Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
PUBLIC SHUT OUT OF BUDGET TALKS, June 20
Lawmakers have been uncharacteristically silent during the current state budget process, with vague assurances that "things are chugging along." But one thing has been clear from the moment Gov. Wolf in February delivered the shortest budget address in recent years: The state's Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature agreed that they didn't want to remind the public of their past rancor over how to spend our tax money. They are poised to have a budget agreement in the next few days, by the deadline.
This might be considered good news, given that they have not passed a single budget on time in any of the last three years. The worst spectacle was the impasse of 2015 which wasn't settled until March 2016. According to a study by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, counties spent an average of $12 million of their own funds to keep themselves afloat during the impasse. And, schools wasted money on debt service to take out loans to keep the schools open.
But the delays of past years accomplished one thing: Noisy and heated debates on the state's priorities, including how to deal with a $2 billion deficit, whether to raise funds from gambling, sales taxes, borrowing or other sources.
This year's silence is not a good sign. It is fleeting and tied to the upcoming election. All 203 House seats, half of the 50 Senate seats and the governor's seat are up in November.
The silence also means that important issues that people care about are not addressed in the roughly $32.7 billion budget deal announced Tuesday.
Wolf proposed hiking the $7.25 an hour minimum wage to $12, which he projected would save $100 million in social service costs. The governor proposed a severance tax on natural gas drilling to raise $250 million.
Republican leaders rejected both, even though there was a bipartisan bill calling for the severance tax. Property tax relief isn't in the deal either, so small towns are still going have to rely on state cops because they can't afford their own police.
Like prior budgets, this one is likely to force local governments to raise property taxes to cover services.
Politicians can rightly claim that they held budget hearings, but they didn't include the public in the back rooms where the real deal was done. We deserve to hear how the people, who control our own tax dollars, make their decisions while those decisions are being made.
Instead of robust debate in the Capitol, voters will be subjected to campaign rantings through the election season. If past elections are any guide, important issues will be trivialized with misleading and in some cases downright false statements.
As for this budget, both sides walked out with talking points for their campaigns. Wolf argues that he's raised funds to schools, and tamed the fiscal beast starting in office with a $2.5 billion deficit and showing a modest $55 million surplus without slashing services. The GOP takes credit for keeping taxes down.
Lawmakers putting the people's business under a cone of silence do not advance the public's understanding of complex issues or even their own.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
STOP USING PLASTIC STRAWS, June 19
In 2015, a Texas A& M University marine biologist working in Costa Rica happened upon a sea turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nostrils. She and her team removed the straw in a painstaking process they captured on video. The stomach-turning and deeply unsettling eight-minute video went viral, alerting millions of viewers to the threats posed to marine life by the ordinary household items few of us imagined could be so harmful.
Since then, countless other such videos and images have been circulated around the world: of a stork encased in a plastic bag; of fish with guts filled with plastic products; of loggerhead turtles caught in six-pack plastic rings. Just this month, a pilot whale in Thailand died after consuming more than 80 plastic bags.
In an interview published in February in National Geographic which has launched an awareness effort, "Planet or Plastic?" Adam Nicolson, author of the book "The Seabird's Cry," explained that seabirds find food by smelling a chemical called DMS, "which is released when phytoplankton, i.e., vegetable plankton, is crushed, usually by zooplankton eating it. . If you leave plastic floating in the sea for over three months, it starts to release plumes of DMS. The huge amounts of plastic found in seabirds' stomachs is because they are mistaking this plastic for food. It clogs their guts, and makes them unable to get enough real food into their stomachs."
It's a horrible and ever-worsening problem, which is why European governments are beginning to address it. We have some catching up to do in the United States.
In Britain, if you want a plastic bag at a grocery store, you're going to pay for it. That only happens in a relatively few places in the U.S. New York City, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Maine, among them. By embarrassing contrast, the Pennsylvania Legislature actually passed a bill last year that would have prevented local municipalities from banning or taxing plastic bags; Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed that bill, arguing correctly, in our view that it would have hampered municipalities' constitutional obligation to protect the environment.
If we wait for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to act to ban single-use plastic products, we'll be waiting for a long time. That's why, this summer, we urge you to make one simple lifestyle change that could have a monumental impact stop using plastic straws.
Because, as a February article in Popular Science magazine pointed out, straws generally fall through the cracks literally of American recycling systems.
And unless you have a disability that makes drinking without a straw difficult, straws are frivolous.
"Once found mostly in soda fountains of the 1930s, straws have become one of the most ubiquitous unnecessary products on the planet. No global usage figures exist, but Americans alone use 500 million straws daily, according to the National Park Service," National Geographic tells us.
