- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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LIBATIONS NOT FOR THREE: LOOSER LIQUOR RULES FOR DEMS SHOW FOLLY OF LCB, May 18

After years of failing to reform or privatize the antiquated state-owned alcohol monopoly, our Legislature is moving with alacrity to pass special loosey-goosey liquor legislation for the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.

Here’s to you, Harrisburg!

Requirements of the state liquor system, such as a 2 a.m. last call at bars and buying all wine and hard liquor through the state Liquor Control Board, are good enough for average Pennsylvanians. But, it turns out, they’re much too restrictive for the pols, revelers, lobbyists, other schmoozers and hangers-on expected to attend the convention.

Gov. Tom Wolf, the Democratic governor who smacked down the sensible bill for privatization last year, will get to watch his fellow party members live it up. And politicians wonder why so many voters have lost faith in their clubby cabal.

Under consideration is legislation that would allow Philadelphia-area establishments to apply for permits extending last call beyond 2 a.m. and a proposal to let groups bring in alcohol directly from other states, bypassing the pesky PLCB with its fees, taxes and assorted inconveniences. Businesses in Philadelphia will benefit from the changes; those elsewhere in the state will not. But don’t worry, Pennsylvanians. When the convention sloshes to a close after four days, it will be back to the old rules and service as usual.

Lawmakers have attempted to put a veneer of respectability on this folly, noting that a similar relaxation of rules was in place when the Republicans came to Philadelphia in 2000. Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-Bucks, has said state stores can’t afford to get stuck with special liquor orders. But special rules for special people are not easily explained away. The Legislature probably wouldn’t rush into place privileges for other groups’ national meetings, so it should not do so for the Democratic convention.

The push for special liquor rules is further proof that the LCB must die - and that Mr. Wolf bears the blame for allowing it to live. Defenders can point to all the “modernization” they wish, but it’s just a weasel word to paper over the insanity of this paternalistic system.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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BALLOT QUESTION VOTES EXPOSED A FLAW IN OUR ELECTORAL SYSTEM THAT WE NEED TO FIX, May 16

Suppose you went to a restaurant and paid for the buffet. But instead of digging into the bountiful array spread before you, all you could do was choose from among the two least-appetizing options.

Such was the dilemma facing Pennsylvania’s independent voters during last month’s high-stakes primary election.

Registered Democrats and Republicans got to cast their ballots in a hotly contested presidential race, a U.S. Senate contest and an array of legislative and statewide row office elections.

Amidst all that sizzle, the only choice confronting unaffiliated voters on that fateful day was the wilted salad of a pair of unapperizing ballot questions.

The first referendum question drove the final nail into the coffin of Philadelphia’s already dead traffic court.

The second was a $1 million printing mistake: A proposed constitutional amendment raising the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75 years old.

State officials pulled the referendum question at the last moment, bumping it to the November general election. Nonetheless, the question still appeared on some primary and absentee ballots.

Given those choices, is it any wonder that voters are increasingly cynical about the electoral process? Instead of turning up, they’re tuning out.

Now party leaders will tell you that it’s only fair that their rank-and-file get to to decide the identities of their respective general election standard-bearers. And they’ll also tell you that all voters - regardless of party - will get to decide the ultimate winner in the general election.

But there are at least two big problems with that argument.

As we’ve observed before: Even though they’re not allowed to vote, independent voters’ tax dollars are still being used to underwrite a fundamentally partisan political exercise.

The second - and this is an even bigger problem - is that many independent voters are completely unaware that they’re allowed to vote on ballot questions during the spring canvass.

That’s why state officials made the ultimately too-late decision to move the question on the judges from the spring to the fall ballot - the risk of disenfranchising some 1 million voters on a critical piece of public policy was just too high.

We can think of two ways to fix this inequity.

First, end the disenfranchising practice of putting critical changes to state law on the spring primary ballot.

Second, throw open the primaries and allow independent voters - all 1 million of them - to vote. A measure sponsored by Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, would make that happen.

Legislation now before the Senate State Government Committee would allow independent voters to temporarily change their registration status so they can take part in a primary. The registration would expire right after they cast their ballots - unless they filled out an additional form right after voting.

Teplitz’s measure is a worthy one. It deserves a committee vote and consideration by the full Senate - at least.

The ideal of any representative democracy is more voter participation, not less.

These easy fixes would go a long way toward ensuring that’s the case.

- PennLive.com

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RISK ASSESSMENTS CAN FILL A CRITICAL ROLE, May 15

Pennsylvania may allow judges to weigh the likelihood that someone will commit another crime in the future to help them determine a prison sentence.

