- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Editorials from around Pennsylvania



The national manhunt for so-called Facebook killer Steve Stephens did not have what Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Jeremy Barni called an “ideal” ending in Erie.

Stephens shot himself April 18 as state police troopers expertly boxed in his Ford Fusion on Buffalo Road. That was no loss for humanity given the diabolical execution of an elderly stranger Stephens performed on Easter Sunday in Cleveland and memorialized with a Facebook video. But by killing himself, Stephens took with him answers to important questions.

Still, the manhunt ended as cleanly as it might have, especially for the public and law enforcement, who were at high risk every second Stephens remained free, desperate and armed.

It was an extraordinary story that went viral due to Stephens’ depravity, which makes law enforcement’s handling of information about his whereabouts puzzling and concerning.

Clouding the first days of the search were conflicting reports that Stephens’ cellphone had been “pinged” in Erie. CNN reported that Pennsylvania authorities told it the morning of Monday, April 17, of such a ping. In contrast, a state police new release issued here that morning said there was “no confirmed information that Stephens is in the area.”

Later Monday, the Erie FBI told Erie Times-News reporter Tim Hahn only that they had received an unspecified lead Sunday that Stephens might be in the area and had canvassed the area with state and local police to no avail. State and local police have each consistently maintained they did not receive information about Stephens’ Erie cellphone activity.

Independent reporting on April 17 by this newspaper, meanwhile, revealed another Stephens tie to Erie, previous gambling at Presque Isle Downs & Casino.

The FBI in Cleveland on April 20, two days after Stephens killed himself, clarified, saying the FBI had indeed learned on Sunday that the last activity of Stephens’ two cellphones occurred Easter Sunday in Erie after the killing. Special Agent Vicki Anderson said an “investigative lead” was sent to Erie FBI agents, who then searched the area with local police. She told Erie Times-News reporter Nico Salvatori that news of cellphone activity was leaked and that the FBI does not always share all the information it has, even with investigative partners.

It is no wonder the FBI did not want Stephens to know they had detected his phone activity in Erie on Sunday.

Nonetheless, it seems there was ample reason to suspect Stephens would land in Erie. The cellphone activity, Stephens’ past gambling forays to Presque Isle Downs - which police knew about - and proximity between the cities, demanded unified messaging that more clearly put Erieites on high alert. Whatever cat and mouse game was underway, the public deserved clarity in such circumstances.

__ Erie Times-News





Over the last few years, legislative attempts to privatize Pennsylvania’s state-controlled liquor system have morphed from an all-or-nothing movement to a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy.

By opening a once-monopolistic market to thousands of restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets - some private stores could be selling hard liquor as well as beer and wine, under proposed legislation - majority Republicans in Harrisburg are methodically dismantling the resistance to full privatization.

It’s working.


It may take several more years of steep budget deficits - and acclimatizing consumers to buying alcoholic beverages as other Americans do - to finally divorce the state from the liquor-selling business. Last week several bills aimed at further liberalizing wine and liquor sales were adopted by the House and sent to the Senate. As reported by pennlive.com, these measures would:

Allow restaurant license holders to sell up to four bottles of hard liquor, in addition to wine.

Establish “franchise licenses” to allow private stores to sell wine and spirits.

Allow grocery stores to qualify for wine-sales permits without having to go through the charade of setting up tables and chairs. Retailers with an “R” license could buy wine through private wholesalers in addition to the state’s wholesale unit.

Begin weaning the Liquor Control Board of its exclusive wholesale market, allowing private distributors to compete in the state.

While the changes are far from revolutionary, they’re part of an inexorable march toward a more customer-friendly approach to alcohol sales.

Some opposition Democrats in the House say the state shouldn’t be making liquor more accessible at a time when the state is preparing to legalize internet gambling. Another issue, they say, is the annual revenue the LCB returns to the state treasury, the loss of which would make the plugging of billion-dollar budget deficits that much harder.

We’ve said this before: A free-market approach to sales, with state enforcement of alcohol laws and licensing (not unlike New Jersey’s system) is the way to go. Pleading budget poverty disguises the reality that other states have financial crises, too - based mostly on pension debt, not the relinquishment of Prohibition-style alcohol control.

The one Democratic voice that matters on this issue is Gov. Tom Wolf - and he remains opposed to total privatization. Yet last year Wolf joined Republicans (and some Democrats) in liberalizing six-pack beer sales, permitting wine sections in supermarkets, letting consumers order wine from private wholesalers. State liquor stores began expanding hours to fit the schedules of consumers instead of the bureaucracy.

We hope the state Senate will approve these efforts by House, or expand upon them. The march toward a private liquor market is ploddingly incremental, but with each yearly advance it begins to look inevitable.

__ The (Easton) Express-Times





So now we know.

In just a few minutes on Thursday afternoon, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro put an end to one of Harrisburg’s great unanswered questions:

The architects of a financing scheme for the city’s former trash incinerator that plunged Harrisburg into debt and turned Pennsylvania’s capital city into a national watchword for financial mismanagement would not be facing any criminal charges.

