- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

BILL THAT WOULD MAKE IT HARDER FOR LOCAL SCHOOL BOARDS TO RAISES TAXES MISSES THE MARK, April 11

A bill in the state Legislature would make it harder for school boards to increase property taxes. Senate Bill 406 would require a two-thirds vote to approve tax increases, rather than a simple majority. That means for a nine-member school board, six votes would be required instead of five to approve an increase. The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the proposal March 29, and it is now headed to the full Senate for consideration.

The rationale goes something like this: Rising property taxes have become the millstone around the necks of property owners - particularly seniors. If a local school board is considering raising taxes, the process requires extended deliberation. Any decision to increase taxes should not come easily, thus the requirement of a two-thirds vote.

Raising taxes should be “really hard,” the bill’s co-sponsor, Republican state Sen. Mike Folmer, told LNP. Folmer serves parts of Dauphin and York counties and all of Lebanon County.

“There should be no tax that should be able to tax somebody out of (his home).”

Folmer might find agreement among some of our readers, who write regularly about rising property taxes and who are now staring down the barrel of a reassessment.

“I just hope Harrisburg can supply enough cardboard boxes for the seniors to live in,” Cindy Harting, of West Cocalico Township, wrote in a letter to the editor last week. “With Harrisburg not doing anything about property taxes, most seniors will be homeless if they stay in Pennsylvania.”

Senate Bill 406 is an answer to the frustration of homeowners but, in our view, not the right answer. Local control of our schools is important; school boards need some freedom to operate as they, and district taxpayers, see fit.

Taxpayers have the opportunity to elect their local school board members. They also have the opportunity to elect someone else if they don’t like the direction in which the board is taking the district. And changing the rules now would only make a school board’s job more difficult.

“I believe lawmakers’ time spent on solving the overall state funding issues to be a much more valuable use of their time,” said Ephrata school board President Timothy Stayer, a Republican, in an email to LNP. “I have often thought that a 5-4 vote tells our community that the board worked very hard in reaching a decision, that it did not take the issue of a tax increase lightly.”

School boards have a lot of weighty issues to deal with in addition to taxes - whether to construct a new school, for example, not to mention the unfunded mandates from the state such as pension payments and special education costs. If a two-thirds vote is going to be required for a tax increase, why not for the passage of every other measure? Because it would be time-consuming, burdensome, and business would grind to a halt.

“The one thing that the legislation is implying is that school directors are just raising taxes without much discussion,” Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokesman Steve Robinson told LNP. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Robinson is right. There’s nothing to suggest that raising taxes is “too easy” for school boards.

“A 5-4 vote illustrates the tough issues faced by school boards and the difficulty in maintaining the balance of community impact versus student learning,” Stayer said.

Senate Bill 406 is well-intended, and we laud its sponsors for heeding the concerns of frustrated taxpayers. But if the state Legislature really wants to do something about property taxes, it needs to attack the issue at the choke point.

Republican state Sen. David Argall would like to eliminate school property taxes and replace them with sales and income tax increases. This approach would maintain local control over schools, and while it might not be a perfect solution, it’s one that merits serious consideration.

We’re certainly not minimizing the seriousness of the issue. Sixteen of 17 public school districts that serve Lancaster County raised taxes this year. Another increase for most, if not all districts, is likely. Clearly, homeowners, especially seniors, need relief.

“We face losing our home that we fought so hard to get as young adults,” wrote George Kern, of Lancaster, in a letter to the editor two weeks ago. “With the new tax assessment for 2018, our property values went up more than 80 percent. How are we seniors to pay for these ridiculous taxes?” (Taxes will not increase at the same rate as the assessment.)

We hear our seniors, and we hope our lawmakers hear them.

No one disagrees on the urgent necessity of relief.

But making a local school board’s job more difficult would create yet another problem when there are already plenty of others that need attention.

- LNP Newspapers

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LAWMAKERS SHOULD AGAIN REJECT HARSH MANDATORY SENTENCES THAT DRIVE UP COSTS AND DON’T DETER CRIME, April 7

There are times when “confounding” doesn’t quite do justice when it comes to describing the actions taken by the 253 men and women of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.

Consider, for instance two seemingly unrelated votes taken by the state House last week.

