- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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QUIRK IN PENNSYLVANIA RESTITUTION LAW PROTECTS EMBEZZLERS

April 22

What would $832,000 buy for the taxpayers of Bethlehem Township?

How would the First Presbyterian Church of Easton use a $362,000 infusion of cash?

These aren’t hypothetical questions. Those amounts represent documented thefts of money from the township and the church, and although justice has been served in one sense - the responsible parties were convicted and sent to jail - Bethlehem Township and First Presbyterian could still lose out on court-ordered restitution. According to recent a recent state court ruling, they have no legal standing to recoup their losses.

In 2016 the Pennsylvania Superior Court decided that only a “person” may be reimbursed for losses resulting from a crime. That narrow interpretation of the law not only cheats government entities and potentially nonprofit organizations victimized by thieves and embezzlers, but erases a critical part of one’s “debt to society” - making good on what you took.

The Superior Court ruling gave a free pass to former House Whip Michael Veon, a Democrat who defrauded state agencies of $136,000 in the Bonusgate scandal. A similar ruling wiped out the $1 million payback imposed on Republican operative Brian Preski, convicted of using taxpayer money for GOP campaign business in the Computergate scandal.

The reprieves weren’t limited to corrupt power brokers. One was extended to one of the two men who left Bethlehem Township high and dry on an $832,000 street light contract. Robert Kearns, who’s serving a jail term in Northampton County, appealed his restitution order and won. His partner, Patrick McLaine, is expected to be freed of his share if he appeals, leaving the township with a bad debt.

The theft from First Presbyterian Church of Easton was crippling to the institution and its community programs. Former treasurer Ann Marie Ballentine admitted she stole $362,000 over several years. She was sentenced to a minimum of nine months in jail. She applied to Northampton County Court to be released from her restitution order and was denied, but that might not be the last word in the case.

Do government pilferers deserve longer prison sentences? No argument here.

Should nonprofits do a better job of protecting their bank accounts? Undoubtedly, in many cases.

Still, this problem needs a legislative fix. Charitable organizations and tax-supported agencies are no less victimized than individuals when they are defrauded and sucked dry.

The Pennsylvania Legislature is sitting on a reform measure at the moment. We join Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli in asking why. Why is a relatively easy remedy - a phrase in the restitution law - lingering in a committee?

It’s a given that a small percentage of people in positions of trust will steal money, simply because they can. If the worst fate that befalls them is a jail term measured in months - with no payback - where’s the deterrence? And the idea that their victims should, whenever possible, be made whole?

- Easton Express Times

- Online: https://bit.ly/2HPNBga

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APPROVE CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM BILLS

April 23

Late last month, Gov. Tom Wolf, joined by his Democratic allies in the state House and Senate, rolled out a comprehensive suite of reforms aimed at restoring public trust in the electoral process and to limit the influence of special interests in state politics.

Included among them was a proposal to fix Pennsylvania’s broken campaign finance system.

“To rebuild trust in Harrisburg, we must have fair and accessible elections for all citizens from our rural communities to our big cities,” Wolf said in a statement. “These reforms have been championed by House and Senate Democrats to modernize our voting laws and put the people of Pennsylvania back in control of our elections. It’s time to remove barriers to voting, end gerrymandering, and curb special interests.”

Plans would permit election-day registration, redistricting reforms, and campaign finance reforms. Legislative action is needed.

If you’re having trouble remembering that announcement, take heart, you’re not the only one. After receiving a bit of attention at the time, the reforms Wolf floated were promptly swallowed by the legislative machine.

With Pennsylvania’s primary elections now little more than three weeks away, these proposals are worth revisiting.

These campaign finance reform bills sponsored by the Democratic floor leaders in the state House and Senate, would finally inject some sanity into Pennsylvania’s laughably porous existing laws.

Right now, it’s open season in Pennsylvania for deep-pocketed donors and special interests. There are no contribution limits. And only direct corporate contributions are banned - though there are plenty of ways for corporate America to work their way around that.

The House bill, sponsored by Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, would, among other things, impose hard caps on contributions.

They are:

$1,500 per election to House and Senate candidates

$5,000 per election to statewide candidates

$10,000 per election to House and Senate candidates from PACs

$10,000 per election to PAC’s from political parties

$250,000 aggregate limit per election for House and Senate candidates

$1,000,000 aggregate limit per election for statewide candidates

$5,000,000 aggregate limit per election for governor

The bill would also require so-called groups that make uncoordinated expenditures on behalf of candidates and campaigns to disclose those contributions.

Similar requirements are now in place in Connecticut and Maryland, Dermody wrote in a “Dear Colleague” memo seeking support for his proposal.

Separate legislation, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, would limit election expenditures to “the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election, to expenses directly and exclusively incurred for the campaign in which the candidate is running in the contemporaneous election cycle and not for any personal purpose. The legislation also addresses acceptance of campaign contributions from out-of-state committees.”

Costa’s bill would similarly crack down on independent expenditure groups, and would, like Dermody’s proposal, require corporations to notify shareholders when political expenditures (through political action committees) are made on their behalf. The bills also would require companies to seek shareholder permission for contributions of $10,000 or more.

The proposals by the two Democrats hardly reinvent the wheel. Campaign finance reform proposals have been making the rounds under the Capitol dome for decades.

Yet lawmakers, who are unwilling to choke off the precious flow of campaign cash, have proven almost congenitally incapable of passing them.

And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so easy to stand up and call for reform. Knowing full well they’ll go nowhere, there’s zero political risk, but everything to gain.

