- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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BAD SIGNS ON THE STATE BUDGET HORIZON, Dec. 12

As its name indicates, Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office is supposed to be a nonpartisan agency.

Its function is to prepare revenue projections for the governor and state lawmakers to review in preparing the state budget. The agency specifically stays away from supporting policies, only giving the facts and figures of its revenue projections.

In other words, taxpayers should be able to trust the numbers in its reports since the office is not supposed to be influenced by politics.

If that is indeed the case, then all Pennsylvanians should sit down and take a good, hard look at some recent numbers compiled by the office.

In a special five-year outlook, Matthew Knittel, the director of the office, noted that the state could face a budget deficit of $500 million by the end of the current fiscal year next June.

He added that budget deficit could expand to $1.7 billion the following year and $3 billion by 2022 if there’s no change in the state’s current financial plans.

In the short term, Knittel said the deficit could be blamed on the state relying on optimistic revenue projects, a slowdown in the economy in the first quarter and the General Assembly not following through with plans to raise $150 million by enacting an internet gaming bill and selling a second casino license in Philadelphia.

In the long term, he said the state will face a number of challenges related to the deficit, including:

Funding shortfalls for the Department of Human Services could require supplemental appropriations of $388 million in 2016-17. These potential supplemental expenditures have implications for multiple fiscal years. A decline in revenues and savings over time from the 2015-16 budget. The recent budget package produced revenues and savings of nearly $1.1 billion in the current year, but the net impact declines to $41 million by 2021-22 as one-time revenues expire and loan repayments and funding shifts take effect. A 14 percent increase in the number of people over the age of 65 in the next five years will hold down tax revenues and increase health care and other expenditures associated with the long-term care of the elderly. So, it’s clear that unless changes are made to current policies, residents across the commonwealth could be facing major tax increases, massive cuts in social services or both.

This calls for some good-faith talks on both sides to find some sort of compromise on these issues. But that seems very unlikely. With Gov. Tom Wolf set to run for re-election next year, passage of this year’s budget is expected to be very contentious. Republicans have increased their majorities in both the House and Senate. How likely they’ll be willing to compromise with Wolf remains to be seen. It also seems rather unlikely that Wolf will be reaching across the aisle in hopes of finding common ground with GOP lawmakers.

In one way, the battle has already begun. State Sen. Scott Wagner, who has announced plans to seek the GOP nomination for governor, and Wolf are blaming each other for the proposed furlough of 520 employees in the Department of Labor and Industry. While they’re dueling it out, the employees are scheduled to be laid off shortly before Christmas. Not only will the employees suffer, but taxpayers could be affected as the employees help those seeking unemployment compensation.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania residents are in store for more of these deadlocks in the coming year. Next year’s budget talks could make the record-setting impasse of 2015 seem like child’s play.

- Beaver County Times

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ACT 13 NEEDS MONITORED FOR FAIRNESS, Dec. 11

When the Pennsylvania General Assembly passes a law, it ought to ensure that it’s being administered properly - and, if not, find a way quickly to fix what’s wrong.

Apparently, none of that was done regarding a four-year-old gas drilling impact fee law under which at least $20 million was spent on “questionable costs” contrary to the measure’s criteria.

The fact that it happened isn’t any less of a disgrace because the funds emanated from industry, not the taxpayers.

Even more troubling is the fact that the $20 million figure was derived from a state audit of only 10 of the 37 counties and 20 of the 1,487 municipalities that received money from drilling impact fees under Act 13 of 2012.

How much higher might that amount be if all 37 counties and all 1,487 municipalities had been audited?

The General Assembly erred in not keeping in touch with the funds-distribution process and how recipients were spending the money; it also made a huge mistake from the get-go by putting the state Public Utility Commission in charge of oversight of the funds coming from the drillers.

The PUC is arguing what lawmakers should have known four years ago - that the agency’s authority doesn’t extend to monitoring spending and verification of budgets submitted by counties and municipalities.

The audit acknowledged the accuracy of the PUC’s position.

In the audit, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recommended that another state agency, such as the Department of Community and Economic Development or the Commonwealth Financing Authority, be given the task of distributing the money and guiding local governments in their spending of it.

DePasquale was quoted by the online news and information service Capitolwire as saying, “Right now, we essentially have 37 counties and 1,487 municipalities independently interpreting the flawed language of Act 13.”

Under the law, local governments are to spend the money on initiatives that either are related to natural gas well drilling operations, such as repairing damage caused by trucks to roads and bridges, or that fit into one of 13 other guidelines.

A partial list includes repairing water, storm water and sewer systems; environmental programs; safe and affordable housing; local or regional planning; and tax reductions.

However, according to the audit, some municipalities doled out the money for landscaping equipment, legal fees, charitable contributions, and even parties and community events.

Perhaps many of the municipalities and counties didn’t bother to investigate all of the requirements tied to the funds; there was no excuse for that.

But there should have been a state-imposed mechanism to monitor the spending early-on in the money distributions, not allow the misspending to remain ongoing for four years.

