- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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STATE PARKS REPORT SOUNDS ALARM, March 11

Left to nature’s devices, Presque Isle might shift and even perhaps become an island. It is why we press each year for lawmakers to fund the beach sand replenishment that stabilizes this vital natural resource and asset.

The arcing peninsula shelters Presque Isle Bay and sustains valued wildlife, including an astonishing array of migrating birds that use it as a way station.



It is a rare natural treasure and an enormous draw for people seeking to explore the natural world, exercise, fish, or just kick back on a beach, gaze at Lake Erie swells or revel in the region’s famed psychedelic sunsets.

Trails and parking lots, picnic grounds, concession stands, changing rooms and restrooms, marinas, boat launches and fishing piers have been built to accommodate these crowds, which in 2017 totaled more than 4 million people. These facilities must meet a dual challenge. They serve the needs of the visiting humans but also protect the environment they occupy.

Presque Isle and the other 120 state parks and 20 forest districts that are strewn like jewels across Pennsylvania provide a host of benefits. Not just destinations for healthy recreation, they help sustain the economy. The Pennsylvania Parks & Forests Foundation said the more than 40 million people who visit the state’s parks and forests add more than $1 billion annually to the state’s economy. One study found each taxpayer dollar invested in a state park yields a return of $12.41.

Consistent, reliable funding and maintenance of these parks and forest districts, because of their inherent value and economic impact, should be a given. But as reporter Ron Leonardi detailed, a new report by the Parks & Forest Foundation is sounding an alarm. Years of cuts and shifting funding strategies have created a backlog of unmet infrastructure and maintenance needs that will cost $1 billion to address, it says.

The report said infrastructure needs at Presque Isle alone total $50 million, including paving, water and sewer improvements, new beach houses and new pedestrian and bicycle access from the city of Erie.

That sounds like an extreme number, but as Matt Greene, park operations manager, noted, much of the previous rehabilitation and replacement of infrastructure at Presque Isle dates to the 1980s.

The foundation wants the report to spark conversation and educate stakeholders about the extent of our parks’ unmet needs. Lawmakers and the governor, mandated to act as trustees of these assets, should heed that alarm and begin to identify strategies to provide more consistent support before deferred maintenance of these treasured natural hubs reaches a crisis stage.

As the report notes, roads, dams, bridges, the threat of invasive species, and deteriorating historic structures are all implicated. Take care.

__ The Erie Times-News

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2u5QgK8

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SENS. TOOMEY AND CASEY WORKING TOGETHER TO PROTECT THE ELDERLY, March 11

If there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s the absolute imperative of respecting and protecting the elderly.

Whatever your political persuasion, right, left or in between, this is a basic human value that should transcend all differences. And it is heartening to see two U.S. Senators set aside their political differences and cooperate to end neglect and abuse of the elderly in nursing homes in Pennsylvania.

In response to the recent PennLive investigation, “Still Failing the Frail,” U.S. Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey have decided to work together to address apparent deficiencies in the oversight of nursing homes.

The senators have jointly penned a letter to Seema Verma, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Washington, D.C., raising questions about a federal program tasked with improving persistently failing nursing homes.

As PennLive reporter Daniel Simmons-Ritchie documented in “Still Failing the Frail,” some of the worst nursing homes in Pennsylvania have continued to be plagued with problems - including chronically low staffing, insect infestations, and poor care that has harmed residents - despite ownership changes and promises of tougher oversight by the Wolf administration.

Among those homes, one is a current member of the federal government’s “Special Focus Facility” (SFF) program. Nursing homes are selected as SFF if they consistently provide poor care.

A total of 85 of the nation’s 15,000 nursing homes have that designation (including four in Pennsylvania). Those homes are supposed to get extra scrutiny and can potentially lose their government funding if they don’t improve.

Toomey and Casey’s letter raises questions about the effectiveness of that program: many nursing homes have been on the SFF list for years, without any action being taken against them, as the federal dough continues to roll in.