Instead of charges, the Montgomery County Democrat offered seven recommended changes to state law intended to head off the kinds of problems that led to Harrisburg’s financial collapse and the lack of accountability that followed.

Among them is giving Shapiro’s office what’s known as “original jurisdiction” to pursue local public corruption cases. Right now, county DAs must refer those cases to the Attorney General’s office for prosecution.

The final report is likely to detail problems with municipal financing and other local government issues exposed by the Harrisburg issues.

Shapiro’s 3 p.m. press conference will likely be viewed as a mere whimper, rather than a bang, by those city residents who hoped to see the professionals who worked on the incinerator and related contracts clapped in leg irons.

And certainly they have reason to be angry: The $300 million in debt racked up as a result of incinerator retrofits under former Mayor Stephen R. Reed added to a tower of existing municipal debt from under which the city is still trying to extract itself.

City residents, and those who travel and work in the capital, have felt the pain of that obligation most noticeably in increased parking fees in downtown Harrisburg.

The announcement by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Thursday ended the criminal investigation and revealed new details about the incinerator financing.

And while the criminal case is over, civil claims related to the incinerator are still very much alive and working their way through the courts.

Favorable decisions there could recover some of the losses incurred by both the city and Dauphin County, which guaranteed much of Harrisburg’s debt.

The bigger question is whether, now that the criminal case has apparently been settled, factions within the city that have spent years nursing grudges and traded recriminations over the debt, can finally put them aside.

Because if Harrisburg’s political class can boast of one virtue above all others, it can boast of an exceptionally long memory, granting it the ability to preserve grievances and to remember slights over long decades.

And while stubbornness and toughness of spirit can be a virtue, it can also be an impediment, blocking progress and frightening good people out of public service, even as a permanent ruling class of leaders retains control.

The end of the Reed era, followed by the bumpy interregnum of Linda Thompson and the eventual election of Eric Papenfuse as mayor, were good steps toward changing those habits.

And with the rebirth of Midtown and increasing signs of vibrancy in Allison Hill (which nonetheless remains plagued by its own, particular challenges), there are signs that the city is finally turning the corner.

State lawmakers who represent the city can do their part by taking Shapiro’s recommendations to heart and by pursuing the changes he recommends in his grand jury report.

The record, admittedly, in such instances is poor.

Despite a grand jury report recommending that local police, rather than school administrators, investigate allegations of sexual abuse, the latter rather than the former, remains common practice, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in 2015.

That cannot be allowed to repeat itself in Harrisburg’s case. Too much is at stake.

__ PennLive, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania





Ambulance companies exist to help those in dire need of medical attention.

Now, they’re in dire need of a financial remedy. And with the number of local ambulance companies down to 17 - compared to 36 two decades ago - and Lancaster County’s population expanding, we need lawmakers and county residents to heed this alarm.

As LNP reported Wednesday, the largest ambulance service in the county - the nonprofit Lancaster EMS - wrote off $1.6 million in unpaid bills in 2016.

It has sought to recover that money from fees, but has only managed to collect 52 percent of what it’s owed.

Something has to give.

Dean Bollendorf, president of the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania, told LNP that there are “some emergency ambulance services that won’t be here in the next six months.”

Access to ambulance services isn’t a frill - it’s a lifesaving essential, as anyone who’s ever had to summon an ambulance knows.

So what to do?

It’s going to take time to see any abatement in the heroin epidemic, so ambulance companies can expect to have to continue buying Narcan - the overdose antidote - in great quantities.

It would help if pharmaceutical companies stopped raising the price of that vital antidote.

But that would only be a partial solution to the financial woes of local ambulance companies.

Some of them have chosen to merge, which has enabled them to pool resources to buy expensive equipment (a single ambulance can cost around $150,000).

But the greater problem lays in the federal Medicaid reimbursement rates, which haven’t increased since 2004.

An average call costs Lancaster EMS $350, but it is reimbursed only $200 by Medicaid.

Additionally, some insurance plans have high-deductibles for ambulance service. So someone will use the service, get a bill for the cost of the deductible, and simply choose not to pay it.

And then there’s the lack of compensation when a call doesn’t result in hospitalization.

“If we go to assist someone, let’s say if they fell out of bed or they need assistance in some way and we don’t take them to the hospital, we don’t get paid,” Lancaster EMS executive director Bob May told LNP.

This is a complicated issue that isn’t going to be resolved easily.

We’d like to see our local state lawmakers consider how the state Legislature might act to offer relief to ambulance companies.

We’d also urge the Lancaster County commissioners to consider dedicating funds to emergency services.

Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons noted in an email that the county does provide logistical support through the Lancaster County Public Safety Training Center. He said he’s been spending time “meeting with fire service and EMS groups to better understand their challenges.”

There are “ongoing discussions in the community” about what the future holds for both EMS and fire companies, and “what direction is best to ensure sustainability,” Parsons said.

We’re glad these discussions are taking place. We just hope they lead to some sort of tangible results.

In the U.S. Senate, a bill - S.967 - seeks to amend the Social Security Act to increase access to ambulance services under the Medicare program and to reform payments for such services. It’s been referred to the Senate Finance Committee, on which our own Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr. serve.

