- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:


The Citizens’ Voice, June 17

Attorney General William Barr has taken toadying to a bizarre new low with his plan to have the Justice Department investigate how U.S. intelligence agencies investigated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Barr outlined the investigation a day before two former FBI counterintelligence testified before a House committee that there is no doubt that Russia plans to again interfere in U.S. elections in 2020.

And that was a day before President Donald Trump, even after the Russian meddling and the investigation that proved it, said he would accept negative information about a political opponent if it is offered by a foreign intelligence agency.

Though the Mueller investigation into the Russian conduct did not find any direct collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it demonstrated conclusively that the Russians had indeed engaged in a campaign to sow discord and that they favored Trump.

Trump’s comment is an invitation to Russia to again interfere in U.S. elections, all the more so because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to block pending election security legislation that otherwise has broad bipartisan support in the House and Senate.

The investigation of the intelligence agencies is particularly bizarre because the Justice Department itself used information produced by those agencies to obtain indictments against 26 Russian nationals, including known spies and oligarchs tied to the Putin regime. That data also led to the indictments of three Russian companies, including the infamous St. Petersburg troll farm that was the epicenter of the electoral meddling campaign.

If on nothing else, the parties should be unified in an effort to protect elections from foreign interference. Barr’s effort to undermine the intelligence agencies for ferreting out such interference imperils the democracy.

Online: https://bit.ly/2WTX49u



The Erie Times-News, June 17

Nothing evokes a bygone era quite like walking into a tavern or social club and being greeted with the stale odor of cigarettes, both lit and smoked long ago.

Pennsylvania lawmakers took positive steps more than a decade ago to improve public health and safety when they passed the Clean Indoor Air Act in 2008. The law banned smoking in most public spaces, including restaurants, taverns and workplaces.

That inconvenienced smokers but offered welcome relief to nonsmokers. They no longer had to contend with secondhand smoke as they worked or dined out.

Trying to enjoy a meal or a drink or perform job duties in a haze of secondhand smoke is not simply unpleasant. Secondhand smoke is lethal. As reporter Matthew Rink detailed, according to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke kills 7,330 people from lung cancer and 33,950 people from heart disease every year.

But the Clean Indoor Air Act did not, in fact, guarantee clean indoor air. It carved out a host of exceptions. Under certain conditions, smoking was still permitted in some places, including casinos, social clubs, and taverns where food sales make up less than 20 percent of the business receipts.

Smokers flock to such places now. That is why business owners like Bruce Hoffman believe if the exemptions were removed, businesses like his taverns - Bruce’s Pub & Grub and Darcy’s Pub & Grub, where smoking is allowed - would suffer.

We have mixed feelings, but we think Erie state Sen. Dan Laughlin’s plan to seek to close most of these loopholes deserves consideration. As first detailed by the PA Post, Laughlin intends to introduce legislation that would remove several exemptions, including those that allow smoking in private clubs and drinking establishments with modest food sales.

As Laughlin rightly stresses, the exceptions to the Clean Indoor Air Act are not fair to employees who might have to spend shifts immersed in smoke. They also, as he notes, create an uneven playing field between taverns and clubs.

There is an argument to be made to simply let the market decide this debate. Changes in attitudes might one day end smoking in the places now exempt under the law. As the PA Post detailed, the number of drinking establishments seeking exceptions under the law has dropped from 2,900 in 2009 to less than 1,200 today.

Smokers and businesses that profit from them are likely to oppose Laughlin’s legislation. But the bans to an extent are not about them. Smoking is a dangerous habit that smokers are free to embrace. But the act is not neutral. Competing interests are at play. Public health should win out over public accommodations for a toxic addiction.

Online: https://bit.ly/2L3L6I3



The Reading Eagle, June 18

Call it a sign of dysfunction or business as usual, but those in charge in Harrisburg appear ready to make a rosy budget year look difficult.

Despite agreement among our Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature that state coffers are flush enough to replenish Pennsylvania’s Great Recession-depleted Rainy Day Fund, it appears the fiscal gimmicks of harder fiscal times will continue.

In a report this week, The Associated Press offered several examples. Below are some of the more aggravating.

Amid a strong economy and tax collections, Pennsylvania will again delay a large Medicaid payment to insurers to mask current costs.

For a fourth year in a row, it will try to siphon $200 million from a state-chartered medical malpractice insurer of last resort despite federal courts having blocked the move.

And it is continuing the dual shell game of forcing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to turn over $450 million to PennDOT (derived from continually increasing tolls and bond obligations on future taxpayers) and diverting funds from PennDOT’s highway maintenance fund to cover two-thirds of the state police budget.

With unexpectedly strong corporate and sales tax collections, why are such patches still in play? Why not switch away from smoke and mirrors for a change?

An upgrade to honest budgeting might even offer the bonus of an improved credit rating.

