Editorials from around Pennsylvania

May 1, 2019

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:


Gov. Tom Wolf has made Pennsylvania the 24th state to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, under which state governments attempt to achieve goals established by the Paris Accord on Climate Change — in defiance of President Donald Trump’s blunder in withdrawing from the accord.

It is the right position, even though it is clearer than the state’s air that there is no consensus within the state government to wage the fight.

Ideology energizes cross-purposes

As Wolf announced a plan to reduce statewide carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, Republican House Speaker Michael Turzai conducted another event announcing his caucus’ Energize PA plan. It is fundamentally a collection of state government tax giveaways to the gas industry.

In addition to major tax credits akin to the $1.7 billion the state has committed to build a Shell petrochemical refinery in Beaver County, the package would require the public to subsidize construction of local gas-distribution pipelines, and strip the state Department of Environmental Protection of its permitting authority over gas wells.

Turzai, citing a study funded by energy and other businesses, claimed that the package would create a $60 billion increase in state GDP and 100,000 new jobs.

Multiple contradictions

Gas is a fossil fuel. The GOP gas plan thus contradicts Wolf’s climate plan. The governor also endorsed the gas industry, but called on it — without specific regulations to make it happen — to reduce the vast amounts of methane that escape during drilling and processing. Methane is distinct from carbon and produced in smaller quantities, but it is a much more powerful agent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The plan also contradicts Wolf’s effort to impose a reasonable severance tax on gas production to fund $4.5 billion in borrowing for a major infrastructure program. Turzai’s plan bestows public subsidies on the gas industry to help it build its own infrastructure.

By supplanting coal as the state’s primary fuel for power generation, gas already has put the state well on the road to achieving the governor’s proposed carbon reduction. Wolf proposed a 26 percent carbon emission reduction by 2025 from the baseline recorded in 2005. The state’s carbon emissions declined by most of that, 23 percent, from 2005 through 2016.

Controversial, but carbon-free nukes

Meanwhile, a highly controversial matter is in play. Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of the state’s electrical generation, all of it carbon-free. Exelon has threatened early closure of its Three Mile Island nuclear plant if the state does not authorize subsidies for it in the form of required power purchases. At 805 megawatts, it is the smallest of the state’s five nuke plants, producing just over 8 percent of their combined 9,707 megawatts. But the state can’t subsidize one reactor without including the others. If one or more plants go offline, gas likely will replace the generation — increasing rather than decreasing the state’s carbon production.

The governor has not specifically endorsed any nuke bailout plan in the Legislature, but his carbon-reduction plan assumes that the current rate of nuclear power production will continue. Without it, the goals will be unreachable.

Wolf’s plan identifies many sound, proven means to reduce carbon emissions, such as promoting renewable energy production and reducing demand through better stewardship by everyone, from simply turning off lights in empty rooms and using energy-efficient appliances and more electric vehicles.

Unfortunately, like most other policy in Pennsylvania, climate change is not so much a matter of electrical power as it is political power struggles.

__ The Scranton Times-Tribune

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2UNNjJ2



PennLive columnist Bob Quarteroni, who died April 15 from the ravages of ALS, wanted to live.

Failing that, he wanted to minimize his suffering, by means of assisted dying.

He didn’t have that choice either.

No one should have to go through what he did.

Quarteroni did us a great service by telling us in his final two columns, March 5 and 22, exactly what ALS and our state put him through — because Pennsylvania prohibits physician-assisted suicide.

He was diagnosed in November 2018 with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and given a few horrifying months to live. ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease progressively paralyzes a person, while maintaining the mental faculties, until they can’t move, speak, swallow or breathe.

Quarteroni described the experience in words as brutal as the disease itself.

In a column titled “My body is collapsing around me,” he wrote, “Looking into the ravening eyes of the great dog death over and over and over and over is a terror beyond words, a putrid, bleak knowing, an abomination.”

To avoid such a horrible passing, he planned to travel to Switzerland to end his life with doctors’ assistance_but it wasn’t to be.

His words and experience are a call to action that deserves an answer before many more sufferers die without options or a say in how they go.

It’s time to pass, or at the very least, hold hearings on, the Death with Dignity bill that’s been introduced by Rep. and later-Sen. Daylen Leach in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017, which has never gotten out of committee. Leach plans to reintroduce the bill again this year.

