Editorials from around Pennsylvania

July 5, 2018

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:



A conviction for a low-level crime shouldn’t come with a life sentence.

But many Pennsylvanians who undergo background checks when they seek jobs or housing are haunted by such past indiscretions for years after they commit them.

That is going to change under a new Pennsylvania law that will automatically seal records of most second- or third-degree misdemeanor offenses from public databases if a person has been conviction-free for 10 years. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the so-called Clean Slate Bill into law Thursday, and it takes effect next year. It’s the first law of its kind in the nation.

The new law rightfully doesn’t apply to more serious crimes such as murder, kidnapping, child endangerment, sexual offenses and firearms charges. And it won’t completely erase eligible people’s criminal records because police, courts and prosecutors will still be able to see them.

But it means employers and landlords doing background checks on job applicants and would-be tenants won’t see records of crimes including disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, shoplifting and some DUI offenses that happened more than a decade ago as long as the person has stayed out of trouble since.

That will make a difference in many Pennsylvanians’ lives. Nearly one in three Pennsylvania adults has a criminal record and, while not all of them will benefit from the new law, a significant number will.

For many of them, a better life is out of reach because they have to check a box on an application indicating they have a criminal record or a background check turns up an old, minor scrape with the law.

The new law could help them secure better jobs, better housing and a better quality of life, and that would be good for communities and the state as a whole.

And perhaps it will serve as an incentive for people who fouled up in a minor way to stay out of trouble because they know they’ll be able to put their past indiscretions behind them or at least out of public view if they do.

—Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

—Online: https://bit.ly/2lRa4Nj



Because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 21, it’s too early to predict the wording of the Use Tax line on the 2018 Pennsylvania state income tax form and whether, beyond this year, the line will have to continue to exist.

For 2017, the line — Line 25 — said simply, “Use Tax. Due on internet, mail order or out-of-state purchases. See instructions.”

The reality is that, in practice, many consumers who bought items in one of those ways last year — and in prior years that the tax existed — treated the line as if they only made purchases at brick-and-mortar stores in the commonwealth.

Many taxpayers skimped on honesty by indicating no use-tax obligation — or very little — when stacked up against their actual online, mail order or out-of-state purchases.

Despite the line’s presence on the tax form, there really was no way for the state to ascertain whether they were being partially or completely honest, or totally dishonest.

The fact is few taxpayers take the time to keep a running account of the purchases in question to determine how much state sales tax would be due on their purchases — how much tax they would have paid if they had made their purchases in-state.

And the use tax hasn’t just been a joke in the Keystone State; most other states have enjoyed the same experience.

But June 21 turned out to be a great day for brick-and-mortar businesses.

The nation’s highest court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the states can require internet retailers to collect sales taxes from their residents at the time of purchases.

The ruling in the case of South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc. overturned the 1992 court ruling in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota that said that the Constitution bars states from requiring businesses to collect sales tax unless they have a substantial connection to the state.

What the new ruling means is that, if the states act as expected in response to that new court edict, consumers could be required to pay taxes on products bought online — a price more in line with what they’d pay at brick-and-mortar merchants near home.

In many cases, that would be an incentive to support the local merchants who employ local residents, pay state and local taxes and do many other good things in their communities.

There is a place for the online merchants, but it ought to be on a level playing field.

The leveling of the playing field is what the June 21 ruling seeks to accomplish.

Pennsylvania, which, like the state of Washington during the past year, enacted a law requiring internet retailers to collect taxes on third-party sales, now must ensure that it receives the full benefit of the court ruling.

The Legislature can revisit the newly passed 2018-19 state budget to make spending adjustments based on the additional sales tax revenue that the commonwealth is destined to realize, although many taxpayers, responding to human nature, would prefer to see a downward adjustment in their state income tax obligation instead.

Regardless, the time may come when Line 25 of PA-40 correctly can be deemed no longer necessary.

—The Altoona Mirror

—Online: https://bit.ly/2ISKAIw



Congress has the authority to stop the Trump administration’s ill-considered trade war against some of the nation’s closest allies.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is right in trying to thwart Trump on trade issues, reminding them that the policies harm the economy and the nation’s standing in the world.

In a string of tweets as he joined Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s bill to restore congressional authority over trade, Toomey said “Congress should assert its constitutional responsibility and lead on trade policy so Americans keep access to affordable goods and services, and the opportunity to sell our products abroad ... Claiming steel bought from our allies is a ‘national security’ threat weakens our credibility.”

