Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
IS PENNSYLVANIA READY FOR ELECTION REFORMS?
"It's a little embarrassing to go to the national conferences and listen to what other states are doing. It always seems like we're way behind when it comes to election reform."
— Pedro Cortes, acting Pennsylvania secretary of state, in a recent Associated Press story.
Mr. Cortes can say that again.
And again, and again, and again about many issues.
Other states always seem to be way ahead of Pennsylvania on good government issues:
. Open records (we're finally catching up).
. Campaign finance limits.
. Public accountability for lawmaker expenses.
. Draconian ballot access rules for independent and third-party candidates.
And so on.
But let's stick with election reform for a moment.
Rather than moving ahead toward smart use of technology to improve elections in our state, lawmakers for the last several years tried to go backward to the days of poll taxes and literacy tests.
The war over Voter ID raged through much of the Corbett administration.
We know: Republicans pushing the idea actually touted it as election reform — securing the vote from fraudsters who went to the polls and used fake names.
But it was reform of a nonexistent problem. Proponents of the law couldn't find a single verified example of voter impersonation at the polls.
It was an obvious effort to suppress turnout among people likely to vote Democratic.
The effort collapsed under the weight of litigation.
So, what can we expect from Mr. Cortes and his boss, Gov. Wolf?
Some good things — if they can persuade the Legislature to go along.
Mr. Cortes said the idea of online voter registration might have a chance at passage.
Twenty-one states allow voters to register online — and three others will soon have such laws.
It's not exactly a revolutionary idea in an age where we use digital tools for so many government functions — filing taxes, for instance.
Many believe online registration would boost participation among young people.
There are some security and logistical issues to solve with online registration, but other states have worked most of the bugs out. We need not be digital trailblazers here, just sensible followers.
How about open primaries?
Or same-day registration?
Or early voting — or relaxed rules about absentee balloting?
How about all-mail voting?
Yeah, we're getting crazy here.
This is Pennsylvania, where we don't rush headlong into newfangled ideas.
Mr. Cortes is right.
It's kind of embarrassing.
— York Daily Record
GAS TAX CAN'T IGNORE PRICES
The trouble with Gov. Wolf's natural-gas tax is that it wasn't imposed five years ago. Thanks to the Rendell administration's halfhearted support for a tax and the Corbett administration's misguided opposition, Harrisburg slumbered — and schools and other services suffered — while the Marcellus Shale boomed.
It's Wolf's misfortune to be attempting to address this failure in the midst of a gas glut. Given that the regional natural-gas price has plummeted by more than half over the past year, legislators and others have rightly questioned whether the governor's projected $1 billion a year in revenue from the levy is realistic.
Rather than adjust its projections or raise the rate, however, team Wolf has a plan to simply ignore falling fossil-fuel prices. While the bulk of Wolf's tax would be nominally based on the value of gas extracted, the bill proposed in the legislature last month would set a floor on that value. Wolf's advertised 5 percent tax rate would apply only as long as the price of gas is at least $2.97 per thousand cubic feet. Below that, the state would continue to tax gas as if it were selling for $2.97 a unit, increasing the effective rate.
That minimum is notable for being significantly higher than the current price of gas. It would also be unique: The state would have the only extraction tax with a price floor nationwide.
That's a sign of overreach. True, as Wolf has pointed out, Pennsylvania shouldn't be the only major gas-producing state without an extraction tax. But it shouldn't be the only state that taxes gas heedless of price either.
Like West Virginia's tax, which served as a model, Wolf's proposal also includes a component based on the volume of gas extracted, which provides a measure of protection against price fluctuations. That makes the proposed price floor that much harder to defend.
Of course, the details of the Democratic governor's gas tax and other budget proposals will have to be negotiated with the Legislature's ruling Republicans, who have already called on Wolf to agree to pension and liquor-control reforms — as he should — before they make concessions on taxes. Wolf's policy secretary, John Hanger, told The Inquirer's Andrew Maykuth that the administration is "open to conversations about modifications" of the price floor.
Better yet, they should drop the minimum altogether. Ignoring gas prices threatens to bolster the otherwise bankrupt anti-tax arguments of gas industry lobbyists. The extraction tax is the most reasonable proposal in Wolf's revenue-raising arsenal. The administration should keep it that way.
