- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

STATE TAXPAYERS AREN’T GETTING MONEY’S WORTH, Dec. 10

When an employee of a company fails to perform his or her duties in the way necessary, misses timetables for work completion or hinders production by failing to cooperate with other employees, that worker faces disciplinary action or the prospect of being fired.

That is as it should be.

Now take note of what happened Dec. 1 in Harrisburg, where state lawmakers got a raise despite their ongoing lackluster legislative performance, their inability to complete all of their annual budget work on time and their frequent unwillingness to compromise with House members and senators on the other side of the legislative aisle, hindering progress on proposals, important ones as well as some that are not so important.

The bottom line is that state taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth for the confidence and tax revenue that they’ve invested in those whom they’ve sent to Harrisburg to represent their best interests.

And, especially on the budget front, there might be some unpleasant “surprises” not too many years hence, when lawmakers’ penchant for kicking the proverbial can down the road rather than making responsible, courageous budget decisions will end up costing Pennsylvania residents much more than if lawmakers had made the right choices now.

It’s true that the raise lawmakers began receiving Dec. 1 isn’t excessive. It amounts to only about 0.8 percent, and the figure is tied by state law to the year-over-year change in the consumer price index published by the U.S. Department of Labor for urban consumers in the mid-Atlantic region.

But considering the General Assembly’s lackluster performance - including opting for recesses when important, time-sensitive work remains unfinished - it’s reasonable for state residents to conclude that lawmakers do not deserve any pay increase at this time, no matter how small.

Some state residents say neither does Gov. Tom Wolf. However, the governor, who is wealthy, doesn’t pocket his state salary.

The law requires him to accept the salary, which will be $194,850 with a raise of about $1,500 factored in for the coming year.

Wolf donates the salary to charity.

Because of their less-than-commendable legislative performance, lawmakers should donate the amount of their new raise to charities.

After all, Pennsylvania lawmakers, the second-highest-paid legislators in the nation, also receive per-diem pay for the time they’re at the state capital.

They’re well-compensated, even when they don’t do their jobs - unlike what would happen to them in private industry.

It’s important to note that more than the governor and the 253 state legislators will be receiving the pay hike in question. The in-crease also applies to more than 1,000 judges and several dozen top executive branch officials.

Unlike the lawmaker raises, the judicial and executive branch raises take effect on Jan. 1.

It’s not the goal of this editorial to reflect on the judicial and executive branch pay increases. Those state employees aren’t caught up in the kinds of ineffectiveness seen so often in the House and Senate chambers.

Still, it’s true: If lawmakers’ performances in the business world matched some of their performances under the Capitol dome, they might be standing in an unemployment line rather than collecting a pay increase.

And that outcome would be deserved.

__ The Altoona Mirror

Online: http://bit.ly/2ABXECM

___

FIX PENNSYLVANIA’S WEAK PENSION FORFEITURE LAW, Dec. 11

Some things seem so obvious that you shouldn’t even have to talk about them.

Here’s one of them: If you are an elected official found guilty of violating the public’s trust, or some other serious offense in the course of your official duties, you should be required to surrender your taxpayer-funded pension.

Yet, last week, the narrowly divided board of the State Employees Retirement System voted 6-5 to restore the $246,000 annual pension of disgraced former Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow of Lackawanna County.

Yes, Mellow served federal prison time for his conviction on charges that he used his taxpayer-funded staff for work on political campaigns.

But, turning common sense on its head, Mellow’s lawyers successfully argued that his federal conviction didn’t compare to the crimes listed in Pennsylvania’s pension forfeiture law.

Having located that legal loophole, the 40-year veteran of the Senate drove leisurely through it, his $20,000-a-month retirement benefit restored. It was the first time in 11 years the board had made such a decision.

And you wonder why people hate politics and are cynical about their elected officials?

Fortunately, there is a solution: And all it takes is a vote by the House and Senate and a signature by Gov. Tom Wolf to make that change.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, would expand Pennsylvania’s pension forfeiture law to include all felonies.

In an op-Ed for PennLive last week, DiSanto noted that his proposal had cleared a Senate committee back in April. But eight months later, it has yet to receive a vote by the full 50-member chamber.