Toomey announced his decision before a series of companies announced last week that tariffs on steel and aluminum imports had begun to adversely affect their businesses. Mid-Continent Nail Co., for example, the nation’s largest nail manufacturer, said it would lay off 60 workers and that all 500 of its employees could be gone by Labor Day. American icon Harley Davidson announced its plan to shift some production overseas, to minimize the impact of increased steel and aluminum prices and to avoid retaliatory 31 percent tariffs imposed by the European Union.

Toomey also is a co-sponsor of the PRINT Act, which would suspend unwarranted tariffs on Canadian paper products pending an investigation of their merit and their impact on U.S. businesses, including newspapers and commercial printers, that use Canadian paper.

Toomey’s posture on trade is the correct one. Tariffs, especially as instituted by Trump, are narrow-interest policy. They jack up consumer prices for everyone while providing marginal, if any, benefits for the targeted businesses.

—Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

—Online: https://bit.ly/2KHKIiN



Well, look who’s in a great big hurry to fill a newly announced Supreme Court vacancy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who put President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee on ice for nearly a year in 2016, is all set to fast-track President Donald Trump’s nominee — whoever it may be — in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s announcement that he will retire.

Hold your horses, Mitch.

After all, the American people haven’t had a chance to weigh in. And as you argued so forcefully just two years ago, a decision as important as a Supreme Court vacancy, coming so close to a federal election, shouldn’t be made absent voter input.

Actually, the previous vacancy wasn’t all that near an election. Conservative powerhouse Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, 2016 — nearly nine full months before Election Day. Democrat Obama nominated centrist Merrick Garland about a month later, on March 16.

That gave the Republican-led Senate plenty of time to meet with Garland, schedule formal hearings and hold an up-or-down vote. But no such actions ever took place. McConnell stonewalled. Members of the party that has been harping on civility of late wouldn’t even give Garland the courtesy of meeting with him.

Having instituted such protocols, Republicans must now adhere to them. By this time in 2016, Obama’s nomination was more than 100 days old. Surely if that choice were too close to Election Day, Trump’s eventual selection will likewise preclude Senate action this year.

This wouldn’t be a concern, of course, had McConnell, after breaking precedent and refusing to allow a Supreme Court nominee to be voted upon, had not then broken a second long-heralded Senate tradition and done away with the judicial filibuster for high court nominees.

Until Trump’s 2017 nomination of conservative Neil Gorsuch, 60 votes were needed to break a judicial filibuster and bring a Supreme Court nomination to the floor. Not anymore.

McConnell, with the help of dependable party-over-country minions like Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, voted to do away with the 60-vote threshold. (To give him his due, Toomey at least met with Garland; but mostly to tell him he wouldn’t be receiving a Senate vote.)

So now that minority parties have been denied a historically important tool to provide at least some say in Supreme Court nominations, it is all the more important that action on any nominee wait until a new Senate is voted on and seated. A third of the Senate will be up for grabs this fall, and the current 51-49 GOP edge could easily change.

Of course, we expect McConnell to do no such thing. He is a craven partisan who gives not a fig about that part of “the American people” who do not share his beliefs.

Senate Democrats — though they are rightly throwing McConnell’s 2016 words back in his face — have few legitimate legislative tools at their disposal and, as they demonstrated two years ago, neither the creativity nor the spine to stand up to GOP steamrolling.

But with Sen. John McCain ailing back home in Arizona following a cancer diagnosis, Republicans hold just 50 Senate votes. That means that Trump’s few critics in the Senate — like outgoing Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona or Bob Corker of Tennessee; even unpredictable Rand Paul of Kentucky — find themselves in a position to do more than criticize wanly or tweet ineffectually.

They can stand up for the principals of fair governance, political polity and what the Senate once called regular order by withholding their support of any and all potential Supreme Court nominees for the rest of the year.

It is they who can rise above the hypocrisy of McConnell, the tantrums of Trump, and the mob mentality that has overtaken politics, and give true voice to the American people as the most consequential Supreme Court selection in generations is considered.

The Senate should follow the protocol McConnell & Co. bent the rules to establish in 2016. But it won’t — unless one brave Republican senator takes a stand.

History awaits.

—The York Dispatch

—Online: https://bit.ly/2z6s5QT



Video of a Lancaster city police officer using a stun gun against a black man went viral last week after it was uploaded to Facebook. According to the Lancaster City Bureau of Police, officers responded Thursday to a disturbance on the first block of South Prince Street involving a man identified as Sean D. Williams, age 27. Williams was told by police officers to sit down on the sidewalk. At least two officers shouted seemingly contradictory instructions on how they wanted him to sit; when he didn’t comply quickly, Officer Philip Bernot deployed his stun gun on him. The video had been viewed more than 2.7 million times on Facebook as of Monday.

