- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 25, 2019

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

Let states decide on pot: Feds should not interfere on marijuana reform

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dec. 24

There is a nascent movement inside the beltway that would give our nation’s states the unqualified right to decide for themselves the legal status of marijuana.

It is an overdue step that finally would reconcile a federal-versus-state legal conflict that has ensnared many American patients who suffer medical conditions that are eased by the use of cannabis.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee in November approved a bill that would legalize marijuana on the federal level, removing it from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. The legislation is handicapped to win approval in the full House then is expected to face an uphill climb in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes marijuana legalization.

Mr. McConnell and his cohorts should look for leadership on this matter to President Donald Trump, who has expressed support for a states’ rights approach to pot policy.

The legislation, which passed the judiciary committee 24 to 10, would formally allow states to enact their own policies on marijuana. And that’s almost like closing the barn door after the horse galloped away. Almost.

Because a majority of states across the country already have legalized marijuana to one extent or another. This conflict with federal law has placed some citizens in legal jeopardy. For example, an Indiana County woman was denied residence in federal housing because her prescription for medical cannabis - legal in Pennsylvania - does not jibe with federal law. The woman, who suffers chronic back pain, had applied to the Indiana County Housing Authority for participation in the Section 8 housing program operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development but her application was denied because she had been certified by the state to legally use medical marijuana. She appealed to court, but the judge said his hands were tied: Federal law bans all types of marijuana, even medical marijuana. She could not reside in federally subsidized housing if she’s breaking federal law, he ruled.

Also, anyone with a medical marijuana prescription in Pennsylvania who drives could face arrest under a strict interpretation with governing legislation. Pennsylvania uses the Controlled Substances Act to determine what drugs are impermissible at any amount in a person’s system while driving. Because marijuana metabolites can be present for days and even weeks after ingestion - long after any “high” sensation has passed - hundreds of thousands of residents with legal prescriptions for medical marijuana are driving illegally. Technically. That’s more than 125,000 Pennsylvanians.

Some three dozen states in the U.S. have legalized medical marijuana and the pressure is on to bring the rest to heel. Medical marijuana has been legal in Pennsylvania since 2016 and there is momentum building toward the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Study after study has shown medical pot is effective with fewer side effects than alternatives. Therapeutic cannabis is a favored treatment for many conditions from Alzheimer’s disease to glaucoma, cancer to epilepsy. The American Medical Association has noted that a majority of Americans are in favor of legalization.

It’s past time that the federal government step aside from a states’ rights matter and an anachronistic view that simply does not keep pace with medical evidence or public sentiment.

Online: https://bit.ly/34PtvtX


Philadelphia Police Department needs democratic accountability, not secret arbitration

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Dec. 20

The Philadelphia Police Department is in dire need of dramatic change - in culture and practices.

With the hiring of a new police commissioner and the start of contract negotiations between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police, the mayor has an opportunity for reform that should not be squandered.

One major barrier is the way that disciplinary issues are handled when FOP Lodge No. 5, Philadelphia’s police union, appeals disciplinary decisions.

Because police officers and firefighters are not legally allowed to strike, Pennsylvania state law lays out an arbitration process through which contracts are negotiated and disciplinary issues are resolved. The contract between the FOP and the city further lays out the exact details of the grievance and arbitration process. Arbitration proceedings are secret and arbitrators’ decisions are binding and, with few exceptions, final.

In October, The Inquirer investigated 170 confidential arbitration decisions that were issued between 2011 and 2019. In 70% of the cases, the FOP was successful in overturning or reducing disciplinary sanctions. More often than not, arbitrators turned suspensions and dismissals into paid vacations. Police officers accused of a range of offenses like domestic violence, sexual misconduct, abuse of authority, and other charges remain on the force, costing the city more than $5 million in back pay and settlements.

The arbitration process is often cited as a concern, not only by activists but by former police commissioners.

Stephen Rushin, associate professor of law at Loyola University Chicago, reviewed 656 police union contracts and calls the process of outsourcing police disciplinary actions is a “formidable barrier to democratic police accountability.”

Other cities have taken steps to bring back democratic police accountability.

For example, in Fullerton, Calif., the onus is on the aggrieved officer to explain why the disciplinary action against them was “arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, or otherwise unreasonable.” This change would likely require amendment to state law defining the scope of arbitration.

