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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

August 15, 2019

Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:

Learning the hard way: China is slow to understand Trump on trade

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Aug. 13

Sooner or later, China will get it.

President Donald Trump last week threatened to impose another round of tariffs on Chinese goods, saying China had not kept promises to buy more U.S. agricultural products or crack down on shipments of illegal opioids. Mr. Trump also accused China of manipulating its currency to gain leverage in the countries’ trade war.

China denied the allegations, of course.

But Beijing’s long record of duplicity created this mess in the first place: It has dumped steel and other subsidized goods in U.S. markets, created unfair barriers for U.S. companies seeking to do business in China and tried to force companies that do operate there to turn over technology and intellectual property. And that’s on top of computer hacking and other types of espionage that the Chinese military and other state-sponsored parties regularly employ to gain an unfair advantage over U.S. competitors.

Mr. Trump levied the first tariffs against China last year and since has expanded them three times, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. China imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products, including soybeans, prompting the federal government to provide a subsidy lifeline to affected farmers.

At a meeting in Japan in June, Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed ways to defuse the crisis, with the latter promising to buy more farm goods. The U.S. said China also agreed to take action against illegal opioids shipped to the U.S.. Mr. Xi defaulted on those promises so Mr. Trump last week threatened to impose 10 percent tariffs on another $300 billion in Chinese imports effective Sept. 1.

For evidence of China’s bad faith one need look no further than the continued outflow of synthetic opioids. China maintains rigid control over its economy, deploys surveillance technology against its citizens to a degree unsurpassed perhaps anywhere else in the world and operates a ruthless justice system. It can halt the flow of drugs whenever it wants.

When Mr. Trump says China will pay for the tariffs, he is only partially right. American consumers will pay higher prices for Chinese goods and, as is the case with soybean farmers, retaliatory tariffs take another kind of toll on the U.S. economy. There are certainly potential repercussions for the U.S. economy.

However, China needs access to U.S. markets to keep its mammoth economy humming, so the trade-war stakes for China are high. Eventually, it pays a price, too. Why else would the Chinese have reacted so strongly to the threat of another wave of tariffs taking effect next month?

Mr. Trump has been deliberate, not rash, in the imposition of tariffs. He has used them in a targeted manner and even delayed imposing them to give China the opportunity to alter course. To this point, China hasn’t done so.

Previous administrations waffled on how to handle Beijing’s economic chicanery, so China may have lulled itself into believing it can continue to play games with Washington. But Mr. Trump, who campaigned on fair trade and has made it a centerpiece of his administration, isn’t playing games. One day, China will get the message.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Z5JzEV

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Wolf should call session on violence

The Citizens’ Voice

Aug. 12

Even now, with blood from the most recent mass murders in California, Texas and Ohio fresh on the streets, and continuous gun violence afflicting major cities including Philadelphia, some politicians remain reluctant to convert their allegiance from gun rights absolutists to the cause of public safety.

Remarkably, Republican state Sen. Lisa Baker of Luzerne County, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has counseled a deliberate pace for legislation to begin reducing gun violence.

She praised a new law that better protects domestic violence victims by requiring their abusers to relinquish their guns pending the completion of court proceedings. But her caucus has a deplorable record, over a very long period, of killing numerous initiatives that would help to reduce the carnage without stifling anyone’s right to legitimate gun ownership. When 22 municipal governments around the state adopted ordinances requiring people to report lost or stolen guns to police — a measure aimed at reducing illegal arms sales to criminals — legislative Republicans passed a law granting legal standing to gun rights activists to sue and for the municipal governments to pay their legal expenses.

As of last Wednesday, the 219th day of 2019, there had been 255 mass shootings nationwide. And the definition holds a mass shooting to be when at least four people are wounded or killed. Those mass shootings alone killed 275 people and wounded more than 1,000.

A dozen of those mass shootings occurred in Pennsylvania, including four in Philadelphia, and others in Clairton, Allentown, Uniontown, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Baker advocated a schedule of hearings and the deliberate collection of evidence. Well, here’s some: Connor Betts, using a semiautomatic assault-style rifle equipped with a 100-round drum magazine, killed nine people and wounded 27 others in 32 seconds early Sunday morning in Dayton, Ohio. The toll would have been worse if police, who quickly responded and shot Betts, had not happened to be nearby.

No valid reasons for access

No hearings are necessary to conclude that the weapon and the magazine that Betts used have no valid purpose. They repeatedly have been used to slaughter schoolchildren, festivalgoers, worshipers, shoppers, movie patrons and anyone else who happens to be in the way.

Yet many state lawmakers still lack the courage to stand up to their patrons in the gun lobby by banning those weapons.

They’re not alone. President Donald Trump, who claimed recently that Article 2 of Constitution provides him with the authority to do whatever he wants to do, won’t try to prove that the pen is mightier than the gun lobby by issuing one of his famed executive orders to ban assault weapons. He said he doesn’t detect the “political appetite” for an assault weapons ban.

Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey deserves great credit for breaking ranks to promote universal background checks and a “red flag” law that would make it easier to seize weapons from demonstrably dangerous people. But he, too, has shied from an assault weapons ban.

There is much that Congress and state lawmakers can do to begin altering the absolutist gun culture and making public safety an equal consideration.

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have introduced a bill that would provide enforcement grants to states that adopt stringent red flag laws. And the Senate finally should approve Toomey’s universal background check proposal.

At the state level, Gov. Tom Wolf should call a legislative special session on gun violence with an agenda that includes an assault-style weapons ban, universal background checks, a stringent red flag law, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen weapons and a cap on monthly gun purchases to thwart straw purchases for criminals.

Online: https://bit.ly/2YVO3D3

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Restaurant liquor licenses ought to go to actual restaurants, not convenience stores

LNP

Aug. 11

The cost of liquor licenses in Pennsylvania has risen dramatically as a result of a package of changes made three years ago to the Prohibition-era Pennsylvania Liquor Code. As staff writer Chad Umble wrote in last week’s Sunday LNP, “The changes opened up beer and wine sales to a new class of corporate buyers — convenience and grocery store chains.” Because “a fixed supply of liquor licenses is available for each county — and new buyers with deep pockets began pursuing them — basic economics explains why prices more than doubled.”

We cheered the passage in 2016 of Act 39, which permitted, at long last, the sale of wine in grocery stores.

Having enjoyed the ease of being able to pick up a bottle of wine while shopping for the ingredients for dinner in other states, we were pleased to see Pennsylvania take a baby step out of the Prohibition era.

But as we wrote then, and still believe, “Now, the governor and the Legislature need to do what should have been done when Franklin D. Roosevelt still occupied the White House — get Pennsylvania out of the liquor business, finally, once and forever.”

The liquor laws in the commonwealth remain arcane and complex, including those related to the licensing of businesses for the sale of beer, wine and liquor.

As Patrick Gleason, of Americans for Tax Reform, asserted in a 2017 column on forbes.com, “When it comes to misguided restrictions on the sale of alcohol, no state holds a candle to Pennsylvania and its ludicrous alcohol regulatory regime.”

He noted: “Aside from Utah, Pennsylvania is the only state where the government has total control of wine and spirits retail and wholesale operations.”

This remains true even after the package of liquor law changes went into effect in 2016 — changes, Umble wrote, that “followed years of efforts to privatize liquor sales in Pennsylvania. While the updates that were rolled into Act 39 stopped short of privatization, they represented the biggest update since the 1930s.”

“Among many other things,” Umble explained, “Act 39 expanded hours at state-run Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores and allowed them to start selling lottery tickets, while holders of restaurant liquor licenses could sell wine for takeout.”

Melissa Bova, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, told Umble, “It was just kind of ‘throw a bunch of stuff in the bill, and see who passes it.’ We were all trying to figure out what was in it at the end of the day.”

Throwing a bunch of stuff into a bill and see who passes it — that’s a perfect encapsulation of the way our state Legislature often works. Legislation created in a slapdash way almost always leads to unintended consequences — and certainly did in this instance.

Act 39 clarified that convenience stores that sold gas could sell beer if they did it from a separate area. This “tweak,” Umble noted, “continues to have repercussions for restaurateurs in Lancaster County.”

Particularly for small, independent restaurateurs without the resources of a large corporate chain.

As Aaron Zeamer, an attorney with Russell, Krafft & Gruber who specializes in liquor license transactions, told Umble, “A chef who has been toiling in the industry for a long time and wants to go out on his own, it’s really, really difficult for them to do that and have a successful model.”

See? Unintended consequence.

It’s a routine function of state government to control the sale of liquor licenses. Pennsylvania, however, limits the number of liquor licenses available in each county (and prohibits their transfer between counties).

Lancaster County has 362 liquor licenses; 228 of them are restaurant licenses.

The state isn’t creating new restaurant liquor licenses, so, aside from the infrequent auction of expired licenses, the only means of getting a liquor license is to purchase an existing one held by another business.

And supermarket and convenience store chains are driving up the costs of licenses on the private market, making it difficult for would-be restaurateurs to launch new businesses. A new venture’s other options: to sell Pennsylvania-produced beer, liquor or wine in concert with a Pennsylvania brewery or distillery, or to allow customers to bring their own alcohol. Either option signifies tighter profit margins for a startup with challenges enough on its plate.

We find it difficult to understand why coveted restaurant licenses are going to convenience stores. Those stores merely need to install a dining area that seats at least 30 and offer food that’s prepared on site, and voila, they’re apparently considered restaurants, in the eyes of the PLCB. But let’s be honest: The dining area is mostly a prop, a check in the box on the list of the PLCB’s requirements.

