- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:



Owners of some federally subsidized housing across the United States are undoubtedly deeply upset about a new rule put in place by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Even the executive director of the Altoona Housing Authority considers the rule “extreme,” although the local public housing agency, because of good management, is free of most of the big, nagging problems with which many similar agencies across the country routinely deal.

The new rule, which shortens the notice regarding upcoming HUD inspections of properties receiving subsidies, applies to private subsidized housing as well.

HUD’s new thinking is not, in fact, an unfair imposition. In Pennsylvania and nationally, the potential benefits of the new rule outweigh the challenges that it will pose for those subsidized-housing owners who do not operate with the high standards that the local agency strives to maintain on a consistent basis.

Because of the local agency’s commitment to excellence, day in and day out, it is to be presumed that the authority won’t be hard-pressed in getting good “grades” under the new federal provision.

Even if there is an occasional glitch, tenants stand to benefit in the end. That’s important, because the well-being of tenants is the basic foundation upon which public housing is intended to operate.

The new rule announced by HUD Secretary Ben Carson stipulates that, going forward, subsidized-housing owners will get only 14 days of lead time before HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center inspections, which take place every one, two or three years, depending on scores of prior inspections.

Up to Sunday, when the new rule took effect, owners had received up to 120 days of notice.

Obviously, the longer lead time provided owners with more time to correct deficiencies, thus improving their chances of receiving a high inspection score. The new rule is an incentive to correct problems more quickly and to discourage allowing problems to multiply.

Carson was correct in his observation that the long-notice period provided the opportunity for many housing owners to make “quick fixes, essentially gaming the system.”

Even with notice of only 14 days, subsidized-housing owners will not face the same degree of pressure under which Pennsylvania restaurants and others that deal with food service have to operate because of the unannounced inspections to which they are subject.

All tenants deserve to have problems in their residences addressed quickly, rather than having to cope with problems for an inordinate length of time.

As an article in Sunday’s Mirror reported, Jim Stephens, director of maintenance operations and modernization for the Altoona authority, suggested the possibility of an ulterior HUD motive for implementing the change.

He said HUD would save money because shorter notices will make it more difficult for authorities to earn bonus capital funding by becoming “high performers” like Altoona.

Hopefully the HUD notice-time change really is based on what Carson indicated, rather than preventing additional federal subsidy outlays.

Such an attitude could be deemed irresponsible.

Consistently, the Altoona Housing Authority performs commendably regarding maintenance of its units. Other authorities and private owners should work as hard.

This new HUD idea is good and overdue.

__ The Altoona Mirror

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2HWfymQ



As Lt. Gov. John Fetterman takes his “statewide listening tour” on the subject of legalizing recreational marijuana through Blair, Indiana and six other counties in the coming weeks, we urge our leaders in Harrisburg to avoid acting in haste on such an important issue.

There are far too many people making sound arguments against legalized recreational cannabis for Pennsylvania to rush recklessly into a legislative decision.

A couple of months ago, the momentum seemed to be fully with legalization. But the winds of public sentiment have been shifting of late.

Locally, leaders with the Cambria County Drug Task Force say legalizing pot for everyday use would run contrary to that organization’s mission of reducing the use of drugs that can lead to addictive behaviors and the use of more harmful narcotics, such as heroin.

The state Fraternal Order of Police recently went public with its opposition to legalization, with President Les Neri calling marijuana “a dangerous drug that poses a real threat to public safety and public health and strongly opposes any efforts of legalization at the state or local level,” as our John Finnerty reported from Harrisburg.

The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry has not taken a position on the issue, but reported that its members believe the state is moving too fast toward legalization of the drug for recreational purposes - having just approved marijuana for medicinal purposes last year.

We agree, and urge Fetterman, Gov. Tom Wolf and the General Assembly to tap the brakes and await more data on how the issue is playing out elsewhere.

Recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, California, Michigan, Vermont and six other states as well as the District of Columbia.

In February, a bill that would ease restrictions on adult use of marijuana was introduced in the Pennsylvania House, Finnerty reported, while state Sens. Daylin Leach, D-Delaware County, and Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia County, say they plan a similar measure soon in the Senate.

Fetterman has made numerous stops in his statewide tour, which he says is simply to “gather input” on the possibility of moving forward with legalized recreational pot.

He found a favorable audience in Cambria County and met opposition in Somerset County.

“I would peg this room at 50-50 in terms of pro or con,” Fetterman said March 7 at North Star High School in Boswell. “Every other county, of the 14 or 15 other stops we’ve done, has been unambiguously pro by varying degrees.”

Fetterman said the Somerset County response “represents the lowest level of support” for legalization he had seen to that point.

Pennsylvania is one of 33 states that have approved the use of medical marijuana for treating conditions such as epilepsy.

