Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. August 1, 2023

Editorial: Liquor Control Board racket must end

There are many inane and inefficient aspects of Pennsylvania’s alcohol laws, as most residents of the commonwealth know, usually from frustrating experience. But one of the most wasteful aspects is one most people don’t see: the way the state’s alcohol bureaucracy needlessly places itself between restaurants and their suppliers of specialty wine and liquor.

As the Post-Gazette’s Hal B. Klein reported on Sunday, a botched rollout of new Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) software has laid bare the way the state-run system makes offering distinctive items unnecessarily difficult and expensive.

Special orders — that is, requests for wines and spirits that are not in the PLCB catalog — make up a small proportion of PLCB revenues, about 4%, but are vitally important to the restaurants and boutiques that offer options that can’t be easily found elsewhere. In other words, they’re essential to the kind of establishments that contribute in unique ways to residents’ quality of life, and to attracting visitors to the state.

Besides making it harder for these businesses to stay afloat, PLCB markups make specialty wine and liquor options affordable for fewer people to enjoy.

In the current system, the PLCB inserts itself into the transaction between supplier and client, while ratcheting up costs (and gobbling up revenue) in several places. First, there’s a 10% PLCB markup on the supplier’s selling price. Then, there’s the 18% liquor tax. After that, the board charges a “logistics, transportation and merchandising factor,” or LTMF, that was just quietly increased as part of a botched software upgrade.

But there’s more! The LTMF is taxed at the liquor rate, then the entire sum is taxed at the state sales rate. Lastly, the PLCB charges an extortionate $3 per bottle “freight charge” — even though it’s already charged for transportation.

The result: A specialty bottle of wine that starts at around $6 from the supplier — and that might be sold to a restaurant in another state for $9 — costs $15 in Pennsylvania. Scaled to the thousands of bottles a restaurant might use annually, the result is an enormous and unnecessary tax on creativity and entrepreneurship.

The system, including new software that has confounded the PLCB’s clients, seems designed to make working outside the established catalog as unwieldy as possible. It’s the stifling and flattening logic of bureaucracy applied to the art of food and drink service.

This is all the more infuriating because Act 39 instituted direct delivery of such orders, bypassing PLCB warehouses, seven years ago. But the bureaucracy used a tendentious reading of the law to delay implementation — and still charges all the same fees even when bottles are delivered directly to clients. It’s a racket that can only exist because it’s a state-enforced monopoly.

And it doesn’t make sense. There’s hardly anything Gov. Josh Shapiro could do that would be more popular than ending this insanity. Offering to consider further privatization of that inefficient and exploitative bureaucracy could help to break the current budget stalemate in Harrisburg.


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. July 27, 2023

Editorial: Pennsylvania lawmakers need training camp

he Pittsburgh Steelers are back in training camp. The team descended on Saint Vincent College in Unity on Wednesday prepared to settle in for the long haul, bringing TVs, pillows and snacks.

They will spend their time at the school focused on developing their skills as individuals and a team to better perform when it comes time to kick off the season.

“Everyone’s ready to get back to it,” said this year’s first-round draft pick, offensive tackle Broderick Jones.

Great idea. Now, how can we get the Pennsylvania General Assembly to do this?

Senators packed up and left Harrisburg weeks ago despite the lack of a signed budget after Gov. Josh Shapiro backed off support for a voucher program. The House, meanwhile, departed without resolving the funding for state-related universities. It takes a two-thirds majority to get the money needed for Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — and, after the resignation of Democratic Allegheny County Executive nominee Sara Innamorato, there isn’t a majority at all.

The Senate isn’t due back in town until Sept. 18. The House stands adjourned until Sept. 26. Until then, nothing is getting done, despite the budget already being overdue for a Senate signature that will then allow the governor to sign it and despite college students being back on campus in a month.

What if we found a big place we could lock down the Legislature until lawmakers actually got things done? Hey, Hempfield just bought a former state property with lots of bedrooms. Let’s throw the governor in for good measure. It’s not like this happened without his involvement. Don’t allow TVs or video games. We need them to focus. No snacks or pillows. This isn’t summer camp.

Make them buckle down, not leaving until they do the job, like cardinals electing a new pope. Maybe one year of this is all it would take to make our leaders realize that June 30 deadline means June 30.

But we can’t. The power to make the Legislature do anything rests, unfortunately, with the Legislature.

At least it does until lawmakers come up for reelection next year.

These officials need to take a look at Steelers training camp — not just at how players show up to do their job in the hottest part of summer. They need to take a look at the people who show up to watch.

Putting in the effort is popular with the people. Politicians could learn a little something from that.


Scranton Times-Tribune. July 31, 2023

Editorial: Legislative negligence on guns

Pennsylvania’s worst gun-related tragedy of the past week (as of Friday) occurred Thursday in the Brewerytown section of Philadelphia.

A 14-year-old boy with severe developmental disabilities found an unsecured handgun in his grandmother’s bedroom and accidentally shot his cousin, a 2-year-old girl, in the head. The toddler died a short time later at Temple University Hospital.

A spokesman for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office police later said it would charge the boy’s 54-year-old grandmother with reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children.

The case checks many boxes regarding anything-goes gun culture and the state Legislature’s refusal to do anything that would help convert that into a culture of gun safety.

According to police, the woman did not own the weapon, but was holding it temporarily at the request of an acquaintance or relative. That person, however, later reported the gun stolen in South Carolina.

The investigation continues, as do shrugs from Pennsylvania lawmakers, most Republicans who not only refuse to enact sensible gun-safety measures to help create a safer gun culture, but who refuse to allow Philadelphia and other cities to take such measures on their own.

Pennsylvania does not require safe storage of weapons in gun safes or with trigger locks. It requires no gun-safety training for gun ownership. State law does not require gun owners to report to police when a weapon is lost or stolen, which they often do only after the weapon is used in a crime.