According to the Death With Dignity website, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have death with dignity statutes, which allow terminally-ill adults to request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their death. Montana doesn’t have such a statute but allows physician-assisted dying. https://www.deathwithdignity.org/states/pennsylvania/

The option is open only to state residents, which is why Quarteroni made his unfulfilled plans to travel to Switzerland.

We’re not suggesting such legislation be entered into lightly. There are valid concerns that need to be addressed to ensure that the option of assisted dying is rare but available to those who need it and who are able to meet high standards of competence and consent.

This is doable, as other states and countries have demonstrated.

There’s strong public support for assisted dying nationally. PennLive reported that in 2018, Gallup found that 72% of Americans believe a doctor should be allowed to help a suffering patient to die when that’s what the patient wants.

More than half of all states considered legalizing doctor-assisted suicide in 2017. In Pennsylvania, Leach again introduced his Death with Dignity bill, but unfortunately, it again got stuck in the Judiciary Committee.

This year is another chance to get it right. Pennsylvania voters should insist that Death with Dignity legislation get a place on the agenda, where it doesn’t get lost in the annual state budget fight, the runup to the 2020 elections or the debate over legalizing marijuana. It’s not a revenue-generator, like legal marijuana, but it should still mean something.

A full debate and passage surely would require less courage of lawmakers than was demanded of Quarteroni.

We owe it to him -- and to the others who may walk this road -- to take seriously his last words and his painful plight. Though we couldn’t do anything within the law to mitigate his suffering, we still can end the injustice of forced suffering for others.

__ PennLive.com

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2GTJ4Xh



There’s fiscal trouble ahead for those nearing retirement. And some, including the federal government, appear to be unprepared for it.

The latter was the clear message out of Washington last week.

The trustees who oversee Medicare and Social Security reported that the two programs are expected to exhaust their reserves by 2026 and 2035, respectively. They urged action from Congress, writing: “Lawmakers should address these financial challenges as soon as possible. Taking action sooner rather than later will permit consideration of a broader range of solutions and provide more time to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”

And the reaction in Washington? The usual combination of inaction and denial.

But in Harrisburg, a related piece of data — that an estimated 2.1 million people in Pennsylvania work for employers offering no retirement savings accounts or pension plans — found bipartisan support for a sensible fix. A task force set up by Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella, a Montgomery County Democrat, calls for the creation of a retirement plan for people without access to one at work. And legislation to make it happen has key bipartisan supporters.

As with Pennsylvania’s $5 billion 529 College and Career Savings Program, the retirement plan would be overseen by the Treasury Department and managed by a private contractor that would be paid from the plan’s earnings.

It would be open to employees in companies that provide no 401(k) or pension plan, and each employee’s account would travel with the employee from job to job. Yet to be worked out is whether such employers would be required to participate and whether employees would have to opt in or out. Pennsylvania lawmakers should strongly consider requiring employees to opt out of an otherwise automatic 2% to 4% contribution, money few would miss during their working years, since it is pre-tax, and that many would appreciate having after they retire.

And taxpayers would appreciate the gains as well. The cost of helping people without retirement savings is already a $700 million burden on Pennsylvania’s budget and, according to a report prepared last year for the Treasury Department, it is expected to jump to $1.1 billion by 2030.

Six other states have such plans. OregonSaves, which began in 2017 as a voluntary program for employers with 100 or more workers and has 76,500 employees enrolled and more than $17 million in assets, is a good model for Pennsylvania. Individuals can participate directly in OregonSaves and the plan is being rolled out to smaller employers in stages.

Pennsylvania can expect a crisis if people retire without savings: It has the fifth largest population over 65 in the nation, and its population aged 65 to 74 is expected to grow by 270,000 by 2025 to a total of 1.55 million.

Torsella summed up the best case for helping seniors without retirement savings plans to help themselves when he noted, “Over time, it will be financially self-sustaining. It won’t cost business owners one dime, or expose them to liability.”

State lawmakers should pass legislation creating a retirement savings program. Once it is adopted, participation in the fund should be promoted aggressively to individuals and businesses. Counting on Washington to keep Social Security solvent, after all, is looking like a poor choice, quite literally. And, given our state’s aging demographics, the time to act is now.

