- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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BREAKING TRUST, HURTING STUDENTS, July 20

Newspapers make a lot of noise about transparency, mostly about closed-door meetings where elected officials make secret deals. Not that all those deals are illicit or even questionable. There are legitimate reasons for officials to meet in what they call “executive session” and the law recognizes that.

But what New Hope-Solebury officials did behind closed doors in 2011 was absolutely questionable, according to a stinging state audit report that perfectly illustrates why newspapers sound the alarm when public officials do public business behind the public’s back.

The deal in question involves a payout of more than $65,000 to a retiring high school principal. You might call it a very generous going away gift. The auditor general called it “a questionable use of taxpayer dollars.”

Here’s what the report criticized: a $19,825 payment for unused vacation time when the money was not part of the settlement agreement; a $3,000 stipend for a home computer even though the principal no longer worked for the district; a payment of $44,285 representing four months of salary covering a term of administrative leave that was reported post-retirement.

When auditors questioned the extended retirement date, the district disclosed that “this date was requested by the former principal to maximize his retirement.”

Translation: We cheated taxpayers as a favor to a friend and colleague.

But here’s why we bring this very sweet and costly deal to your attention, as described in the audit report: “None of the details of the agreement were discussed at a public meeting, and the agreement included a confidentiality clause.” In other words, officials drew up a closed-door deal and then swore the conspirators to keep it secret.

Said the audit report about that: “The information in these agreements should be fully transparent to the public, so that the taxpayers can consider such information when determining whether the board has made decisions in the best interests of the district, the taxpayers and the students.”

Whether board members and their administrators made a good decision is pretty clear. So are the reasons why they kept it secret.

That said, they didn’t violate any laws. That’s what the auditor general said - although they did violate the public’s trust.

Not surprisingly, officials defended their backroom deal, claiming that they “acted in accordance with the law as it existed at the time.”

That sort of tortured logic is why people don’t trust government. In fact, the prior board’s actions convinced the current school board president to run for office.

But the issue here isn’t just what happens when nobody’s watching, but also the impact on students. As a spokesperson for the auditor general said, “Any time funds are wasted means less money for educating students.”

And that’s the bottom line.

- The Bucks County Courier-Times

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HEFTY TOBACCO TAX INCREASE INVITES BLACK MARKET SALES, July 19

Four years ago an Associated Press reporter conducted a little experiment. He walked down a busy street in New York City picking up empty cigarette packages.

What he found might be bad news for Pennsylvania.

New York is home to one of the nation’s highest taxes on cigarettes, with a state excise tax of $4.35 for every pack of 20 cigarettes; New York City charges an additional $1.50 excise tax, meaning every pack in the Big Apple has a $5.85 in tax added to the price.

Excise tax means a licensed wholesaler puts a stamp on each pack indicating the tax has been paid on that pack. There are different colors for the state tax and the city tax.

Pennsylvania has an excise tax of $1.60 per pack of 20 cigarettes. Philadelphia has an additional excise tax of $2, making its total tax $3.60 per pack.

Next month, Pennsylvania is raising its tax on cigarettes by $1 - the new tax will total $2.60 per pack statewide, $4.60 in Philadelphia.

The increase is intended to generate $430 million to help balance the state’s $31 billion budget. That’s another dollar for every one of the estimated 430 million packs of cigarettes that will be sold in Pennsylvania in the coming 12 months.

The idea is that taxing a vice like cigarettes might encourage some smokers to give up the habit.

But our reporter in New York found something else.

Those excise stamps were missing from most of the empty cigarette packs he’d picked up. Most of the rest had stamps from Virginia - a tobacco-producing state whose tax is still only 30 cents a pack.

The clear implication is that a strong black market for cigarettes exists in New York State. A bootlegger could easily stuff 50 cases of Virginia cigarettes into a van and sell them tax-free in New York while evading more than $160,000 in tariffs.

That’s exactly what’s happening. Estimates generally put the black market share of cigarette sales across New York state at 60 percent or higher.

Has Pennsylvania just set itself up for the cultivation of a similar black market?

At least one state legislator thinks that’s a possibility, and that it could lead to grave consequences.

Rep. Rick. Saccone, R-Allegheny, argued last week before the House that the new tax not only unfairly burdens the poor, but that smuggling rings that might result from inflated cigarette prices could end up bankrolling violent extremists.

“We’re prepared to disregard the ugly consequence that driving the price too high nurtures illegal tobacco sales, which have been connected to funding terrorism against us. I’ll say that again, folks: Illegal tobacco sales, price driven too high, has been connected to at least several cases of funding terrorism against us in multiyear investigations over the last decade and a half,” Saccone said.

He cited a 2015 State Department report, “The Global Illicit Trade in Tobacco: A Threat to National Security,” in which the authors wrote: “Internationally, it fuels transnational crime, corruption, and terrorism. … The illicit trade in tobacco products remains a lucrative revenue stream for many criminal actors and illicit networks.”

Let’s make this the last increase on cigarette taxes in Pennsylvania. If the additional dollar per pack doesn’t curb one’s smoking habit, then no additional price hike is ever likely to.

- The Butler Eagle

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THE IRANIAN SIDE DEAL: OBAMA’S HOCUS WILL COME BACK TO POKE US, July 19

The American people were lied to about the Iranian nuclear deal.

“The administration said repeatedly there were no secret side deals,” John Bolton, our former ambassador to the United Nations, reminded us early Tuesday. “What a surprise. Whoever would have thought it?”