Puzzling is why Act 13 contains no consequences or penalties for those who failed to spend the money properly.

The state agencies that received money from the impact fees weren’t included in the audit, but the public deserves a report of their performance too.

The counties and municipalities that were examined by the audit received $85.6 million of the $428 million distributed to local governmental entities during the time period audited.

The General Assembly has plenty of important unfinished business on its plate next year, but the size of the drilling impact fee money problem must make resolving it a priority as well.

- Altoona Mirror

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CONGRESS MUST ACT ON MINERS PROTECTION ACT, Dec. 11

When thousands of union miners rallied at the Greene County Fairgrounds in April, they were hopeful the federal government could find a way to preserve the health care benefits and pensions that retirees were promised during their working years.

The troubled pension fund is bleeding money, and health care benefits for some retirees who worked for companies that later declared bankruptcy are set to expire at the end of the year.

Bankruptcy courts have relieved many companies from their obligations to pay into the union’s 1974 pension fund, which has drastically reduced the number of working miners contributing to the plan. The union’s pension plan could face insolvency within the next few years.

The solution, the United Mine Workers of America believed, was the Miners Protection Act, which would provide funding to the ailing health care and pension funds using excess money in the Abandoned Mine Land Fund. That proposed legislation would offer help to 120,000 former union miners and their families.

There was a glimmer of hope for these retired miners when the U.S. Senate Finance Committee voted - with the help of both Pennsylvania senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey - to move the bill to the full Senate for consideration. Even Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., assured the bill’s sponsors the legislation would be considered for a vote once it went through the normal vetting process, which happened upon successfully exiting the committee.

Nearly three months after that committee vote, the miners are still waiting, and UMW international District 2 Vice President Ed Yankovich is not happy.

“He went back on his word,” Yankovich said of McConnell. “We have the votes to pass it (the entire bill), but he reneged on his word.”

And now the Miners Protection Act appears to be in peril after the Senate, trying to stave off a government shutdown, instead approved Friday a short-term fix that would offer only temporary health care benefits for some of the affected miners until April.

This is not the solution the union was looking for, and it raises serious questions whether these retired miners, who already have earned their pensions and health care benefits, will be forgotten by the Republican-controlled Congress and incoming Trump administration.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, last week called this short-term proposal “horrendous” and “inhumane” as thousands of miners are left wondering how long they’ll have health insurance without a permanent solution. While Casey continued to fight for a long-term solution, even threatening to block other bills if the Miners Protection Act was allowed to whiter, Toomey was nowhere to be found, offering no comment on the situation after winning re-election last month.

While the UMW vows it will continue the fight, the lack of progress over the last eight months following that rally in Greene County is discouraging.

“We are not going away,” Yankovich told the Observer-Reporter last week.

That’s an important statement for the union’s retired miners, but if the past few months are any indication, they’re merely a political football being punted back and forth on Capitol Hill. The time has come for Congress to make a decision on the Miners Protection Act.

It’s not fair to the thousands of retired miners, whose futures depend on this legislation, to wait any longer.

- (Washington) Observer-Reporter

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ONE MORE MEMBER IN PENNSYLVANIA HALL OF SHAME, Dec. 14

It’s time to make a little room for the latest bust in the Pennsylvania politics Hall of Shame.

“Bust” being a very appropriate word in this instance.

Longtime Philadelphia Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah is the latest public servant found to be helping himself at least as much as the public, if not more.

Monday Fattah, who has spent two decades representing some very poor Philadelphia neighborhoods, was sentenced to half that much time for lining his own pockets along the way.

It’s one of the longest prison terms ever meted out to a member of Congress on corruption charges.

Fattah should consider himself lucky. Prosecutors were actually asking the judge to toss the longtime pol into the slammer for 12-22 years.

Instead U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III went easy on the congressman after hearing from a long list of friends and family members asking for leniency based on his long record of public service.

They are right - and wrong.

There is no doubt that Fattah has done much good in his more than two decades of public service. None of that explains what he did aside from a single word: Greed.

Fattah was convicted of a fairly common crime - theft. He ripped off thousands of dollars from taxpayers and charitable organizations. As a member of Congress, Fattah earned $174,000 a year. Apparently it was not enough. Fattah apparently yearned to belong to an upper echelon of movers and shakers, and he broke the law to do it.

Rack up one more dent in the public’s increasing lack of trust in our public institutions, something Judge Bartle noted before passing sentence.

“You abused the trust they placed in you time and again,” he told the congressman. “Your flagrant behavior undermines the confidence of the citizenry in all public institutions.”

It apparently did little, however, to diminish the former congressman’s bravado.

Fattah addressed the court, expressing remorse, in particular for how his actions affected his constituents, while stopping short of actually acknowledging his guilt.

“The investigation and the trial has been the most disappointing event in my now 60-year-old life,” Fattah told the court. “I’ve helped tens of millions of people, and that has nothing to do with the fact that I have been found on the wrong side of these questions by a jury.”

Yes, he’s helped millions. And helped himself to thousands of dollars along the way. Prosecutors say he fleeced the nonprofit education group he set up to pay off his campaign debt from his unsuccessful run for mayor. Now, in addition to looking at a decade behind bars, he still needs to fork over $600,000 in restitution.