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
DEP SHOULD FOLLOW MINE SUSIDENCE RECOMMENDATIONS
The impact of mine subsidence on property and water resources has been a source of controversy for many years in Greene and Washington counties where coal is a major industry.
The discussion seems to intensify when a report commissioned by the state Department of Environmental Protection is released every five years documenting the impact of subsidence on surface land.
The report, the most recent of which was released in December, is mandated by amendments to the state's Bituminous Mine Subsidence and Land Conservation Act signed into law in 1994 and referred to as Act 54.
Act 54 amended the law on subsidence damage. Prior to the act, the law required coal operators to protect only homes and other structures constructed before April 27, 1966. Under Act 54, coal companies for the first time could mine under homes or businesses, no matter when they were built, but the companies were required to compensate property owners for damage.
The law also required coal companies, for the first time, to restore or replace a property owner's water supply if it was affected by mining.
Every five years, DEP compiles information on the effects of underground mining on land, structures and water resources in a report to the governor, General Assembly and DEP's Citizens Advisory Council. The most recent report, the fourth to be completed under the act, was prepared by the University of Pittsburgh and covered the period August 2008 through August 2013. It runs more than 400 pages and offers specific details on damage caused by subsidence as well as the efforts made to repair it. The most recent report was the subject of public hearings last month by the Citizens Advisory Council.
Residents and environmental groups testifying March 27 at DEP's California mining office maintain the law not only must be more strictly enforced by DEP, but also is inadequate to protect streams and other water resources from damage.
An industry group, Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, which presented testimony at an earlier hearing, said the report indicates the law is working, and strategies to repair damage and restore water resources are being carried out as intended.
It would be difficult here to present both views. However, we believe the report has value in documenting the effects of mine subsidence and providing information that could lead to better methods to mitigate and restore subsidence damage.
For the recent report, the university was asked by DEP to conduct an analysis on the impacts of subsidence on groundwater with the aim of improving the ability to predict damage to streams.
"(W)hile mining companies are generally either able to repair, replace or financially compensate for damages to structures, the ability to repair damage to streams remains largely unknown, as documented in the third assessment," the report said.
We can conclude that DEP is attempting to resolve issues concerning stream impacts. The information provided in the report and its recommendations could lead to an improved analysis of what works and what doesn't in regard to stream restoration.
In the latest assessment, DEP also requested the university look at the process by which the agency obtains and manages information concerning the effects of underground mining. Unfortunately, the university cites a number of instances in which the lack of information and uniform management of data made it difficult to draw conclusions regarding subsidence damage and efforts to mitigate or repair it.
Though DEP has improved information in numerous areas, the report said, "it has lost ground since the third assessment period in the organization and accessibility of some areas of data necessary for assessing the effects of underground bituminous coal mining in Pennsylvania."
In its report, the university addresses the issues extensively and offers recommendations for managing what it refers to as "big data." It seems to us that having accurate and thorough information is essential to determining the impacts of subsidence. We only hope DEP takes the recommendations to heart.
— The (Washington) Observer-Reporter
HERBAL ESSENCE: SUPPLEMENTS DESERVE A HARDER LOOK FROM THE FDA
Can't sleep? Depressed? Low energy? There's an herb for that, and the dietary supplement industry makes more than $60 billion a year hawking "natural" remedies within pills worldwide. But what consumers pay for isn't necessarily what they get, according to an investigation by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who accused four retailers, including Pittsburgh-based GNC, of fraudulent marketing.
While GNC has vigorously defended its products, it agreed last month to reforms, including new standards for testing and disclosure. That's a start, but the congressional investigation that Mr. Schneiderman and 13 other attorneys general (Pennsylvania's Kathleen Kane among them) are seeking should culminate in stricter standards for all manufacturers of such products.
In January, Mr. Schneiderman said testing of store-brand supplements sold by GNC, Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens revealed no traces of the advertised herb in four out of five products. Instead the supplements contained powdered vegetables, wheat and even traces of houseplants and spruce. These were not listed as ingredients, although some are potentially life-threatening to people with allergies.
The industry responded by calling the New York probe "harassment based on science fiction" and challenged the attorney general's testing methodology, leaving consumers with a dilemma of whom to believe.
