Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania | State

York Dispatch. March 17 2021.

Editorial: New commission must find new ways to pay for Pennsylvania infrastructure needs

There is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on — Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges are in desperate need of repairs and upgrades.

There is also one thing that almost no one can agree on — how to pay for it.

That’s why we applaud Gov. Tom Wolf’s appointment of a commission to recommend alternatives to pay for the state’s transportation needs.

Because one thing is certain — the old ideas aren’t working.

The state has the second-highest gasoline tax in the nation and yet our roads were rated the fifth-worst in the nation, according to one recent study.

It’s obvious that Pennsylvania taxpayers aren’t getting much bang for the buck and that something needs to change.

The makeup of the commission: That’s where the commission will come in and hopefully develop some fresh ideas on how to fairly raise the cash.

It’s a tall task.

Wolf seeks overhaul of Pennsylvania’s highway funding

According to an Associated Press report, the commission will include several dozen lawmakers, transportation industry representatives, transportation planners, government officials and others to deliver recommendations by Aug. 1 of funding alternatives to foot the extra billions of dollars deemed to be necessary.

We like the idea that the recommendations are due in months, not years. Something must change, in a hurry.

Gas tax isn’t working: It’s becoming more obvious by the day that the gas tax is becoming obsolete.

With more electric cars, vehicles getting better gas mileage and more folks working from home, there’s less gas being used. Therefore, the money being derived from the gas tax can’t keep up with the money needed for fixing our infrastructure.

User fees and state police: User fees are being suggested to raise some of the cash needed for the upgrades.

PennDOT, for example, is seeking to add tolls to nine major bridges on interstates around the state to finance reconstruction projects. That idea is drawing objections from Republican lawmakers, but it does seem like a fair way to generate revenue. Those using the bridges would pay for much of the upgrades on those bridges.

Another idea that deserves definite consideration is weaning the state police budget off highway construction funds. One has nothing to do with the other. Twelve cents per gallon of the state tax goes to the state police budget.

It would be a much better idea if that money came from the municipalities that refuse to pay for their own local police coverage and instead rely on the state police for protection. That state police protection should come with a cost to those municipalities. Their free lunch must end.

Not an isolated example: Unfortunately, the state police example is not an isolated one.

Lawmakers, over the years, have peeled off almost half of the gas tax revenue for other purposes, such as 8 cents a gallon to local governments and 3 cents a gallon to the Department of Agriculture and other state agencies.

That needs to stop, too. A gas tax should be used to fix transportation infrastructure — period.

Infrastructure vital to the state economy: If Pennsylvania wants to remain competitive with nearby states when it comes to attracting new businesses, our roads and bridges must be competitive, as well.

Right now, we are falling woefully behind in that area.

Hopefully, the new commission can figure out some innovative ways to pay for our infrastructure needs.

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The LNP/Lancaster Online. March 17, 2021.

Editorial: On per diems, posh retreats and state lawmaker spending in Pennsylvania (

THE ISSUE: Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA reported two stories in the past week that also were published on LancasterOnline: one detailing how Pennsylvania state lawmakers, led by House Democrats, “banked hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional taxpayer money for meals and lodging while on official business” in 2020 by availing themselves of a perk called “per diems”; the other about the retreats that Republican state lawmakers have planned at a lavish resort in the Laurel Highlands in Fayette County. Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.

Over the course of a year marked by surreal and distressing disruption, one thing didn’t change: the inclination of too many state lawmakers to feast on the public dime.

We’ve blasted per diem payments to lawmakers repeatedly. Last April — urging legislators to tighten their belts during the pandemic — we decried the fact that they still could claim $178 in expenses (without providing receipts) for every session day they traveled more than 50 miles from their homes for legislative business. This was at a time when most state government offices were closed. And when both chambers of the Legislature had passed temporary rules allowing lawmakers to meet and vote remotely.

Per diem payments are the icing on an already generous cake: A rank-and-file lawmaker’s base salary in 2020 exceeded $90,000. Those in leadership positions make tens of thousands of dollars more.

As Spotlight PA noted, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is the largest full-time legislature in the country and pays the third-highest state lawmaker salaries.

Per diems are questionable in an ordinary year. But to claim per diems during a pandemic, when so many Pennsylvanians have struggled merely to get by, strikes us as shameful.

Democrats made the top five largest per diem claims.

