Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. May 22, 2023
Editorial: Ban handheld devices while driving
Pennsylvania is the only state among its neighbors to permit the use of handheld wireless electronic devices while driving. It’s time for the commonwealth to ban this risky habit, too.
Sen. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, has again introduced legislation to bring Pennsylvania in line with 25 other states — and safety recommendations — by banning driving “while holding or supporting any electronic wireless device.” The Senate Transportation Committee passed the bill, 13-1, setting up a bipartisan push to make the state’s roads safer.
Distracted driving kills and maims. Fourteen percent of fatal car crashes involve cell phone usage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 3,500 people died needlessly in distracted driving incidents in 2021, up more than 20% from 2,800 in 2018. Cell phones are implicated in a smaller number of distracted driving accidents, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) notes that data are collected from police reports, which almost certainly undercount the number of distracted-driving incidents.
Numerous studies have shown drivers perform poorly when distracted by their devices — and not just by texting. Programming smartphone navigation systems, in fact, is associated with more dangerous incidents than regular texting. Research on the dangers of speaking on a handheld phone is mixed, but it certainly diverts attention that should focus on the road.
The IIHS reports that full cellphone bans — like the one the Pennsylvania Senate is considering — have been shown to reduce accidents, with Oregon and Washington recording a roughly 10% drop in rear-end collisions after adopting full bans in 2017. Interestingly, California did not achieve the same result, perhaps because its 2017 cellphone law could be read to allow usage during temporary stoppages, such as in famous California traffic.
But even if the effects of the ban aren’t all one would hope, the law is a teacher; it is good to ban an activity that endangers others merely for the convenience of the driver.
One argument against expanding Pennsylvania’s current texting-and-driving law is providing police with another excuse for so-called pretextual traffic stops, where officers pull over a motorist they suspect of some other crime for a minor offense. Because the law would make handheld electronic device use a primary offense, it would not be covered by local restrictions in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on police performing stops for secondary offenses, like broken tail lights.
That argument, however, could be used against any traffic safety regulation. The problem is with pretextual stops, not with safety laws that might possibly be abused.
The state Senate should quickly take up Ms. Brown’s bill and pass it into law. It’s time for Pennsylvania drivers to form new and safer habits while on the road, so that fewer people are needlessly hurt or killed due to distracted driving.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. May 18, 2023
Editorial: Municipal Assistance Program funding is a common good
Pennsylvania is one of four states that differentiate themselves from their 46 American brethren by use of a different word. Like Kentucky, Massachusetts and Virginia, it officially goes by the lofty sounding name of “commonwealth.”
In practical use, there is no difference. It is the difference between pancakes and flapjacks — purely up to individual preference. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it was simply a term that some writers in the Revolutionary period liked to use, the way today some conservatives might favor the label of “libertarian” (with a small L) or a liberal might prefer the term “progressive.”
Identifying as a commonwealth doesn’t give Pennsylvania special powers or more prestige. It’s just a style choice.
A commonwealth also exists in another sense, as a group of countries or states that are drawn together for a purpose. One could make an argument for Pennsylvania’s 67 counties and more than 2,500 municipalities being that kind of association.
Those thousands of municipalities include many with populations under 200 people. At just over 14,000 people, Greensburg isn’t a large city, but it’s still roughly equivalent in population to the combined numbers of Pennsylvania’s three smallest counties — Cameron, Sullivan and Forest.
The people would be better served — in economy and efficiency — with more cooperation, if not more consolidation.
Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first budget has included a 266% increase in funding to the Municipal Assistance Program.
In 2021, that program helped Ambridge, Beaver Falls and Rochester in Beaver County with shared services planning. It helped Ligonier with floodplain management. It helped Brownsville in Fayette County with a multi-municipality comprehensive plan. In all, 33 communities were helped with bridging gaps that year despite a budget of just over $500,000.
The new budget would be $2 million. That could be the gateway to more intermunicipal police agencies, sharing services for sewer or water projects, pooling resources for road projects or working toward stronger economies.
Every governor’s budget is a shoot-for-the-stars dream — an arrow all but guaranteed to fall short of its target. And that is assuming the Legislature and governor can come to a consensus on spending. We all know that starting with an on-time budget in Pennsylvania is just as unrealistic as an over-the-top campaign promise.
But this is an area for both sides to come together to consider honestly and practically — and not just because it could be a way to save money and get things done at the local level.
It would also be a way to promote different arenas of government putting aside their jealousies and defenses to work toward a mutual goal. In other words, they could act for the common wealth.
Scranton Times-Tribune. May 20, 2023
Editorial: Release data on marijuana prescriptions
Fully legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania would require a robust regulatory framework, from licensing growers and distributors to tracking and collecting taxes, preventing underage use and ensuring public safety.
Gov. Josh Shapiro supports legal adult use to the point of including that prospect in his first proposed budget. He recommends a 20% tax on wholesale prices of marijuana products. Assuming that sales would begin in January 2025, he estimated that the tax would produce $16 million in revenue in the first year and gradually rise to $188 million a year by the end of the decade.
Any regulatory regime also would have to include ensured transparency so that the relevant information could be used to guide policy. Yet, the administration remains far less than forthcoming regarding basic information about the existing medical marijuana program.
