- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Editorials from around Pennsylvania



Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, took the prayers at the memorial service for his rival, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died Sunday at 82. That gives some idea of the complexity of internal politics in Iran.

Khamenei in effect stayed with President Hassan Rouhani throughout the extensive, explosive negotiations with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States that eventually led to the so-called Iran agreement in 2015. The accord included a long shelving of Iran’s nuclear program in return for the removal of a range of economic and financial sanctions imposed against it. The supreme leader never, however, hid his suspicion of the good faith of the United States, the Great Satan, in the negotiations.

The late Rafsanjani, by some contrast, has normally been considered a reformer- as opposed to Khamenei -in Iran’s reformer-vs.- hardliner political lineup. Even in the darkest days of U.S.-Iranian relations in the early 1980s, when Iran had only just released the American diplomats held prisoner in Tehran, Rafsanjani was in touch with other American diplomats, providing useful insight into what was going on in Iran. That country had, after all, been a longtime ally of the United States, which it saw as capable of protecting it from the historic ambitions of the bordering Soviet Union.

U.S.-Iranian relations stand at yet another crossroads. They should- and have to a degree been able to -profit from the conclusion of the nuclear/?trade deal. One manifestation of the move toward the normal job-creating trading relationship between the two countries was the conclusion last year of a $16.6 billion deal between Iran and Boeing for 80 aircraft. There is nothing like a big contract for lots of aircraft to tangle two countries up in a mutually beneficial, war-deterring, long-term relationship.

At the same time, partly at the instigation of Israel, some American legislators continue to push to scrap the 2015 Iran nuclear/?trade deal and to impose new economic and financial sanctions on Iran. What action Donald Trump as president will take with regard to Iran is not clear.

What is clear is that if the United States, under Trump, decides to scrap the Iran agreement, America’s faithful allies will not follow suit, and will continue to pursue avidly profitable commercial and financial ties with Iran. What would happen to the Boeing deal is truly unclear, although European Airbus would no doubt be rubbing its hands with glee.

In the meantime, Iran has joined with Russia and Turkey in pursuing a solution to the war in Syria, with America dealt out of the game. Talks are scheduled for later this month. What that means is that American legislators have succeeded in preventing the U.S. government and businesses from following up fully on the opening that the 2015 Iran deal and the subsequent Boeing sale presented. Their reasoning in terms of U.S. interests is hard to follow.

- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



The story is still unfolding- rapidly -and there is a big difference between being charged and being convicted, but the deeply disturbing accusations in the death of 14-year-old Grace Packer are apt to have a chilling effect on children service agencies statewide, and on adoption.

However grim this saga becomes, it should not be a deterrent to helping children in need to find a good home, or to open yours to those youngsters.

Police charged a Montgomery County couple with homicide in the death of Packer, a case that touches Luzerne County in a tangential but gruesome way. Packer’s remains were discovered last October in Bear Creek Township near the Francis E. Walter Reservoir.

This tragedy taints agencies that work to protect the safety of children, and the entire foster care and adoption efforts of such agencies, because- according to police -Packer was taken in as a foster child at the age of 3 by the woman now charged with killing her: Sara Packer, who later adopted Grace.

Sara Packer and her partner, Jacob Patrick Sullivan, both of Horsham, have been charged in the case. According to police, Sullivan and Sara Packer were admitted to a hospital Dec. 30 for attempted suicide.

Sullivan allegedly confessed details about the murder, saying the couple sedated Grace, bound her and left her to die in a cedar closet. According to police, Sullivan said he later strangled a still-breathing Grace. The couple first stored the body in the attic, then dismembered it in a tub and discarded it where a hunter found the remains.

The news of charges and lurid details surfaced over the weekend. Since then it has been reported that Sara Packer worked as a supervisor for Northampton County Children, Youth and Families division for adoptions for seven years before being suspended.

Be shocked, but do not be discouraged. On the contrary, take it as more evidence that children need more than a home, they need a good home, and that their protection merits more effort by the rest of us.

When Lorine Ogurkis was honored last May for her part in creating Brandon’s Forever Home as a center for both education of adults and refuge for children, Ogurkis painted the problem in stark numbers: More than 400 children in foster care in Luzerne County, but only 85 homes to take them in.