"Although straws amount to a tiny fraction of ocean plastic, their size makes them one of the most insidious polluters because they entangle marine animals and are consumed by fish."
The next time you're strolling along a beach, note how many straws litter the sand and float in the waves. Then consider the seabirds, fish and turtles that may be harmed by those straws.
Hawaii and California have pending strawban legislation, "while Seattle the birthplace of the Starbucks disposable, to-go coffee culture passed a measure banning plastic straws and utensils that goes into effect in July," The New York Times reports.
McDonald's said in a news release Friday that its restaurants in Britain and Ireland will complete their transition to paper straws next year. McDonald's restaurants in Belgium are testing alternatives to plastic straws, and tests are planned for select U.S. restaurants later this year, the company said.
In Lancaster city, we know of at least one restaurant Rachel's Cafe & Creperie that has instituted a by-request-only straw policy for most drinks. We'd like to see others join the effort.
The next time you're offered a straw, think of the sea turtles. And just say no. Sip, don't slurp.
Reducing the use of straws isn't going to solve the problem of ocean pollution. But it may make us more mindful of the other single- use plastic products we reach for without thinking.
And if you aren't doing so already, please consider taking your own reusable shopping bags to the supermarket or mall. The fewer plastic bags we use, the better for our oceans, marine animals and planet our children and grandchildren will inherit.
OPIOID LAWSUIT A WELCOME STEP, June 20
One disturbing aspect of the opioid addiction crisis is the legal and commercial avenues through which it was propagated.
Long known and abused for their pleasing, analgesic effects, opioids gained force in this latest deadly resurgence amid the marketing of pain-killing opioid drugs. Starting in the late 1990s, pharmaceutical manufacturers downplayed the addictive potential of powerful opioid painkillers and the prescription rates soared to the point where in some states, they outnumbered the number of people living there, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. The drug companies' sales and profits grew as overdose deaths rose.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 115 people in the United States die each day after overdosing on opioids. In Pennsylvania, the drug overdose tally jumped from more than 4,600 deaths in 2016 to more than 5,200 in 2017.
In Erie County, there were 124 drug overdose deaths in 2017. Amid those numbers is an uptick in heroin overdose deaths, which Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper puts at one person every seven days. Research indicates 80 percent of heroin users first misused prescription opioids.
Communities awash in opioids have paid a heavy toll and not in grief alone. Parents incapacitated by addiction or who turn to crime to support their habits endanger children and strain the public welfare systems established to protect them. The criminal justice system contends not just with the crimes and violence associated with drug trafficking, but all of the property crimes committed by addicts to support their addictions.
Drug dealers are rightly prosecuted and imprisoned for diverting prescription medications or peddling the street equivalent, heroin. Users likewise face the consequences of their illegal actions in court.
Drug manufacturers deny they played a role in this epidemic. It is time to fully explore what part they played and hold them to account.
We applaud Dahlkemper's administration and Erie County Council for following through on the process that began in October when council voted to hire three law firms to explore possible litigation against Big Pharma.
The lawsuit on behalf of the county has now been filed, joining lawsuits filed nationwide and in at least 18 other Pennsylvania counties, as well as the cities of Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre, as Erie Times-News reporter Matthew Rink detailed.
The complaint, among other things, accuses the companies of deceptively, fraudulently and unfairly marketing and distributing prescription painkillers to Erie County residents.
Filing the lawsuit costs the county nothing. If it wins, 25 percent of the proceeds will go to the lawyers. The remainder could fund the prevention and treatment resources badly needed to close this dark, deadly and perhaps thoroughly avoidable chapter.
LAWMAKERS SHOULD REJECT EXPLOITATIVE BILL, June 15
It's the rare day that goes by in Harrisburg when state lawmakers don't praise the virtues of Pennsylvania's active-duty servicemen and women and its veterans.
Yet a nakedly exploitative bill now before the House Commerce Committee, if approved, would open a loophole in state law big enough to drive an Abrams tank through, trapping those same heroes in a crushing cycle of debt.
And some of the state's largest veterans groups are mobilizing to defeat it.
We join them in opposition to legislation sponsored by Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, that would erode the state's very strong safeguards against predatory lending.
Right now, the typical loans that payday lenders offer at 200 percent to 300 percent annual interest are not legal here, thanks to Pennsylvania's interest rate cap.
But under Heffley's bill, these lenders would be allowed to pose as so-called "loan-brokers" and to seek licensure under Pennsylvania's law intended to regulate credit-repair organizations.
The bill creates a new loophole by providing that the broker fees charged by these lenders would not be considered interest. Critics say this would allow these lenders to charge unlimited fees and to make triple-digit loans to the most vulnerable of consumers, including veterans
Active-duty soldiers are already protected from such practices under a federal law that caps interest rates at 36 percent annually.