In a recent research note, Moody’s cited Pennsylvania’s public transit funding arrangement - another transportation-funding shell game - that’s scheduled to shrink from $450 million to $50 million in 2022.

“The state,” Moody’s analysts said, “has the capacity to fill this gap, but has routinely shown little willingness to enact structural solutions to its own budget challenges.”

Those analysts clearly are not talking about our elected officials’ capacity for integrity, which seems to be as depleted as the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

What would honest budgeting look like?

Instead of bragging about not raising taxes while covering deficits with the gimmicks noted above, Republican legislative leaders could find honest cuts in spending.

And Gov. Tom Wolf could use the first year of his second term to tackle the transportation funding gap noted above - a problem he acknowledged in a 2018 radio interview - with a substantive proposal to fill it. Fixing Pennsylvania’s crumbling infrastructure is a project worthy of a bit of political capital.

Rather than spending so much time and effort pursuing his Restore Pennsylvania initiative, Wolf ought to get this problem solved first. Such an accomplishment might give the governor a stronger platform from which to argue for the natural gas severance tax on which his $4.5 billion initiative relies.

On the plus side, Pennsylvania appears headed for the second on-time budget of Wolf’s tenure. The June 30 deadline for a state spending plan has been missed far more than half the time in this young century. That meeting it this year would be remarkable makes a strong case against calling our elected officials in Harrisburg leaders at all.

If an on-time budget is delivered, Pennsylvanians should thank their own contributions to a healthy economy, and treat any bows taken in Harrisburg with the contempt they deserve.

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


The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17

Last January, when city officials gave the green light to a private entity to open a supervised injection site, Philadelphia was way ahead of the curve. But 18 months later, and after another year in which more than 1,100 people died of an overdose, people in addiction in Philadelphia still inject in abandoned houses, alleyways, and parks. At the same time, thousands of treatment slots in Philadelphia are empty.

What started as a bold move to address overdose deaths by a city now seems stuck.

That is not to say that there was no progress. A nonprofit, Safehouse, was incorporated to open the site, though was sued immediately by the feds. And while the legal battle in Philadelphia unfolds, others outside of Philadelphia are moving ahead, laying a foundation for such sites elsewhere.

Last year, California’s legislature passed a bill to allow San Francisco to open a supervised injection site. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill. Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, indicated that he is open to the idea. The bill was reintroduced in February and passed the Assembly in the end of May; it is now in the Senate. If Newsome signs the bill, California will be the first state in the nation to legalize supervised injection sites.

Last month, Rhode Island’s Senate passed a bill to allow for a pilot supervised injection site. The bill now heads to the House.

As cities and states attempt to navigate their way toward supervised-injection sites, the interpretation of federal law by the Department of Justice is still a major barrier.

That might change thanks to Rep. Pramila Jayapal from Washington state. Last week, ahead of DOJ’s budget hearing, Jayapal introduced an amendment that would prevent the DOJ from using federal funds to prohibit the “localities or states from the implementation or maintenance” of supervised injection sites. Jayapal represents Seattle, where public-health advocates have been pushing for a supervised injection site but where the U.S. attorney threatened legal action.

That could provide Safehouse the legal protection it needs to save lives.

The Jayapal amendment is unlikely to pass on first attempt. It took 13 years to include in DOJ’s budget similar language about medical marijuana. Michael Collins, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, hopes that because of the urgent need to save lives and the evidence to support supervised injection sites, the amendment will pass faster than that.

Those who support supervised injection sites in Philadelphia have been putting the pressure on City Council and the Kenney administration. But our representatives in Harrisburg and Washington should not get off the hook.

The opposition for supervised-injection sites is loud, but might not be representative. A recent public opinion poll by Pew Charitable Trusts shows that 1-in-2 Philadelphians supports a supervised injection site.

A recent Drexel study found that support in Kensington is even higher - 90 percent of 360 surveyed residents.

Members of Congress representing Philadelphia could show their constituents that they are paying attention by supporting the Jayapal amendment to give legal protection to supervised injection sites - and pave the way to save lives.

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


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 19

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission’s recent vote to end standardized pollution controls along the Ohio River was irresponsible and cowardly.

The commissioners of the ORSANCO board - representing Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia - ignored the concerns of environmental advocates, public health experts and everyday residents who fear that a patchwork approach to combating pollution along the Ohio is a recipe for disaster.

Founded in 1948 to help undo years of industrial pollution to the Ohio River, ORSANCO is a regional commission that has historically been tasked with recommending water quality standards for the states whose water supplies are affected by the Ohio.

But with the board’s June 4 vote, each state will now be responsible for setting its own pollution standards for the river.

The ORSANCO board was expected to make a similar vote this past October, but it punted the decision to 2019 after outrage erupted following a period of intense public criticism, including op-eds and an editorial published in the Post-Gazette.