The video is difficult to watch. And it plays out like a disturbing game of “Simon Says,” except it is no game.

Williams is sitting on a curb as Bernot directs him to put his legs out straight before him.

“Straight out! Straight out! Straight out!” Bernot shouts repeatedly. “Legs straight out, or you’re getting tased.”

Williams’ arms are outstretched; his back is to Bernot.

Williams is still in the process of straightening his legs when a female officer yells, “Put your legs straight out and cross them now” (which seems like a contradictory command to us).

As he begins to cross his legs, he is struck by Bernot’s stun gun.

As Williams writhes in pain, Bernot shouts out different orders: “On your stomach! On your stomach! Arms out like an airplane!”

A bystander yells to the officer: “Oh, come on, brah! You really going to tase him? He was sitting down though, brah!”

Those were our thoughts, too.

City police said in a statement last week that noncompliance “is often a precursor to someone that is preparing to flee or fight with Officers.”

But on the video, there’s no sign that Williams was preparing to flee. The officers didn’t appear to be facing any imminent threat — or any threat at all — from Williams.

Williams makes no move toward the officers — in fact, he continued to sit on the curb, facing away from the officers, until the electric current of the stun gun caused his body to twist and buckle.

At a rally Friday evening held to protest this use of force by the police, Williams told LNP’s Tim Stuhldreher that Bernot had been speaking too quickly for him to follow the officer’s instructions.

He was accompanied at the rally by his mother, Dana York, who said, “If that was a gun, my son would have been dead.”

We admire the dedication of police officers, including those in the City of Lancaster. Law enforcement is dangerous and demanding work, and we are grateful there are good people willing to do it.

But sometimes, police officers — being human — make mistakes. This seems like one of those instances.

Williams wasn’t charged for anything he’d done Thursday. He was arrested on a warrant for unrelated charges (possession of a controlled substance and public drunkenness), arraigned and then released on unsecured bail.

So why the use of force?

Make no mistake: Firing a stun gun is a use of force. And it can cause cardiac arrest and death. In 2010, a 61-year-old Mount Joy man died after police used a stun gun against him multiple times. And a 25-year-old Reading man died last year after police used a stun gun on him.

We appreciate that Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace quickly issued a video statement Thursday in which she said, “Like you, when I saw the video, I was upset by it, and it is of great concern to me. And we take the use of force very seriously.”

She said an investigation was underway, and that’s as it should be.

Sorace also said — wisely, in our view — that the incident “affirmed my resolve to implement a body camera program here in the City of Lancaster.”

As we’ve asserted before, body cameras protect both community residents and police officers.

The widely disseminated video of Thursday’s incident has been met with understandable concern.

More than 200 people rallied Friday evening on the steps of the Lancaster County Courthouse. The crowd was notably diverse, and those gathered were seeking answers, not vengeance.

“We are not anti-police,” said Michael Booth, campus pastor at Water Street Mission. “What we are against is bad policing.”

Stuhldreher reported that the rally speakers called for Bernot’s suspension, a community meeting with the police and the creation of a civilian review board to review such incidents in the future.

A community meeting seems imperative — the least city and police officials could do, really. While the instinct of some officials may be to retreat, public engagement will yield better results.

Launching a civilian review board would be a much more onerous undertaking. As a Governing magazine article pointed out last year, civilian review boards need independence, authority and funding if they are to be more than window dressing.

A more immediate solution would be a commitment to transparency.

The processes of investigating and disciplining police officers should be as transparent as possible, Tim Lynch, director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, told Governing.

Not only should officers under investigation be named, but if they were found to have committed any prior misconduct, that should be revealed to the public, Lynch told the magazine.

We wholeheartedly agree with this.

We urge city officials to ensure that the investigation of last week’s incident is both thorough and transparent. Transparency is going to be essential in building trust between the police and the community.

The Lancaster City Bureau of Police should share its use of force policy; LNP has requested it but hasn’t gotten any response yet.

The bureau also should disclose how officers are trained to use force — and what alternatives to force they are supposed to consider. Does the training cover interactions with people who have, say, intellectual or developmental disabilities or mental health issues? Or language barriers of any kind?

Sorace’s video statement last week was a much-appreciated indication of openness, but it was just the start. At least we hope it was just the start.

—LNP newspaper

—Online: https://bit.ly/2NlOMni

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