Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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SODA TAX IS A NUISANCE, BUT NOT EVIL, Oct. 17

City Controller Alan Butkovitz has mounted yet another attack on Philadelphia's sugary drink tax. He took a survey asking the city's retailers if soda sales have declined since the tax was imposed by the Kenny administration at the beginning of the year.

The answer is yes. Most of the businesses reported revenue losses of more than 10 percent. But a detrimental effect on store owners isn't proof that the beverage tax has been bad for Philadelphia.

The tax has generated close to $53 million in revenue in the first eight months of this year. Those proceeds are being used to provide 2,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats for children under five, fund community schools that serve 6,000 older students, and support Mayor Kenney's Project Rebuild, which is making repairs to parks, recreation centers, and libraries.

Nobody likes new or higher taxes. But if any city wants to start new programs, it must get the money from somewhere and most of Philadelphia's tax money is already spoken for.

Some people have suggested the city raise its wage tax to pay for Kenney's new programs. Everyone in favor, please raise your hands.

The city is instead taxing sugary drinks produced by global multi-billion-dollar corporations like Pepsi and Coca Cola, whose deep concern for retailers does not include trimming wholesale prices a bit to absorb some of the tax. (As a point of interest, carbonated beverages accounted for $10 billion in U.S. sales in 2015, and according to industry publication Supermarket News, is ranked first in all items sold at grocery stores. Aside from the shock of that fact — that we buy more soda than anything — comes a better understanding of the stakes for the companies that sell the stuff.)

The beverage companies would rather spend millions in an anti-tax campaign while being helped by politicians like Butkovitz, who imply that the tax is sort of a local version of the Irish Potato Famine.

The tax is a nuisance, but not evil. Its revenue is going to good causes. And there is some evidence that collections will eventually rebound to the $7 million a month projected by the mayor's office.

Consider the 10-percent tax the city enacted on the sale of liquor and beer sold at bars, restaurants, and retail stores, with the revenue earmarked for public schools. When introduced in 1994, people were up in arms, predicting bars would become empty wastelands without any customers.

Maybe there was a dip in the beginning after the liquor tax was imposed, when that five-dollar beer suddenly cost $5.50. But, people adjusted and in the last two years alone, income from the tax has gone up from $53 million in 2015 to $73 million last year, a 40 percent increase. Initial projections called for $10 million in revenue.

How do we know about this success story? Butkovitz told us so in his office's June 2017 economic report. The same Butkovitz who just rode over the hill to smite supporters of the sugar tax.

__Philadelphia Inquirer

Online: http://bit.ly/2yxYDS6

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TRUMP'S ACTIONS ON HEALTH CARE ARE DAMAGING, Oct. 18

Crafting health care policy by fiat and wrecking ball is no way to govern.

Nevertheless, that is what is emerging courtesy of President Donald Trump in the absence of thoughtful health care reform from Congress.

Republicans in control of Congress repeatedly failed in their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, in part because a few GOP senators recognized the harm the replacement proposals might cause.

Rather than pursue a fully vetted, bipartisan fix to real problems with the ACA, Trump's administration has resorted to sabotage. It has reduced both marketing to encourage ACA enrollment and the enrollment window.

On Thursday, Trump issued an executive order that could enable some health insurance plans to bypass important ACA consumer protections. He then announced that his administration would act unilaterally to scrap federal subsidies for co-payments and deductibles in ACA plans. Republicans argue those payments are illegal because they were paid by President Barack Obama's administration, but never appropriated by the legislative branch. That question remains unresolved in the courts.

Trump tweeted that the ACA was a "broken mess" and that his administration will give America "great" health care.

Trump's impatience is understandable, but no valid basis to pursue policies that will harm Americans. Hardball tactics are fine for corporate boardrooms. Resorting to them to dictate the nation's health care reform is cruel.

Aspects of the ACA require reform, but it is not a broken mess. Pennsylvania recorded its lowest uninsured rate, 5.6 percent, in 2016. "Our market was on a path to stability," said Jessica Altman, acting commissioner of the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.

As a result of Trump's decision to end cost-sharing payments to health insurers, we learned Monday that premium hikes for Pennsylvanians enrolled in ACA plans are expected to increase an average of 30 percent. That is nearly four times the 8 percent price hike for ACA health insurance plans the Pennsylvania Insurance Department had previously predicted, absent Trump's actions.

The rate hikes will hit hardest about 85,000 Pennsylvanians who make more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level and who are enrolled in ACA silver-level individual plans.

Others who earn less will be shielded by ACA tax credits that will increase as the premium rates increase. While that keeps coverage in place, it also has the unwanted effect of increasing the federal deficit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted an end to cost-sharing payments would hike the federal deficit by $194 billion over a decade. How is that great?

State officials are urging those impacted to shop for other plans, as well they should. Still, they should not be left to scramble on a matter of such importance.

Better if Congress simply did its job.