In 2015, 190 of those in foster care aged out, and without support “within three years they will become homeless, they will become drug addicted, they will become in the criminal sector, they will become pregnant, and the cycle continues,” Ogurkis said with palpable compassion.

Yes, somewhere the system and society failed Grace Packer. And yes, somehow an agency trying to give Grace a new life was entangled with the woman accused of causing her death. These things will be sorted out, and changes made.

But there are thousands of success stories unsung, and as we watch this horror evolve, we cannot let it blind nor deter us. Foster children need forever homes.

- The (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader



President Barack Obama may well be hoping to paint congressional Republicans into a corner regarding the health insurance fiasco that bears his name.

In reaction to GOP pledges to repeal the Obamacare law, Obama said he has no problem with the idea- providing the Republicans come up with something better as a replacement. If that happens, “I will publicly support repealing Obamacare,” the president vowed.

Crafting a true health care reform package- which Obamacare did not do -indeed will be difficult. That is in large measure because of the existing scheme’s designed-in flaw.

The Department of Health and Human Services brags on its website that “20 million people have gained health insurance coverage because of the Affordable Care Act .”

But what the DHHS and Obama do not explain is that of that total, about 18 million gained insurance through expansion of the Medicaid program. It is paid for solely by taxpayers.

Obama and his supporters pledged that their plan would make health insurance more affordable.

It did not.

It merely ensured that 18 million more people would receive taxpayer-funded insurance.

Many Americans have found their health care costs increased because of Obamacare.

Millions are paying higher premiums and higher deductibles- which they are required to do if they want to avoid stiff penalties for failure to have government-approved insurance.

Devising a true reform initiative will be a challenging task for lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans. But in terms of Obama’s offer, the reformers’ reaction should be that it would be virtually impossible to replace Obamacare with something worse.

- The (Warren) Times-Observer



Looking ahead, the Pennsylvania Legislature might have the Republican majorities it needs to affect a $14 billion tax shift- “killing” the hated school property tax while saddling people with higher sales and personal income taxes.

The stakes are high, especially for those who say school property taxes are driving them from their homes or forcing them into greatly diminished qualities of life. Homeowners with limited incomes feel the cruelty of annual tax hikes by school boards. That’s the primary force behind HB/SB 76, known as the Property Tax Independence Act.

In 2015 the Senate failed, by a 24-24 vote, to insert SB 76 into another bill, and the effort died. This year, larger GOP majorities in each house could mean the death knell for the local school tax. The question is whether Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would veto any such bill, and whether it would be overridden.

Also in 2015, Wolf proposed increases in personal income and sales taxes, in part to significantly reduce school property taxes. That idea died in a protracted, bitter budget battle. Former Gov. Ed Rendell’s pledge to use gambling proceeds to reduce property taxes also fell well short of promises.

Selling the idea of popular control over local school taxes has been elusive, too. Wolf proposed giving voters veto power over local tax hikes, as a trade-off for raising other taxes. So did former Gov. Robert P. Casey and the Legislature in a 1987 referendum overwhelmingly rejected by voters.

So how is 2017 different?

Legislative proponents of HB/SB 76, including state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill/Berks, say they’ve fine-tuned their approach to deal with problems created by a tax shift.

Still, it’s hard to shake the idea that killing the school property tax swaps one form of unfairness for another. If this were easy to do without unintended consequences, it would have been done years ago.

Here’s what this debate needs to cover:

First, supporters must show the change in taxation will cover the $14 billion now generated by school property taxes. The sales tax would go from 6 to 7 percent and cover a wide range of services and products now exempt. Clothing (items more than $50) and food would be subject to sales tax. The personal income tax would go from 3.07 percent to 4.95 percent.

While that’s welcome relief for those oppressed by property taxes, it’s a major hit to wage-earners who don’t own a home. It’s unlikely that tenants would see a corresponding drop in rent in return for subsidizing a landlord’s property tax bill. Large commercial property owners would see an instant windfall. Small business owners who pay the personal income tax could feel gouged.