But the commissioners were shamed not into changing their minds, but into delaying their vote. After eight months, with the public’s attention sufficiently diverted, the ORSANCO board freed its member states from the need to adhere to the regional pollution standards. The Ohio River could soon be governed by a hodgepodge of conflicting policies, allowing for different controls on different sides of the river (say, along the Pennsylvania and Ohio border).

The public is none too thrilled about this decision. At a not-so-well-promoted public hearing held in Green Tree on April 2, all 17 people attending voiced their displeasure with the board’s proposal. A written comment period elicited far more feedback. More than 4,000 people wrote to speak out against the proposal, while only nine supported it.

All three of Pennsylvania’s ORSANCO representatives - Pennsylvania Environmental Council President Davitt Woodwell, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell and Charles Duritsa, a retired regional director for the DEP - voted for the proposal.

In fact, only two ORSANCO board members opposed the motion - Douglas Conroe of New York and federal commissioner George Elmaraghy.

ORSANCO voted in effect to de-fang itself. The board now possesses no meaningful power to protect the health of the Ohio River, leaving that responsibility to individual states. But with more than 5 million people depending on the river for drinking water, that is not a risk worth taking.

Pennsylvanians deserve a clear, concise answer as to why its commissioners - two of whom are appointed by the governor - voted to make ORSANCO’s water quality standards voluntary. Gov. Tom Wolf claims to care deeply about improving water quality in Pennsylvania, so how does this vote square with that aspiration?

The ORSANCO board should be deeply ashamed of itself. Not only did it cast a vote that imperils the future safety of the Ohio River, one of America’s most important waterways, but it did so while hiding from public scrutiny and concern. The current crop of commissioners has disgraced ORSANCO’s rich legacy and vital mission.

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



The York Dispatch, June 17

Not that another example was necessary, but the Trump administration’s blatant disregard for the rule of law was magnified anew by its response - or, rather, non-response - to violations of the federal Hatch Act by White House aide Kellyanne Conway.

Conway, one of President Donald Trump’s longest-serving and most reliable defenders, has frequently run afoul of this law, which was passed in 1939 to limit “certain political activities of federal employees.”

Among her transgressions: Using her high-profile (if ill-defined) position to repeatedly endorse political candidates, disparage Democrats and shill for the clothing line of Ivanka Trump (another high-profile White House fixture whose role is ill-defined).

Such are the number and seriousness of the violations that the federal Office of Special Counsel advised Trump that she should be fired.

“Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” the office - which is unaffiliated with special counsel Robert Mueller’s now-shuttered office - wrote in a letter to Trump. “Her actions erode the principal foundation of our democratic system - the rule of law.”

To which Trump responded, and we’re paraphrasing, “the rule of what now?”

“No, I’m not going to fire her,” the president said on his favorite television show, “Fox and Friends.” ”I think she’s a terrific person.”

In the real world, of course, Conway’s alleged terrificness would have nothing to do with her lawlessness. But in Trumpworld, the boss’s opinion is all that matters.

One can violate fellow citizens’ civil rights, be credibly charged as a predator of underage women, even meddle in this nation’s presidential elections but as long as Trump thinks you’re terrific you’ll be pardoned, endorsed and embraced.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect a lawless and unethical president to reprimand, let alone fire, a lawless and unethical subordinate. Trump’s disregard for - or, just as likely, ignorance of - the law is such that Conway will probably get a raise.

Recall, Conway’s Office of Special Counsel rebuke came concurrently with Trump’s insistence in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulus that, were he offered dirt on a political opponent from Russia, China or any other foreign interest, he wouldn’t necessarily alert the FBI.

That’s not only dim-witted and un-American, it’s illegal.

The head of the Federal Elections Commission lost no time in publicly setting Trump straight.

“Let me make something 100% clear to the American public and anyone running for public office,” FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub wrote on Twitter. “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept.”

Illegality? Not a novel concept? She doesn’t know this administration very well, does she?

Trump’s near constant abuse of his office to enrich himself (via taxpayer-funded trips to his resort properties) and his allies (incessant Twitter messages encouraging his followers to tune in to “Fox” programming or buy Trump-friendly books) are prima facie violations that deserve, at the least, congressional censure. (Fat chance, of course, with complacent and compliant Republicans running the Senate.)

There was some irony in the fact that, just hours after the Office of Special Counsel recommended Conway’s dismissal, Trump did indeed lose a long-serving, reliable mouthpiece:

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

Like Conway, Sanders seldom left any truth unbent in service to her boss. Unlike Conway, she grew increasingly averse to the media cameras. White House press briefings were once daily occurrences. Sanders hasn’t held one in more than 100 days.

So as Sanders leaves a stage she was increasingly unwilling to occupy, Conway stays on: a law-flouting adviser dissembling - on the taxpayers’ dime - for her law-flouting boss.

Republicans once touted themselves as the “rule of law party.” How far they have fallen.

Online: https://bit.ly/2x6CWXr

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