Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
STRIP PUBLIC PENSIONS FROM FELONS, Feb. 6
Erie region taxpayers are familiar with legal loopholes that have allowed public officials and employees to retain lucrative taxpayer-funded pensions even after being convicted of committing crimes related to their work or representing what would seem to be disqualifying moral failures.
That was the case, for example, with a former Girard teacher, the late Gregory Yarbenet, who retained his more than $3,000 monthly pension even after he was sentenced in 2003 to serve more than a decade in prison for molesting two female students.
The Yarbenet case led to important legislative reforms championed by former state Sen. Jane Earll, of Fairview Township, R-49th Dist. Certain sex crimes were added to the list of offenses triggering public employee pension forfeiture.
And yet, more than a decade later, gaping loopholes endure. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018 identified more than 200 people who continued to receive pension benefits from the Public School Employee Retiree System even after earning criminal convictions, including felonies or losing their professional certifications because of misconduct.
The latest legislative push to reform public pension forfeiture guidelines came after a 6-5 vote by the State Employees Retirement System board in late 2017 to restore pension payments worth more than $20,000 a month to former state Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow, who had pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in 2012. Mellow, a Lackawanna County Democrat, had been accused of using taxpayer-funded staff to do campaign work, but he successfully argued the specific crime was not enumerated under the state's pension forfeiture law.
The legislative fix would seem simple. Both the House and Senate advanced legislation in 2018 that would close the loophole, but neither got to the governor's desk. On Monday, the Senate again raised hopes for action, voting 49-0 to pass a bill that would strip pension benefits from public officials who are found guilty of or plead guilty or no contest to felony crimes related to the office they hold.
"At a time when public pensions are wreaking havoc on state and school district budgets, it's unconscionable taxpayers must continue to fund lifetime benefits for those who commit felonies on the job," DiSanto said, according to Pennlive.com. Of course.
This marks a good step that the House should take up. It also seems narrowly tailored. What about a plea to misdemeanor charges that should be disqualifying, but are not enumerated in the statute or the situations highlighted by the Post-Gazette? Educators who commit sex crimes, for example, can retain their pensions if the crime did not occur on the job or involve a student.
More work remains to be done. Stripping public pension benefits from public employees who commit work-related felonies should be an easy place to start.
—— The Erie Times News
—— Online: https://bit.ly/2BlM2C2
PA LEGISLATORS SHOULDN'T WAIT TO PASS SEINSIBLE GUN LAWS, Feb. 5
Even though every state in the Mid-Atlantic region passed gun safety laws in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, massacre last year, Pennsylvania's legislature, controlled by Republicans who tremble at the thought of annoying the gun lobby, only passed a single bill related to gun violence.
That one law, the first anti-violence legislation in more than a decade that deals directly with firearms in Pennsylvania, forces people with a domestic violence ruling against them to more quickly surrender their guns. It's welcome legislation, but it was the only survivor of dozens of bills introduced in Pennsylvania's legislature — ranging from an assault weapons ban to requiring background checks for people who want to buy rifles and shotguns.
As the new legislative session opens in Harrisburg, legislators should recall the slaughter of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by an anti-Semite using an assault rifle. The massacre of people in their house of worship as well as Pennsylvania's tragic statistics on firearm deaths — in 2017, our state saw the fourth most firearms deaths in the nation — should inform the firearms debate.
Some legislators are paying attention.
Among them are a few new members who will hopefully bring new energy to the fight. Freshman Rep. Mary Isaacson (D., Philadelphia) introduced a bill that would ban people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health institution from possessing guns. Rep. Christopher Quinn (R., Delaware), in his second term, would require background checks for people who buy rifles and shotguns.
Freshman state Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks), who previously served in the House, would force gun owners to store their weapons in locked containers. Rep. Tim Briggs, (D., Montgomery), who has pushed the safe storage bill for years, is expected to sponsor it in the House.
Of all the gun-related bills that have already been introduced for this two-year session, the safe storage bill is the least controversial.
New York passed a safe storage bill last week; the law goes into effect in July. (It was too late for a pregnant woman who was shot in the face by her 4-year-old son Saturday. The boy found a loaded handgun in between a mattress and box spring in his home.)
Safe storage laws work. Massachusetts, which requires guns to be locked up whenever not in use, has the strongest safe storage law in the nation. As a result, only 9 percent of youth suicides there are committed with guns, compared to almost 40 percent of youth suicides in the nation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
The Giffords Law Center reports that between 2005 and 2014, about 20,000 children were killed or injured with guns. More than 4 million children not only live in houses where there are guns, but most also know exactly where those guns are located.
No one should have to die to get the attention of state legislators, but they do die, every day somewhere in this state. How much more bloodshed does the legislature need before they take action on reasonable gun laws?
—— The Philadelphia Inquirer
—— Online: https://bit.ly/2DW2bzP
REMARK SHOWS THE DISCONNECT OF MAN OF POWER, WEALTH, Feb. 6
The cease-fire between the White House and Congress that brought back to work thousands of furloughed federal employees means paychecks are resuming now for these wage earners, many of whom had struggled financially during the longest government shutdown in history.
