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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

December 19, 2018

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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ALLOW CITIES LIKE PHILLY AND PITTSBURGH TO MAKE THEIR OWN GUN LAWS, Dec. 17

In the six weeks since a lone gunman killed 11 people and wounded six others inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, there have been nearly three dozen mass shootings in the United States.

As with previous mass shootings, lawmakers in Harrisburg have mostly shrugged and continued to collect their outsized paychecks and guaranteed raises for largely part-time work. Given the lack of leadership in Harrisburg when it comes to reducing gun crimes and protecting innocent shooting victims, State Rep. Dan Frankel wisely wants to allow local lawmakers to pass their own gun laws.

Frankel, a Democrat who represents the section of Pittsburgh where the horrific synagogue shooting occurred, is seeking co-sponsors for two bills that would remove the so-called “preemption” language from the state law, which prohibits cities from enacting gun laws.

Frankel’s bill faces a heavy lift in Harrisburg where Republicans control the House and Senate and the National Rifle Association wields undue influence over many lawmakers. But the recent success of congressional candidates - from Pennsylvania and conservative districts nationwide — who supported gun-control measures should cause some Harrisburg lawmakers to rethink their obstinance.

Or perhaps the election gains by Democrats in the state House and Senate — along with sustained pressure from gun-control activists — will get the attention of Harrisburg’s GOP leadership.

Yes, it makes more sense for gun laws to come from Washington and Harrisburg - especially since the majority of Americans support commonsense reforms. Indeed, a host of studies show stricter gun laws can make a difference. But until the political landscape changes, lawmakers in such cities as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh should be allowed to pass their own gun measures.

There is a good argument to be made that local officials are more responsive to the needs of their community. Given the urban and rural political divide on guns, it may make more sense to allow cities to pass different laws. There is also historical precedent dating to frontier times when places like Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona, regulated firearms.

Gun proponents often point to Chicago, where shootings have been rampant, as proof that strict regulation does not reduce killings. But Illinois borders Indiana and Wisconsin, two states with relatively weak gun laws.

The same holds true for New Jersey, where 77 percent of guns used in crimes in the first quarter of this year came from out of state. The majority of those guns came from Pennsylvania, where access to guns is more relaxed.

Pennsylvania is an undistinguished leader in other gun-related stats. More Pennsylvanians are killed each year by guns than in car accidents. The state’s gun homicides are among the highest in the nation, especially among minorities.

Many of the shootings and murders occur in Philadelphia, where the number of homicides this year is already the highest since 2012. Past attempts by the city to pass stricter gun laws have been blocked by the state. So, until Washington and Harrisburg get serious about gun control, Rep. Frankel’s effort to allow cities and towns to pass their own gun laws makes good sense.

—The Philadelphia Inquirer

—Online: https://bit.ly/2PLY2kI

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FINGERS CROSSED ON GOOD SIGNS FOR STATE BUDGET, Dec. 16

Pennsylvania taxpayers won’t have to look under their Christmas trees on Dec. 25 to find their gift from the state Legislature.

It’s already been delivered, not by Santa Claus, but by way of an assurance from Republican leaders that they don’t intend to seek any tax increases as part of the 2019-20 state budget.

Despite that assurance, it never can be guaranteed that a couple of unwanted, thorny “Bah Humbugs” could creep into budget negotiations as the new spending plan is finalized around mid-year. The new state fiscal year begins July 1.

Still, with the revenue growth that the state has experienced so far during the current spending calendar, coupled with the commonwealth’s stronger economic performance in general, GOP leaders said any tax-increase proposal would be a tough sell with rank-and-file Republicans as well as with some Democrats.

Most state taxpayers no doubt are willing to raise a holiday toast to that.

Therefore, all that’s been said thus far suggests another “dead on arrival” if Gov. Tom Wolf decides to propose once again a severance tax on the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry when he presents his fifth budget address on Feb. 5. He has sought the tax unsuccessfully in each of the budget plans that he’s introduced leading up to 2018-19.

But Wolf’s top budget official, Budget Secretary Randy Albright, spoke optimistically in his latest mid-year budget briefing also, noting that “we are very confident that not only will we end the year with a balanced budget, but we will end the year — we will leave — with a modest surplus.”

Unfortunately, there’s an ongoing Scrooge-like issue lurking that lawmakers and the governor will have to address during their upcoming-year budget talks.

It’s a projection by the state Independent Fiscal Office, in its latest five-year economic and budget outlook, that next year’s state budget could have a gap of up to $1.7 billion between available revenues and anticipated spending.

According to the IFO, the potential imbalance, which is referred to as a structural deficit, is rooted in the use of more than $1 billion in one-time funding sources in the current budget plus anticipated increases in spending on health and human services programs.

How to deal with that shortfall could be the basis for some of the friction that might evolve as the legislative and executive branches work to hammer out the final version of a spending plan upon which both parties, both legislative houses and the governor can embrace.