Turns out there was a secret “add-on agreement” to the deal hailed by the Obama administration for checking the theocratic state’s nefarious nuclear designs, The Associated Press reports. Key restrictions imposed under the international accord “will ease in slightly more than a decade” - not the 15 years originally touted - and cut “the time Tehran would need to build a bomb to six months from the present estimates of one year,” the AP concluded.

Key to the reduced “breakout” time is Iran being allowed “to greatly expand its work with centrifuges that are even more advanced,” the news service said. Iran can install centrifuges that are up to five times more efficient than the machines allowed now. Even with fewer centrifuges, Iran can enrich uranium at more than twice the rate it now does.

A U.S. government official, not named, defended the secret deal; Iran still will be limited to the amount of enriched uranium it can store for the full 15 years, the official said.

Consider it cold comfort from an administration that couldn’t tell the truth.

- The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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BUDGET SHIES AWAY FROM CONFRONTING PROBLEMS, July 16

A brush with mortality has a way of clarifying things, and so, apparently, does an election year.

Defying all expectations the Republican-dominated Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf were bound to repeat the embarrassing nine-month budget impasse that ended in March with Wolf allowing a budget to finally become law minus his signature, the two sides have reached an accord just days into the new fiscal year. This time around, Wolf affixed his John Hancock to the budget after the Legislature came up with a tax package that will cover the $31.5 billion plan.

Now, those members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives who are running for re-election can go back to their districts and say they have engaged in compromise, made tough decisions, and serve up all the standard rhetoric that flourishes in even-numbered years. So can half of Pennsylvania’s senators. And then, as the halfway point of his term looms in January, Wolf can leave his constituents somewhat hopeful that his tenure will not be marked almost entirely by food-fighting and gridlock.

But whether any legitimately tough decisions were made in the cobbling together of the 2016-17 budget is questionable. Underfunded by billions of dollars, reform of the commonwealth’s public pension plans was put off for another day, as was reform of Pennsylvania’s ossified state liquor store system. Energy companies will be able to skate by for at least another year without an extraction tax on natural gas, something that is customary in other states where drilling is taking place, and property tax reform is missing in action.

On the bright side for Wolf, $200 million was allotted for public schools, and $15 million is being steered toward a program that will help combat the widespread abuse of opiates. Republicans, on the other hand, got no new increases in sales or income taxes. The budget will increase by a little less than 5 percent, with Pennsylvania spending $1.4 billion more than it did in the 2015-16 budget.

But this budget is being paid for with a mixture of one-time fixes, loans, projections that could prove to be fanciful and taxes on smokers and techno-savvy pop-culture enthusiasts.

Tobacco users will be parted with more of their money, with the tax on a pack of cigarettes increasing by $1, bringing the total in state taxes per pack to $2.60. This is expected to yield an additional $430 million in the next 12 months, assuming more smokers don’t decide to quit due to the escalating price tag of their addiction. E-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco will also be taxed for the first time, and, if you download a movie, song, TV show or album, you will now have to fork over a 6 percent sales tax.

The remaining gaps in the budget are due to be papered over by borrowing $200 million from the state’s medical malpractice insurance fund, which will have to be repaid starting in July 2018. Newly expanded wine sales are also expected to bring more cash into Harrisburg’s coffers. Considerably more far-fetched is the expectation $100 million will be reaped if the commonwealth becomes only the fourth state to allow online gaming. Considering no legislation for internet gambling has yet emerged from Harrisburg, and there’s no small amount of opposition brewing, this seems to be a textbook example of chickens being counted before their forebears are even hatched.

Sure, there is comfort to be had nonprofit agencies and schools will not have to close their doors, delay paying their bills or dip into reserve funds because of a protracted budget standoff. But is getting a budget on time that actually confronts the far-reaching problems facing the commonwealth simply asking too much?

- The (Washington) Observer-Reporter

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NO EVIDENCE, NO EXTRADITION, July 20

Turkish President-turned-strongman Recip Tayyip Erdogan has taken advantage of the recent failed coup attempt against him by racing to impose even further control. His vengeance is so comprehensive that it has given rise to the conspiracy theory that he staged the upraising to facilitate his consolidation of power.

As Mr. Erdogan does so, it is even more important than usual for the United States to demonstrate how the rule of law works.

Most Northeast Pennsylvanians undoubtedly were surprised to learn that Mr. Erdogan placed responsibility for the coup attempt on a 77-year-old exiled Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Saylorsburg, Monroe County, near Stroudsburg. Mr. Erdogan’s government has demanded Mr. Gulen’s extradition.

Mr. Gulen has denied any connection with the coup. But it is not hard to see how his advocacy would rankle Mr. Erdogan. As Mr. Gulen has published sermons advocating religious tolerance, strengthened democratic institutions and peace, Mr. Erdogan steadily has eroded democratic institutions in what had been the Middle East’s premier secular democracy. He has used the standard devices of other strongmen in the region - fear-mongering, suppression of minority view and condemnation of Israel. Today in Turkey, the government does not tolerate free speech, free expression and a free press.

Turkey is a member of NATO and, because of its geography and relative stability, a strategic keystone of the Western alliance’s struggle against the Islamic State and other terrorist enterprises with roots in the region.

That, however, does not bind the United States to abandoning its own principles and those of other NATO alliance members that also honor the rule of law.

Secretary of State John Kerry is on the mark in saying that the United States will not act on allegations against Mr. Gulen without concrete evidence that he had committed crimes in Turkey. That’s the correct posture. The United States must uphold its own standards rather than facilitate a purge by a man taking his country in the wrong direction.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

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