“Neglect and abuse of this nature is altogether unacceptable,” Toomey and Casey wrote, “and through a robust system of monitoring, oversight, technical assistance and enforcement, it should be entirely avoidable.”

The senators are absolutely right. There is no reason nursing homes that do not properly care for their residents should remain open year after year, transferred from one shoddy owner to the next, treating our elderly as pawns in heartless business schemes that focus only on the bottom line.

In fact, there should be zero tolerance for negligence or abuse in any facility charged with caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. And Sens. Toomey and Casey shouldn’t rest until that is indeed the case, and authorities at all levels are held accountable.

To reinforce the seriousness of their interest in the issue, the senators set a deadline of March 27 for the federal agency to respond. That’s a clear sign they mean business and will not let this matter rest until they get the information they need.

Once they get their answers, the next step will be for these senators to move with all due haste to end the apparent negligence that threaten the very lives of the people we have a duty to protect.

While solving many of the problems identified in the PennLive’s series rests with the Wolf Administration and the General Assembly, Casey and Toomey should be applauded for stepping up to help at the federal level in a show of bipartisan cooperation.

Working together, Senators Casey and Toomey must keep the pressure on those at the federal level who can help strengthen oversight of nursing homes, as they have vowed to do in their letter.

We hope more political leaders will take note of the power of bipartisan cooperation for the common good - as Sens. Toomey and Casey are now modeling. And it’s not a bad idea for approving constituents to send a strong signal of their gratitude.

__ PennLive.com

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2J9BYSV

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SOCIAL MEDIA MEETS SOCIAL SECURITY, March 12

If you put your life on social media, you may have to worry about security. Social Security.

While Russian hackers and Chinese cyberattacks get all the attention for how they break into a system, the government here at home can use what you put out there without resorting to ransomware or brute force.

“The Trump administration has been quietly working on a proposal to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to help identify people who claim Social Security disability benefits without actually being disabled,” a New York Times article stated, citing a 2018 budget request.

So is that a bad thing? Social Security has been on rickety legs for years. We have borrowed shamelessly from funds that were never meant to be a raid-able cookie jar. The 2018 Social Security annual trustees report predicted the retirement and survivors benefit trust fund would be depleted by 2034 and the disability trust fund by 2035. After that, payments will drop by as much as 23 percent.

While President Trump has been roundly criticized for increasing the federal deficit, the disability fund picture has been better under his tenure. According to the Social Security Administration, the depletion date for that fund was six years sooner in 2017. The difference was credited to declining applications and lower benefit amounts.

The SSA says there is little crime, but “we believe any level of fraud is unacceptable.” At the volume payments are put out, even a fraction can be a lot of money. In January, the agency reported more than $11 billion in disability payments, with an average monthly check of $1,097.

If just one-hundredth of 1 percent of the beneficiaries each month were fraudulent, that would be $1.09 million. In a year, it would top $13 million.

So the idea of trolling Facebook for pictures of people too disabled to work but not to water ski or golf makes sense. Law enforcement agencies have regularly found scofflaws because of social media crowdsourcing or investigation.

But there is still reason for caution - and not just for disability recipients. The government has to exercise it, too.

A social media account isn’t a deposition. It’s not under oath. What people put out there is often their best day, not the worst one. It might just raise questions and offer little to no proof. It should, at best, be a tool and not a testimonial.

__ The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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

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LIFT BLINDS ON GOVERNMENT, March 12

The notion of public information isn’t a difficult concept. Almost all government information, with very few exceptions for valid reasons, belongs to the public. But even now, a decade after the state Legislature passed a public disclosure law that finally ended the state’s status as the least transparent in the land, many public officials continue to try to keep the public in the dark.

This is Sunshine Week, a national observance of the importance of transparency in government. It’s a great opportunity for the Legislature to begin a revision of the Open Records Law to further enhance public access.

Prior to the law’s passage in 2008 and implementation in 2009, anyone seeking a public record faced the burden and expense of proving that the record was subject to disclosure. The most important change that the law implemented was a reversal of that standard. Now, the presumption is that a government-held record is a public record, and the burden is on the government to demonstrate that a contested record is exempt from disclosure.