As for the monthly revenue surpluses that have been showing up this fiscal year, Albright said an undetermined amount of that money would need to go for supplemental appropriations to meet higher costs for human services and long-term-care programs, as well as for higher overtime costs in the Department of Corrections during the current fiscal year necessitated in part by lockdowns at state correctional institutions last summer to address drug-smuggling problems.

Despite the holiday “gift” from the Legislature, the state’s new budget exercise won’t be — and never should reach the point of being — a source of full harmony. Disagreements on how to proceed are the fodder for piecing together the best budget package possible.

The state’s taxpayers have been given what appears to be a great gift, but there still could be some strings — not ribbon and bows — attached.

—The Altoona Mirror

—Online: https://bit.ly/2EtDpYG

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IS NALOXONE THE RIGHT PRESCRIPTION?, Dec. 15

When you are falling off a cliff, you grab for the nearest rope.

You don’t ask if it’s the right rope. You don’t ask if it’s the rope that will hold your weight, or if it will last longer than that rope over there. This is the rope that will work right now. You worry about the next step next.

Naloxone feels like that rope.

This week, Pennsylvania made the medication that can stop overdoses by blocking the effects of opioids available at 80 locations across the state. You don’t have to pay for it. You don’t need a prescription. It is available for the asking.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration credits the drug with bringing 20,000 Pennsylvanians back from the edge of overdose. There were 5,456 Pennsylvanians who couldn’t be saved from that fate, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In Allegheny County, it was 737.

Naloxone is clearly the difference between life and death for many people in Pennsylvania, one of the states hit hardest by the nationwide opioid epidemic.

But are we relying on it too much?

There are people who criticize the naloxone distribution and availability. There are valid arguments about whether it is enabling addiction.

That debate aside, there is another question. Is the success rate of naloxone making it a popular program because it feels like something making progress as we are mired in a fight where there seems to be little other good news?

It’s hard to fight a battle that starts with completely legal medication that has a valid medical use. There are programs aimed at changing how much and how often opioids are prescribed, but there are still people with back injuries, knee surgeries and cancer diagnoses across the state who have a legitimate reason to take oxycodone or hydrocodone.

It would be wonderful to just take everyone who has an addiction and get them into a program tomorrow to fix it. The problem is that there just aren’t enough beds available for those programs.

It would be fantastic if education was the silver bullet to fix addiction, but it just isn’t.

Likewise, there isn’t a medication that can be easily administered to just make someone not be addicted to opioids or anything else. And meanwhile, addiction seems to morph to avoid all weapons used against it. Using prescription medication turns into heroin use, which is now becoming fentanyl abuse. And the FDA just gave the green light to an even stronger drug.

So what we are left with is naloxone, an emergency response to a dire, life-threatening situation. It is the rope that we keep throwing to people as they fall off the cliff, when what we need is a fence to keep everyone away from the edge.

—The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

—Online: https://bit.ly/2EEYD6u

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TRAFFIC PLANS DRIVE HARRISBURG IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION, Dec. 17

As the seat of state government and as a draw for those seeking night life and cultural activities in central Pennsylvania, Harrisburg has to care about how non-residents interact with and regard the city. The thousands of daily commuters and visitors are a vital part of the city’s economy. And they want to get to in and out of Harrisburg easily, without hazards or long delays.

But when the commuters go home and the restaurants, bars and theaters turn off the lights for the night, the state capital is still home to more than 49,000 people who expect safe streets and livable neighborhoods 24/7.

Those people have often taken a back seat when it came to transportation. Decades ago, several streets were altered to serve as highways for the commuters, splitting some neighborhoods in half. They took on the nature of “pass-throughs” instead of quality places to live, and the city’s population started to decline about this time, says Mayor Eric Papenfuss, who wants to put the emphasis back on livability.

“If people want us to build back up our tax base, they’ve got to help us lift up our neighborhoods and encourage more people to live in the city,” he said recently.

Papenfuse is right to put the city first, and he’s not diving in with half-measures.

The city has unveiled a half-dozen road projects that redirect traffic in some areas, reduce traffic lanes in others, add more crosswalks and create bike lanes.

Too many think those plans are in conflict with commuters’ needs, because major commuter routes will be affected by the changes. But they are taking a short-sighted view. The changes as proposed will make the city, and getting around it, better for everyone.

Consider, for example, the intersection of Seventh and Reily streets. The wide streets and poor sight lines there invite speeding and risk-taking for drivers, while pedestrians face their own set of challenges in trying to cross.

In the plan, the city’s first roundabout will be built, the dozens of diagonal parking spaces in the middle of traffic will be removed, greenspace will be added and U-turns eliminated. Traffic will flow more smoothly, and those on foot will have an easier time of crossing. A protected bicycle track will be added on the west side of Seventh Street, allowing bikes to travel both north and south along Seventh without impeding traffic.