__ Reading Eagle

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2VKl1Uw



It’s not hard for property owners in Pennsylvania to find out what portion of their tax bill goes to schools. They may think that’s all they pay to support education, but they’d be wrong. A secret school tax is not only funded by all taxpayers, but has been steadily increasing. And a new bill sponsored by Republican Speaker Mike Turzai that passed the House Education Commission Monday will increase this stealth tax even more.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit allows corporations to help underwrite tuitions to private and parochial schools instead of paying their tax to the state. Paired with a related program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, the two programs have grown from $35.7 million nine years ago to $160 million last year. Turzai’s bill would raise the amount of total tax credits by $100 million. Along with a third program that provides tax-credit funding for pre-K and extracurricular activities, the total cost will rise from $210 million to $310 million — with a built-in hike each year after a certain threshold is reached.

The EITC/OSTC is often called a “voucher lite” program because it diverts tax revenues to go directly to families in the form of scholarships and tuition payments for private and parochial schools. It is supposedly targeted to low- and middle-income families, but the maximum annual income for participating families will, under the bill, be raised from $85,000 to $95,000. That maximum rises with each additional child from a single family that takes advantage of the program. The salary max is nearly three times that for families of some special-education students. In no country in this world is a $285,000 salary considered “middle income.”

Champions of EITC like to pretend these are corporate contributions to education. The reality is that corporations divert up to 90 percent of their tax liability directly to organizations that provide scholarships and tuition for private and religious schools. That means that next year, more than $300 million that would have gone to the state budget will go instead to tuitions (as well as pre-K and extracurricular activities).

And because of the way the program is administered, these dollars go into a black box: The program is administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development instead of the Department of Education. DCED is prohibited by law to divulge any of the details of who gets the money, how well the students or the schools perform academically, or whether the bulk of the students are from low-income families.

Among the bedrock values of public education is the idea that every child deserves an education, and children cannot be discriminated against for disabilities, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. The same does not hold true for private and religious schools — which used to be the trade-off for not getting tax dollars. Education Voters of Pennsylvania, which opposes this bill, projects that in 10 years, the cost of EITC/OSTC will expand to $1 billion.

The EITC is touted as a victory for school choice. But it’s no victory for taxpayers who have no knowledge of, or choice in paying for it.

__ The Philadelphia Inquirer

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



Everyone knew that Joe Biden was going to run for president again.

His undeclared presence on every hypothetical ballot was an open assumption for months. Despite a Democratic field that contenders almost large enough to be a hockey roster, Biden consistently polled higher than even the buzziest newcomers.

His declaration last week was a formality. So why did the former vice president wait until Monday for his first real appearance, and why did he do it in Pittsburgh? Why not Scranton, as that other Pennsylvania city’s native son? Why not Philadelphia, the largest bell to ring in the state and with all that Founding Fathers mojo to spare?

Because the Pittsburgh voters are the game in 2020.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough spoke Tuesday about Biden’s union audience appearance in Lawrenceville, saying it was about the importance of the state’s electoral votes.

“This election is Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania,” Scarborough said.

But it can all be boiled down to Pittsburgh’s little corner of the Keystone.

Aside from being a key swing area in a key swing state, Southwestern Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the country. It is both urban and rural. It is industrial and agricultural. It encompasses an aging core votership that is balanced by a large student population. It is less purple than it is swirls of red and blue. And that’s just demographics.

Look at the issues and you see Pittsburgh everywhere.

Economy? The struggle to reconcile the manufacturing past with changing industries doesn’t just sit on every street corner. It zips around in driverless cars. Energy? This is coal country being fracked for gas in the shadow of nuclear towers and we pay the highest pump tax in the country. We understand the need for good energy policy.

Health care? Medicare? Can we introduce you to Highmark and UPMC and see if you, barrel of 2020 candidates, can figure that mess out?

And what about gun control? We can sit you at a table with people who believe deeply in the 2nd Amendment, people who use guns to feed their families and people whose worship service was ripped apart by bullets.

Pittsburgh and her neighbors have more to offer than just electoral math. Talking to Pittsburgh is talking to the heart of the 2020 voter. That’s why Biden came here first.

What’s surprising is that in a 20-person race, no one else found the starting line in the Steel City.

__ The Tribune Democrat

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2IRxy2h