Humans have used herbs to improve health and vitality for thousands of years, and many people swear by their effectiveness in treating everything from insomnia to cancer. The American Cancer Society, however, advises caution and notes that supplement use accounted for more than 100,000 calls to U.S. poison control centers in 2013.
In its agreement with the New York attorney general over a cease-and-desist order, GNC agreed to stepped-up testing and posting signs in its stores that make clear what its products contain. That's good for GNC customers, but what about everybody else?
Even though most supplements are consumed in the form of pills, the Food and Drug Administration considers them a food, not a drug. If the New York attorney general is right, there needs to be a new category: placebos. It's past time for the FDA to be more involved.
THE FRANKLIN REGIONAL STABBINGS: A YEAR LATER, A YEAR WISER?
The one-year anniversary of the mass stabbings that wounded 20 students and a security guard at Franklin Regional Senior High School brings vividly back to mind the horror and heroism of April 9, 2014. But it also raises the question of whether police, parents, administrators, teachers and students now can better identify teens troubled enough to target classmates violently and better work to prevent such tragedies.
Many victimized that day continue to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as suspect Alex Hribal awaits trial. But also ongoing is the caring support expressed by many in many ways, including the $140,000 raised for the We Are FR Fund, which is helping pay victims' long-term medical expenses.
Still, as heartening as the response of the Franklin Regional community and all of western Pennsylvania has been, existing safeguards and scrutiny didn't detect the suspect's potential for mass school violence. Franklin Regional hardly being alone in that regard only makes the fact that no one managed to deflect him from his tragic course more disturbing and worrisome. And no school can be assumed to be immune.
Complacency courts disaster. And there's no simple, quick fix for mass school violence. Solutions must extend beyond classroom walls, apply outside of school hours and involve the entire community looking out for — and acting on — any warning signs of potential tragedy.
THE CHARTER SCHOOL NEWS IS MIXED
Taken at face value, two recent developments on the charter-school front — at the national and state level — might be considered positive ammunition for those championing alternatives to traditional public schools.
Last week, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes released a new report that studied charter-school performance in 41 urban areas, including Philadelphia. It found that such charters provide higher levels of growth in math and reading compared to traditional public schools.
That doesn't necessarily mean that charter students are pulling higher scores, but that their level of improvement is outpacing those of their traditional-school peers. One reason: Charter students are getting more instruction in math and reading; the equivalent of 40 days and 28 days, respectively.
At the state level, the House passed a bill that would institute some charter reforms. Since virtually no reform has occurred since the 1997 law authorizing charters, this could also be considered good news.
The reality on both fronts is more complicated.
Pennsylvania and many other states have seen aggressive growth of charter schools, but too often the data on their effectiveness is confusing or contradictory. That may always be the case, since even if students of similar demographic backgrounds are compared, there are significant enough differences between traditional public schools and charters to make comparison hard.
Two such areas, according to Kate Shaw, of Philadelphia-based Research for Action, which has undertaken many education studies, are in special education and students who live in poverty. Traditional public schools typically have more students with high needs in special education and more students experiencing extreme poverty with far more risk factors than charter counterparts. That, Shaw says, can make direct comparisons between traditional and charter schools problematic.
In 2013, a CREDO study of charter schools in urban and non-urban areas was far more mixed: Pennsylvania charter students on average were lagging behind students in regular public schools; almost half the states' charter-school students did worse academically than their traditional public school peers.
"Mixed" is a word we would also use for Harrisburg's reform bill, passed by the House last month. On the plus side, it would alter the funding for cyber charter schools, permitting school districts to deduct food-service costs from the money they pay to cyber schools. That's a common-sense change. It also would cap the money that charters are allowed to keep as fund balances — some of them currently in the millions.
But it would also prohibit districts from establishing caps on enrollments in the charter agreements they enter into. Charter caps are already prohibited — which is in itself worth reforming — but now, even those necessary controls can't be incorporated in the operating agreements that districts make with charters.
Gov. Tom Wolf is also proposing reforms that are more significant. One would restore some reimbursement for charter costs to districts, another would cap the amount of per-student allocation for cyber charters to $5,950.
The state has nearly two decades of charter-school education under its belt. Getting a better handle on what we have actually learned and what changes we need to make should be a priority for everyone, not just those in Harrisburg
— Philadelphia Daily News