Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 3, 2023

Editorial: Cheers to Pa.’s senators for leading the way in holding the rail industry accountable

Pennsylvania’s U.S. senators are leading the push to hold the rail industry more accountable for ensuring the safety not just of the people who work in the industry but the tens of millions of Americans who live near railroad tracks. Americans are justly upset at what seems an industry operating on the edge of safety and justly demand reform.

The picture of black smoke from a chemical fire rising over a typical middle-American town will do that. So will the stories of the people of Palestine, Oh., who in a few minutes found their town, the environment and themselves possibly poisoned and their homes nearly worthless. Who’s going to buy a house in Palestine, not knowing whether it’s safe? How many people are going to trust the railway company or government regulators when they say it is?

At this point, the real economic and health effects are unknown. The cultural effects should be recognized as well. The derailment has deeply changed and perhaps destroyed an American community.

Senators Robert Casey, Jr., and John Fetterman, both Democrats, are among those sponsoring both the Railway Safety Act of 2023 and the Railway Accountability Act. The first was proposed at the beginning of March, the second, which builds upon the first, last Thursday.

The Railway Safety Act requires common sense practices, like tighter requirements for transporting hazardous material, keeping a well-trained crew of 2 on the trains, improving monitoring of the wheel bearings that caused the East Palestine derailment, and a requirement that railway companies tell state emergency response officials what their trains are carrying. It also raises the amount the U.S. Department of Transportation can fine companies for violations.

The Railway Accountability Act, which our state’s two senators are sponsoring with Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, also a Democrat, proposes more common sense practices. It is reassuringly detailed.

It will, as reported by Post-Gazette reporter Jonathan D. Salant, “direct the Federal Railroad Administration to study wheel-related derailments and mechanical defects, and come up with regulations to address those problems; require that mechanics who inspect train cars attest to their safety; ensure that the end of trains get emergency brake signals, and that warning equipment is provided to watchmen and lookouts.”

One encouraging sign is the diversity of sponsors of the Railway Safety Act. The sponsors represent an unusual range of views — a range almost unknown on any substantive matter beyond military spending — from Mr. Fetterman, one of the Senate’s most liberal members, to Mr. Hawley, one of its most conservative.

They disagree on almost every political issue, but agree that the rail industry cannot be allowed to continue operating without much more scrutiny and more careful and detailed regulation. The picture of black smoke from a chemical fire rising over a typical middle-American town will do that.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. April 4, 2023

Editorial: Campaign finance reform is part of election security

Tightening rules on elections has been a hot topic in recent years.

It’s an idea that has gotten top-down attention. Donald Trump brought heat to it with questions about the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. It has been picked up by leaders in state governments, including state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, during his 2022 gubernatorial run.

It trickles to the counties that have the responsibility of running the boots-on-the-ground business of elections. It has gotten even to the most granular local level when the integrity of the employees and volunteers who work the polls has been questioned.

However, amid all the fighting as demands for security crash into calls for accessibility, one aspect tends to get lost.

One way to make elections more secure and more accountable is by focusing on the campaigns and the boatloads of money that shower down on them.

A Spotlight PA story looked at the lack of attention Pennsylvania has brought to campaign finance and lobbying reform. This isn’t shocking — the state’s lawmakers run for office themselves.

The Legislature has shown little interest in reining in money and increasing oversight when it comes to what will affect its own business. For example, just look at the opacity of spending by lawmakers and the continued use of per diems instead of submitted receipts for expenses.

On top of that is the continued failure to pass a gift ban that would spell out detailed rules for what is acceptable when it comes to taking money, opportunities and items from individuals and organizations.

So why should it surprise that there is likewise no attempt to filter the muddied water of campaign money? Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, has introduced such legislation 12 times. It never advances.

The real reason a gift ban and finance reform are needed is that they are two sides of the same coin. Pennsylvania law shrugs at distinguishing a gift from a bribe. At the same time, it doesn’t stop a candidate from using campaign donations for personal use. Again, that sounds a lot like a door to sanctioned — or ignored — bribery.

Pennsylvania should be a leader in making elections as accountable as possible. You should have confidence in casting your ballot and in how that ballot is counted.

But lawmakers also owe voters crystal-clear transparency when it comes to how candidates have funded their campaigns. Without it, elected officials tighten the rules on the ballot in your hand without putting limits on the money in theirs.

Scranton Times-Tribune. April 4, 2023

Editorial: Lift shade on community solar power

The sun shines everywhere but state law casts shade on its ability to produce electricity just about everywhere. Now, bipartisan bills in both houses of the state Legislature would allow community solar energy projects to increase power production, reduce power costs and create thousands of renewable energy jobs.

Community solar projects differ from utility-scale projects, in which utilities build and operate large-scale solar farms and sell the electricity that they generate. Community projects are smaller. They enable individuals, businesses, nonprofits, civic groups and others to invest in solar projects in exchange for credits on their electricity bills. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the credits usually amount to 10% to 15% of the participant’s monthly power bill.

Republican state Sen. Rosemary Brown of Monroe County, who also represents part of Lackawanna County, sponsors a Senate community solar bill, saying that “creating a market for additional electricity options is a way to keep consumer costs down.”