The one-time Democratic power now joins a long line of Philly and Pennsylvania politicians - of both parties - caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Few, however, have flouted the system at every step in the process the way Fattah has.

He joins the Rogue’s Gallery of shady characters, people like state Sen. Vince Fumo, state Sen. Buddy Cianfrani, Congressman Michael Myers of Abscam fame, former House Speaker John Perzel, City Councilmen George Schwartz and Jimmy Tayoun.

And of course, let’s not forget our most recent addition to the Pennsylvania Hall of Shame, former Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Ironically, it was a sting operation that snagged several state representatives taking cash and gifts that led to Kane’s downfall.

Fattah’s Achilles heel was not rooted in political revenge.

His was a bit more worldly. He did it for the money.

The bucks stop here, Mr. Fattah. So does your freedom.

He will report to federal prison in late January.

We take no glee in noting this latest public official to run afoul of the law. Instead, we wonder just what it is about this state that lends itself to corrupt public officials.

Then we wonder why people don’t take part in the process, whey people are angry, why they believe the system has betrayed them.

Maybe, between haughty references to his record and why he believes the prosecutors and jury got his all wrong, Fattah could ponder that question.

And even better, provide an answer.

Why? Why do it? Why throw away a distinguished career of public service, a career that clearly helped a lot of people.

Many people in Fattah’s old district are destitute. They have little in the way of possessions and little in the way of hope to go with it.

Fattah’s sad saga offers a “little” of its own. Little in the way of hope that Pennsylvania politics will change any time soon.

- (Primos) Delaware County Daily Times

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IF OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS AREN’T BROKEN, PLEASE DON’T FIX THEM, Dec. 11

Our public schools are doing a good job.

That’s the view of Penn Manor School District Superintendent Mike Leichliter and other education leaders here.

And it’s a view we share.

We are fortunate in Lancaster County to have an array of public, private and parochial schools that do an excellent job of educating our children and instilling in them the values of community service and academic achievement.

For evidence, we submit our recently launched Schools section, which last month offered eight pages filled with the names of Honor Society members, honor roll winners, chorus and orchestra members and other achievers at county schools. (Music For Everyone founder John Gerdy writes about the Schools section in today’s Perspective.)

So, to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for education secretary, we’d say this: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it (the word “ain’t” generally appears in that saying, but this is an editorial about education so we cleaned up the grammar in case teachers are reading).

It’s true that some public school systems - the beleaguered Chester Upland School District in Delaware County, for instance - are not serving students as they should.

But just as you shouldn’t take the medicine prescribed for someone else, a successful school shouldn’t be subjected to the policy prescriptions meant to cure underperforming schools. And the people doing the prescribing should be familiar with the patients in need of help.

Having exhausted that metaphor, we’ll put it plainly: Except for some civil rights issues that may require federal intervention, education is best left to the states. And even better, to local school boards, whose members are far more accountable to their constituents than any D.C. bureaucrats and policymakers ever would be.

Is education in Pennsylvania perfect? Of course not.

Our charter school law doesn’t require nearly enough oversight of charter schools, as state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has pointed out.

We have far too many school districts: a whopping 500 of them.

And for too many years, Pennsylvania - unlike most other states - didn’t have a formula for the fair funding of schools.

That, at least, has changed.

In 2014, Pennsylvania’s bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission was formed; it included Lancaster County’s own state Sen. (soon-to-be Congressman) Lloyd Smucker and state Rep. Mike Sturla, along with state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, former superintendent of the School District of Lancaster.

The commission held 15 hearings over 11 months, and the commission members came to know the complexities and challenges of the state’s school districts because they heard from superintendents, school board presidents, business leaders, nonprofit organizations and parents.

No one in Washington could even begin to grasp the full picture of education in this commonwealth.

Or, for that matter, education in Massachusetts. Or California. Or Kentucky. Or North Dakota.

The fair funding formula is now law in Pennsylvania. As retired Solanco Superintendent Martin Hudacs noted in a recent LNP op-ed, the formula is intended to narrow the gap between what poor and wealthy school districts spend per student in the commonwealth. That gap - $11,000-$24,000 per student - is the widest of any state in the country.

Hopefully, if it’s fully funded by the state, the formula does its job, and some of the state’s underperforming schools improve.

Many of those districts have higher percentages of students from low-income families, so they also rely on Title I funding from the federal government. We’re hopeful that money won’t be diverted away from public schools, even as they finally get state money in a fairer and more predictable way.

We’re also hopeful that Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument of Landisville was right when he told LNP he believes Trump’s education secretary will encourage a limited federal role in education policy.

Of course, the new education secretary will oversee implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law passed last year to replace No Child Left Behind.

Two things we’d note about the new law: It passed in Congress with strong bipartisan support. And it grants states discretion in evaluating schools and teachers. Handing that power back to the states was a great thing.

We hope, where education is concerned, that it’s a trend that continues.

- LNP newspaper

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