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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

May 29, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

SPENDING $1 PER RESIDENT WILL HELP ENSURE ACCURATE CENSUS COUNT AND SAVE Pa. BILLIONS

The Harrisburg Patriot News, May 24

Everybody wins and nobody loses in getting a fair and accurate count of Pennsylvania residents in the 2020 census, but the job is a lot harder than you might think.

The Governor’s Census 2020 Complete Count Commission is asking legislators to approve $12.8 million in the state budget to help them do what their name suggests - making sure every Pennsylvania resident is counted.

But the commission is facing significant challenges between now and December 2021 when the final count of the 2020 Census will be announced.

Thousands of immigrants - especially those with undocumented relatives in their households - might be too fearful of government to fill out the forms. And the Trump administration’s push to add a question about citizenship to the Census form won’t help persuade them to cooperate.

There are others, including many seniors, who might not take the time or who might need help to respond to letters, emails or even phone calls. And there is concern about reaching thousands of people who live in remote or crime-ridden areas.

For every single resident that is not counted, the state could lose as much as $2,093 annually in federal funding. Losing that much federal money would impact everything from our representation in Congress, to repairs on roads and bridges, to Pell Grants.

“A Congressional seat is at risk,” warned State Rep. Danilo Burgos (D-Philadelphia). “If we lose one Congressional seat, we’ll be losing millions of dollars.”

A state’s population is directly tied to the number of representatives it has in Congress, and federal dollars are allocated to states based on their populations.

“We need to make sure our communities understand the importance of what’s on the line here,” Burgos said.

Burgos is concerned that language barriers might prevent an accurate count of Pennsylvania’s Latino community. The state ’s allocation of $12.8 million, or $1 per Pennsylvania resident, would pay for interpreters and translation of census forums, not only into Spanish but into the languages of thousands of other immigrants from foreign countries who now live in the commonwealth.

Plus, the state allocation could help pay for expenses associated with town halls, community meetings and grassroots campaigns to build trust and answer questions in immigrant and other communities.

Reaching immigrant families is not the only challenge. There are concerns about getting college students at Penn State, Dickinson or Pitt to register for the census as residents of Pennsylvania.

“More than a half million college students call the commonwealth their home,” said Randy Goin, Jr., Deputy Chancellor for the PA System of Higher Education. “Where they count is where they are. They need to be counted in the census where they are going to school.”

There’s a lot at stake for college students in Pennsylvania, including access to Pell Grants, which are allocated to states based on their population, Goin said. A big chunk of Pell Grants are federal funds that makes it possible for many low-income students to attend college.

Then, there are the children, who were undercounted in the 2010 Census, according to the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, which is supporting the commission’s call for $12.8 million in state funding.

“The 2010 census missed nearly one in ten children aged 0-4, or about 2 million children nationwide,” the organization said. “Even worse, the children that are missed most often are children of color.”

Undercounting children means the state would receive less federal funding to address the needs of the poorest, most vulnerable children in our communities.

With so many obstacles preventing a complete count, it makes sense to heed the commission’s warning and set aside money for education and outreach for the 2020 census. Commissioners make a convincing argument that spending a few million now will help will prevent the loss of billions later, especially if our population is seriously undercounted.

We urge legislators to approve the commission’s request of $1 per Pennsylvania resident to ensure the best effort is made to count everyone — from seniors to babies in arms — in the 2020 census.

Online: https://bit.ly/2KkGAF5

___IN PENNSYLVANIA, AND IN LANCASTER COUNTY, WE HAVE TOO MUCH GOVERNMENT

LPN, May 27

THE ISSUE

As academics G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young pointed out in a column that ran in the May 12 Perspective section, Pennsylvania has 67 counties that “encapsulate some 2,561 ‘incorporated’ local governments, including hundreds of boroughs, townships and cities. That doesn’t include the state’s 500 school districts or some 1,500 ‘authorities’ with taxing or fiscal powers (such as sewer and water authorities). Only Texas and Illinois have more local governments than the Keystone State.” Lancaster County alone has 60 municipalities and 17 school districts (including Octorara Area School District, which serves both Lancaster and Chester counties).

Lancaster County residents, like all Pennsylvanians, love the idea of local control — that is, holding close to us the reins of government power.

So, our five dozen municipalities include 41 townships, 18 boroughs, one third-class city (Lancaster, of course) and 75 authorities. And, fun fact: We have as many school districts as there are species of penguin.

Lancaster County is a crazy quilt of fragmented government, set in the larger crazy quilt of fragmented government that is Pennsylvania.

As Madonna and Young pointed out, this makes it difficult for voters to participate in municipal primaries like last Tuesday’s. They “confront a bewildering welter of possible candidate choices for a wide variety of offices. ... For most voters, the challenge is stupefying. Indeed, unless there is a controversy or scandal many voters will know little or nothing about the candidates.”