Even that step has caused problems for employers, schools, courtrooms and prisons - who must make decisions about how to handle the use of a narcotic that is legal per the state but illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

As our Jocelyn Brumbaugh reports Sunday, Cambria County has seen individuals on prescription marijuana fail drug tests that represent violations of probation or other restrictive situations.

Cambria requires that those with medical marijuana cards also show approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Health Office of Medical Marijuana including forms completed by their physicians.

Individuals on probation are required to notify their probation officers and then go before the court for approval if they have been prescribed medical marijuana treatment.

President Judge Norman Krumenacker III said: “We’re trying to make sure we’re doing the best we can given the confusion in the law.”

A medical marijuana production facility - Hanging Gardens LLC - is being developed in Johnstown and two distribution sites have been approved in the city.

However, Krumenacker points out, “Technically, marijuana - even in its medical form - is still a violation of the federal law.”

Employers face similar uncertainties, especially those who hire individuals for federally mandated drug-free locations and positions. Generally, individuals may not be denied employment or terminated because of legal medical use, but can be denied certain opportunities - such as commercial truck driving - that are off limits for those who have positive drug tests, due to safety concerns.

Krumenacker called for federal legislation to help sort out the problems states are facing.

The issues linked to medical cannabis provide yet another argument for a deliberate process for considering recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania.

There’s no need to rush this decision.

Fetterman has eight more sessions on his immediate schedule, including two in our region:

- Blair County: 2-3:30 p.m., Sunday, April 14, at AFSCME Chapter 89, 161 Patchway Road, Duncansville.

- Indiana County: 5:30-7 p.m., Sunday, April 14, Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Conference, 711 Pratt Drive, Indiana.

We urge those with strong opinions about this issue - supportive of recreational marijuana or opposed - to attend one of these sessions, even if living outside those counties.

And we urge our state lawmakers to join Fetterman in seeking constituent feedback while educating themselves on the potential benefits and problems associated with legalizing recreational marijuana.

Only then can we make an informed and appropriate decision.

__ The Tribune-Democrat

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2IbBGc3



Does anyone answer the phone anymore? Even with caller ID? Even with the alleged firewall of a “Do Not Call” registration? Even with blockers offered by service providers or third parties?

The proliferation of robocalls and scam calls in the United States has long passed the level of mere annoyance. The unwanted invasions are a drag on the economy as well as an assault on one’s privacy and mental health. They’re also a PR problem for telemarketing firms that operate within the law.

Automated calls that circumvent restrictions and calls that seek to defraud are crimes. They go unpunished, for the most part. Stated simply, scammers are able to stay several steps ahead of government regulators, or far removed in overseas havens.

Sarah Frasch, Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection, testified recently that 17.7 billion of the estimated 47.8 billion robocalls made in the U.S. in 2018 were scams - calls seeking to con people on health insurance, credit card offers, student loans, IRS collections, vehicle warranties, bogus veterans charities and the like.

The Federal Communications Commission received 4.5 million illegal robocall complaints in 2017, nearly tripling in three years. This is clearly a growth industry. Some experts say Americans will be besieged with more than 50 billion such calls this year.

So what can be done? Americans need a combination of public sector regulation and private sector technology to combat this inundation. Most counter-measures have been as effective as fly swatters against a plague of locusts.

Landlines have been reduced to voicemail filters for repetitive robocalls. Cell phones are becoming equally susceptible.

The Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing March 21 to air the possibilities. Frasch, of the Consumer Protection office, told legislators most attempts at regulation fall short because perpetrators are able to switch tactics and numbers easily. Many operate outside the U.S., beyond the reach of law enforcement.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, has introduced a bill to require callers give recipients an easy opt-out from future calls, and to prohibit such calls on holidays. The bill targets deceptive technology that enables telemarketers to mimic local phone numbers, a practice known as spoofing. The state House of Representatives adopted a similar bill last month.

Last year the attorneys general of New Jersey and Pennsylvania joined colleagues from other states in asking the Federal Communications Commission to empower phone service providers to work together to block spoofed calls.

There’s only so much legislatures and state consumer enforcers can do. The FCC should be taking this battle to the trenches, requiring service providers to allow customers to block unwanted calls - and shutting down telemarketers if they don’t offer people an invitation to opt out.

One attempt in this direction is being readied by Comcast and AT&T, called STIR/SHAKEN, which is designed to block spoofing. We’ll see what effect it has when it is introduced later this year.

We need a coordinated public-private counterattack. Workplace productivity suffers from constant interruptions. The sanctity of the home is under attack. Some people, including many seniors, don’t know how to separate fact from fiction on the telephone. They shouldn’t have to wade through this garbage several times a day.

This year half of all cell calls are expected to be spam robocalls. Government regulators and service providers should spend at least half as much energy and ingenuity as the impostors do in disrupting our lives and businesses.