At the top of the heap was state Rep. Mark Longietti, of Mercer County, who claimed a whopping $24,115 in per diem payments. He was followed on the list by four other Democrats who claimed between $18,901 and $24,073.

State Sen. Pat Browne, of Lehigh County, claimed the most of any Republican: $16,157.

No Republican Lancaster County state lawmakers appear on the list except for Rep. Jim Cox, who serves parts of both Lancaster and Berks counties. He claimed $2,105 in per diem payments.

The absence of other Lancaster County Republicans from the list — and kudos to them — may be partly explained by the county’s proximity to Harrisburg, though per diems also may be collected at varying rates to stay overnight, say in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, for a committee hearing.

State Rep. Mike Sturla, the lone Democratic lawmaker from Lancaster County, claimed $920.

We’re mystified as to how one even manages to spend more than $24,000 in per diems during a pandemic when restaurant dining was a challenge, lodging rates were reduced, and lawmakers had the option to meet virtually.

And yet a Spotlight PA analysis of legislative records “found lawmakers requested and received $726,877 from the beginning of March — as the pandemic emerged — through the end of 2020 as reimbursement for lodging and meals while traveling to and from the Capitol or other meetings across the state.”

Remember this when a state lawmaker says state government cannot afford to help people in need or fund schools fairly or fix roads and bridges.

Fancy retreats

Which brings us to the subject of the retreats that state Republican lawmakers have planned for later this month and next month at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort — also the site of the 25th and most recent season of ABC’s “The Bachelor.”

According to Spotlight PA, the cost of such legislative retreats can be covered using campaign funds, rather than taxpayer money.

Nevertheless, as one Republican lawmaker told Spotlight PA, “It’s not a good look.”

Not at all.

Especially as we’re still dealing with a vicious pandemic during which large in-person gatherings continue to be discouraged.

And especially, Spotlight PA pointed out, as the “state is slated to receive billions in aid from the federal government to help state and local agencies, as well as residents, navigate the financial burdens brought on by the pandemic.”

Perhaps the spirits of struggling Pennsylvanians will be brightened knowing that their lawmakers are staying at a resort where single rooms, according to an email obtained by Spotlight PA, will be priced at $600 a night.

Maybe lawmakers will stay in “The Chateau” at Nemacolin, whose webpage literally reads: “Let them eat cake.”

Or in the “bespoke oasis” that is Falling Rock, “Luxe leisure inspired by the renowned architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Among the many experiences offered by the Nemacolin are indoor ax throwing (we guess it’s a good thing Democrats aren’t invited); outdoor sculpture tours; Jeep off-roading; safari tours; and seasonal rides on a classic carousel (an apt metaphor for the Legislature, which goes round and round, getting nowhere).

The resort’s holistic healing center offers “immune boosting acupuncture” and “Whole Body Cryotherapy” sessions. Its spa offers options including a “mystic facial,” a “diamond decadence facial,” and a “sculpting ice lift facial” (these particular treatments start at $260).

Also on offer, and starting at $210, is a “derriere contour” — to tone, lift, define, hydrate, exfoliate and smooth “the back side of your body” (because all that sitting around takes its toll).

There’s also “Cranialsacral Therapy,” which we highly recommend for whoever thought legislative retreats at this clearly lovely, clearly luxurious resort was a good idea for GOP lawmakers. (We wonder how campaign donors feel about their contributions being used in this way.)

An in-person retreat during a pandemic wasn’t a good idea, no matter where it was slated to be held.

Lawmakers aren’t college students throwing caution to the wind on spring break (and even college students shouldn’t be throwing caution to the wind right now). We hope lawmakers at least wear masks — and not the gemstone-infused gold “masques” applied during the resort’s “ritual facial.”

Lawmakers ought to exhibit some sensitivity toward their constituents — if not all the time, then at least during this pandemic, a difficult time for so many Pennsylvanians.

We’d all love to retreat to a swanky resort in the Laurel Highlands, or claim hefty per diems on top of generous taxpayer-funded salaries. But most of us live in the real world.

Pennsylvania lawmakers should join us here.

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Philadelphia Inquirer. March 18, 2021.

Editorial: As looming personal debt crisis emboldens collectors, Philly’s small claims court needs a bigger role

Philadelphians are amassing a staggering amount of debt. An October survey conducted by the Pew Philadelphia Research and Policy Initiative found that nearly 1 in 3 are behind on their credit card bill. And the Census Bureau recently found that through the end of February, 35{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be} of households in the Philadelphia metro area were struggling to pay for usual household expenses.