The procedure is called risk assessment. Virginia uses risk assessment to identify the lowest-risk offenders and divert them into alternatives to incarceration. That state saw a more than 25 percent drop in the number of nonviolent offenders sent to prison. Florida uses one for juvenile offenders only. Kentucky uses a risk assessment in bail decisions. Many parole boards now weigh risk scores when considering early release.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is in stage two of a three-stage study of the use of risk assessments.

While there are concerns about basing prison sentences on crimes that haven’t been committed, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said using risk assessments would be inserting science and data into decision-making. He compares it to setting car insurance rates. Insurance companies use factors such as age and gender to determine someone’s risk of getting into a collision, then set rates.

Judges currently use the offense gravity score, which weighs the seriousness of the crime, and the prior record score, which takes into account past crimes. Those two scores help a judge determine a jail sentence.

Risk assessment uses certain factors, including age, prior arrests and types of prior crimes, to inform a judge of a person’s likelihood to commit another crime. Someone found to have a low risk of recidivism might get a lesser sentence while others with a higher risk could get a longer sentence.

Those factors are already available to a judge during sentencing. What the commission is working on is a tool that can put those factors together and apply them to crimes.

Pennsylvania has roughly 50,000 people in state custody. Thousands more are in local jails or on probation or parole. The state spends $2 billion a year on its corrections system, more than 7 percent of the total state budget. Research shows that there are benefits to letting low-risk offenders avoid jail or prison time.

Risk assessment can fill a critical role in sentencing. Risk assessments would allow the court to determine if certain factors that lead to different outcomes for offenders would play a part in a particular person’s case. The judge would still individualize the sentence. This additional tool should be added to the system.

- The (Somerset) Daily American

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EXAMINE NARCAN CLOSELY, May 18

Naloxone, known by the trade name Narcan, is a key life-saving asset amid the opioid crisis currently gripping this country, including Blair and other counties of the Southern Alleghenies region.

Narcan has saved the lives of many thousands of overdose victims across the United States since early 2014, when its availability began getting attention.

Back then, a big question was how to have Narcan close at hand for more people, not only for users of illegal drugs but also for people who take opiates legally as prescribed by their doctor.

Narcan reverses a heroin or other opiate overdose instantly by binding to the opioid receptors in the brain, displacing other drugs and reversing the effects.

A Mirror editorial on Feb. 25, 2014, acknowledging the moral and financial perspectives and questions surrounding naloxone, observed that “Narcan is a topic that needs to be given much more attention on the municipal front, not only by officials but by the public - the taxpayers - whom they serve.”

It has gotten that positive attention, and there’s greater access to the rescue drug here as well as other places across the land.

But not all news surrounding naloxone’s use is good, unfortunately, as a May 12 Wall Street Journal article reported. The article discussed how health officials across the United States are becoming increasingly frustrated that some people saved by naloxone are succumbing quickly to another, sometimes fatal, overdose.

The new urgency is rightly seen as getting revived addicts connected as soon as possible to recovery services, before a new overdose threatens their life.

As noted by the Journal, Camden County, N.J., offers recovery services to users revived by naloxone before those individuals are discharged from the hospital. If they agree, the county pays for them to receive outpatient treatment until a spot at an inpatient center becomes available.

Prior to visiting Bedford earlier this month to discuss the commonwealth’s opioid epidemic, Gov. Tom Wolf reiterated his 2016-17 budget request for $34 million in new funds for 50 Opioid Use Disorder Centers of Excellence to provide a wide range of services to addicts.

The fate of that proposal is uncertain because a state budget for next fiscal year has not yet been adopted.

Congress passed several bills Thursday aimed at combating this national problem that is causing more deaths than people dying in traffic accidents. According to a Journal article on May 13, prescription painkillers, heroin and other opiods were involved in 61 percent of the 47,055 drug-overdose deaths in the country in 2014.

When naloxone came on the scene more than two years ago, Narcan was touted as a virtual miracle. However, addicts whose lives it saves find out that it’s hardly a “piece of cake.”

As the Journal reported on May 12, naloxone can trigger brutal withdrawal symptoms. Some addicts treated with it become combative and seek opioids again to calm themselves and stave off withdrawal.

The opioid epidemic has been described by a federal lawmaker as surpassing any challenge presented by a natural disaster.

That’s an appropriate description of why immediate, effective post-naloxone recovery services have become so urgent and indispensable in the battle against opioid addiction and its possible overdose consequences.

- The Altoona Mirror

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MORE THAN ONE HUMAN ERROR BEHIND AMTRAK WRECK, May 18

Brandon Bostian was by all accounts the sort of conscientious engineer any passenger would want in the locomotive, his professionalism and lifelong love of trains evident in earnest online posts about rail safety. And yet radio chatter about a SEPTA train struck by a rock north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station - a common hazard on the Northeast Corridor - was probably enough to distract the Amtrak engineer from the quick series of speed changes required ahead of one of the corridor’s sharpest curves, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in a report released Tuesday. He drove the train into the big Frankford Junction bend at more than twice the 50 mph speed limit and, as an NTSB member put it, “went in a matter of seconds from distraction to disaster.”

