even when I did, it was such a boring way to spend two minutes, so unrewarding. And it hurt. Just a little, but still.”

Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, tweeted: “Every generation has its Watergate moment in journalism. This is ours.”

The tweet might have been sarcastic, but this story demonstrates the importance of journalism.

What started out as a tip from an orthodontist developed into a change in government policy. AP national writer and 2012 Pulitzer finalist Jeff Donn explained in an interview with The Poynter Institute school for journalism how that came to be.

Donn started investigating the health benefits of flossing in 2015 by sifting through medical literature authored over the past decade. Unsatisfied with his findings, he reached out to government agencies - departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture - for documentation behind the federal flossing recommendation. After weeks of empty replies, Donn filed a Freedom of Information Act request, used to access public records from the government.

The U.S. released new dietary guidelines six months later, without the flossing recommendation. The next day, Donn received a letter in reply to his public-record request.

“It said that flossing had simply been taken as a ‘general public health recommendation,’ ” Donn said. “In the end, this appeared to be a rare instance where simply filing (an) FOIA changed government policy.”

As we’ve gleaned from LNP’s own reporting, fighting for the public’s right to know is a tremendous responsibility - whether it’s in pursuit of government transparency or the exposure of a flawed flossing recommendation.

Another responsibility of a newspaper, however, is to be fair. (Anti-flossing advocates may want to stop reading.)

Dental experts nationwide are perturbed by The AP story’s impact, and still stand behind flossing’s benefits.

The American Dental Association released this statement, which states, in part: “The bottom line for dentists and patients is that a lack of strong evidence doesn’t equate to a lack of effectiveness. As doctors of oral health, dentists are in the best position to advise their patients on oral hygiene practices.”

One such dentist, Lancaster native and Franklin & Marshall College graduate Dr. Eric N. Shelly, said that flossing studies are “very difficult” to create, so he understands why the recommendation was removed. But he insists that flossing is still a “significantly effective personal hygiene tactic,” and “anecdotally, there’s absolutely all kinds of evidence that dentists see every day.”

“There’s absolutely no one (who is) better off not flossing,” he said.

So you might want to floss. We sure will.

- LNP

___

FADS FROM HOOPING TO POKEMON GO, Aug. 8

Americans have experienced their share of fads through the years.

Older seniors may remember the goldfish swallowing craze that engaged a generation beginning in 1939 when Harvard freshman Lothrop Withington Jr. swallowed a goldfish on a $10 bet.

That event touched off a firestorm of publicity and for the next three months, students were gulping down goldfish in record numbers despite protests from Massachusetts state lawmakers and federal public health officials. Some school officials even threatened expulsion for the stunt.

Fads enjoyed a golden age during the 1950s and 1960s. The Wham-O Company introduced the Pluto Platter in 1957, which is better known by its more popular name - the Frisbee.

The company had another blockbuster hit on its hands in the mid-1960s when the Superball bounced off the production line in great numbers, selling close to 7 million bouncy balls in just six months. Even President Lyndon Johnson bought at least 60 for White House staffers to use as stress-relieving devices.

“Uncle Milton” Levine turned the lowly ant into his bonanza. He modified a clear plastic tissue box into a prototype for the ant farm and between 1956 and 1966, sold 12 million of them.

Another novelty that brought pure profit to “inventor” Joaquin Hernandez was the Mexican Jumping Bean, which he introduced in the 1940s. The Jumping Beans are actually moth larvae trapped in seedpods so there was little production overhead. Millions of the beans have sold over the last three quarters of a century.

Wham-O, the same company that gave us the Frisbee and Superball, also struck gold in 1958 when it did some tweaking on a 14th century craze out of England - hooping. While the English used wooden and metal hoops, Wham-O released its “futuristic” model in plastic. The company sold 25 million in only four months.

Though there seems to be little danger in rolling the hips, the hooping craze was creating some health concerns 500 years ago. English doctors saw an influx of patients suffering from pain and dislocated backs due to the activity and some even stressed to the point of heart failure.

That brings us to the latest craze of our day - Pokemon Go. Initially released in selected countries last month, it has become a global phenomenon, having been downloaded by more than 100 million people worldwide. Players use a mobile device’s GPS capability to locate, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokemon, who appear on the screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player.

On the plus side it has popularized reality gaming, as well as promoted some outside physical activity. It has also, however, created controversy for contributing to accidents and become a public nuisance at some locations. Police departments in a number of countries have issued warnings due to inattentive driving and trespassing.

Some people have been targeted by criminals who realize the players are unaware of their surroundings. Three weeks ago, an 18-year-old Guatemalan was shot and killed while playing the game and his 17-year-old cousin was also shot in the foot. Police believed the shooters used the game’s GPS capability to find the two.