On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled chamber voted 114-84 to send a stripped-down version of Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed 2017-18 budget to their colleagues in the Senate.

The $31.5 billion spending plan the chamber approved was slightly lower than the $32.3 billion proposal that Wolf unveiled last month.

Notably, the House plan trims state spending on such items as pre-kindergarten and state assistance to child-care expenses for low-income families. It also sliced $12 million from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which Wolf says will hamstring efforts to fight the state’s opioid epidemic.

Republicans said their intent with the budget plan was to inject a little “sanity, predictability and affordability” into state spending.

Which makes Wednesday’s vote restoring a host of mandatory minimum sentences, which have been unenforceable since 2015 because of state and federal court rulings, all the more mystifying.

In one fell swoop, and over the counsel of Corrections Secretary John E. Wetzel, the House wiped out that savings gleaned by their action just 24 hours earlier, by re-imposing those sentences. They are expected to cost the state some $85.5 million a year.

In a March 21 op-ed for PennLive, Wetzel and Corrections Department Research Director Kristofer “Bret” Bucklen argued that, based on the most current research, the harsh sentences do not deter crime. Nor are they an adequate predictor of whether someone will offend again.

“This one-size-fits-all approach does not work when it comes to health care or education policy, so why should we think it works in criminal justice?” they wrote.

Instead, the swiftness and certainty of punishment, is a far more effective deterrent, they noted.

And “judges in Pennsylvania sentence within the recommended guidelines 90 percent of the time, and the seven percent of cases where judges depart below the guidelines is mostly due to a recommendation by the prosecutor. Sentencing guidelines render mandatory minimum sentences unnecessarily rigid,” they wrote.

Pennsylvania’s move back toward mandatory minimum sentences comes even as 30 other states have now reconsidered mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Such conservative group as the American Legislative Exchange Council and Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation here in Pennsylvania, who are hardly spendthrifts, oppose the re-imposition of mandatory minimum sentences.

The House passed similar legislation in last year’s session. The Senate did not act upon it. Thankfully, that appears to again be the prevalent sentiment in the upper chamber, according to those close to the matter.

But we’d also note that no one has ever lost re-election by being tough on criminals.

And with what is likely to be a hard-fought 2018 gubernatorial election not so far away, the GOP-majority Senate could be tempted to stray from its commonsense stance in the name of short-term political gain.

That would be a mistake.

Voters want two things from their elected leaders: Sound stewardship of their tax dollars and a guarantee that their homes, lives and property will be safeguarded.

The bill that came out of the House this week accomplishes neither goal. The Senate should again let it wither and die.

- PennLive.com

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THE HIGH COST OF ABSENTEEISM, April 11

The Council Rock School District has a million-dollar problem on its hands; actually, it’s more than a million dollars. And we suspect other school districts have the same problem.

We’re referring to the district’s absentee rate. On any given day, somewhere between 70 and 100 teachers and support staff are absent, forcing the district to pay substitutes to fill in.

In Council Rock, subs are paid $100 a day. Assuming all absences are covered, that adds up to somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000 a day; times 180 days becomes an annual expense of roughly $1.2 million to $1.8 million.

Paying substitute teachers is just a reality of public education. Classrooms can’t go unsupervised. So there’s no way around what amounts to paying double time, compensating both a regular teacher who is absent and the sub who fills in. This is unlike the private sector, where in most cases workers simply pick up the slack for a missing colleague.

It’s also unlike the private sector in another way: The daily absentee rate for teachers is 7 percent to 10 percent in Council Rock. According to a spokesman for an organization bidding to take over Council Rock’s substitute teacher service, 10 percent is the typical daily absentee rate for the other school districts the company serves.

Best as we could determine, the daily absentee rate in the private sector is much lower: just 2.8 percent. So teachers miss work at a rate more than three times that of folks working in offices, factories, stores and other private establishments.

We’re not sure why that is. Neither are Council Rock school board members, who have called for an explanation from administrators.

The district’s Human Resources director told our reporter that the reasons vary but include illness, jury duty and professional development. Certainly, reasons can’t include working conditions or compensation. Teachers are very well paid in the upscale Council Rock School District, where property values and incomes are among the highest in Bucks County and students and teachers are among the most pampered.

