- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:

Deter online wrongdoers: Federal Trade Commission needs stiffer penalties for bogus online reviews

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dec. 10

Federal regulators took woefully inadequate action recently on fake online reviews of a consumer product. Such action should be more aggressive and tougher.



The Federal Trade Commission accused Houston-based Sunday Riley Skincare of directing the posting of glowing online reviews of its products on the website of Sephora. The leader of the beauty products maker instructed her employees to do so, and then used technology to hide the IP addresses of the posters to mask that employees were writing the four- and five-star reviews.

The FTC’s settlement put an end to the bogus review posting but imposed no financial penalties. Two commission members objected, with one saying the settlement was unlikely to deter other would-be wrongdoers.

True.

Even an increase of one star in a rating on Amazon.com gives a big jump to sales. That cha-ching is what entices manufacturers and distributors to consider such shady dealings.

Reviews are available on nearly every product website, and frequently are examined by would-be buyers. Fake reviews are unfair and can be dangerous to the unsuspecting public.

In the Sunday Riley case, the brazenness is jolting. Ms. Riley, the chief executive, sent an email to her staff to post reviews, saying in part: “Make sure to NOT compare the product to other products, to not use foul language and to be very enthusiastic without looking like a plant.”

The FTC found multiple fake reviews, going on for years, but its settlement with Sunday Riley called for the practice to end but no fines. If the company posts further fake reviews, civil penalties will kick in.

Retailers have an obligation to monitor product reviews on their websites. Some companies remove those that aren’t signed by a verified customer. Amazon said it prevented more than 13 million bogus reviews on its website last year.

Self-policing is fine, but federal regulators should step up their game.

The FTC should take online commerce seriously to protect the public and to punish the cheaters. That means implementing sanctions.

Online: https://bit.ly/2RTtkuT

___

State can’t hide its deficit as ‘structural’

Altoona Mirror

Dec. 8

A couple of months from now, when Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his 2020-21 budget address to the Legislature, as the General Assembly is beginning preparations to launch its annual budget-preparation exercise, Pennsylvania residents again will be hearing terms such as “incoming revenues, expenditures, supplemental appropriations” and “fiscal estimates.”

Those are among the most recognizable budget-time terms, along with the troubling word “deficit.”

Webster’s dictionary defines “deficit” as “an excess of expenditure over revenue.” But this state, for years, has been living with a shortfall dubbed “structural deficit.”

Although lawmakers pass a budget every year that purportedly is balanced, tucked away somewhere inside is a structural shortfall that has defied resolution, for the most part, due to what Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Baer on March 19, 2017, described as “gutless governing that annually punts.”

Rather than implementing tough, honest strategies for resolving that deficit, the Legislature routinely shifts funds within the state’s “fiscal house,” perhaps even consciously opting to overestimate some projected income.

Baer used the description “phony onetime revenues, some that never happen,” to help present his opinion. Based on what has happened on the state budget front over the past decade or so, the description is one that many state residents who have followed the divisive budget exercises of the past still can appreciate for the message it delivers.

Pennsylvania has one of the lowest credit ratings among the 50 states; that isn’t because it has handled budget challenges correctly.

In the Dec. 1 Mirror, Capitolwire reported that “despite decent - and in some cases robust - revenue collections and projections, Pennsylvania’s structural deficit remains, and the state’s increased spending appetite isn’t making budgeting easier.”

Capitolwire went on to say, “for FY2020-21, expenditures are projected to increase by

4.8 percent, which incorporates all currently assumed supplemental appropriations that will be needed for the current fiscal year.

“Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration requested nearly $750 million in supplemental appropriations to balance the FY2018-19 state budget, though state revenues were more than $800 million in excess of estimate, allowing excess revenues to account for the supplementals.”

Even people not experts in governmental fiscal management can grasp the message that if the state is using all higher-than-anticipated revenue collections just to pay for extra spending, it isn’t attacking the nagging structural-deficit problem effectively or at all.

In November 2016, the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office issued a five-year projection dealing with the health of the state’s economy and budget. That projection made the point that if the state didn’t rein in spending, experience an uptick in incoming revenue or both, a deficit of $3 billion might exist by Fiscal Year 2021-22.

However, like 2018-19, incoming revenues during this 2019-20 fiscal year have been exceeding predictions, leading to reports over the past month or so that the structural deficit will be in the $1 billion range, perhaps a bit higher, but not like dire speculations of three years ago.

As state budget work gets underway in a couple of months, pay attention to the numbers associated with estimates, revenue collected, expenditures and appropriations. Also, pay attention to any mention of “structural deficit.”