In addition to a tidal wave of evictions expected when moratoriums run out, the pandemic has laid the groundwork for a debt crisis. Much of this will play out in court — in Philadelphia that means Municipal Court’s small claims court, a sibling of landlord tenant court where evictions are filed.

A new report by Community Legal Services and Reinvestment Fund reveals a number of concerning realities in debt collection cases: lack of legal representation for debtors, unreliable service of notifications, and a system that enables large companies to wield tremendous power, often in the absence of a judge or the person who owes the debt.

According to the report, 84{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be} of the 90,809 small claims cases filed in Philadelphia between January 2016 and April 2020 were filed by only 10 entities — with the top four filing nearly 60,000 cases. These include companies like Midland Funding, which makes a profit by buying and collecting on debt, and banks like Capital One.

Black residents are more likely to be sued in small claims court, and are involved in cases with lower claim amounts than those of other races. It is well-documented that Black people get worse terms on credit and loans. The new report suggests that collection of these set-to-fail agreements are also more zealous.

Echoing issues explored by this board on service of notices in eviction cases, the report finds that between 2016 and 2020 a quarter of cases were dismissed because documents couldn’t be properly served. In the majority of the rest of cases, defendants lose by default — again raising questions about service of notices. Defaults mean that liens can be placed on defendants’ houses and bank accounts frozen without notification or review of the claim’s merit.

Legal representation has a big impact on case outcomes. About a third of people who are represented by a lawyer win their cases, compared with 1{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be} for unrepresented. And yet only 6{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be} of defendants appear with a lawyer. Unrepresented defendants don’t go before a judge but negotiate a payment agreement with the debt-collecting lawyer. A breach of the agreement allows the collector to pursue the defendants’ bank account and property even years later, after the debt has grown with interest.

Cases in small claims court are for less than $12,000, with nearly half of the claims for less than $2,000. These relatively small sums can carry big and long-term impact on people’s lives.

A Pew report from February sheds light on the experience of Philadelphians. Pew surveyed defendants in small claims court in 2018. A staggering 85{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be} said that they thought people sued in small claims court need a lawyer. Fewer than half found it easy to understand what was happening in court. The report also shows the fallout of debt collection: 22{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be} of those who appeared in court fell behind on bills or had utilities disconnected, and 16{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be} went without food and other basic needs in order to pay debt collectors.

To their credit, Municipal Court’s leadership, including President Judge Patrick Dugan and Judge Matthew Wolf — the new supervisor of the court’s civil division that includes both landlord-tenant and small claims courts — have in the last few months addressed issues raised with how the final notice before an eviction is served. Just last month, after an editorial about the issue, the court began to include time and manner of service of eviction final notices in the docket information.

Similarly to housing court, defendants in small claims court need more information, and for service to improve, so default judgments can be minimized. The court could consider requiring documentation to support fillings, at least ensuring that fraudulent claims aren’t furthered.

The impact of debt collection cases, despite being less immediately traumatic than evictions, could ultimately carry as much harm. This welcome new research and attention on debt collection brings needed scrutiny to a court system that has remained opaque — and that can have outsized influence on people’s lives.

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Erie Times News. March 20, 2021.

Editorial: Exercise your right to know

Centre County resident Michelle Grove heard rumors that her local school board had purchased a farm for more than $1 million. The rumors proved to be true — not that anyone attending school board meetings would have known. That piece of the public’s business was conducted out of public view in an executive session.

Grove explained in an open government panel discussion Tuesday how she filed right-to-know requests for information that forced the expenditure into the light. Her victory, and her ongoing work to combat government secrecy, were celebrated in a virtual forum hosted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition in honor of Sunshine Week. That is the time set aside each year to recall the essential role of open government in our democracy and the laws that make it possible — for both citizens and journalists.

We celebrate our extraordinary experiment in self-rule too often with platitudes and empty gestures. Electing a representative government is only the first step. How to ensure it champions the public’s interests? Quite simply by knowing what your elected officials do with the power you accord them, be they school board members, lawmakers, executives, row officers, council people or the many who serve on low-profile but powerful boards and committees. Who do they hire and why? How do they spend taxpayer money? How do they make the critical decisions that shape the contours of our lives, be it zoning rules, school curriculum, tax rates or laws governing life, liberty and property?