In addition to judicial races, Madonna and Young wrote, “there are also a large number of elections scheduled for mayors, township commissioners and supervisors and other local officials, along with school board directors.”

“And then there are the separate county offices to be filled. Except in the commonwealth’s few home rule counties, Pennsylvanians still elect sheriffs, prothonotaries, clerks of court, and registers of wills — all basically offices that perform court and administrative functions.”

Perhaps “a quarter of voters,” Madonna and Young asserted, “will have some knowledge about who is seeking these posts or will reasonably understand the functions performed by the officeholders.”

This helps to explain — but frankly does not excuse — why turnout in Lancaster County’s municipal primary was so small. LNP reporters called it “modest.”

They were too kind.

It was a paltry 14%.

This partly owes to the fact that because of Pennsylvania’s closed-primary system, only registered Republicans and Democrats can nominate candidates for election. Which is why we highlighted, in our May 19 Sunday LNP editorial, a Republican state Senate bill that would allow unaffiliated voters to choose on primary election day to vote with the Democrats or Republicans.

Madonna and Young believe the solution lies in appointing, rather than electing, people to fill some local administrative offices.

We believe there are more fundamental questions to consider: Have we gone overboard in our quest for local control? Should we consider more seriously some levels of consolidation of government in this county?

Consolidation is anathema to many of us county residents, who passionately want to retain our individual school districts, in particular. Merging, for efficiency’s sake, the tiny and impoverished Columbia School District with nearby Hempfield or Penn Manor seems a no-brainer to us, but those school districts have balked in the past at taking on Columbia’s problems.

Consolidating local police departments and creating a countywide force would make crime-fighting in this county a seamless endeavor. As we pointed out in 2015, when District Attorney Craig Stedman floated the idea of a countywide police force, criminals “pay about as much heed to municipal boundaries as they do to the law itself.” Creating a county police force also would eliminate free-riding by local municipalities that rely on the Pennsylvania State Police for coverage — a problem that Gov. Tom Wolf seeks to address by proposing a per capita fee, with a graduated scale based on population, for such municipalities. If we had a countywide police force, Lancaster County residents wouldn’t have to rely on the state police for local matters.

Another problem that could be ameliorated by some consolidation: overdevelopment in Lancaster County.

This county has a comprehensive plan — places2040 — aimed at slowing the loss of farmland to development and using land more efficiently in areas designated for population growth and business expansion. But it’s only a plan. It’s not enforceable. And, as we pointed out in a November editorial, “The success of this plan will require buy-in from an overwhelming majority of our 60 municipalities, which hold the power to manage growth and development within their borders.”

This, we noted, makes it “a nightmare to tackle regional planning.”

So, the questions we ask are these: Is there a way to retain the character of our individual communities while embracing some level of consolidation? Can we eliminate some of the micromanaging and redundancy of services, while holding onto a measure of local control? Should governance in Lancaster County — and Pennsylvania — be less fragmented?

What level of consolidation would be acceptable to you?

We believe it’s time to start a serious conversation about this. We invite you to share your thoughts in letters to the editor (via email: LancasterLetters@lnpnews.com).

Online: https://bit.ly/30S9bY2

___

THE ADVERSITY FACTOR: SAT’s NEW METRIC COULD BE HELPFUL, IF IT ISN’T ABUSED

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 29

The introduction of what’s been dubbed an “adversity score” by the College Board as part of its SAT testing program could provide a useful tool to college and university admissions directors — if it is not abused, a temptation that colleges and universities will hardly be able to resist.

The College Board, which administers the SAT exam, recently unveiled the Environmental Context Dashboard — some wag came up with the term “adversity score.” It claims to measure the economic and social adversity that test takers have faced based on the characteristics of their high schools and neighborhoods of residence.

The adversity score, which also will be available to colleges for students who take the separately administered ACT, is supposed to help colleges spot students who overcome obstacles. A high adversity score next to a middling SAT score reveals someone with resourcefulness, grit and determination.

According to the College Board, its piloting of this program with 50 colleges resulted in a 25% increase in poor students being accepted.

The College Board’s depiction of the characteristics of a high school and a neighborhood are a way around affirmative action, which has been prohibited in some states. A case involving Harvard’s affirmative action policy is making its way toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is it needed? Colleges and universities already can figure out for themselves whether a student is coming from a disadvantaged situation. Many students fill out the common application, and most families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a laborious process that demands a family’s every financial detail. Students disclose the high schools they are graduating from, about which colleges and universities can make their own judgments.

The adversity score, to the extent that it evolves as just one way that gains a deserving student a second look from a college admissions officer, will be beneficial in a bewilderingly complex system.

What helps make higher education in America excellent are its degrees of independence and the diversity from one campus to the next. The impulse to reduce every student to a numerical rating must be resisted.