That term is a big window into the state’s true fiscal health.

Online: https://bit.ly/2sh95wk

___

State must address transportation woes

Reading Eagle

Dec. 6

Pennsylvania is notorious for many things. Near the top of that list of shortcomings is transportation. Failures in that regard affect our everyday lives and our future prosperity.

The litany of complaints as outlined in a legislative task force report, “Build to Lead” comprise a transportation crisis of “crumbling roads, failing bridges, aging rail cars and buses along with hours of time wasted on congested highways and inner-city gridlock.”

According to an analysis of the report by MediaNews Group staff writer Evan Brandt, efforts to address those problems have come up short. The highest gas tax in the nation meant to fund $2.1 billion in highway and bridge construction and maintenance has not produced the promised results. One of the reasons, according to the report, is that funding is being diverted to pay for state police. Many municipalities rely on troopers rather than providing police service of their own.

State auditors estimate that about $4.5 billion was diverted from the state’s Motor License Fund to the state police since fiscal year 2012-13. Currently, an estimated $1.25 billion or 65% of the state police budget is paid for with nearly one-third of the entire Motor License Fund, Brandt wrote.

As a result, only 27 percent of PennDOT’s projects in 2017 were completed, according to Auditor General Eugene Pasquale. Projects important to communities are being put on hold. The Keim Street bridge that connects Pottstown and North Coventry Township has been closed for 10 years, much to the chagrin of local residents. In Berks County, a $600 million plan to upgrade the Route 422 corridor is being scaled back to a single project: the $35 million replacement of a bridge over the Schuylkill River and ramp reconfiguration at the Interstate 176 interchange.

This is about more than frustrated motorists being stuck in traffic. The legislators who wrote the report took in the big picture: Failure to repair and upgrade roads and bridges and pursue options such as rail threatens economic growth and the commonwealth’s future prosperity.

“Pennsylvania’s transportation system has fallen into an alarming state of disrepair and is in critical need of new funding. With today’s growing economy placing increased demands on our infrastructure, we must rise to meet the needs of families and businesses across the Commonwealth,” wrote the 10 legislators who authored the report.

Among its recommendations are expanding passenger rail and giving counties and cities the ability and authority to create local funding solutions and public/private partnerships to expedite construction projects.

Central to this is a dedicated source of funding. Inadequate funding and the diversion of transportation funding to the state police has increased the backlog of work, according to the report.

Pennsylvania and its cities also lag the rest of the nation in transit improvements. A rail connection of some kind between Reading and Philadelphia was among the projects the report’s authors said should get further consideration, Brandt reported, highlighting a longstanding item on the wish list of every revitalization analysis done for the region in the past 20 years.

The “Build to Lead” report makes several recommendations for the Legislature to increase the pace and scope of transportation improvements.

Among those recommendations are increasing public/private partnerships to leverage funding for projects; updating design standards and expediting permits to encourage cost savings; giving cities and counties authority to implement local solutions, similar to the $5 vehicle registration fee Montgomery County implemented to raise money for infrastructure work.

These ideas come in the spirit of building a transportation system to lead Pennsylvania into the future. At stake is not just the well-being of today’s commuters. The future economy depends on moving people and goods efficiently from one place to another. It’s time to move Pennsylvania up on the list of results toward a brighter, faster, less congested tomorrow.

Online: https://bit.ly/2PFauVz

___

More work needed before probation reform bill can be celebrated as reform

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Dec. 11

The Judiciary Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives advanced a bill to reform the state’s probation system on Tuesday. The bill was the result of months of bipartisan work and advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle.

Probation reform is long overdue. Often thought of as a more lenient punishment than incarceration, probation - supervision instead of incarceration - often traps people, mostly black and brown, in never-ending sentences by imposing strict conditions that can criminalize poverty, addiction, and mental illness. A recent Inquirer investigation shows that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians are under supervision in any given day. People on probation often find themselves in jail or having their sentences prolonged because of “technical violations,” such as missing a meeting because they could not find child care.

To address the issue of extended probation, H.B. 1555 - a bipartisan effort led by State Reps. Sheryl M. Delozier (R., Cumberland) and Jordan Harris (D., Phila.) - originally capped the period of probation for misdemeanors at two years and five years for felonies. It further prohibited judges from imposing consecutive probation sentences and applied these changes retroactively.

These reforms are no longer included in the bill advanced by the committee.