__Erie Times News

Online: http://bit.ly/2yTNBrr

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WE CANNOT ABANDON PUERTO RICO, NOW OR IN THE FUTURE, Oct. 13

Let's acknowledge these tough realities: Puerto Rico was indeed bankrupted by crushing debt even before Hurricane Maria struck it with catastrophic force. As Bloomberg News reported last month, first Irma and then Maria struck only months "after the island's government sought protection from creditors in the nation's largest municipal insolvency."

And yes, the U.S. territory's infrastructure was already frayed. And, yes, its mountainous terrain has made relief efforts more difficult. Moving supplies and people into remote areas that have been cut off because access roads and bridges no longer exist is challenging, if not impossible.

But Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Its residents are American citizens. And we cannot abandon our fellow Americans in their time of dire need.

The hurricane's death toll has been put at 49, and more than 100 are listed as missing. Some of the deaths were due to a bacterial infection called leptospirosis.

The Washington Post reported that a 61-year-old bus driver named Jorge Antonio Sanyet Morales "took a drink from a stream near his concrete home on a hillside in Canovanas a week after the Sept. 20 storm. He then developed a fever, his skin turned yellow and within a week, he died at a hospital in Carolina, according to his widow, Maritza Rivera."

More than a third of island residents still don't have access to drinkable water.

Only 16 percent of Puerto Rico's residents have electricity, the Department of Defense said earlier this week. It's been three weeks since Maria made landfall on the island.

"The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation," tweeted Puerto Rico's Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican whose district covers most of Lancaster County, visited Puerto Rico on Saturday to see the devastation for himself.

"Everywhere that we went we could see the damage from the hurricane. It was pretty sobering to see," Smucker told LNP staff writer Tom Knapp during a telephone interview Monday. "Every area of the island was impacted. ... Literally, the entire island."

We would hope these images remain fresh in Smucker's mind when he makes the case for a long-term solution to Puerto Rico's recovery.

"It's going to take long-term funding from Congress," Smucker said, "and long-term aid. ... We're going to have to stay committed to doing that."

Yes, we will. And we urge Smucker to lead the effort. But we're more than a little concerned by the president's recent statements.

Puerto Rico is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Yes, the island was in no shape to deal with a major hurricane. But the focus should be on the reality on the ground, a reality that Smucker called "heartbreaking."

This is no time to threaten to pull the plug on aid.

As Smucker pointed out, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. military are working with local officials to distribute meals and water and to restore power. According to FEMA, earlier this month, more than 10,000 federal officials were on the ground on the island.

Still, getting help to the people who need it, which is just about everyone who calls the island home, has been a painstakingly slow process. Smucker called the relief effort "fairly effective."

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plans to visit Puerto Rico today with a small bipartisan group, including the chairman and top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee that signs off on spending legislation. (The House of Representatives passed a $36.5 billion aid package Thursday to help people in areas, including Puerto Rico, recovering from hurricanes and wildfires.)

Ryan and his colleagues will see what Smucker saw — Puerto Rico is fighting for survival.

What the island's residents — many of whom have ties to Lancaster County — need now from our government, in addition to material aid, is to know they will not be abandoned.

They also need Congress to pass legislation sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain and Mike Lee to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, which restricts foreign vessels from delivering food, fuel and other supplies to the island. It also greatly raises the prices of goods that come from the U.S. mainland.

President Trump suspended the Jones Act for Puerto Rico for a mere 10 days. The island needs to be freed from the stranglehold of this act, which McCain calls "antiquated" and "protectionist."

Focusing on what happened prior to Maria's landfall does nothing to address the island's current and desperate circumstances. The people there need our help now and in the future.

In the meantime, you will pardon the people of Puerto Rico for not thinking about "forever." Getting to tomorrow will be difficult enough.

__LNP

Online: http://bit.ly/2yxGfrW

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STATE-RELATED UNIVERSITIES NEED STATE FUNDING, Oct. 17

It should be abundantly clear to state lawmakers that failing to pass a revenue package is going to have grave consequences for Pennsylvania's social services, public schools and institutions of higher learning. When would-be recipients of funds point out the precarious position they're in, they're letting everyone know what's on the line. If that makes legislators uncomfortable, so be it.

In a story in Saturday's Post-Gazette, state Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, suggested that University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher was fear-mongering when he said the budget stalemate jeopardized the Titutsville campus, an important resource for communities she represents. "In some ways, it feels like they're using it as some kind of threat, like, 'We'll just close Pitt Titusville if you don't come through,' " she told the PG's Bill Schackner.

But it was no more a threat than Mr. Gallagher also saying last week that, absent the state coming through with its appropriation of about $147 million for Pitt, the university will have to consider a midyear tuition increase. Penn State University President Eric Barron last week said his school, too, will have to consider a midyear hike if the state doesn't provide about $305 million in anticipated funding. Those were distress signals, not threats, and they were no different than comments other constituencies have made when they felt besieged.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, has said the Senate's vote for a severance tax on natural gas drillers and expanded taxes on residents' utility bills would hurt his industry and "erode the commonwealth's competitive advantage." When the House proposed higher hotel taxes, tourism officials said it would devastate that industry. Those weren't threats, just attempts at self-preservation in the state's brutish budget environment.