If they, or their staff members, haven’t yet read the LNP/LancasterOnline story about the plight of ambulance companies here, we’d urge them to do so.

It makes for unsettling, but important, reading. Imagine calling for an ambulance and having no one respond.

That’s likely how those in charge of our struggling ambulance companies feel now.

__ LNP Newspaper, Lancaster, Pennsylvania





Student council news, reports of the most recent football or hockey game and profiles of a smiling new principal are likely topics in almost any high school newspaper.

But in Pittsburg, Kansas, six student reporters were not content merely to profile Amy Robertson, the new principal at Pittsburg High School. In fact, their story about her questionable credentials forced Robertson to resign her $93,000-a-year job barely a month after she was hired.

“She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted to be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials,” senior Trina Paul, an editor of the Booster Redux, the school newspaper, told The Kansas City (Mo.) Star, which has collected eight Pulitzer Prizes and spawned the career of Ernest Hemingway.

Maddie Baden, a junior, said she and her colleagues began snooping around after an online search linked Robertson’s name to a school in Dubai, where education authorities suspended the license of a school where Robertson was principal.

“That raised a red flag,” Baden told the Star. “If students could uncover all of this, I want to know why the adults couldn’t find this.”

She was referring to the fact that the university where Robertson got her master’s and doctoral degrees, Corllins University, was nothing more than a diploma mill. For a little cash, you could get an advanced degree.

Pittsburg Superintendent Destry Brown told the Star he was surprised that the students asked so many questions about Robertson’s credentials. They spent three weeks looking, digging and asking.

“The kids had never gone through someone like this before,” Brown told the Star. “I want our kids to have real-life experiences, whether it’s welding or journalism.”

We applaud the young reporters for their pluck, their tenacity and their commitment at such a young age to what journalism is supposed to do: make a difference. Just as a good speech should rouse the audience to take action, a good investigative story should force someone (or an entire government) to do what it hadn’t planned to do: Make a change, or do the right thing.

In the students’ case, they simply did their job. They asked questions and they didn’t stop until they got answers. A good prosecutor will follow the evidence wherever it leads. The sextet from Pittsburg kept asking questions. Nothing fancy, no unnecessary titles like “investigative journalists,” just a group of reporters doing what they’d been taught and finding gold.

That’s the job of every newspaper, even - or especially - when a public body like a school board says it has vetted the qualifications of, say, a new school superintendent. The local newspaper reporters shouldn’t just accept what the board says. They should ask to see the records the board uses to justify a vote on a new superintendent, then check independently, just like the students in Pittsburg.

This all unfurled just a week before this year’s Pulitzer Prizes were announced. Who knows? Maybe one day the plucky young journalists who graduate from Pittsburg High will find themselves included in the annual announcement about the best journalism has to offer.

__ Reading Eagle





Behind closed doors, without even a celebratory Tweet, Donald Trump two weeks ago signed a law that reversed an Obama administration order banning states from defunding Planned Parenthood. “Taxpayers should not be forced to fund abortion, plain and simple,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said.

As falsehoods go, that one is a hardy perennial. Here are the facts. Like other health providers, Planned Parenthood clinics provide cancer screenings, birth control, testing for and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, then apply for reimbursement, most often through Medicaid or Title X, the 47-year-old law that funds for family planning and other health services to millions of low-income women.

Notice what’s missing: abortion. Federal funding hasn’t gone to pay for abortions for decades.

Recently, Republicans have trotted out a newer falsehood: Women can easily get the Title X services they now get from Planned Parenthood from community health centers. That’s the apparent justification for a bill that passed the Pennsylvania Senate Finance Committee last week. At least we think that’s what its sponsor, John Eichelberger (R, Blair), was trying to say - if even he knew, since at one point he admitted he didn’t know what services Planned Parenthood provides.

The bill, SB300, doesn’t name Planned Parenthood, but the organization clearly is the legislation’s target. It establishes a hierarchy of health services organizations for the disbursal of funds that favors “primary care” hospitals and health centers. Organizations that specialize in women’s health services (that is, Planned Parenthood) are not on the list. It also says family planning funds may not go to organizations that also perform abortions.

So because Planned Parenthood specializes in women’s health services, it shouldn’t be allowed to provide women’s health services. So women should not be able to get family planning services at Planned Parenthood clinics because they can’t also get treatment there for allergies or diabetes. This is as nonsensical as it sounds.

It’s because Planned Parenthood specializes in women’s health that removing it as an option for these services would seriously endanger access for low-income women. Planned Parenthood is an integral part of the Commonwealth’s women’s health services network, serving 90,000 clients a year. That’s a potential increase of tens of thousands of more clients at primary care centers, which would almost certainly impact the number of patients they could see for other reasons. Cut several strings in the health care safety net and eventually it will give way.

The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health organization, has estimated that family planning centers in Pennsylvania prevented 52,800 unplanned pregnancies in 2014, which likely would have led to 19,000 more abortions. So reducing access to family planning services has real life consequences, as states like Texas and Kansas already have learned. When Texas slashed its family planning budget, it saw not only an increase in abortions but in maternal mortality rates. Unless we act, it could happen here too.

__Philadelphia Daily News



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