Instead of caps, the newly amended bill creates a mandatory review process after three years for misdemeanors and five for felonies. According to Harris, after that, there is a “presumption of termination.” Unless a judge can articulate a reason not to terminate supervision, probation ends. That is different from a cap, especially considering that to earn a review, the person under supervision needs to be free of any technical violations for 18 months. Further, any financial restitution must have been paid in full to terminate supervision without regard to ability to pay - which could further trap poor people in prolonged punishment.

The horror stories from the Pennsylvania probation system suggest that the parameters that the bill outlines could bar many people from a presumption of termination.

The most concerning part of the amendment is not what it took out, but what it added. The amended bill allows judges to give probation officers of people convicted gun offenses, sex crimes, and trafficking large amounts of drugs the power to conduct searches without a warrant or reasonable suspicion - a practice that the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania contends would be unconstitutional. Further, the amended bill allows judges to decide on their own volition that as part of the terms of probation, the person can no longer use a prescription medication of any kind. That would include medication for opioid-use disorder, such as methadone and buprenorphine; that is problematic, considering that despite proven efficacy, some judges view these treatments as “replacing one addiction with another.”

There are still good things in the bill. For example, it limits incarceration as a punishment for technical violations. Rep. Harris’ office says that they are already working with partners on an amendment to address concerns.

That’s good because the bill as is should not be enacted. Instead, work on the bill must continue to ensure that it fixes a broken probation system without further trapping people in never-ending state supervision.

Online: https://bit.ly/2t4mPL6

___

Weigh in on future of Pa. parks

Erie Times-News

Dec. 9

Pennsylvania is notorious for many things. Near the top of that list of shortcomings is transportation. Failures in that regard affect our everyday lives and our future prosperity.

The litany of complaints as outlined in a legislative task force report, “Build to Lead” comprise a transportation crisis of “crumbling roads, failing bridges, aging rail cars and buses along with hours of time wasted on congested highways and inner-city gridlock.”

According to an analysis of the report by MediaNews Group staff writer Evan Brandt, efforts to address those problems have come up short. The highest gas tax in the nation meant to fund $2.1 billion in highway and bridge construction and maintenance has not produced the promised results. One of the reasons, according to the report, is that funding is being diverted to pay for state police. Many municipalities rely on troopers rather than providing police service of their own.

State auditors estimate that about $4.5 billion was diverted from the state’s Motor License Fund to the state police since fiscal year 2012-13. Currently, an estimated $1.25 billion or 65% of the state police budget is paid for with nearly one-third of the entire Motor License Fund, Brandt wrote.

As a result, only 27 percent of PennDOT’s projects in 2017 were completed, according to Auditor General Eugene Pasquale. Projects important to communities are being put on hold. The Keim Street bridge that connects Pottstown and North Coventry Township has been closed for 10 years, much to the chagrin of local residents. In Berks County, a $600 million plan to upgrade the Route 422 corridor is being scaled back to a single project: the $35 million replacement of a bridge over the Schuylkill River and ramp reconfiguration at the Interstate 176 interchange.

This is about more than frustrated motorists being stuck in traffic. The legislators who wrote the report took in the big picture: Failure to repair and upgrade roads and bridges and pursue options such as rail threatens economic growth and the commonwealth’s future prosperity.

“Pennsylvania’s transportation system has fallen into an alarming state of disrepair and is in critical need of new funding. With today’s growing economy placing increased demands on our infrastructure, we must rise to meet the needs of families and businesses across the Commonwealth,” wrote the 10 legislators who authored the report.

Among its recommendations are expanding passenger rail and giving counties and cities the ability and authority to create local funding solutions and public/private partnerships to expedite construction projects.

Central to this is a dedicated source of funding. Inadequate funding and the diversion of transportation funding to the state police has increased the backlog of work, according to the report.

Pennsylvania and its cities also lag the rest of the nation in transit improvements. A rail connection of some kind between Reading and Philadelphia was among the projects the report’s authors said should get further consideration, Brandt reported, highlighting a longstanding item on the wish list of every revitalization analysis done for the region in the past 20 years.

The “Build to Lead” report makes several recommendations for the Legislature to increase the pace and scope of transportation improvements.

Among those recommendations are increasing public/private partnerships to leverage funding for projects; updating design standards and expediting permits to encourage cost savings; giving cities and counties authority to implement local solutions, similar to the $5 vehicle registration fee Montgomery County implemented to raise money for infrastructure work.

These ideas come in the spirit of building a transportation system to lead Pennsylvania into the future. At stake is not just the well-being of today’s commuters. The future economy depends on moving people and goods efficiently from one place to another. It’s time to move Pennsylvania up on the list of results toward a brighter, faster, less congested tomorrow.

Online: https://bit.ly/2RL3Waq

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