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

Rational policy steps lawmakers should take

The Citizen's Voice

Aug. 27

It seems appropriate that the political division responsible for the Pennsylvania government's inertia often is described relative to Interstate Route 80, which divides the state roughly in half from east to west.

Political analysts often talk about issues regarding their impact "above or below 80." The reference is to the political differences between most of the state's major population centers south of the interstate, and the vast rural areas that mostly are north of it.

That divide particularly is germane to transportation policy, and shows up in a new analysis by the Libertarian Reason Foundation. It found that, despite having the highest fuels taxes among the states to fund transportation infrastructure, Pennsylvania ranked 35th in terms of cost-effectiveness.

According to the researchers, Pennsylvania ranks 25th for its overall fatality rate; 46th in structurally deficient bridges; 35th in traffic congestion; 32nd in urban Interstate pavement condition, and 32nd in rural Interstate pavement condition.

That middling governance results from legislators pandering to special interests and parochial interests at the expense of the commonwealth.

There are several rational policy steps that the Legislature should take for cost-effectiveness.

First, the government continues to use more than $700 million a year from the Motor License Fund, which is supposed to be used for transportation projects, to fund state police. Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed to at least mitigate that absurdity by assessing a fee on municipal governments, on a sliding scale determined on population, that refuse to fund their own police departments and free-ride on state police. Rather than freeing transportation money for transportation, however, too many legislators pander to their local interest in free police coverage.

Wolf also has proposed a $4.5 billion infrastructure plan, using a moderate tax on natural gas extraction to pay off bonds. But too many lawmakers continue to pander to the industry at the expense of civic improvements.

Perhaps one day, lawmakers can reach consensus so that the state's road network — the fourth-largest nationally in terms of state-controlled miles — will serve to unite rather than divide the commonwealth.



How many more women need to be sexually harassed before the city takes their complaints seriously?

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Aug. 25

"So why don't you just order his dumb ass to go sit down and get out of your face, officer?"

That is how, according to a lawsuit, ex-Police Commissioner Richard Ross responded when Cpl. Audra McCowan informed him that her sexual-harassment complaints had fallen on deaf ears. McCowan and Ross, allegedly, had a two-year affair, which made Ross' response all the more troubling.

But the fact that Ross had any response at all underscores the bigger issue: the ability of internal departmental politics to influence the outcome of sexual-harassment investigations.

After complaining to Internal Affairs, McCowan was moved to a lesser job where she was forced to sit for eight hours every day, without any assignment. To avoid this kind of retaliation, last year, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart warned the city about allowing departments to handle sexual-harassment complaints internally.

Rhynhart's office published an audit of the city's handling of sexual-harassment complaints -- and the $2.2 million that the city spent to settle sexual-harassment cases since 2012. ($1.25 million was ascribed to a single Police Department claim.) Rhynhart concluded the report with a recommendation that the city create a centralized unit to handle all sexual-harassment complaints, from beginning to end.

The audit identified inconsistencies across departments in how sexual-harassment claims are handled. Further, it pointed out that investigating complaints internally creates an opening for conflict of interest. For example, after a sexual-harassment claim against outgoing Sheriff Jewell Williams was substantiated, as the head of his own department, Williams was the one expected to take "appropriate measures."

Williams' case is both the most egregious example of conflict of interest with a case, but also the most easy to identify. Ross, being previously involved with the accuser, is a more subtle -- but equally problematic-- form of conflict.

In response to the audit last year, Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order that outlined a citywide sexual-harassment policy and beefed-up training. As part of the policy, the city also assigned the Employment Resource Unit as the clearinghouse for all sexual-harassment complaints. And while the ERU is supposed to monitor all complaints, it only investigates "sensitive" cases - and often kicks investigations back to the department where the complaint originated.

That is not the centralized unit that Rhynhart recommended -- and it does not address the possibility of intimidation and retribution that exists in the Police Department and other city departments.

Over the last week, instead of recognizing Ross' bad behavior, Kenney lamented his firing and seemed keen to defend Ross' reputation. But by dismissing Cpl. McCowan's allegations, and by not addressing a culture of sexual harassment in the Police Department, Rosscreated a crisis of leadership in the Philadelphia Police Department.

When asked about the importance of diversity in filling the role of commissioner, Kenney responded that he has concerns about the need to maintain the "optics of diversity." The term optics suggests that the only concern is how things look - not how things run. Like diversity in leadership, a safe workplace for women should not be merely an optic - it should be a fact.