Good, responsive government does not just happen. It requires vigilance and engagement by citizens like Grove and the free press, the so-called fourth branch of government, not self-anointed, but playing a vital role identified by the founders.

Sunshine Week coincides with James Madison’s birthday on March 16. A lead author of the Bill of Rights — guaranteeing among others, freedom of the press — he wrote, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

Indeed. Neither enemies of the people nor fake, members of the free press mostly are not national celebrities or partisan pundits. They are your neighbors. Reporters work long hours to bring you sports scores and school board votes. They detail community stories of loss and triumph. They keep you apprised of local business, health, crime, dining and entertainment news. And for all the times you can’t be in a courtroom or council meeting or the state Capitol, they witness, inquire and report, holding power to account. They do this in a time of upheaval in the industry, resulting in leaner resources and heightened focus on what matters most to readers. In a deluge of information unleashed by the internet, they strive to impart facts, a commodity under such threat in this era of disinformation leveraged for political ends.

Sunshine Week is always worth observing, but especially during this extraordinary year of crisis and division, when events cast such a stark spotlight on the need for truth and open, effective government.

Citizens waited most of 2020 in vain for a coordinated, honest federal response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Here in Pennsylvania, clear answers were slow in coming from the Wolf administration on key questions about coronavirus case data and the decision-making behind nursing home COVID protocols and business shutdown orders. That situation was made worse by GOP partisans in the Legislature who politicized essential safety measures and made a unified response, so badly needed, all but impossible. And all of it occurred amid a contentious election and an organized, deliberate assault on truth led by the former president that resulted in the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

As we emerge from this harrowing chapter, there is much hard-earned wisdom to hold close, the value of truth and transparent government, especially. Seek it, defend it, celebrate it, always. Without it, as we have seen and as Madison knew, we risk tragedy and farce.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 21, 2021.

Editorial: Tolling bridges isn’t the answer

When it comes to toll roads, Pennsylvania seems to lead the way: a turnpike system that a recent report dubbed the most expensive toll road in the world, and now plans by PennDOT to begin adding tolls for travel on nine interstate highway bridges.

The plans for bridge tolls sparked outrage from both the public and elected officials, so much so that the state Senate Transportation Committee last week voted 9-4 along party lines (Republicans supporting, Democrats opposed) to require legislative approval for road projects that include a user fee. Whether such a measure would withstand a veto from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is unclear.

In the meantime, the Legislature, the governor and transportation officials must come up with a better way to produce the needed revenues for road maintenance rather than continually passing on the cost to the traveling public and the trucking industry.

The new bridge-tolling plan, as crafted, would include the Interstate 79 bridge near the Bridgeville exit and it would go into effect in 2023. Although the toll amount has not been set, it could be $1 to $2 for passenger vehicles and more for tractor-trailers. That may seem like a nominal fee to produce the funds needed to maintain the bridge, but for a local commuter who travels the road twice a day, that’s $40 a month at a $1 fee; twice that at $2. For truckers and the industry, the impact is sure to be great.

The continual increase in both the number of toll roads as well as the rates on the turnpike (13 consecutive years of rate hikes) is unreasonable. It’s practically a given that any new construction projects will include a tolling requirement, as is the case, for example, with the Southern Beltway that will link I-79 and Route 22 near Pittsburgh International Airport.

Passing along transportation system maintenance costs with more and higher tolls doesn’t just sap the pocketbooks of the traveling public; it slams the trucking industry — our nation’s commercial lifeline. And as drivers look to avoid the tolls, there’s increased traffic load on a road system not designed for it.

The American Trucking Association released a report last year that said toll revenue had increased nationwide over the past 10 years by 72{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be}, although inflation increased by less than 17{540ccc4681f92a8237c705b0cdebbb9da373ec200da159e6cc1fd9f393be00be}. And the study found that of the $14.7 billion collected in tolls, nearly half went for uses other than maintenance. It is worth mentioning that higher tolls for the trucking industry generally results in higher consumer costs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wolf wants to eliminate the gasoline tax. He has established a commission to find alternatives to the tax, which is a key source of funding for road projects. The alternative cannot be more and higher tolls. There’s a better way. PennDOT and the governor’s new commission need to find it.

END