The state Department of Health has stonewalled the news organization Spotlight PA’s requests for records regarding marijuana prescriptions by specific doctors. According to the agency, releasing the data would violate privacy laws, even thought the Right to Know request did not seek any information about specific patients.
Using other public records, Spotlight PA has shown the department has cited excessive patient approval numbers for marijuana use in at least one disciplinary case against a doctor. In another case, an attorney for the Health Department argued that discipline was appropriate, saying “the total number of patients versus his time and ability to certify patients is relevant.”
The implication is that the doctor issued blanket medical certifications to anyone who sought one to acquire marijuana.
Legislators cited the public records cases in a recent legislative hearing, in which they also sought data about the state’s regulation of marijuana prescriptions.
Spotlight PA appealed the document denial to the state Office of Open Records, which ordered the Health Department to release the records. Rather than doing so, the administration appealed that decision to Commonwealth Court, which will rule on three such cases involving the marijuana records.
While advocating full marijuana legalization, the administration can’t credibly cherry-pick which information it wants to release regarding the current medical marijuana program. It should withdraw its appeal and release the records.
Uniontown Herald-Standard. May 21, 2023
Editorial: Moving back school start times healthier for students
When you were in high school, were you one of those hapless souls who found your eyelids getting very heavy during that first-period algebra class?
Were you one of those stragglers who had to serve a detention or two because you stumbled into homeroom after the morning bell?
Well, looking back on it, it might not have been because you were lazy, lacking in punctuality or that you found algebra to be less than altogether compelling. It could be that you had to be shaken out of bed, marched to the bus and forced to go through those first couple of hours of school feeling like a zombie from a George Romero movie because you were biologically programmed to feel that way.
Copious amounts of research has revealed that the up-with-the-chickens start times we inflict on K-12 students is not good for their learning or well-being. It’s particularly tough for high school students, who are biologically inclined to be night owls and should ideally be getting anywhere from eight-and-a-half to 10 hours of sleep every day. Studies have found that teens who don’t get enough sleep are less alert in school, more prone to absenteeism, more prone to being overweight, depressed and in danger of picking up unhealthy habits like smoking and drug use.
In the 2016-17 school year, to cite one example, the school system in Seattle pushed back its start time by 55 minutes, and found that students were able to get a crucial 34 minutes of additional sleep, and grades went up. Start times were changed in California, and legislation is pending to do the same in states as disparate as New Jersey and Tennessee.
Organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have long recommended that school start times be pushed back, and this week the Upper St. Clair School District became the latest in a small but growing number of districts that have decided to move up the time that they start their days. Beginning in the 2023-24 school year, high school classes will get underway in Upper St. Clair at 8 a.m., and the day will end at 2:45 p.m. Elementary students will start at 8:35 a.m. and wrap up at 3:05 p.m., and middle school students will start at 8:55 a.m. and end at 3:40 p.m.
Part of the reason relatively few districts have shifted their start times is all the headache-inducing complications that spring from it. As journalist Danielle Dreilinger put it for the journal Education Next, “The crux of the matter is that schools are a collection of moving parts, from predawn janitorial and food service prep to busing and after-school activities, family work routines, are often organized around school rhythms. Shifting secondary school start times sends shock waves through these systems.”
Sure, changing times isn’t an easy undertaking. But more districts in this region need to look to Upper St. Clair, see how it’s time change works out, and consider following suit in the 2024-25 school year.
Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. May 18, 2023
Editorial: Pass Yaw bill to regulate ‘skill games’
Several Pennsylvania courts have found that “skill games” — played on as many as 70,000 video terminals statewide in convenience stores, civic clubs, bars, and so on — are not games of chance.
Unless the state Supreme Court overturns those decisions, the state Gaming Control Board may not regulate skill games as gambling.
U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson of Philadelphia, meanwhile, ruled May 9 that a skill games lawsuit brought by Parx Casino of Bucks County may proceed.
So the legal question of whether skill game terminals are gambling devices is not fully settled. But according to Republican state Sen. Gene Yaw of Lycoming County, the state government should regulate the enterprise in either case.
The principal difference between video slot machines and video skill game terminals is that slots require no player input other than money, whereas skill games are interactive.
Regarding state regulation, it’s a distinction without a difference. Yaw has introduced a bill to regulate the enterprise through the Department of Revenue, with enforcement assigned to the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement.
The proposal would limit the number of machines per establishment, much as state regulations determine the number of slots per casino.
Yaw proposes a $1 million application fee for skill game distributors, a $25,000 fee for operators and a $250 fee for host establishments. The bill also would establish a 16% tax on proceeds, the same rate that applies to casino-based online poker and table games. Casinos pay a 54% rate on slots revenue.
Yaw claims the regime would produce about $300 million a year. The state would assign 50% to the general fund, distribute 22% to county and municipal governments, and use the rest for enforcement.
Yaw, citing a study showing that Pennsylvania’s lottery proceeds have grown at a rate greater than that in other Northeast states that don’t have skill games, contends that skill games do not diminish other forms of gambling — all the more so because they can’t be played online.
Whatever the final numbers, Yaw’s approach is reasonable. It would recognize the games as a valid business, ensure continuing revenue for civic organizations and small businesses, and assuage casinos’ concerns about unregulated competition.