That alone is a worthy goal. But Democratic Rep. Peter Schweyer of Lehigh County, sponsor of a similar House bill, said it also would extend solar power cost savings to people who can’t afford to install their own solar arrays who live where that is not possible.

“My district has a lot of apartment buildings and multi-tenant homes, and right now they’re being excluded from a renewable, affordable energy source just because they don’t have a single-family home in the suburbs,” he said.

Proponents pointed to a 2020 study of community solar power by researchers at Penn State University, who found that community solar would create about 12,000 jobs and generate $1.8 billion in direct and indirect economic activity, in addition to competitive pressure on power prices.

Legislative sponsors said that the 230 proposed community solar projects in 48 Pennsylvania counties collectively would reduce electricity costs by $30 million a year.

Legislators should see the light and make Pennsylvania the 23rd state to authorize community solar power projects, for the good of the environment and the economy.

Uniontown Herald-Standard. April 2, 2023

Editorial: More attention should be paid to increasing adult literacy

A lot of attention is being paid to what our children are reading nowadays, turning once sedate classrooms and libraries into battlefields in our country’s never-ending culture wars.

Some overzealous parents and community members have gone on book-banning benders, even though restricting the choices of young people and dampening their curiosity is hardly a path to instilling a lifelong love of reading and all the benefits that flow from that. Rather than wringing our hands about whether children should be exposed to Judy Blume or Anne Frank or Toni Morrison, our time would be more productively spent facing up to a much simpler and more pressing reality – some of the parents of those children have a hard time reading themselves.

Overall, the United States has an adult literacy rate of 79% as of 2022, with 21% being illiterate. On a worldwide scale, the U.S. is the 125th most literate nation in the world, despite our economic power, military might and cultural dominance. We fall well behind the likes of Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Kazakhstan, and the European microstate San Marino, all of which have close to universal literacy. Also, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of adults aged between 16 and 74 are not proficient in reading. That means they read below a sixth-grade level.

And it’s costing us all.

In 2020, a Gallup study found the country could be losing out on a little more than $2 trillion every year as a result of our middling levels of adult literacy. The study was carried out on behalf of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, and British A. Robinson, the organization’s CEO, pointed out, “America’s low literacy crisis is largely ignored, historically underfunded and woefully under-researched, despite being one of the great solvable problems of our time.” He also said that a lack of literacy “prevents millions of Americans from fully participating in our society and our economy as parents, workers and citizens. It lies at the core of multigenerational cycles of poverty, poor health, and low educational attainment, contributing to the enormous equity gap that exists in our country.”

Adults wanting to improve their reading skills can take classes, but opportunities to enroll in one can be few and far between in parts of the United States bedeviled by the lowest rates of adult literacy, including portions of Appalachia. Sometimes resources provided to the programs can be so meager that students end up on waiting lists. Despite the dedicated efforts of paid staff and volunteers, sometimes the programs don’t have enough material or teachers with the specific skills to help adults who struggle with reading. There’s also a problem in connecting adults with the services – it’s estimated that only 3% of the eligible adults take advantage of the programs that could help them.

The fact that we lag behind our developed peers in adult literacy should make it a top-tier concern. Making sure all adults can read proficiently should matter a lot more than whether a drag queen is leading a story hour somewhere.

Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. March 31, 2023

Editorial: Carbon plan serves economy, environment

Whether Pennsylvania remains a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative will be determined by the state Supreme Court. But Gov. Josh Shapiro has demonstrated the program’s benefits by including massive revenue from it in his first proposed state budget.

The RGGI is an agreement among a dozen states to, in effect, put a market price on carbon emissions that drive atmospheric warming. Failure of the state and federal governments to put a price on carbon pollution has produced vast amounts of it; the RGGI already has demonstrated that putting a price on it produces far less pollution.

Gov. Tom Wolf enrolled Pennsylvania in the RGGI, prompting several lawsuits contending that he needed legislative approval to do so.

Under the RGGI, fossil-fuel-powered plants that produce 25 megawatts or more of electricity must acquire one RGGI credit for every ton of carbon dioxide that they produce. The number of available credits is capped, by state, according to the amount of relevant pollution produced in each states. Generators acquire the credits at quarterly auctions.

Pennsylvania’s entry into the program is especially significant because it is by far the biggest producer of fossil-fuel-generated electricity within the compact. Natural gas has replaced coal as the primary fuel. The other states in the RGGI are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.

States use money from the auctions to fund renewable energy research and deployment, conservation, improve air quality, job training in relevant industries and more. The most recent carbon credit auction, in early March, sold 21,522,877 credits at $12.50 each and generated nearly $270 million for the participating state governments.

Pennsylvania cannot yet participate because of the pending litigation. But in his proposed budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, which begins July 1, Shapiro penciled in $663 million in anticipated carbon credit revenue from the RGGI. The estimate is based on the results of 59 credit auctions and Pennsylvania’s proportionally high number of credits.

Shapiro did not specifically embrace the RGGI while campaigning but his budget proposal speaks loudly to the program’s benefits. He should stay the course.


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