It’s also one of the reasons why Pennsylvania scored an “F” for campaign finance, finishing 43rd in the nation, on a 2015 report card put together by the watchdog Center for Public Integrity.

Meanwhile, until or unless something changes, politics in Pennsylvania is increasingly becoming a rich man’s (or woman’s) game.

Two of the three Republican candidates for governor, both independently wealthy, have dug deep into their own pockets to fund their campaigns. Wolf, similarly, is sitting on a $14.7 million war chest as he revs up his re-election machinery.

Given Pennsylvania’s historic allergy to political reform, the Keystone State is unlikely to embrace the public financing options that are in place in more than two dozen states, counties and municipalities across the country.

But lawmakers can at least begin the conversation by bringing Costa’s and Dermody’s bills to the floor of their respective chambers to a vote.

That would force lawmakers to go on record to show where they stand on the pervasive - and often pernicious - influence of big money on our politics.

Frankly, this is what the voters deserve, and nothing less.

- PennLive.com

- Online: https://bit.ly/2vLGPTG

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BEST ROUTE TO BOOST AMERICAN EXPORTS

April 23

As he entered office, President Donald Trump failed to recognize the value of the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a free trade agreement among 14 Pacific Rim nations that had been negotiated by the Obama administration - as a check against Chinese trade dominance.

Trump, claiming that the deal was a job-stealing giveaway to foreign interests, withdrew the United States from the pact within days of taking office.

A year later, lamenting a major trade imbalance with China, Trump established tariffs that put the two countries on the brink of a trade war that invites recession and will do nothing to thwart Chinese global trade growth.

After the U.S. withdrawal, the remaining TPP partners decided to proceed, calling the pact the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It includes U.S. allies Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, a market of more than 500 million. With the United States, it would be a market of nearly 850 million including about 40 percent of global commerce.

The agreement includes environmental and labor standards higher than many signatories would achieve on their own, and would eliminate or reduce billions of dollars in tariffs on current U.S. exports to many of those countries.

Trade expansion among compatible markets, rather than trade restriction through job-killing tariffs, is the best route to boost American exports. Trump should get the United States back in the game.

- The Citizens’ Voice

- Online: https://bit.ly/2HtTMqH

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ON GUN LAWS, LEGISLATURE IS WAFFLE HOUSE

April 25

State legislators characteristically did nothing in 2012 after John Walton, of Butler Twp., Luzerne County, retrieved a gun that a court had ordered him to surrender and used the weapon to kill his estranged wife and himself.

Under state law, Walton was allowed to surrender the gun to his brother, Donald, after John Walton’s wife, Stacy, had obtained a protection from abuse order against him.

After Stacy Walton withdrew the PFA, John Walton retrieved the weapon from his brother, violating a portion of the law that requires the court to issue an order clearing the return of a weapon under such circumstances.

Donald Walton later pleaded guilty to returning the gun without the court’s permission and was sentenced to 42 months of probation.

If all of this sounds familiar it’s because it mirrors the situation in Nashville, Tennessee, regarding the recent mass murder at a Waffle House restaurant. Alleged mass murderer Travis Reinking, who had been ordered by a court to relinquish his weapon after breaching a barrier at the White House, was allowed to turn it over to his father. Police in Nashville say Reinking’s father returned to his son the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that was used in the shootings.

State Rep. Tom Killion, a Chester County Republican, has introduced a bill to change the law for the better, but even that should be improved before the Legislature votes. It would require someone under a protection order to turn over weapons to police or a licensed gun dealer, rather than to a family member, within 48 hours rather than the current law’s 60 days.

Killion should change the bill to allow only police to hold the weapons under the court order. And the window to turn over the guns should be reduced from 48 hours to immediately.

Another bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf and Republican state Rep. Todd Stephens, both of Montgomery County, would create “extreme risk protection orders” that would allow a court to seize the weapons of someone who exhibits extreme threatening behavior. That was the case of Nicholas Cruz, who allegedly killed 17 people Feb. 14 at a Florida high school.

Lawmakers should act quickly to given meaning to protection orders. Prosecuting someone later for prematurely returning a gun to a killer does nothing for the victims.

- The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

- Online: https://bit.ly/2FgfEjs

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CORPORATIONS CAN FILL GIVING GAP

April 22

We hope corporations will take some of the money they’re getting from changes in federal tax laws and fill a potential loss in charitable giving by individuals.

Under the change, it requires a significantly higher total of itemized deductions to earn a break on federal income tax. Taxpayers who donate cash or qualified materials have been rewarded, if you will, for their generosity. Of course, the new tax code does just about double the standard deduction, which is likely to push many taxpayers away from itemized deductions.

In December, the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Foundation forecast that the new tax law could cause a 5 percent drop in donations.

That would amount to about $60 million in the region, where in 2015 there was about $1.2 billion donated.

The head of the region’s United Way says, four months in, it’s too early to gauge the effect.

The New Kensington-based Habitat for Humanity Allegheny Valley says there’s been a small decline in donations.

But its leader is hoping that what the nonprofit loses from individuals will be picked up by corporations now that the corporate income tax has been slashed.

We do, too.

An expert at Robert Morris University on nonprofit organizations says the tax law change will potentially have an effect on the wealthy, but Professor Peggy Outon says most donations come from people who don’t itemize.

“All of the rest of us tend to support nonprofits because of their cause, not because of the tax law.”

- The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

- https://bit.ly/2Hr1q5n


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