Regardless of the cause of excessive absenteeism, here’s a suggestion for how to make up at least some of the subbing cost: Stop the wasteful practice of letting sick days accumulate. Allowing unused sick days to roll over from one year to the next is an unheard-of practice in the private sector.

In Council Rock, teachers get 10 paid sick days a year. If only two sick days are used, the employee can carry over eight days to the next year. This process continues year after year after year - for an entire career. What isn’t used by retirement can be cashed in. The current contract mandates a cash-in rate of $72.50 per day up to $7,000, with the balance going into a health savings account.

You might think this perk would be an incentive to avoid missing work. But despite the cost to taxpayers, it’s not having much effect. That being the case, the school board should get rid of it and maybe install some disincentives for chronic absenteeism. In other words, try some common sense.

- The (Doylestown) Intelligencer

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A KILLER ON THE LOOSE: RISING DEATHS BY OPIODS ARE A CALL TO ACTION, April 11

Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, needed only three words - “my heart aches” - to sum up the news that 613 people in the county died from drugs last year. That number, released Thursday by the medical examiner’s office, represents a whopping 45 percent increase in overdose deaths over 2015.

The state’s overdose death rate also is likely to have increased from 2015 to 2016, but those numbers will not be known until June.

Will the publicity surrounding the opioid epidemic, the anguished pleas of families who have lost loved ones or the measures the Legislature took in recent months to limit the prescription of painkillers have any effect the overdose death rate this year? It is way too early to tell. But we should pause to remember the 613 victims from 2016 and redouble efforts to bring a runaway scourge under control.

The medical examiner’s office performed about 1,400 autopsies last year, up from about 1,100 two years ago. Drug-related cases are blamed for much of the increase.

Other states also are struggling with staggering numbers of overdose deaths. In February, the New York Times reported that the coroner’s office in Montgomery County, Ohio, ran out of space in its morgue and asked a funeral home to put four bodies in storage. Last month, The Intelligencer of Wheeling, W.Va., reported that West Virginia’s fund for indigent burials had run out of money five months before the end of the fiscal year, largely because of drug-related deaths.

In Allegheny County, overdose deaths last year were highest in communities already struggling with crime and economic decline - places such as McKees Rocks, Stowe and Knoxville. To borrow Dr. Hacker’s word, controlling this epidemic is like “chasing” an elusive quarry. It had a big head start, and it’s always threatening to gain ground.

Last year, the state imposed limits on the prescription of painkillers in emergency departments and to juveniles and required doctors to check a database before prescribing certain drugs to adults. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed allocating money in the state budget to give all first responders a reversal drug, and in March, he helped to tout new guidelines for treating pain with exercise and acupuncture rather than opioids. Hopefully, all of these steps will slow the death rate this year.

Though there are some differences on approach, officials at the local and state levels all seem to understand what it as stake. They must maintain a laser focus on the problem, deploying resources as amply and wisely as possible, so that the killer eventually may be run to ground.

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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GIVE US THAT OLD-TIME, COAL MINER MENTALITY, April 9

It was somewhat fitting that the hundreds who came out for last week’s ceremony recognizing the first 875 names affixed to the Wall of Honor at the Miners Memorial at King’s on the Square had to battle whipping winds and lashing rain.

What better way to honor men who day after day descended into the earth without complaint and boys who picked through dusty bins of rock and coal in summer heat and bracing cold, all to keep their families fed?

“The most striking thing is so many people came out in this terrible weather.” said Bill Hastie, 97, the last living employee of the Knox Coal Co. “That in itself shows how we feel about the mines.”

We feel that way about the mines because it was those miners and breaker boys who made this region and its people what they are today. The 21st century Wyoming Valley is largely the hard-working, ethnically diverse and plain-spoken product of those times and those people.

That “coal miner mentality” is disparaged by some and perhaps it is true that some worked too hard for too little, were somewhat clannish and sometimes impolite.

But the coal miner mentality also embodies a reverence for family, tradition and above all, memory.

That’s why hundreds will show up in the wind and rain to remember their miner forbears or lobby for a historical marker at the Huber Breaker site, another act of memory that came to fruition last week.

The heyday of anthracite will never come back to Wyoming Valley, but the lessons learned in that era continue to guide us today and steel us for the future, whatever comes.

- The (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader

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