It took not only the new statute but contested cases over the following decade to fully implement the law. The Times-Tribune, for example, scored a landmark victory in 2012, when the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that records held by a private contractor for the government are public records, if the company performs work that the government otherwise would perform. The ruling meant that governments could not hide public documents behind private-sector contracts.

Other news organizations also have prevailed in court. In one case, for example, the Supreme Court found that public records remain so even if they become part of a criminal prosecution.

There is no doubt that the law has forced local governments to be much more transparent. But that does not mean that access to public information is as easy as it should be.

Many local governments require written right-to-know requests, even though the law does not require them. Since most public information is routine, local officials could release most of it upon request. Instead, they require a submitted form. The law gives them five days to respond and the right to seek 30-day extensions. Too many local officials make that 35-day window the norm for their own convenience, or to thumb their noses at people or news organizations looking for information. The law should severely limit those extensions, require those officials to provide a written explanation for invoking them and provide penalties for unwarranted delays.

Sen. John Blake, the Lackawanna County Democrat, will try for the fourth straight legislative session to improve the law. The Senate has passed the changes in the past but they have died in House committees.

The 10th anniversary of the Right To Know Law truly will be a celebration if the House finally agrees to let in more sunshine.

__ The Times-Tribune

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

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ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT ON PENNSYLVANIA CONSUMERS’ CREDIT DEBT, March 12

If the nation’s personal credit card debt were plotted as a bell curve, Pennsylvania would be at the very top of the roller coaster.

The state lands smack-dab in the middle nationwide when it comes to average household credit card debt: number 25, according to a study by the website 24/7 Wall St.

That may not sound like cause for concern but consider this: that still amounts to more than $6,000 owed to Visa, MasterCard and various other credit card companies by the average Pennsylvania household.

In other words, there’s room for improvement.

Of course, there are a variety of variables at play. Owing $6,000 on credit cards is not as pressing for six-figure earners as it would be for those making the minimum wage (especially the minimum in this state!).

And credit experts say that what they call a “credit utilization rate” of under 30 percent will not harm one’s credit rating. At $6,000, someone with a total line of credit topping $20,000 would be within the limit.

Still, there are reasons not to be too cavalier about credit card debt.

For one, it eats into a family’s cash flow. Credit cards are among the highest-interest loans a private consumer assumes. And that interest can be steep - especially if only the minimum amount is paid back each month. Take it from the experts at credit.com:

“Let’s assume, for example, you owe $6,000 on a credit card with a 15 percent annual percentage rate (APR) and your issuer requires 2 percent of that balance as a minimum payment. You’d wind up paying close to around $9,184 in interest, were you to only make that $120 minimum for the full 355 months it would take to pay that $6,000 balance down.”

And that’s without any additional credit card expenditures.

Then, too, for many families, credit cards are not the only long-term debt on the ledger sheet.

Mortgages, car loans and the grand-daddy of them all these days, student loans, weigh down the “debit” side of the balance sheet.

Indeed, at more than $1.5 trillion nationwide, student-loan debt has now surpassed credit cards and is behind only mortgages as the top source of debt in America.

This accumulated debt accounts for what is, at bottom, the real problem: “Research shows most Americans are ill-prepared to face a minor financial hiccup, let alone the cost of retirement,” according to a recent story by the Associated Press.

Pennsylvanians aren’t immune from these trends. The National Institute on Retirement Security estimates that half of all households in Pennsylvania have nothing saved for retirement and more than three-quarters of all Americans have insufficient retirement savings.

So, again, there’s room for improvement.

Credit cards have their place and, indeed, are all but indispensable in a world were financial transactions take place online, over smartphones and through screens.

But the interest rates are high and the debt can pile up quickly. In households were retirement savings are scarce and credit cards account for only a portion of the total debt, the old axiom has never been more pertinent: buyer beware.

__ The York Dispatch

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

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