A year later, the derailment of Amtrak 188, which killed eight and injured about 200, looks like the terrible result of unavoidable human fallibility on the part of the engineer - and, more importantly, the all too avoidable failures of the humans elected to our national legislature.

The most effective precaution against lapses such as Bostian’s has been so clear for so long that the NTSB has been pushing it for more than 45 years. A technology known as positive train control monitors speeds and activates brakes if an engineer fails to respond to speed limits or hazards. But the system was not yet in place for much of the Northeast Corridor that day. And in October, less than six months after the wreck and with a year-end deadline to institute the technology looming, the U.S. Senate caved to industry lobbyists and gave the nation’s railroads up to five more years to deploy the technology.

Congress instituted the blown deadline back in 2008, after a head-on collision of freight and commuter trains in Los Angeles - one that could have been prevented by positive train control - killed 25. The NTSB estimates that 37 deaths since then, and some 300 since 1970, also could have been prevented by the technology.

For most of the Northeast Corridor, albeit too late for the passengers of 188, Amtrak met the original December 2015 deadline to put the technology in place. The only significant part of the line not covered is in upstate New York and Connecticut, on tracks that belong to the Metro North commuter system, which does not have positive train control. Neither does NJ Transit, which doesn’t expect to implement the technology until 2018. SEPTA also blew the original deadline but now expects all Regional Rail lines to be covered by July.

Of secondary but nonetheless substantial concern, the NTSB investigation also revealed poor coordination among police, fire, and hospital officials in transporting and treating injured passengers in the aftermath of the wreck. While emergency personnel performed admirably overall and the miscommunications are not believed to have harmed anyone, the Kenney administration should take the opportunity to address the confusion before the next crisis.

The wreck of Amtrak 188 horribly quantified a cost of inaction that was depressingly well known to railroad and government officials. Every year of additional delay is likely to compound the suffering already inflicted.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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VANTAGE POINT SHAPES POLICY, May 13

In April, Congress - in a rare bipartisan effort - finally renewed the Older Americans Act, under which programs and services provide an important safety net for adults as they age.

The Older Americans Act turned 50 in 2015, but it hadn’t been reauthorized for a decade.

The original 1965 legislation established “authority for grants to states for community planning and social services, research and development projects, and personnel training in the field of aging,” according to the federal Administration on Aging.

More than 11 million people - one in five older adults - receive nutrition, caregiving, transportation, legal and abuse prevention services under the act, the feds report.

Issues facing older Americans are bound to continue to be in the forefront legislatively because the baby boomer generation, many of whom make up Congress, continue to age.

According to the Associated Press, the older members of Congress are the body’s power brokers and many of them are seeking new six-year terms in the Senate this year, including Republicans Chuck Grassley, 82, of Iowa, John McCain, 79, of Arizona and Pat Roberts, 80, of Kansas.

But the average age of all senators actually has decreased from 63 to 61 since 2009 due to younger members being elected, according to the Congressional Research Service. The youngest are members of Generation X: Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who turns 39 on May 13, and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., 41.

In fact, Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1997, numbered 75.4 million as of last July and surpassed the shrinking baby boomer population, according to Pew Research Center.

A couple of interesting things are going on here. This election season, Millennials are making their voices heard.

And they aren’t “trophy babies,” so we should disavow ourselves of that generational stereotyping and count them way in. The oldest of them are 35, and many have kids of their own.

Millennials care deeply about social and fiscal issues. They are more diverse and more environmentally conscious. Their political sway is an important factor in the primary races and is expected to be similarly important in the general elections given their political interest and their sheer numbers.

Millennial women prefer Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic match-up for the presidential nomination. That same group prefers Clinton over presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump in a general election, though, according to a poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Millennials will continue to shape the way our country looks. And that gives us hope.

Millennials have had the challenge of finding work in perilous economic times that spurred those baby boomers and Generation Xers to hold onto their jobs, leaving less room for the younger generation of workers.

That trend appears to extend to Congress.

While the voice of the American Millennial generation is a welcome one - and one that is anticipated to shape fiscal and social policy in forward-thinking ways - we’re also glad that older workers still have a voice because their contributions remain vital to their generation and generations to come.

And while Congress isn’t always - or even often, or maybe ever - held up as a bastion of progress and accomplishment (barely reaching double-digit approvals with the public) the bipartisan passage of the Older Americans Act renewal after so many years is a welcome achievement.

- York Dispatch

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