“It’s obvious to me and should be obvious to both elected officials and private citizens alike that public employees and public officials who are convicted of or plead guilty or no contest to any felony offense related to their employment should not receive a taxpayer-funded pension,” he wrote.

You’d think so.

But a spokesman for DiSanto said Monday that there are currently no plans for the Senate to vote on the bill during the handful of days remaining on its 2017 calendar.

Look, this one is a no-brainer. And it’s one of those rare instances where there appears to be actual bipartisan agreement. When’s the last time that happened under the Capitol dome?

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf, in the wake of the Mellow incident, called on lawmakers to tighten pension forfeiture rules.

“Providing pensions to those who have committed crimes related to their elected offices is a betrayal of the public’s trust,” the Democratic governor said in a statement, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Public officials should be held to the highest possible standard and we should expect more out of them and our government.”

Pennsylvania’s 253 elected state legislators routinely waste their time on such trivial bills as bridge and highway renamings.

Or, they launch partisan attacks - such as a mean-spirited and entirely unnecessary bill now before the House limiting a woman’s access to abortion - that amount to little more than election year pandering.

With the DiSanto bill, however, Pennsylvania’s elected officials have a chance to take a measurable step toward reforming a system that is badly in need of it.

By the time senators leave town on Wednesday, they should pass DiSanto’s proposal; the House should get into position for a vote as soon as possible, and then it should send the bill to Wolf for his signature.

It may now be too late to hand Pennsylvanians a Christmas gift fixing their state government.

But lawmakers can still make sure that 2018 gets off on the right foot.

__ PennLive.com

Online: http://bit.ly/2ASwmF9

___

IT’S PAST TIME TO FUND CHIP, Dec. 12

Families of nearly 180,000 children in Pennsylvania have an extra worry this holiday season.

They are waiting for a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services telling them that the state has no funding left for CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Pennsylvania’s CHIP celebrated its 25th anniversary on Dec. 7, and the General Assembly reauthorized the program on Monday, Dec. 12, in a move praised by Gov. Tom Wolf.

But state reauthorization does little good as long as Congress refuses to release federal funds. Congress let the program’s authorization expire on Sept. 30.

CHIP provides free or low-cost health insurance for families with children who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but don’t have access to health insurance through other means.

In Pennsylvania, a family of four with an income of up to $51,168 can receive free CHIP insurance for their children, while a family of four with an income of up to $77,244 qualifies for low-cost CHIP insurance, according to the state Department of Human Services.

The program ensures that children get regular checkups, receive the proper vaccines and can see a doctor if they’re sick.

CHIP received $16.6 billion in the 2017 federal budget, according to NBC News, and it serves more than 8 million children across the country. In Pennsylvania, federal funding covers about 90 percent of the $450 million cost, according to Wolf’s office.

The federal program has had broad public and bipartisan support since it was begun in 1997.

So why hasn’t Congress renewed CHIP?

It, of course, comes down to money and politics.

Discussions about funding seem to center on whether funds for CHIP should be taken out of other areas in the budget and whether funding should be allocated for several years or one year at a time.

There’s also a question of whether to give the program $14 billion or only $12 billion for 2018.

Meanwhile, several states, including Pennsylvania, are on the verge of running out of funding for this vital program.

The stop-gap spending bill signed by President Donald Trump on Friday, Dec. 9, lets the federal government distribute the remaining funds in the CHIP account to the states in the most dire straits, including Pennsylvania, but it doesn’t authorize any more funding.

And yet the Republicans in the House and the Senate are perfectly fine with passing a tax bill that gives huge tax breaks to corporations and the 1 percent while massively increasing the federal budget deficit and giving a few crumbs to the middle and lower classes - crumbs that will taken away in just a few years.

Really, Congress?

You have no problem with handing over billions in tax cuts to a few, but won’t authorize a much smaller amount in aid to millions of children and their families.

You’d think that at this time of year, even members of Congress would be a bit more giving, a bit more likely to think of their constituents who might need just a little help from their government to keep their children healthy.

Gov. Wolf joined 11 other governors on Tuesday, Dec. 12, in asking Congress to fund CHIP.