On June 30, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a spending plan of nearly $32 billion that included about $650 million collectively for Pitt, Penn State, Temple University in Philadelphia and Lincoln University in Chester County— the four state-related universities — and the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, let it become law without his signature. Since then, the Legislature has been unable to agree on a revenue package to cover the spending plan.

The Legislature promised the universities the money. The schools shouldn't be criticized for insisting the state make good on that promise and explaining what will happen if if the money fails to materialize. Noting that $650 million would go a long way toward plugging the state's $2 billion-plus deficit, Mr. Gallagher fears that any forthcoming revenue compromise will eliminate appropriations to the universities. He said his concerns are based on "soft support and soft opposition" from some of those holding the purse strings. Once gone, he predicted, the money will be difficult to get back in future budget cycles.

That would mean big trouble for students at the state-related universities. The discounted tuition for in-state students — now $11,000 annually for undergraduates in Pitt's arts and sciences programs — could disappear. All four of Pitt's regional campuses — including Titusville, a struggling branch where talks for a reconfiguration already are underway — could vanish as well. Defunding some of the state's top universities would be a horrible message for state leaders to send to the business community, especially at a time Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are vying for Amazon's second headquarters.

Mr. Gallagher is right to point out the risks to defunding the state-related universities. Legislators would be wise to listen. When the budget storm blows over, we expect funding for these schools to remain in place.

__Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Online: http://bit.ly/2yvXybt

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COMMON SENSE NEEDED ON BACK TAXES, Oct. 15

Beaver County Commissioner Sandie Egley has taken a curious, and somewhat questionable, stand the last several months on the issue of tax exonerations.

It began in September when Egley voted "no" on a request from Van Buren Homes Inc., a housing co-op in Vanport Township, to exonerate $1,900 in back taxes on a 0.2-acre parcel near a ball field development. The small lot had been in the county's land depository maintained by the county Tax Claim Bureau. Properties that are not purchased at "upset sales" for the taxes owed, go to the repository, where the county continues to attempt to sell them.

At the time, Egley said that because of the county's precarious financial situation, she was voting no because "it's got to start somewhere."

She maintained a similar position later in September when another exoneration was requested for Van Buren Homes on an even smaller parcel of land -- 0.03 acres - for which $1,030.94 in taxes was owed the county.

Those two exoneration requests combined amounted to less than $3,000. To put that in perspective, the county's general fund operating budget is about $74.5 million. A tax exoneration of $3,000 amounts to 0.004 percent of the budget.

In both cases, Commissioners Daniel Camp and Tony Amadio - wisely - voted in favor of the exonerations, so Egley's vote was more symbolic than substantive. Egley could afford to take such a stand on two rather insignificant properties knowing that the other two commissioners would vote in favor, thus reducing the chances of a backlash directed at her.

Tax exonerations are not meant to give a property owner a break on taxes; they're designed to encourage the sale of the property so that it can be placed back on the tax rolls. Chief County Assessor Kevin McElwain told The Times previously that taxes continue to accumulate on properties in the repository, but a potential buyer usually asks for an exoneration of the taxes. The properties are generally sold at the cost the county has spent to attempt to sell them at upset sales, he said.

What's important to keep in mind that the chances of selling properties in the repository without an exoneration are slim. Taxes may continue to accumulate on those properties, but if there are no buyers willing to pay the tax bill, they remain unsold.

Egley's position that she "wants our taxes for that property" is somewhat over simplistic and naive. Yes, in a perfect world, every tax bill would be paid and the county would not have to deal with confiscating property and selling it for unpaid taxes. The reality is that, oftentimes, the only way to start collecting taxes once again on a property is to forgive the back taxes so as to entice a new buyer.

And that brings us to the latest "no" vote by Egley on a tax-exoneration request that came before the commissioners last week. Calaco Inc., a holding company for Castlebrook Development, sought an exoneration of taxes accrued between 2008 and 2011 on about 3 acres that was formerly the Martino Bros. Scrap Yard along the Rochester riverfront.

The amount this time was more substantial - about $32,000 - but there was also some question as to whether Calaco officials were made aware of the back taxes at the time of the sale. Calaco, which has owned the property since 2014, hopes to build luxury townhouses on the property.

Egley made it clear she would oppose the exoneration request and asked Camp and Amadio to explain their support. Their answers were direct, and make sense if you look at long-term benefit to the county.

Camp: "Because we'd like to build the riverfront in Rochester."

Amadio: "Anytime I can (help) economic development in the county, I'm going to be a 'yes' vote."

The $32,000 in back taxes, something the county may never have collected if a legal battle ensued, made sense to exonerate in hopes of bringing a housing development that would provide tax revenue for decades.

Egley has said the tax exoneration requests should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, rather than rolled into a long list of resolutions the commissioners approve at their meetings. We agree with her completely on that point. Anything to make the public more aware of such actions is always a good thing, and discussion among the commissioners in public benefits everyone.

Where we disagree with Egley is on her stand that she'll simply vote "no" on all requests because she thinks the county should be able to collect those back taxes. That is an unrealistic stand and one that needs a healthy dose of common sense to overcome.

__Beaver County Times

Online: http://bit.ly/2yvXybt

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