Champion of the other America

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Aug. 25

If you Google Peter Navarro, President Donald Trump's trade guru (he is actually called "assistant to the president and director of trade and manufacturing policy,") you might read that he is considered a "heterodox" economist. We suppose this means out of sync with many or most professional and academic economists. They regard "free trade" or unregulated, un-negotiated trade, as an article of faith.

But shouldn't economists, of all people, be the opposite of doctrinaire? Should economics not be utterly empirical?

And shouldn't the national interest outweigh any abstract doctrine?

As the national media piles on regarding Mr. Trump's trade policy — protectionist in the words of some pundits and negatively nationalist in the minds of others — Mr. Navarro has become the whipping boy for an approach to trade that we are told is impractical, naive and bound to trigger a recession.

Actually, to assume that any market will entirely regulate itself, righting any and all unfairness or inequality, has long been thought naive by liberal economists and social critics. And the result of most of the "free trade" agreements made in the last 30 years would seem to verify that critique.

In truth, the gradual and structural recession that has plagued the American worker for those same years — known as deindustrialization — is the permanent recession; the recession that keeps on hurting.

Mr. Navarro is portrayed by some of the media as an economic gadfly (read "nut") when he is actually a Harvard Ph.D. whose views were, for a long time, very much in the mainstream. They may again become the prevailing common sense. That is because they are sensible.

"This country is built on manufacturing," he has said again and again. "I'm talking about a constant renewal of manufacturing. High-tech manufacturing. And what we've seen since 2000, 2001, is we've seen the exodus of our factories and jobs."

This is fact. It is empirical.

This nation had some 17 million manufacturing jobs in 2000, considered the (down) turning point, and has a little under 12 million now. We've lost 5 million factory jobs in less than 20 years.

At one point — the late 1970s — almost 20 million Americans worked in manufacturing.

In 1960, 1 in 4 Americans were factory workers. Today, 1 in 10 are.

Mr. Navarro, a liberal Democrat, makes what used to be a classical liberal Democratic argument about the multiplier effect of manufacturing jobs. "A manufacturing job," he told NPR a few months ago, "has inherently more power to create wealth."

"If you have the manufacturing job as the seed corn, then you have jobs in the supply chain. Then towns spring up around that where you have the retail, the lawyers, the accountants, the restaurants, the movie theaters. And what happens is when you lose a factory or a plant in a small- or medium-sized town in the Midwest, it's like a black hole. And all of that community gets sucked into the black hole and it becomes a community of despair and crime and blight rather than something that's prosperous."

This, too, is simply true.

He makes a second classical liberal Democratic argument — that by surrendering in the trade war, the U.S. government transferred wealth overseas and from American workers to foreign companies. If calling that stupid and irresponsible is"protectionist," so be it. If our government is not here to protect us, what is it here for?

Finally, Mr. Navarro makes the point that deindustrialization is a national security issue. During World War II we vastly outproduced Germany and Japan. This would not be possible today. We could not — we probably would not have the resources or the heart — fight the war today.

To view the industrial base as central to the nation's defense is not radical or new. It is rational and traditional. In 1952, when faced with a strike by the United Steelworkers, Harry Truman issued an executive order for the secretary of commerce to seize the nation's steel mills to ensure the continued production of steel. Our industrial base is our security base.

Finally, some 60 years ago, when the writer Michael Harrington's book "The Other America" (praised by John F. Kennedy) was published, it was considered enlightened, or simply decent, to have concern for the poverty of rural America, though there was no power elite there. Yet when Mr. Navarro and Mr. Trump seek to revive the emptied out heartland, and its silent factories, we are told they are selling empty promises.

Why should this be so? Why shouldn't America build things again, even if it cannot regain its once overwhelmingly dominant position in manufacturing? Why should it not be considered mainstream to protect the economic future of Americans who are not powerful and progressive to seek to create jobs, real jobs, for Americans who have, for so long, been forsaken?

We are told that fighting the trade war just isn't worth it. It makes Wall Street nervous. Maybe if your job and town are gone, the fight is worth it.



Opioid verdicts have to hurt

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 27

What is the cost of a crisis?