And why offer ready access to alcohol at convenience stores, which are designed mostly for quick visits by people in cars (that’s why they’re called convenience stores)? It’s hard to imagine a supermarket shopper opening a bottle of wine between forays into the dairy and cereal aisles. But state law allows a customer — again who’s likely en route somewhere in a car — to imbibe a beer at a convenience store with a restaurant license. Which, to put it mildly, doesn’t strike us as wise.

Moreover, why would a supposedly pro-small business commonwealth put owners of small, local, independent restaurants — actual restaurants — at such a distinct disadvantage?

Pennsylvania’s liquor licensing system is bizarre. And it ought to be overhauled.

Online: https://bit.ly/31BTwM3

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America’s mental illness is guns

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Aug. 11

Rattlesnakes are only poisonous if you think they are.

Women can stop their bodies from getting pregnant as a result of rape.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is prohibited from computerizing gun sale records into a searchable database that would allow them to easily trace guns used in crimes.

All of these statements are insane. And one of them is true: the ATF is forced to rely on primitive digital records on gun sales, forcing a cumbersome search, via paper or phone, whenever a gun used in a crime is investigated. Because gun owners want privacy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, charged with our public health and safety, is prohibited by law (and lack of funding) from using its budget to research gun violence. The strict language is that research can’t argue for gun control, even if data suggests homicides increase in houses that have guns. Denying that gun violence — responsible for 30,000 deaths a year — is a public health problem is like saying cancer can be cured by the application of leeches.

When it comes to guns, we are expected to disbelieve everything that our own eyes — and our broken hearts — tell us.

When the mass shootings like those last week in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, occur, the talk quickly turns to mental illness. That isn’t wrong, but the true insanity is the outrageous things the NRA and its followers keep expecting us to swallow.

The fact is, our mental illness is guns.

Poll after poll points to huge numbers of American in favor of gun control laws to minimize the chance of mass slaughters. The majority support expanded background checks that close the loopholes that allow anyone, whatever their criminal history, to purchase a gun at a gun show or from a private dealer.

There is widespread support for heavier regulation of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. But mass murder after mass murder, Congress has done nothing.

The two mass shootings last weekend have given some people hope that this might be the “tipping point.” President Trump is indicating support for expanded background checks though with few concrete details. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is making similar noises.

We’d have more optimism if there was also noise being made to bring Congress back from its current recess, to start taking action now.

Also on the table is a “red flag” bill — Cease Fire PA prefers the term “extreme risk protection order bill” — through which family members or members of law enforcement can temporarily take guns away from someone in crisis. This, too, could help.

But a ban or heavier regulation of assault-style and military weapons that wreak so much human devastation? Not a whisper. And limiting the high-capacity magazines that are allowed to mow down lots of people? Not a peep.

It might be crazy to believe that things will change, given our violent history and Congress’ history of inaction. But so is surrendering to the idea that the interpretation of a 228-year-old amendment is more important than human life.

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

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Jailhouse suicides aren’t theories

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 11

Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide has prompted a rash of conspiracy theories about how a wealthy man in an infamous criminal case could have been left to kill himself.

There are the theories that the government had him killed. Or maybe it was the Clintons. Or maybe it was the even wealthier people who could have been implicated in his case should it go all the way to trial. Maybe it was the Russians. Maybe it was criminals.

Epstein’s death seems poised to be the new Kennedy assassination or Marilyn Monroe overdose. It is the death no one will ever accept at face value.

For just a moment, let’s ignore the rich, famous players alleged to be involved in Epstein’s wicked games. Let’s strip everything away but the demographics.

A man in jail awaiting trial appears to have died at his own hand. While it is the money and sex and politics that have drawn the public’s attention and focused on all of the reasons his suicide shouldn’t have happened, let’s focus on something else.

Suicides happen in jail. They happen a lot.

A 2015 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics called the number of people killing themselves in local jails “a national crisis.” The BJS numbers show people in jail — often awaiting a trial rather than serving a sentence — are more than three times more likely to commit suicide than those sentenced and incarcerated in a prison.

A Pennsylvania Post article showed the state had 81 county jail suicides between 2015 and 2018. Seven were in Allegheny County, four in Beaver, three in Washington, two in Westmoreland, one in Somerset. The 10-county region had 65 attempted suicides.

There have been more in 2019.

The National Institute of Mental Health recognizes incarceration as a “main risk factor for suicide.”

Epstein had at least two others — a prior attempt and being over 60.

When the very act of being brought into jail checks a major box on the list, caution and attention would seem to be good ideas in all county correctional facilities, especially when so many of those behind the bars are still supposed to be presumed innocent.

A jail is just the first step in a criminal court journey. It might just be for a few hours or a few days. At worst, it might be a couple of years. It isn’t supposed to be where a life ends.

Maybe the focus on Epstein’s death could result in just a little attention given to the national crisis of jailhouse suicides. Most of them are facts, not theories.

Online: https://bit.ly/2H7EYvF

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