Another option is more civilian oversight. Detroit, for example, has a civilian commission that investigates and adjudicates police disciplinary matters. Even though the ruling can be appealed to a third-party arbitrator, the additional oversight is important. According to the Washington Post, between 2006 and 2017, Philadelphia fired 71 officers and rehired 44. Detroit fired 47 and rehired only five.

Finally, a way to strengthen the city’s position in arbitration is to strengthen the police’s internal affairs division. The stronger the investigation of the misconduct before the arbitration, the more likely it is that the FOP won’t succeed in poking holes in the city’s case.

The city is taking steps to let in some sunlight into the process and plans to post redacted arbitration decisions online. That’s a good first step, but even better would be posting a full transcription of hearings.

Culture change has to start at the top. By fighting for more accountability in the contract and choosing a commissioner who will strengthen internal affairs and will not be afraid to discipline officers, Mayor Jim Kenney will signal to every police officer and to the FOP - and to citizens - that it’s time for democratic police accountability.

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


In Harrisburg, tax reform debate rises from the ashes. Again

Easton Express Times

Dec. 22

Any move toward a fairer form of school taxation in Pennsylvania is, well … good news.

Yet property taxpayers, particularly older homeowners on fixed incomes, know the routine well. They’ve been waiting for tax reform for much of their lives. They’ve seen full-throttle attempts, halfway measures and “local empowerment” efforts come and go.

Then the school property tax bill arrives in July, with little or no relief. And a demand for more money.

So what’s changing?

Two weeks ago a state Senate working group emerged from a month-long study with five options to relieve school property tax pressures. Four of the proposals offer mixed bags of tax reduction. The fifth calls for total elimination of school property taxes - the holy grail for activists and oppressed taxpayers.

The bipartisan School Property Tax Work Group, chaired by Sen. David G. Argall, R-Schuylkill, is trying to identify tax relief that can win majority support in both houses - an acknowledgement that property tax elimination, still the avowed goal of many, remains locked in neutral.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the proposals:

Plan one: Reduce school property taxes by $8.62 billion, increasing the personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.07%, and raising the sales tax from 6% to 7% to provide money for homestead exclusions. School districts would have to levy a local earned income of at least 1%. The Property Tax and Rent Rebate Program would be expanded.

Plan two: Cut school property taxes by $6.44 billion through an increase in the personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.62%.

Plan three: Raise the personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.32% and cap rebates for homestead properties at $2,340, effectively eliminating school property taxes for more than 2 million homeowners.

Plan four: Boost the personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.72% and cap the homestead rebate at $5,000, effectively eliminating school property taxes for more than 3.1 million homeowners.

Plan five: Get rid of the school property tax. Raise the personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.82% and the sales tax from 6% to 7%.

If it were easy to kill school property taxes, it would have been done years ago. Resistance draws from several conflicts, not the least of which is local control vs. state control of school funding. Districts with healthy tax bases want local board members to decide what the community can afford to spend on K-12 education, not a formula by the state. Poorer and inner-city districts want a fairer and more equitable distribution of state money; a multi-district lawsuit is trying to force that issue right now through the courts.

Other “what if” outcomes are cited by opponents: Raising a flat income tax (as opposed to a graduated one) hits low-income workers the hardest. Eliminating all school property taxes provides a windfall for commercial property owners, and those with lavish second or third homes. Renters wouldn’t share in the tax relief.

The other side of the argument is well-known: Lives are greatly diminished. People on limited incomes sell their properties because of ever-rising school taxes, after decades of maintaining a home and supporting local schools. Their dilemma has fueled support for HB/SB 76, the Property Tax Independence Act, which has come close to majority support in previous years in Harrisburg but fallen short.

Another measure, raising the percentage of property value that can qualify for the homestead exemption, was approved by voters in a 2017 referendum, but it requires local action. Earlier this year a legislator proposed taxing retirement income and extending sales tax to food and clothing to eliminate the school property tax. It went nowhere.

A renewed “reduction vs. elimination” debate offers some hope - assuming it doesn’t shrivel up in the heat of next year’s state legislative elections.

It’s a starting point. There have been precious few of those lately.

