AP NEWS

Editorials from around Pennsylvania

November 30, 2016

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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SMALL BUSINESSES ARE THE BACKBONE, Nov. 28

Last weekend, while Americans were recovering from their Thanksgiving feasting, the nation’s retailers were having their Super Bowl.

The sales push began on Thanksgiving Day and continued into Black Friday for major retailers, leading into Small Business Saturday and then into Cyber Monday.

Small businesses, defined as having 500 or fewer employees, have long been the backbone of the U.S. economy. According to the Small Business Administration, the nation’s 28 million small businesses represent 54 percent of all U.S. sales and have provided 55 percent of all jobs since the 1970s.

The 77 million people that make up the small business workforce would rank as the 17th most populous country in the world, just ahead of Iran.

Each small business has its own unique story.

“All the corner shops in our towns and cities — the restaurants, cleaners, gyms, hair salons, hardware stores — these didn’t come out of nowhere,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Small businesses also significantly impact Pennsylvania’s economy, representing 98.3 percent of all employers and employ 48.6 percent of the private sector labor force. Most of the state’s small businesses are very small; 76.7 percent of all businesses have no employees and most employers have fewer than 20 employees.

Nationally, 78 percent of U.S. small businesses employ only one person, and more than half of them operate out of the home. It takes six days to start a business in the U.S. while the wait in China is 38 days.

The small business vote proved large in the recent presidential election. According to an exclusive nationwide poll with Manta, a social network for small businesses, Donald Trump won the crucial first debate in the eyes of small businesses on Main Street.

Manta CEO John Swanciger said small-business owners were highly invested in this election for good reason, with important issues including the minimum wage, overtime regulations, and continuing health care policy changes.

The top concerns for small-business owners in order of priority are access to capital (lending by financial institutions), hiring, religious freedom, foreign policy, immigration, health care and taxes. Almost 80 percent said raising capital was their No. 1 concern.

There’s not been a great deal of love for government from small business. A poll showed that only 24 percent believed the government was supportive of the small-business man and 10 percent of those polled said they didn’t want government involved at all.

President-elect Trump continuously pounded the economic issues home during the campaign, and the strategy was a winner. His victory, however, still has many wondering how the campaign rhetoric will translate into concrete steps and whether Senate Democrats will try to slow the Republican agenda.

Among Trump’s major promises was to repeal Obamacare, something Republicans in Congress have failed to do so far.

Trump also said he’d reverse some of Obama’s executive orders, including one that eased deportation policies against minors who are in this country illegally; eliminate a rule that allows the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate bodies of water on private lands; and withdraw our nation from an international agreement on climate change.

As for taxes, Trump advocated lowering the income tax on all companies to 15 percent. Businesses can be taxed at rates up to nearly 40 percent under current law and corporate tax rates range from 15 percent to 35 percent.

The tax law can’t be changed without Congress, but the National Federation of Independent Business believes that a Republican president and Congress will lower taxes for small companies.

As for trade, Trump campaigned on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, which governs trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and wants other trade deals modified. He also wants the U.S. to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Regarding the minimum wage, many believe Congress will be pressured to lift the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 since 2009. Some small-business groups say a higher minimum wage hurts small companies while others say it helps them compete and gives consumers more money to spend.

As someone once said, “Small business isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s for the brave, the patient and the persistent. It’s for the overcomer.”

Although the author of that quote is unknown, it speaks volumes to the entrepreneurial spirit that drives the American economy.

— Lehighton Times-News

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DECISION A SETBACK FOR WORKERS, Nov. 29

A ruling last week by a federal judge in Texas represents a major setback for about 4.2 million lower salaried American workers — 185,000 in Pennsylvania — and their employers, who have worked for months to build a better framework for fair compensation.

The Labor Department rules, previously set to take effect on Thursday, would have doubled the salary level at which hourly workers must be paid for overtime compensation for working more than 40 hours a week.

Siding with business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. District Judge Amos L. Mazzant III has halted it.

That was good news for opponents — many of whom cited the costs of “paperwork.” But it was a defeat for hardworking Americans who deserve to be fairly compensated when they work overtime for their employers.

The new rules were drafted as an update to the Fair Labor Standards Act. They would have mandated that salaried employees who earn below $47,476 or less would receive 1.5 times the hourly wage that applies to their salary if they worked more than 40 hours within a week. Currently, only employees who earn $23,660 or less each year are eligible for overtime.

According to statistics released by the Department of Labor, the highest number of employees affected the by changes hold a bachelor’s degree (39.2 percent), followed by those with an associate or occupational degree (28.6 percent).

The proposed rules — which also would have provided for automatic wage revisions based on economic conditions every three years starting on Jan. 1, 2020 — would have provided a long-overdue boost to those who have been left behind in today’s workforce, proponents said.

“Right now, too many Americans are working long days for less pay than they deserve,” President Barack Obama said last year as he called for the changes.

Employers — including the Daily Item — have been working feverishly since May 18, when the final rules were announced, to be in compliance by Dec. 1. Others, who have been working just as hard to derail it, celebrated the judge’s decision.

“The decision brings us a step closer to curbing regulations that have resulted in $80 billion in compliance costs and more than 25 million hours of paperwork,” said Linda Kelly, senior vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers.

The future of the wage revisions are uncertain as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, but we hope that Trump, who campaigned as a champion for the American worker, will recognize the long-term value of fair compensation for dedicated work.

—The (Sunbury) Daily Item

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GREATER EFFORT NEEDED TO RECRUIT WOMEN SUPERINTENDENTS, Nov. 27

Love her or hate her, agree that the electoral college works or argue it is an anachronism defying the popular vote, this much is true: Hillary Clinton came closer to shattering the nation’s ultimate glass ceiling than anyone in history.

Even if you believe she was absolutely the wrong woman to break through, you have to be a caveman to believe a woman should never be president.

Women have been leading other nations for decades: Angela Merkel in Germany, Margaret Thatcher in England, Golda Meir in Israel, Indira Ghandi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, to name a (very) few.

Independent of her policies and past, Clinton’s failure brings new focus to America’s “glass ceilings” in general. For whatever reasons, we still have more men than women in top power positions in almost every field.

Consider public schools. Recently, Education Week detailed a lack of women in the top spot of the nation’s school districts. The data was distilled in one stark paragraph:

Women make up 76 percent of teachers, 52 percent of principals, and 78 percent of central-office administrators, according to federal data and the results of a recent national survey. Yet they account for less than a quarter of all superintendents. .”

The pattern holds true locally. According to state data, in 2015-16 Luzerne County public schools had 2,276 female “professional personnel” — 72 percent of the total. Similarly, 74 percent of classroom teachers were women.

How many of the county’s 11 school districts had a female superintendent? One, though Northwest Area presents an unusual case: Elizabeth Ellis was hired as “director of district operations,” while Lake-Lehman School District Superintendent James McGovern was tabbed as Northwest Area’s “Superintendent of Record.”

Even counting Ellis, the women are in charge in a scant 18 percent of county districts.

And it doesn’t get any better if you extend the search. The Hazleton Area Career Center principal is a woman, but both of the county’s multi-district career and technical centers have men in charge. The Luzerne Intermediate Unit has a male executive director, and Bear Creek Community Charter School’s CEO is a man.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course. If men are truly the best qualified applicants, they should be hired. And as Ed Week notes, part of the problem may be that, in many cases, women simply don’t apply.

But when the overwhelming majority of teachers are women, this particular glass ceiling becomes particularly suspect.

Local school boards and districts should re-evaluate how they approach filling the top job. Do they make it clear they are eager for a diverse pool of applicants (which includes minorities as well as women)? Do they mentor women employees interested in leadership roles? Do they harbor unrealized bias?

The goal is not, de facto, to appoint more female superintendents; it is to make sure we are not missing out on what they could bring to the job.

—(Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader

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THE IRONY OF PA.’S OPEN RECORDS LAW, Nov. 30

Among the many ironies contained in Pennsylvania’s open records law, or at least how the law is interpreted by local officials and their lawyers, is that government entities believe that the amount of money they spend on legal fees in resisting the release of information can be kept from public view.

Look at it this way: Say you want to find out, for instance, how much your township spent on consultants for a certain project, and the township declines to release the information. So you file a request under the Right To Know Law, and the township hires a lawyer to fight it. Then, if you want to know how much the township spent to keep that information from you, the township says you can’t have it.

So, what you have here is your local government declining to tell you how it spent your tax dollars and using your money to prevent you from finding out, and then, not telling you how much of your money it spent preventing you from learning how it spent your money.

It’s beyond ridiculous.

Yet, in Pennsylvania, many municipalities believe you should not be privy to that information.

In May, reporters from 19 newspapers across the state — including the York Daily Record — asked 190 different government bodies for records detailing the amount of money they spent resisting public record requests. Only slightly more than 60 responded.

Those that did respond weren’t much help. The amounts paid to outside lawyers were often blacked out — redacted, in legal parlance — and in many cases, it was impossible to figure out what was even the source of the legal dispute that resulted in the billings.

Some officials flatly denied requests, saying they were not under any legal obligation to create a record that they said did not exist. Others responded that they did not keep such records in the format that was sought. Some didn’t even respond.

Unbelievable.

And it’s even more unbelievable when you consider that some government bodies did provide legal bills that contained considerable detail. Those entities apparently had no trouble finding the records and releasing them. How do you explain others not being able to produce such records? You can’t.

This is something so basic to the operation of good government, being accountable for how tax dollars are spent, and it’s nearly impossible to get that information in any kind of detail.

Maybe there is a reason for it. Emily Leader, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania School Board Association, told the Associated Press that perhaps redacted information was “probably subject to privilege, and the attorney-client privilege is not something that you would lightly waive.”

All due respect, but how is how much a government agency spent on a public records case, and what that case even entailed, considered “privileged”?

It would make sense that if such records included information about legal strategies, or admissions by public officials. But legal bills?

It makes no sense.

Yet, when it comes to Pennsylvania’s public records law, a lot doesn’t make sense. It effectively places the onus on those seeking information — taxpayers seeking information about how government is representing their interests — to prove their case.

In many cases, those seeking public records don’t have the resources for a protracted battle. In many instances, decisions by the state’s Office of Open Records to release information are appealed to Commonwealth Court. Those asking for the information then have to decide whether to spend a significant amount of money on legal fees to fight the appeal.

It has turned into, as one former newspaper editor and publisher put it, “a game of chicken,” the AP reported.

The problem is that the law is poorly written. Sections of it, one lawyer said, simply don’t make sense. It will take an act of the Legislature to clean it up, but don’t hold your breath. The Legislature is traditionally resistant to opening up government.

The final irony is that if you decide the fight is worth it and you play the game of legal chicken, the amount of money that the government agency spends on the appeal, should it hire outside counsel, is, apparently, none of your business.

— York Daily Record

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FAKE NEWS IS A REAL PROBLEM FOR OUR POLITICAL DISCOURSE, Nov. 26

The subject of fake news has been part of the real news in recent days as social media companies, politicians and legitimate journalists grapple with how to deal with a serious problem.

With so many people relying on Facebook, Twitter and the like as their primary sources of news, it’s easy to spread misinformation. Just come up with an explosive idea, get people to start sharing it with their friends, and watch it go viral. The more popular it becomes, the more the social network spotlights it so other users can see it.

In our highly polarized political environment, many people are looking for stories that back up their point of view. Many websites capitalize on this. Typically their goal isn’t just to further a certain point of view, it’s to generate clicks that bring in advertising dollars. Fake news doesn’t have to be political, it just has to present content that people feel compelled to read. We’ve even seen a rash of fake news stories about Reading, and those had to do with celebrities rather than politics.

Traditional news organizations such as ours are justifiably worried, and it’s not just out of self-interest. Trying to present the truth matters to us. We are well aware that the public is losing trust in the mainstream media, and the fake news phenomenon takes advantage of that. Professional journalists can and must do better. But remember that real news organizations take responsibility for their mistakes. When was the last time anyone saw a correction on one of the unknown quantities that spread news around Facebook?

It’s absurd for people to assume that news outlets want to squelch explosive stories. Media businesses depend on them. If Pope Francis is endorsing Donald Trump, as one notorious fake story claimed, it would hardly be in the best interest of CNN, Fox News and the like to hide it.

We also care deeply about our political discourse and making sure that the debate is being conducted based on facts rather than fabrications. President Barack Obama put it well: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not — and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in soundbites and snippets off their phones — if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

Social media companies may make some efforts to address the problem, but news consumers are in the best position to stem this tide. When you see something outlandish online that doesn’t seem to be showing up anywhere else, take a few extra steps before you decide to share it. This goes both for social media and those factually dubious, politically charged emails that can bounce around the internet for years.

If the website contains so many ads you can barely read the story, that’s a bad sign. Look at the source. Is it a news organization you’ve heard of? Google a few key words from the story and see what shows up. Look around on some reputable news sites, even those with known political leanings. If none of them are picking up the story, that’s a strong hint it’s bogus.

We urge people to rely less on social media and more on the print products, websites and broadcasts of organizations with a proven commitment to doing their best to be factual and fair. None of us are perfect, of course, but our readers and viewers know who we are and where they can find us. That’s a good first criterion for choosing a news source.

— Reading Eagle

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