Online: https://bit.ly/2EHhE6V

___STOP SLAPPs TO FACE OF STATE COURTS

The Scranton Times-Tribune, May 29

Courts are the place in the American system where everyone is supposed to meet on level ground — rich and poor, black and white, conservative and liberal.

It doesn’t always work that way, of course, especially when some parties attempt to use the courts to silence their detractors — not on the merits, but on the financial ledger.

The simple fact is that litigation is expensive. So, in Pennsylvania and many other states, some relatively well-heeled interests have silenced their critics by filing strategic lawsuits against public participation — SLAPPs. They are designed not to resolve a matter at dispute, but to silence a party who cannot afford to defend against the suit.

As reported recently by The Philadelphia Inquirer, such suits have been filed by politicians and entertainment industry figures against women who have accused them of sexual harassment or assault, by politicians who don’t like commentary about them on social media, by industrial interests against noisy environmentalists, by developers against preservationists and so on.

The plaintiffs typically claim in such suits that the defendants have hampered their business interests or damaged their reputations. Faced with the massive costs of litigation, would-be critics often resort to self-censorship, providing the well-heeled interest with a victory for the cost of a legal filing fee.

Some such claims are legitimate, of course, which provides the cover for the frivolous claims aimed at producing silence rather than justice for actual wrongs. At least 27 states, including California and Texas, have passed laws aimed at telling the difference, and Pennsylvania should follow suit.

State Sen. Larry Farnese, a Philadelphia Democrat, has introduced anti-SLAPP bills based on those in Texas and California in each of the last three years. The bill passed the Senate, 42-8, in 2017 but died in the House.

The bill would enable someone or a group faced with an alleged SLAPP suit to file a dismissal motion on grounds that the suit is frivolous. If the court tosses the suit, the plaintiff would have to cover the defendants’ costs.

“We have allowed well-financed entities to use fear to silence well-intentioned civic and neighborhood groups by threatening them with these ridiculous and expensive SLAPP lawsuits,” Farnese said in 2017. “Organizations in my district have been the target of SLAPP suits and targeted for nothing more than their work to further the public interest, with limited financial means to defend themselves in court. These organizations, like any other, deserve to have a voice and be heard loud and clear.”

The Legislature should embrace the opportunity to let the courts determine when a claim has merit or is being used as a cudgel.

Online: https://bit.ly/2JN2JvW

___

MAYOR JIM KENNEY WON THE PHILADELPHIA PRIMARY; SO DID THE SODA TAX

The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 28

With Mayor Kenney’s primary win, the soda tax is likely here to stay and Philadelphia should be proud of it.

Tuesday’s vote was an affirmation of both Kenney and his administration’s policies. Both of his primary opponents — Anthony Hardy Williams and Alan Butkovitz — ran in opposition to the sweetened beverage tax. Even if you combined the total votes that both of them received, Mayor Kenney still would have won with a 33-point lead. Philadelphians love to hate the tax, but when they had a chance to cast a pro-repeal vote, they didn’t.

Since the tax was proposed in 2016, the beverage industry has spent millions of dollars warning about its disastrous effects, from job losses to businesses shutting down — using small business and poor households cynically to protect their own profits. A study by researchers from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania suggests that didn’t happen. The researchers found no change in unemployment claims from the industries that could be impacted by the tax in Philadelphia compared to claims from the same industries in nearby counties. According to the Department of Revenue, city wage tax collection data shows that beverage-related industries continue to grow.

Another claim from the industry was that the tax won’t matter because people will just buy soda outside the city. Researches from Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Penn found that even when taking into account the increase in taxed beverages in stores outside the city, the overall sales of taxed beverages went down by 38 percent — a positive public-health outcome.

Recently, Kenney has proposed a statewide beverage tax; among other things, that would keep Philadelphians from buying beverages outside the city, which decreases the revenues that go to pre-K. If beverages were taxed statewide, there would be no point in traveling outside of the city to buy beverages, unless shoppers drive to New Jersey or Delaware. It’s unlikely that a statewide tax will be imposed in Pennsylvania, considering the Republican-controlled legislature that has little-to-no appetite for new taxes. Other states — Connecticut and California, for example — are considering proposals for a statewide beverage tax. In a recent paper, economists from Harvard and New York University argue for the cost effectiveness and public benefits of a federal tax.

The trend nationwide seems to be toward taxation of sweetened beverages, not away from it. As the first large city in the nation to implement the tax — which provided an opportunity to evaluate the impacts — Philadelphia is a leader. That is something that we can be proud of.

In recent years, Philadelphia has generated negative headlines because of overdose deaths and homicides. But in conversations about how to improve states and cities all over the country, Philadelphia is a model to follow.

The sweetened beverage tax passed City Council overwhelmingly (14-3), was held up by the courts after it was challenged, and the administration that championed it won sweeping reelection. It may have haters, but it’s a law that is doing the city good.

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

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