The opioid epidemic has been a greedy monster, demanding more and more resources from all levels of government as well as hospitals and insurance companies over the last 20 years. It has eaten lives and devoured communities. In 2013 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says opioids had a monetary cost of $78.5 billion.

That was six years ago. That was 13 years or so into the deadly dance of prescription opioids leading to heroin leading to synthetic opioids. Take that 2013 number as an average and multiply it by two decades and you get a cost of $1.5 trillion.

The scope of the problem makes the ruling in an Oklahoma court that Johnson & Johnson — yes, the people who make baby shampoo and Tylenol — must pay $572 million to "abate" that state's drug problem a little less staggering than it might otherwise seem.

Being told to pay more than half a billion dollars is a hard pill for any company to swallow, but taken as a cost of doing business, it is probably on the level with capital improvements to facilities. It's definitely a lot less than the $4.7 billion verdict rendered last year over asbestos in the company's baby powder.

Johnson & Johnson is just one of the players in the opioid game, and the Oklahoma case is just one of many lawsuits looking to follow in the footsteps of the massive tobacco lawsuit that, coincidentally, struck a blow at the nation's cigarette manufacturers at about the same time the opioid crisis was born.

That 1998 settlement sends $350 million to Pennsylvania annually, and a second settlement Attorney General Josh Shapiro negotiated last year increased that by another $357 million in 2018-19 and $279 million for the ensuing 12 years.

Shapiro is also one of 40 AGs suing Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, claiming the potent narcotic was pushed despite early signs of addiction.

"While Pennsylvania paid the price, Purdue made more than $35 billion in revenue," he said in May.

And that's the root of the disease. As with any penalty in criminal or civil court, it has to hurt enough to stop the behavior. It has to cost enough to make it unprofitable for a company to churn out poison that local, state or federal government has to pay to cure.

Maybe $572 million will be enough in Oklahoma. Maybe it won't. The real value in that verdict is in being a ground-breaker in the opioid crisis.



Bullying bill worth developing

Altoona Mirror

Aug. 23

Despite agreement across Pennsylvania that bullying in schools is a problem that needs much more preventive action, it is hard to imagine that proposals being prepared by state Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, will achieve passage without formidable challenges.

It is reasonable to wonder how much being envisioned by Burns on the bullying front will ever be released from committee, once consideration of proposed provisions begin.

Then there is the point that bullying is an issue much more complex and far-reaching than many people realize. Because of that, there's cause for pessimism whether there will be enough time left in the current legislative session to wade through the complexities.

If passage isn't achieved during the current session, which ends in December 2020, Burns' effort would have to start anew when the subsequent legislative session is called to order.

All that is not to imply that Burns should abandon his effort; his goals are laudable, despite raising some possible constitutional concerns.

The best advice for him would be to continue to prepare his legislative package. Progress on an issue cannot be achieved without something for the two houses of the state General Assembly to begin discussing and dissecting, to try to assemble the best legislation possible.

Some people already have commented to Burns that his proposals might be unconstitutional, including one proposal calling for fines for parents in response to a bullying infraction committed by a son or daughter. However, there is no way to ascertain that for sure until lawmakers have proposed legislative language before them.

One of the bills Burns is proposing would set up a three-tiered system for responding to reports of bullying. A separate proposal would center on a "Pennsylvania Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights," building upon this state's Safe2Say anonymous violence and bullying reporting program, which was implemented statewide last year through the state Attorney General's Office.

The Bullying Bill of Rights would define parents' right to know if their child is involved in bullying, and also provide parents with regular updates dealing with investigations. In addition, the measure would require school districts to more thoroughly track and investigate incidents of bullying and report meaningful bullying statistics to the state Department of Education.

But it is the provision regarding possibly fining parents for bullying carried out by sons and daughters — or require that parents perform community service — that might "deep-six" what Burns is hoping to achieve, although Burns is quick to point out that it is not unconstitutional for parents to be fined for truancy.

Even if an anti-bullying measure reaches the House floor that deviates from Burns' current thinking, the Cambria lawmaker will be able to feel a sense of satisfaction that his leadership probably made a difference on an issue of such importance and concern.

The issue should be weighed at hearings prior to legislative committee discussion in Harrisburg, to gather public input, including comments from students. Whether work on the issue can be completed during this legislative session is secondary to getting the best bill possible passed.

Again, this issue is complex and needs to be regarded as such in whatever way the Legislature chooses to proceed.


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