Payday lenders have exploited similar loopholes in other states, posing as so-called "credit-service organizations" for the sole purpose of evading interest rate caps, said Kerry Smith, an attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia.
The compounded interest "adds up to 500 percent to 600 percent" said Keith Beebe, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who heads up the Pennsylvania War Veterans Council, which represents some of the state's largest veterans organizations, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Beebe's group is one of more than 100 organizations that's trying to defeat Heffley's legislation, which is the latest iteration of a years-long push by payday lenders to expand into Pennsylvania.
As City & State Pa. reports, such industry players as the storefront lender Check N Go, and its parent company, AXCESS Financial, have been pressing lawmakers for years to weaken state regulations on their industry.
Heffley has publicly denied that his bill is a payday lending measure, telling City & State that it merely "(clarifies) the language so that current lending practices won't be affected by different regulations."
Heffley declined a request for an interview. But in a prepared statement to PennLive, the Slate Belt lawmaker said his legislation had been "wrongly labeled a 'pay day lending bill.'"
The bill "protects consumers by requiring the fees, interest and payment schedule of loans be completely and accurately disclosed upfront - at the time when money is borrowed," Heffley continued. "This legislation also requires credit service organizations to assess a buyer's ability to repay the credit extension, further protecting consumers."
House Commerce Committee Chairman Brian Elilis, R-Butler, whose panel currently has oversight of Heffley's bill, called the proposal an important, short-term option for people looking to cover their bills. He downplayed the punitive interest rates charged by these lenders.
But that's like saying Pompeii was a mere hiccup.
According to a data sheet prepared by the Center for Responsible Lending the APR charged by these lenders, including Check N Go, can range from a merely crushing 533 percent to a truly awful 792 percent.
Those are rates that only a Mafia don would appreciate. And Pennsylvania has rightfully shielded consumers from that kind of exploitation.
Both Heffley and Ellis insisted that the bill would be amended to include strict consumer protections, and that the end product would not look like the punitive payday loans of old.
We'll see if he's right. As it stands right now, Heffley's bill takes a hammer to those who can afford it the least.
The Commerce Committee is scheduled to take up Heffley's bill during a on June 20. If it doesn't include the kind of ironclad protections promised by Ellis, committee members should hand it the defeat it deserves.
SOBERING STATISTICS ON CRASHES, June 15
At this time of the year, drivers are accustomed to hearing the plea "drive safely and defensively."
Of course, that reminder is appropriate every day of the year.
But information contained in a June 1 Wall Street Journal article adds additional urgency to the message about staying alert during summertime driving.
Here's the main point of the article, which deals with a report from the national Governors Highway Safety Association:
Forty-four percent of car drivers killed in crashes in 2016, and who were tested, had positive results for drugs, up from 28 percent in 2006.
Also according to the report, more than half of all positive-testing deceased drivers in 2016 had marijuana, opioids or both types of drugs in their bodies.
"In 2016, about 20 percent of the drug-positive drivers were positive for some opioid, compared with 17 percent in 2006," the article says. "In 2016, 41 percent of the drug-positive fatally injured drivers were positive for marijuana, compared with 35 percent in 2006."
The author of the study report, Jim Hedlund, a traffic-safety consultant and former official with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, admits that just because a drug was determined to have been present doesn't necessarily mean that it impaired the driver or caused the crash.
But noting laboratory studies showing that marijuana and opioids can negatively affect depth perception, reaction time and other factors related to driving, Hedlund made the important point that "having these drugs in your body can't be a good thing and might be a bad thing."
That message takes on additional relevance during the summer months, when traffic volumes are higher and more "tightly packed" travel conditions often exist.
The NHTSA is striving to reach more drivers with the important message that traffic-related fatalities in this country during 2017 are believed to have surpassed 37,000 for the second year in a row.
Not all of those deaths involved drug-impaired drivers, but the report points out that nearly half of all fatally injured drivers in 2016 weren't tested for drugs, meaning that the drugged-driving statistics could be much worse than the governors' report indicates.
Moreover, the report notes that testing rates of deceased drivers vary widely across the country.
The report rightly urges that states increase their reminders about the dangers of drug-impaired driving.
As Hedlund pointed out, the public understands the dangers of drunken driving, but awareness lags in regard to the perils posed by drivers who have used illegal drugs.
Every person who gets behind the wheel of his or her vehicle this summer should harbor concern regarding the driving condition of every other motorist he or she encounters.
The drugged-driving numbers tied to fatalities suggest that most motorists at some time will have to react to a questionable maneuver or driving error by someone impaired by illegal substances in his or her system.
Don't relax your guard at summer's end, either.