A university in Cairo, Egypt, termed the game as “harmful mania” while a defense and national security official regarded it as an espionage tool. Kuwait banned the game from government sites and Indonesian officials also considered it a national security threat.

Israel Defense Forces also banned the game from Army bases for security reasons.

Nikolai Nikiforov, Russia’s Minister of Communications and Mass Media, suspected foreign intelligence agencies using the application to collect information.

Some religious groups have even taken an extreme social view and labeled it demonic.

Last week, Arizona police say a couple abandoned their 2-year-old boy at home to play Pokemon Go. After the toddler wandered out of the house and into the 96-degree heat, a neighbor called 911. Deputies found the child crying outside the home, trying to get in.

The couple had allegedly left the boy sleeping so they could drive to various parks and other areas while playing Pokemon Go. Both parents face charges of child endangerment and neglect.

Bottom line is there can be at least some danger associated with a mobile reality game that requires physical exertion or tests the patience of property owners. Last week’s child neglect case in Arizona would at least qualify under the Egyptian standard of “harmful mania.”

- Lehighton Times-News

___

CLOSE THE WINDOW ON TICKET ‘BOTS’, Aug. 8

Go to any major sporting or entertainment event and one of the first people you will encounter is an entrepreneur seeking to mine profit from the secondary market for tickets - a scalper asking if you have extra tickets or want to buy one.

At that level the practice mostly is harmless or even beneficial to consumers - providing them with a ticket they otherwise might not be able to get, at a price they are willing to pay.

Technology, however, changes the equation. Due to the ability of scalpers to use the internet to buy huge numbers of tickets as they are issued, the secondary market for many events has eclipsed the primary market.

Secondary market price explosion

For example, The New York Times recently studied ticket sales for the Broadway hit, “Hamilton,” as several of its top stars announced that they would leave the show. The average face value of a “Hamilton” ticket was $189 at the time of lead actor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s announced departure; the average price on the secondary market was $850. When Miranda announced his departure, the price of a ticket on the secondary market soared as high as $10,900. That, in turn, perverted the primary market. Producers raised prices to try to recapture some of the profit from scalpers.

“Hamilton” producers have worked to prevent mass purchases by scalpers, but many of them responded by operating multiple ticket-purchasing “bots” that bought a few tickets through each of hundreds of servers.

New York lawmakers are considering ways to deter the practice, but reform should be universal. Congress should outlaw ticket “bots,” require secondary sellers to report sales just as primary sellers do, and establish penalties for, in effect, stealing many Americans’ fair-market access to sports and entertainment.

- (Pottsville) Republican & Evening Herald

___

A STEP FORWARD FOR CONSUMERS, Aug. 9

Pennsylvania’s antiquated yet still profitable - for now - liquor system took another baby step this week with the opening of an the application process to eventually put wine into some commonwealth grocery and convenience stores.

The state’s liquor reform law, passed earlier this summer, went into effect on Monday. While no timetable is in place for when consumers will actually be able to purchase their favorite vino along with their fancy cheeses, it is undoubtedly another shift away from the long-standing, stringent and archaic policies Pennsylvania has implemented for years.

The expectation among industry leaders is that all stores currently selling beer - another recent victory for Pennsylvania consumers - will pursue adding wine to their shelves. According to a release Monday from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, “Wine expanded permit holders purchasing smaller amounts of wine may begin selling wine in August.” The PLCB wants to begin shipping wine to larger-volume wine-to-go stores in October.

Liquor privatization or at least modernization has been a topic in Pennsylvania for at least a decade if not more. It gained momentum under Tom Corbett, who wanted to bolster school spending with an expected $2 billion bump from privatization. It was popular with commonwealth residents, but not within Corbett’s own party and the push failed.

In its annual financial report, the PLCB notes it is “one of only two completely self-funded state agencies that returns profit to commonwealth coffers.” Good news is the PLCB reported a net income of $83.6 million in fiscal year 2014-15; bad news, that is a decrease of nearly $40 million from the previous fiscal year.

It has been defendable to keep the status quo for a system that put tens of millions of dollars into state funds annually and continues to do so. Why would the state get out of a business that does more than $2 billion in sales? But declining profits will eventually cut into monies from booze spread throughout state coffers.

This reasoning does not even mention the legitimate argument that the state shouldn’t be in the liquor business to begin with.

Monday’s opening of the application process marks another step forward for Pennsylvanians, which brings the commonwealth into the 20th century. Now, if the process keeps moving forward, maybe the 21st century is within reach.

- The (Sunbury) Daily Item

___

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide