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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

February 13, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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SEVERANCE TAX OVERDUE, Feb. 10

We share the enthusiasm local economic development leaders expressed for Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to provide more funding for blight removal by taxing the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.

Positioned with Johnstown’s crumbling Conrad Building behind him, the governor on Wednesday pitched his “Restore Pennsylvania” initiative, which he says will help struggling communities with concerns such as blight removal and flood recovery.

That’s if the General Assembly finally approves his plan to join every other natural-gas producing state with a levy on extraction.

In past budget proposals, the governor unsuccessfully pitched a gas tax to fund public education.

This time, he says, the revenue would fall outside the budget and provide “fully funded, non-mandate” help for Johnstown and other towns.

A severance tax would generate $300 million a year, Wolf said — and keep money in Pennsylvania rather than having it leave to help residents in other states.

“We’re already paying to other states, to other countries the tax that we’re actually helping them deal with these very issues — the floods, the blight, the lack of internet access, all the things that we’re helping them pay,” Wolf said. “And they’re not helping us with anything. So I’m simply saying let’s create this tax — a severance tax — that would actually allow other states and other countries to help Pennsylvanians.”

Those on the front lines in the local blight battle are eager to see the governor’s plan become reality.

During a press conference, Cambria County Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Renee Daly said Wolf’s program would “allow for communities across the commonwealth to invest into their neighborhoods and create a safer and more robust region, which will then allow them to attract new residents and businesses.”

Cambria has 1,800 properties listed as blighted, many of them in the city of Johnstown.

“We need stronger action to eliminate blight at a much faster pace,” Johnstown Redevelopment Authority Director Melissa Komar said. “We are hopeful that Gov. Wolf’s new initiative will help to support this effort.”

Republicans have been less enthusiastic about a severance tax — regardless of where the money might be used. They note that Pennsylvania has an impact fee that provides infrastructure funding for regions with drilling activity.

Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland, from the 35th District, and Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, from the 71st Legislative District — whose districts include the blight-filled city — have opposed a severance tax.

We don’t share Wolf’s view that the severance tax really isn’t a tax at all — that the revenue generation gets “folded into the price of the product.”

The cost would be passed along to consumers, as happens with any business-related levy — despite Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s contention that a severance tax is “as close as you can get to free money.”

However, this tax would simply put Pennsylvania in the same position as Texas, Oklahoma and other gas-producing states that already have the levy.

And we support the use the revenue for community development — including reducing blight, which would have a significant positive impact for Johnstown and the Cambria-Somerset region.

“This is a pool of money that is devoted exclusively to addressing issues that matter clearly to local folks all around Pennsylvania, whether it’s access to the internet, blight, flood mitigation — whatever,” Wolf said. “This is something that’s very different from anything that’s been proposed before.”

The “Restore Pennsylvania” plan has merit but needs the backing of the Legislature.

A severance tax is long overdue, and the Johnstown area sorely needs more help with economic development through blight removal.

__ The Tribune-Democrat

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2SvVv4h

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MEASLES OUTBREAK ANOTHER GRIM REMINDER WE NEED TO TRUST SCIENCE, Feb. 12

These are incredibly frustrating times for the acceptance of science.

We are still debating climate change — despite the overwhelming scientific evidence in support of it — when we should be enacting sweeping initiatives to counteract its human-made aspects. (The president is among those who don’t seem to understand the difference between weather and climate.)

Meanwhile, Fox News host Pete Hegseth said on the air Sunday, “Germs are not a real thing. I can’t see them. Therefore they’re not real.” Hegseth used this “belief” to rationalize never washing his hands, Newsweek reported.

Seriously, Pete?

Which brings us to the ongoing measles outbreak, in which lives have been endangered around Clark County, Washington — not far from the major population center of Portland, Oregon.

The reason for this terrifying epidemic? Clark County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Washington at 78 percent of the kindergarten through high school population, The New York Times reports. “Epidemiologists generally consider the threshold for preventing public measles outbreaks to be a vaccination rate of 93 percent or higher,” the Times added.

Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s public health director, told the Times: “If you have a population that is unvaccinated, it’s like throwing a match into a can of gasoline. Measles is exquisitely contagious.”

How contagious? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus can survive for up to two hours in a room where an infected person has coughed or sneezed. The CDC further states that “if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”

Amid this growing concern, Washington state lawmakers are considering a bill that would, according to the AP, “remove parents’ ability to claim a personal or philosophical exemption to opt their school-age children out of the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.”

There is, frustratingly, serious opposition to that common-sense bill.

Though this is happening on the other side of the country, we should all be alarmed. Quite simply, what is happening in Washington could happen here.

Pennsylvania and Washington are among the 18 states that allow philosophical exemptions to vaccinations.

In Lancaster County, 6.6 percent of students in kindergarten and seventh grade (the two grades measured), claimed a philosophical exemption from immunization for the 2017-18 school year, LNP’s Heather Stauffer reported last month. The overall number of exemptions — others coming on medical or religious grounds — was at 9.5 percent.

The problem, as we wrote here last month, is that “in too many social circles, questioning vaccination has become the norm. Instead of heeding the advice of pediatricians — actual, trained medical professionals — too many parents are placing their trust in an anti-vaccination movement that relies on junk science.”

We must rely on proven science.

Once again, we urge our state lawmakers to make it more difficult for parents to get their children exempted from immunization. They must eliminate the philosophical exemption. And soon.

__ The LNP

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2E762ub

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SHAPIRO TAKES PATIENTS’ SIDE ON HEALTH CARE, Feb. 10

For years, UPMC and Highmark Inc. have been battling for competitive advantage in the businesses of providing health care and health insurance.

Consumers have been caught between the two Pittsburgh health care giants, though consent decrees the state brokered in 2014 delayed the biggest disruptions. Now those disruptions loom with the pending expiration of those consent decrees on June 30.

After then, people with Highmark insurance would face higher, up-front payments to be treated by UPMC physicians and at UPMC facilities, including UPMC Hamot. Those with UPMC Health Plan insurance would face a similar situation with Highmark-owned Allegheny Health Network practices and facilities, including Saint Vincent Hospital.

That means many consumers not in a position to change insurance providers face the prospect of having to change doctors and lose their choice of hospital. Such things are personal when it comes to health care.

Enter Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. He took legal action on Thursday that aims to represent consumers’ interests by forcing modifications to and the indefinite extension of the consent decrees.

Shapiro had been negotiating with UPMC and Highmark to ensure access to both companies’ hospitals and physician networks for people with Highmark and UPMC Health Plan insurance. Highmark agreed to a proposed deal but UPMC would not. Shapiro on Thursday filed a civil action in Commonwealth Court meant to force UPMC’s hand.

At a news conference in Pittsburgh, Shapiro noted that UPMC is subsidized via local, state and federal tax exemptions, among other things, and he argued that it therefore has heightened responsibilities that come with being a public charity. In Erie, UPMC Hamot and Saint Vincent Hospital each pay half of what they would owe in property taxes if they were fully taxable. Each has a payment in lieu of taxes arrangement with local taxing bodies.

“Our petition today has a simple goal — to restore fairness to the health care system in western Pennsylvania and promote the public interest by ensuring patient access to affordable care and facilities they have funded through their tax dollars,” Shapiro said Thursday. “We have concluded that UPMC is not fulfilling its obligation as a public charity.”

The changes to the consent decrees Shapiro’s office is seeking include enabling open, affordable access to both companies’ facilities and physicians through negotiated contracts with any health plan; requiring best-offer arbitration in cases of negotiating impasses; and protecting consumers against excessive and unreasonable billing practices.

Health care isn’t just any other business, and consumers should be at the forefront of providers’ and insurers’ business models. The providers have a responsibility to consumers and communities befitting their charitable status and public subsidies. Good for Shapiro for fighting to ensure they fulfill it.

__ The Erie Times News

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2tiFos1

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BUDGET WEIGHS CURRENT DEBT VS. FUTURE BENEFITS, Feb. 10

The good news in the immediate aftermath of Gov. Tom Wolf having delivered his 2019-20 Pennsylvania state budget proposal on Tuesday was that lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle spoke confidently about prospects for completing a spending package by the June 30 deadline.

Legislative scrutiny of the governor’s proposed $34.1 billion spending plan begins tomorrow, when the House and Senate Appropriations Committees launch several weeks of hearings, with cabinet members and agency leaders appearing before them to discuss their efforts and needs.

The bad news, from Democrat Wolf’s perspective, is that some important aspects of what he has proposed are destined to get a significant “makeover” by the Republican-controlled Legislature, while others, including Wolf’s request for a severance tax on the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry, already are “dead in the water.”

Still, a hopeful sign for this latest annual budget-preparation exercise is that top GOP and Democratic lawmakers indicated that they concurred with the governor’s priorities for the upcoming fiscal year’s spending: provide new educational opportunities, beef up workforce development and implement reforms to the criminal justice system.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said, “I think there is a lot there we can embrace and get behind at least generically.”

House Majority Leader Brian Cutler, R-Lancaster, said, “Governor Wolf’s budget sets forth a series of ideas that I believe House Republicans can find agreement on.”

However, at the same time there were cautionary viewpoints such as those from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, who criticized the Wolf budget plan for wanting to spend what they characterized as “too much money.”

Wolf is seeking authorization for $1.9 billion in new spending — nearly 6 percent of the 2018-19 enacted budget of $32.7 billion.

The proposal comes on the heels of a new report indicating that state revenue collections for January were $113.7 million short of official estimates for the month.

Still, according to the news and information service Capitolwire, Pennsylvania general fund revenue collections through January remained $290 million ahead of the official estimate upon which the Fiscal Year 2018-19 state budget is based.

There’s again no stomach in the Legislature for a state income tax increase, and there’s also virtually no chance for any changes regarding the current 6 percent sales tax.

The governor wants to increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour from $7.25, but the chances for that happening are probably zero, although any increase in the minimum wage would mean additional revenue for the state’s coffers.

However, that benefit could be negated if companies, in response, were to cut back on new jobs available.

One budget aspect that no doubt should — and no doubt will — receive much scrutiny and debate is the budget proposal’s acknowledgment that debt would grow by $67 million (6 percent) to $1.2 billion.

The prospect of increasing debt must be weighed against some of the long-term benefits that might be derived from exercising all or some portion of that option. Some might be the benefits from increasing aid for general public school operations and instruction by $200 million; special education, by $50 million; and early childhood education, by $50 million, all of which Wolf is proposing.

Every budget is built to some degree on compromise. Regarding this new budget exercise, fewer obstacles seem to be standing in the way of positive give-and-take.

__ The Altoona Mirror

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2SMS2Ok

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AMAZON MONEY COMING TO PITTSBURGH WITHOUT HQ2, Feb. 11

So what if Amazon doesn’t want to build a second headquarters in Pittsburgh?

Southwestern Pennsylvania is more than capable of becoming the home of the next big thing in technology.

That’s not just sour grapes. It’s an awareness of what is in the backyard.

Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas are not just home to a lot of bridges and tunnels and sports fans. There is a dense wealth of scientific knowledge, technical skill and creativity.

Like Aurora Innovation.

The Pittsburgh-headquartered startup company wants to change the way people drive. Actually, it wants to change the way people don’t drive, putting the car in charge via self-driving technology that would improve safety, give people more time in their day and potentially change the landscape of our cities, according to the company.

That’s exactly the kind of visionary thinking that investors like to hear, and when it’s backed up by a team of developers that are breaking new ground where technology and transportation overlap, that’s even better. A hefty chunk of that team, by the way, learned to do what they do at Carnegie Mellon University, which appears on any list of the top robotics programs in the country.

Last week, Aurora got an infusion of investment cash. The $530 million came from some heavy hitters, including T. Rowe Price and Sequoia Capital — the big dog of tech investment with a portfolio of ground floors that includes Apple, Google, PayPal and YouTube.

And then there was Amazon, which has famously sought to explore new delivery avenues right up Aurora’s alley.

“Autonomous technology has the potential to help make the jobs of our employees and partners safer and more productive, whether it’s in a fulfillment center or on the road, and we’re excited about the possibilities,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an email Friday.

The mother of all online retailers had cities across the country self-selling and outbidding each other to become the Seattle-based giant’s HQ2. But finalist Pittsburgh didn’t get that $2.5 billion or so that will go into Queens, New York, and Washington, D.C., as they split that honor.

Aurora, however, will get more than 20 percent of that amount, and in a lot of ways, that’s better.

Companies that come into a community and take over can just as easily depart, leaving behind the shell that was built around them.

Investment in a home-grown seedling, however, doesn’t just provide roots. It provides time. Aurora can develop at its own speed, navigate its own course and keep its (robotic) eyes on Pittsburgh’s roads.

__ The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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

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