__ The Easton Express Times

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2WLq1oK



How could any responsible person oppose a measure that might prevent a school shooting? When framed that way, the decision of the Philadelphia Board of Education to require all district high schools to use metal detectors doesn’t seem controversial. The fact that the students whom the metal detectors are intended to protect protested the decision illustrates the conundrum that our age of unspeakable violence has created.

Last week, the Philadelphia Board of Education voted to require that all schools use metal detectors. While all 49 high schools in the Philadelphia school district have metal detectors, three don’t actively use them. The Science Leadership Academy, one of the city’s most reputable magnet schools, is one of these three. SLA is moving from Center City to an unused part of the Ben Franklin school on North Broad. The board wanted to set a standard to prevent a situation in which after the SLA move, students in the same facility would be treated differently - with some required to go through a metal detector and some not.

Student activists, on the other hand, argue that metal detectors erode the trust between schools and students. Because the students themselves are usually the ones being screened, they say that installing metal detectors signal that they are viewed as threats. The two nonvoting student members of the board opposed the decision.

There isn’t a lot of research about the positive or negative safety or social effects of metal detectors in schools. A review of the evidence published in the journal of the American School Health Association found mixed results. While one study did find that fewer students carry weapons to schools that do use metal detectors than schools that do not, that reduction did not translate to less violence in schools.

The sad fact is that metal detectors won’t prevent the most frequent form of violence in schools, such as bullying. Some experts believe that they also are unlikely to prevent the most severe, such as a mass shooting. If someone with a semi-automatic weapon is motivated to shoot up a school, the students in line for the metal detector and the operator would likely be the first victims. It’s impossible to know what the outcome would have been if places like Newtown, Connecticut, or Parkland, Florida, had metal detectors, but detectors might have slowed down the path of destruction.

Everytown for Gun Safety has tracked at least 431 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in the past six years.

Metal detectors, like body scanners in airports and other more intrusive forms of security monitoring, are ugly reminders that something is terribly wrong - making them terribly necessary.

But as long as there are metal detectors in school, all students should be treated equally - magnet or not. The ultimate goal, though, must be to make metal detectors in schools obsolete. That would require interventions, such as addressing the behavioral needs of students. It would also require Harrisburg to enact gun-control measures. Until then, we will continue spending education dollars on security measures, not books.

__ The Philadelphia Inquirer

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2HWZTDE



Many of the men who toiled until they could toil no more in some of the worst American working conditions to power this country - coal miners - won’t live to see their grandchildren or even their own children reach adulthood because of their exposure to coal dust and the disease that results: pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.

This breath-taking illness leaves its victims disabled and in need of medical treatment that costs tens of thousands of dollars annually per person. That’s why the federal government established a fund, paid for by an excise tax on coal, in 1978.

The fund is running dry because of inaction by Congress and the Trump administration.

A tax on coal that sets the revenue stream for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was cut by about half on Jan 1. It saves coal operators lots of money - hundreds of millions a year - and at the same time threatens the very existence of some 25,000 people who need it (a number that is expected to grow, as more miners are getting the disease at younger ages and after far less time in the mines). Federal budget officials estimate that by mid-2020, there won’t be enough money to fully cover the fund’s benefit payments.

It’s a betrayal. President Donald Trump, who promised during his 2016 campaign to save the coal industry, repeatedly has praised coal miners as “great people. Brave people.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky is a top-five coal producer, and he had promised publicly in late 2018 that the excise tax rate would be maintained.

Our federal leaders must come together, and quickly, to ensure restoration of necessary funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund before it dies a slow death - like many of its recipients will. Black lung damages the lungs (sometimes after just five years or so in the mines). This causes the heart to work harder. In sum, victims die of respiratory or heart failure. There’s no cure but there are - costly - treatments to prolong life and improve its quality.

This issue is especially important for Pennsylvania as it is on the top-five list of U.S. coal producers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The coal industry should redirect some of the political contributions it made to our nation’s elected officials - including the president and Mr. McConnell - to the Black Lung Fund. But, let’s get real: That won’t happen. That’s why the tax on coal must be restored at least to its 2018 levels. The 2018 excise tax rate was $1.10 per ton on underground coal and 55 cents on surface-mined coal. Together, the excise tax yielded $450 million. Rates fell to about 50 cents and 25 cents, respectively, when lawmakers didn’t extend a Dec. 31 expiration date.

The fund provides health benefits and disability payments to about 25,000 retired miners, most of whom worked for companies that now are bankrupt. The mining industry loves the lower rate and says that restoring it to 2018 levels will lead to job losses.

So long as the U.S. chooses to derive some 25 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, its got to be willing to protect the workers who give their lives to the effort.

__ The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2FWWnHr

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