A study by the Independent Fiscal Office predicted a $1 billion deficit within a year or two of implementing HB/SB 76. While backers say they’ve addressed that, others note that school funding inevitably will be more volatile, relying solely on sales and income-tax revenues that fluctuate with the economy.

Also, there’s the issue of local control. If all education funding comes from the state, districts will be subject to whatever changes in the funding formula that comes down the line. Wealthier districts won’t like it if their revenue streams are tightened by Harrisburg’s new rules.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvanians consistently signal their resistance to the one tax with the power to leave them homeless. If Pennsylvania is to become the modern bellwether of the property reform battle- akin to California’s Proposition 13, which created lots of imbalances as it sliced property taxes -legislators need to conduct a focused, well-publicized, bipartisan debate, instead of sneaking a tectonic tax shift it into an unrelated bill. It isn’t a “win-win” deal, but a win-lose proposition. The losers deserve to know how much they stand to pay.

- The (Easton) Express-Times



The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a national environmental treasure.

It must be protected.

Lest you think this issue isn’t a York County problem, think again.

The Susquehanna River, which rolls past the county’s eastern border, and the bay are two integral parts of one large ecosystem. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), the bay, essentially, is the river’s valley floor. It’s the tidal portion of the Susquehanna. So, any pollution that is dumped into the Susquehanna will have a direct and detrimental impact on the bay. They are completely interconnected.

That’s why the health of the bay should be of vital importance to York-area folks. Over the decades, our industries, wastewater treatment plants and farmers helped pollute the Susquehanna, and eventually, the Chesapeake. So we must play a pivotal role in cleaning up the bay.

These days, the primary source of bay pollution is agricultural, and to their credit, many local farmers are doing their best to alleviate the pollution problem, despite the sometimes substantial costs. For instance, the CBF has highlighted farmers who employ best management practices. That includes Bob and Maggie Cahalan of southern York County.

Because of the efforts of folks such as the Cahalans, the bay is slowly being nursed back to health. That is good news.

The CBF has issued its biennial State of the Bay report for the past 18 years. The first report gave the bay’s health a grade of 23 (on a 100-point scale, with 100 returning the bay to its original “pristine” condition). The most recent report, released last week, showed a grade of 34, or a C-minus.

That’s not a great grade, but it’s the best grade in the history of the report and two points better than the 2014 report. Still, the CBF lists the bay as being “dangerously out of balance.”

The goal of the CBF is to get the grade up to 70, or “saved.” The CBF says it’s impractical to restore the bay to “pristine” condition.

The bad news, at least for Pennsylvanians, is that our state “lags far behind its pollution-reduction goals,” according to the CBF.

The report refers to the Clean Water Blueprint, which includes the federal agreement between each of the six watershed states and the District of Columbia to implement state-specific cleanup plans.

Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland comprise about 85 percent of that watershed, according to the CBF, and Virginia and Maryland are mostly on track to meet their 2017 and 2025 goals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets pollution standards for each state that are supposed to be 60 percent complete by the end of 2017 and 100 percent complete by the end of 2025.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has already acknowledged that Pennsylvania likely won’t meet its 2017 milestones.

York County is the second-highest contributor, behind Lancaster County, of nitrogen pollution in the state, the report states. Under the agreement, the EPA is allowed to impose fines on any state that does not meet its goals.

There’s no way of knowing if Pennsylvania will be fined, but the EPA had previously withheld nearly $3 million in federal funding to the state because of its inaction on the cleanup plan. That money, however, was released to Pennsylvania when the DEP announced efforts to reboot the program at the beginning of 2016.

So Pennsylvania’s lack of action could hit us where it really hurts- in the wallet.

Of course, there will soon be a new man in charge in the White House and he has already nominated a new head of the EPA- Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt -who has been described as a friend to the fossil-fuel industry, a climate-change doubter and an opponent to the EPA’s “activist agenda.”

What that means for the future of the Chesapeake is still to be determined.

What has been determined, however, is that the bay needs our help, immediately.

Pennsylvania in general, and York County specifically, must do what is necessary to help heal the bay.

So far, according to the CBF, we haven’t done our fair share. That needs to change.

We helped caused the problem. We need to be a part of the solution.

- The York Dispatch


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