“Congress is failing the children of Pennsylvania and causing unnecessary anxiety for families around the holidays,” Wolf said in a news release on Monday. “Pennsylvania’s CHIP program depends on federal funding, and it is at risk without Congress doing its job.”

He’s right, you know. Congress is not doing its job, and it hasn’t been for months.

The CHIP program has been renewed every year since 1998 without a fuss because everyone realizes that it’s important for working families to be able to have health insurance for their children.

Congress could have reauthorized the program in January and had the bill on Trump’s desk ready to sign Jan. 21.

Instead, they’ve spent their time first trying to do away with health insurance for adults through the Affordable Care Act and, failing to do that, they’re now haggling about giving states the money needed for CHIP.

Oh, and giving tax breaks to millionaires, that’s something Congress can really be proud of.

It’s past time for Congress to step up and fund CHIP. If they fail this bipartisan, relatively cheap program that does so much good for children across the country, each member of Congress should have to personally go to the homes of the families in their district and explain to them why an ideology is more important than their children’s health.

__ The York Dispatch

Online: http://bit.ly/2AB2sbj

___

ACCELERATE HEMP REVIVAL, Dec. 11

Enthusiasm for industrial-scale hemp production in Pennsylvania has grown, well, like a weed.

On Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state government significantly will expand opportunities for hemp production and research. This year growers produced state-permitted hemp crops on just 50 acres statewide; in 2018 the state will issue permits for production on up to 5,000 acres.

Hemp has at least 25,000 uses, as noted by the state Department of Agriculture. It is relatively easy to grow and adaptable to many different climate and soil conditions. That’s why it was a mainstay crop around the world for thousands of years, and for all of U.S. history until 1937. Then, the federal government outlawed marijuana and hemp along with it, even though hemp contains only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical agent in marijuana.

The 2014 federal farm bill authorized renewed limited hemp production under state regulation and Wolf signed the Industrial Hemp Research Act in 2016. It allows academic researchers or private growers contracted by the Department of Agriculture to apply for permits to grow hemp for research purposes. Last year the state issued 14 permits for no more than 5 acres each; next year it will make available 100 permits covering up to 50 acres each.

According to Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, the 14 projects produced valuable technical data on everything from seed-sourcing to harvesting. He said that all 14 producers will seek new permits.

In colonial times Pennsylvania produced large hemp crops. The material was used for products ranging from clothing to paper to sails.

Today, the potential product list includes fiber, but it also can be used for biofuels, biomass energy generation, animal feed and cholesterol-reducing medicine, among many others.

As the state expands the research program, it should start identifying and building markets so that hemp once again can be a highly valuable component of the agricultural economy.

__ The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

Online: http://bit.ly/2C8Um70

___

TIP REVENUE BELONGS TO THE WORKERS, Dec. 10

Distribution of tips is a major issue among restaurant workers but there is a consensus that should continue to be protected by wage laws - tips belong to workers rather than to the restaurant.

Yet proposed regulations by the Department of Labor, ostensibly to improve compensation for restaurant workers who receive only hourly wages, in effect would give restaurants control of tip revenue to use as they wish.

Especially at high-end restaurants, servers, bartenders and other “front of house” staff receive relatively low hourly wagers and are compensated mostly through tip revenue. Cooks and other “back of house” typically receive higher hourly wages but often do not share tip revenue, meaning that they usually earn substantially less than the front of house staff.

Those disparities are an age-old problem in the industry. They drive turnover and create turmoil in the workplace.

Some staffs share tips across the workforce, some don’t.

Influential New York restaurateur Danny Meyer calls the restaurant tip economy a “hoax on the culture” that enables restaurants to significantly underpay workers. His Union Square Hospitality Group has eliminated tipping at its restaurants in favor of higher base prices, to mixed results regarding customer and employee satisfaction.

The Labor Department’s proposed rule would require restaurants to pool tips, but it does not mandate that tip revenue belongs to workers. In effect, restaurants could use the pooled tips for any purpose, rather than to simply increase pay for back-of-the-house workers.

There is no easy solution because, as in any wage system, an increase in one area likely comes at the expense of a decrease somewhere else. But any new regulation should begin with the guarantee that tip revenue belongs to workers.

__ The Citizens’ Voice

Online: http://bit.ly/2ABIWf6


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