That shutdown had many public repercussions but for those affected federal employees, whether they were working or sitting at home, there were many personal impacts and chief among them — at least for some — was difficulty paying the bills.
So it was shocking when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — one of the richest people in President Donald Trump's Cabinet — publicly expressed confusion during the shutdown about why some unpaid federal workers may have needed charity to help them get by.
Get a loan, Mr. Ross suggested in a television interview.
As a wealthy man who had worked as a private-equity investor, the comment seemed to reflect a wide disconnect with work-a-day America.
Rebuked for his comment, Mr. Ross walked it back, saying he wanted to be sure that workers were aware they could get credit union loans if they were "experiencing liquidity crises."
Liquidity crises? That's a nice term for lacking rent or grocery money.
Mr. Ross's loan comment was a poor reflection on Mr. Trump who ascended to the White House with the support of Middle America, many of whom are paycheck-to-paycheck people.
Mr. Trump said that Mr. Ross "should have said it differently." Yes, he should have. The administration's empathy should have been expressed more clearly and more convincingly.
—— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
—— Online: https://bit.ly/2BxNTUH
NO VIGORISH FOR PRO SPORTS, Feb. 6
Professional sports leagues that once used their clout to obtain a federal law against sports gambling ultimately lost that bet in May when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal law and authorized nationwide state-sanctioned sports betting.
Now, with eight states, including Pennsylvania, already overseeing sports betting and many more lined up to do so, several pro leagues claim that they should get some of the "vig," or vigorish — the bookmakers' interest on bets. In this case the "vig" is a state tax on sports betting. Pennsylvania's tax on sports bets is the highest in the nation, a whopping 36 percent. Nevada's, in contrast, is 6.75 percent.
Sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the NBA and the PGA Tour, have begun lobbying in many states for 0.25 percent of the total nationwide take. Pennsylvania and the other states should resist.
Initially, the leagues called the proposed payment a "sports integrity fee," claiming that the rise of legal sports betting has imposed costs on them to ensure that games are not tainted. But that just begs the question of what they do now to ensure integrity, since illegal sports betting always has posed a threat to sports integrity.
And the pro leagues have a built-in integrity protector in the form of high salaries for athletes. How much would a gambler have to pay a pitcher to walk in a run or a power forward to miss a foul shot, if the player already makes $10 million a year or more to play it straight?
Game officials, who could have more influence than players on some games, also are paid well in the modern era.
Sports leagues retain responsibility for corruption-free sports regardless of the status of sports betting, since broadcasters and fans pay them billions of dollars for clean products.
Lawmakers who have gone all-in on gambling should ensure that all of the vig goes to the taxpayers through their government.
—— The Times-Tribune
—— Online: https://bit.ly/2MTjhkL
CLIMATE CHANGE CONTINUES, Feb. 5
It was beyond cold in York last week.
Low temperatures crept below zero, with wind chills even lower than that. Firefighters arrived at a fire in Wrightsville on Thursday, Jan. 31, and discovered a hydrant with a frozen cap. Schools canceled classes, and warming stations opened.
And when it was cold here, it was even colder in other places. Chicago broke its record cold temperature. Places in North Dakota had days when it didn't get above zero. The U.S. Postal Service stopped deliveries to 100 ZIP codes.
The cold weather, of course, brought out the climate change deniers, especially the denier-in-chief.
On Jan. 29, President Donald Trump tweeted: "In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can't last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!"
Beyond the alternative facts (60 below isn't the lowest wind chill ever recorded; actual temperatures of 60 below and 70 below have been recorded throughout the upper Midwest, according to weather records), there's a willful ignorance behind this pronouncement that is maddening for anyone who actually understands weather and climate.
Last week, it was very cold, even for January. This week, it's warm for February.
Neither weather extreme really matters when we're talking about climate change. Overall, the Earth is getting warmer. And people are the reason why.
January's cold blast came courtesy of the polar vortex, a term meteorologists have been using for a long time that only came into common usage in the past five years.
The polar vortex is the dome of super-cold air that is usually found about 20 miles over the North Pole. What's been happening recently is a piece of the polar vortex breaks away and wanders south.
Last month, there was a "sudden stratospheric warming" when warm southern air suddenly caused the temperatures in the atmosphere to rise 125 degrees. That split the polar vortex, sending the Arctic air blast to the Lower 48.
Was the "sudden stratospheric warming" caused by climate change? Scientists are split on that one.
"This symptom of global warming is counterintuitive for those in the cross-hairs of these extreme cold spells," said Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. "But these events provide an excellent opportunity to help the public understand some of the 'interesting' ways that climate change will unfold."
Helping the public understand climate change has been difficult enough over the years. Now that the president throws out his opinions regardless of the considered research and thoughts of 97 percent of climate scientists, it's even harder. So let's say it again.
Last week, it was cold. This week, it's warm. Either way, it doesn't matter. Climate change is real, and humans are causing it.
Unless we all stop listening to and cheering on the willfully ignorant, the climate and the weather will continue to get worse.
—— The York Dispatch
—— Online: https://bit.ly/2SgFEXp