At Third and Forster, the second-highest crash-prone intersection in the city, removing one of the two left-hand turn lanes from Forster heading north on Second Street could shorten the time pedestrians need to cross, which would improve signal timing for motorists and improve safety. The added lanes won’t be necessary when Second Street becomes two ways, which will make that residential stretch of Second quieter and reduce traffic volume and speed.

At Front and Forster, the signal timing could be reduced by nine to 10 seconds for pedestrians, allowing for more traffic to pass through during each cycle. Ten seconds saved every two-minute cycle would amount to five extra minutes that traffic could pass through every hour, says City Engineer Wayne Martin.

And at State Street, considered by some measures the deadliest stretch of road in the country, the plan calls for eliminating two of the street’s five lanes, adding four more crosswalks, transforming the five-way intersection at 13th Street to four and adding two protected bike lanes. These would be between parked cars and the sidewalk along each side of State Street with enough room for car doors to swing open without intruding into the bike lane.

Speeding is a serious issue on State Street, which is lined with homes, apartments and small businesses. Four pedestrians and a bicyclist have been killed there since October 2016.

There is no fixed timeline for completing these and the other proposed projects, although officials hoping to award a contract for State Street in July 2019, with construction to start the following month. And there is no question that engineering changes alone will not make travel in the city easier or safer. Much depends on motorists learning to respect right-of-way laws regarding pedestrians and bicyclists — and on the latter two groups also abiding by traffic laws.

But Mayor Papenfuse’s vision for a more livable city employing modern transportation concepts — more in keeping with the 21st century than the mid-20th, when many of these issues took root — moves the city in the right direction.

—PennLive

—Online: https://bit.ly/2LoHY7T

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WHITE HOUSE POLICIES: POLITICS OVER PEOPLE, Dec. 19

At first blush, the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan child in U.S. custody and a federal judge’s ruling that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional might not seem to be closely related.

In fact, they both are the result of a mindset that places a premium on political supremacy over humane public policy.

How else to explain the now nearly decade-long campaign by congressional Republicans to demean, defund and destroy the Affordable Care Act, a landmark piece of legislation that, despite its deficiencies, has lifted well over 20 million Americans from the ranks of the uninsured?

It’s bad enough GOP lawmakers stood in unanimity against the 2010 bill. It is worse that they have tried and failed dozens of times to undo the legislation. But what is truly galling is how they have prevented this successful legislation from aiding their own voters simply to make a political point.

Even after the federal government offered to pick up the tab for states to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income residents, Republican governors refused. How’s that for constituent service? Just as indefensibly: From cutting advertising funds and sign-up assistance, to halving the enrollment period, President Donald Trump has sought to undermine the popular policy at every turn.

Now, after eight years, two affirmative Supreme Court decisions and a 2018 midterm election in which health care was identified by voters as a more important issue than the economy or immigration, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of Texas, a George W. Bush appointee, has deemed the law unconstitutional.

Make no mistake, this is exactly the type of decision envisioned by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when he boasts of stuffing the courts with conservative judges.

This is also exactly the type of decision that ignores the needs of the poorest among us — those working Americans who are treading water just above the poverty level and for whom quality health insurance would otherwise be unattainable.

This lack of concern for the less fortunate also emanates from — indeed, seems to be the driving force behind — the nation’s immigration polices since Trump ascended to the White House.

The administration’s ill-conceived policy of separating young children from parents of families applying for asylum at the southern U.S. border is but the most graphic demonstration.

And while that policy has been rescinded, little has changed. Last week, it was disclosed that the government currently holds some 15,000 immigrant children in all-but-overflowing detention camps.

Many of these children have U.S. sponsors ready to take them in but, as usual, the Trump administration has gotten in the way. A new policy has prolonged and complicated the vetting process by requiring that every member of the sponsor’s household be fingerprinted for a criminal background check.

Trump’s Health and Human Services officials cite “child safety” as the reason for these checks, though they require no such background checks for the 2,100 workers staffing the camps.

No, the reason for the time-consuming checks is not to protect young immigrants but to discourage their parents from seeking asylum in the first place. Further proof of administrative indifference: Last year, the U.S. managed to lose track of some 1,500 immigrant children.

Thus, when a 7-year-old girl arrived at the border last week dehydrated and in shock, only to die while in Border Patrol custody, the best that an unsympathetic Homeland Security Director Kirstjen Nielsen could muster for her Fox News interviewers was that the tot’s death was “just a very sad example of the dangers of this journey.”

It’s a very sad example, all right:

—Of a mindset that cares little for the consequences of a policy, so long as it serves as a disincentive to the unwanted.

—Of an administration and its allies that disserves those it ought to be helping in the interest of partisan expediency.

—Of what happens when officials, rather than acting to improve conditions for the poor, the marginalized and the disaffected, politicize vital issues.

The nation’s immigration and health care policies are crying out for improvement. But Republican leaders have shown time again they’d rather exploit national problems than fix them.

—York Dispatch

—Online: https://bit.ly/2rGDwZg

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