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


Giant Eagle’s plastic move challenging

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Dec. 20

Giant Eagle made a giant move this week, announcing a plan to eliminate single-use plastics by 2025. But is that even possible?

Walk through a grocery store any day and see how much plastic you encounter as you wander from aisle to aisle. It’s a lot more than just the handled bags at the checkout for your bread, milk, eggs and paper towels.

It’s the wrapper on that bread and tiny colorful tab that seals it. It’s the jug that holds the milk and the lid that screws on top. It’s the carton that holds the eggs and the clear shroud on the paper towels. It’s everywhere.

And there is a reason for it. Plastic isn’t just cheap and glossy. It’s also sanitary and sealable. Wrap a sandwich in paper and a spill can ruin it. Wrap a sandwich in plastic and the bread doesn’t get soggy.

We eat meat packaged in Chicago and cheese produced in Wisconsin and cereal that rolls of an assembly line in Michigan. Part of what makes all of that possible is plastic.

That doesn’t mean Giant Eagle’s plan isn’t laudable or that it won’t work. It just means there are a lot of moving parts to take into consideration on the road to being plastic-free in five years.

It starts with those shopping bags. Come Jan. 15, targeted stores will banish them from registers, replacing them with reusable bags for sale or charging 10 cents for paper bags. SNAP and WIC customers will not pay that fee.

Other items on the chopping block are straws, single-serve fresh food containers and bottled beverages. But that’s where questions start to come in.

Come 2025, what does a Giant Eagle look like? Will you be able to buy a Coke at the check-out? Will they sell plastic wrap or bendy straws? How much impact will a move like this - and moves by eight states including California and New York - put on manufacturers to make changes?

It isn’t impossible. Customer demands are already changing the way companies are looking at packaging. Coca-Cola and AB InBev have developed cardboard replacements for the plastic six-pack rings that cause problems for wildlife.

Change isn’t easy, but kudos to Giant Eagle for not just committing to the effort but being smart enough to make it a stepped move over time that can give both vendors and customers time to adjust.

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


Congress impeaches President Trump, and Americans face interesting times

Harrisburg Patriot News/Pennlive.com

Dec. 19

A Chinese curse goes something like this: May you live in interesting times. Americans are living in interesting times, and it truly feels like a curse.

Congress has taken the momentous step of impeaching a third American president. No one should be happy about this moment. It should bring no joy and no cause for celebration.

But it is a sign of our times. Americans are divided, possibly more so now than at any time since the Civil War — the lowest point in our history. Brother fought brother. Thousands died. And our incredible nation was threatened with extinction.

At the time, Abraham Lincoln, one of our greatest presidents, warned: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

A nation that no longer heeds the lessons of history, that no longer respects its institutions, that no longer honors the rule of law – such a nation is in peril. Our nation is in peril not so much because of the stain on one man’s legacy, but because of how we got to this point and what it means for the unity of our house.

It is a fitting time for each American to ponder his own heart and to reconnect with the values that made this country the envy of the world. Consider the following:

Are we willing to sacrifice personal interests for the common good?

Are we willing to put country above political parties?

Are we willing to demand the highest ethical and moral standards of our elected officials?

Are we able to treat our fellow Americans with the respect they deserve, regardless of race, class, ethnicity or party?

Are we willing to seek both truth and justice as the best guarantors for preserving the democracy so many died to defend?

As we contemplate this sad day in American history and lament the stark reality that so many congressmen and congresswomen felt compelled to impeach a president, we call upon Pennsylvanians, and all Americans, to rethink and recommit to the noble values that have united us as a strong and resilient people committed to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If American exceptionalism means anything, it is this: we have forged a nation of many peoples united in the highest ideals of freedom, equality, justice and the rule of law.

We have stood together through eras of economic depression, world wars and threats of annihilation from kings, despots and terrorists.

We even have overcome our own internal battles to emerge all the stronger from our endurance.

Now, we must focus on the days ahead and on how we will unify our nation amid our profound differences on the impeachment of our president.

We must do this not only for ourselves, but for the next generation of Americans – our children and grandchildren. We must not leave them a nation divided and a house that cannot stand.

Most of all, we must make sure they are not threatened with the curse of living in even more interesting times our hostility and bickering will inevitably create.

Online: https://bit.ly/37auzKt

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