No one believes that any single law or series of laws will resolve gun crime and gun safety issues. But no one believed generations ago that Americans instantly would comply with mandatory seat-belt use, or that initial educational programs and laws would reduce adult cigarette use from nearly 50% of the population in the 1950s to less than 10% today.

Those efforts weren’t matters of simple enforcement. They changed entrenched culture over the course of generations. That same transition is needed now to make safety, rather than “do whatever you like and pick up the pieces later,” the standard for gun culture. Unfortunately, it has to begin with leadership that the state and federal legislatures not have.


Uniontown Herald-Standard. July 29, 2023

Editorial: Primary runoff elections a bad idea for Pennsylvania

In May 2022, state Sen. Doug Mastriano secured the Republican nomination for governor with 44% of the vote, beating by more than 2-to-1 his closest challenger, former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta.

It was an impressive victory for Mastriano, but the fact that he received 44% of the vote means that 56% of GOP voters preferred another candidate, whether it was Barletta, former U.S. attorney Bill McSwain, former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart or another candidate in the crowded field. Mastriano’s primary win was about as good as it got for his campaign, since he was clobbered by Josh Shapiro in the general election.

Two Republican state senators have introduced a measure that would institute primary runoff elections to ensure that whatever candidate advances to the general election is backed by at least half-plus-one of his or her party. While denying that the runoff proposal has anything to do with Mastriano, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Lancaster’s Ryan Aument, believes that runoffs would produce a “better choice,” bring candidates who are “broadly supported” before voters and generate more enthusiasm among the electorate.

There is an argument to be made for runoff elections. A candidate would, at least in theory, have more of a mandate if they secured majority support, whether in a primary or general election. But the arguments against runoffs are stronger.

First, runoff elections mean that voters would have to head back to the polls again, not too long after they’ve already cast their ballots. And runoff elections tend to have lower turnout than the main contest. The organization Fair Vote looked at runoff elections between 1994 and 2022 in the states that have them and found that 96% of the time, turnout fell from the primary election to the runoff, sometimes by as much as 40%. And even if a runoff election had been in place last year, it seems likely that Mastriano would have won that, too — the 56% of Republicans who did not vote for him in the primary were almost certainly not going to coalesce entirely behind an alternative candidate. A firebrand is what GOP voters seemed to want in 2022, rather than a centrist who might have been more palatable to general election voters.

A better option would be adopting some form of ranked-choice voting. In that system, each voter would rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate secures a majority of first-choice votes, they win outright. However, if there is not a majority first-choice candidate, the second-choice votes of the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes are distributed to other candidates until a candidate receives a majority. That would be more fair, and less time-consuming, than holding a runoff election.

There are now 10 states that have primary runoff elections, most in the South. Pennsylvania should not join their ranks.


Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. July 31, 2023

Editorial: Repeal law on drilling bonds

The state Environmental Hearing Board recently issued a ruling that illustrates the degree to which too many state lawmakers have rolled over for the natural gas industry against the public interest.

At the same time that Pennsylvania taxpayers must pay millions of dollars to cap gas wells abandoned by drillers, the EHB ruled in a way that provides drillers with an incentive to continuing abandoning wells at public expense.

The EHB had little choice because two years ago, Republican majorities in both legislative houses passed a law capping, for 10 years, the absurdly low costs for bonds that drillers must acquire when seeking well-drilling permits. That replaced a law by which the independent Environmental Quality Board could adjust bond rates every two years.

A bond is akin to a security deposit that a renter puts down when signing an apartment lease to cover any damages to the apartment when the lease ends. The drilling bond is supposed to pay the cost of capping a spent well. But the law caps the bond cost for a single conventional gas well (not the deep wells associated with the Marcellus Shale) at just $2,500, whereas the DEP has said that the cost of actually capping ranges from about $33,000 to as much as $800,000. Pennsylvania has more than 100,000 known abandoned wells.

The Legislature should act in behalf of the environment, public safety and taxpayers by repealing the existing law and establishing realistic bond rates.


LNP/LancasterOnline. July 30, 2023

Editorial: Railroad companies must be required to keep emergency responders informed about what’s on the toxic trains moving through our communities

We were both shocked and impressed by the in-depth reporting done by LNP ‘ LancasterOnline and WITF on what the news organizations called “toxic trains.”

The reporting sharply illustrated the importance of investigative journalism to the safety and well-being of communities such as ours.

Requests for information were met with a mix of resistance and deflection from the railroad companies and the Association of American Railroads. Right-to-Know requests were filed to 12 central Pennsylvania county governments, including our own. And calls to municipal officials throughout Lancaster County requesting records of hazardous materials moving on trains proved to be fruitless. Worryingly, some counties don’t even keep those records.

Nonetheless, the journalists — led by LNP ‘ LancasterOnline’s Rejrat — pieced together an alarming picture of how trains move through our communities carrying huge quantities of dangerous materials such as ammonium nitrate and vinyl chloride.

As Rejrat noted, “About 115,000 households in Lancaster County are within 1.3 miles of rail lines — or the recommended evacuation distance for a situation similar to the Ohio derailment, according to county commissioners and Lancaster Emergency Management Agency.”

That, of course, was a reference to the catastrophic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals last February in East Palestine, Ohio. More than 1,500 residents near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border were ordered to evacuate.

What made that incident worse was that emergency responders were unable to access real-time information about the toxic materials that had been released into the air, soil and water.

That is precisely the scenario Lancaster County emergency responders fear — and with good reason. As the LNP ‘ LancasterOnline and WITF investigation found, railroad companies are not required to disclose what materials they are transporting. So emergency responders may turn up to the scene of a derailment or some other disaster without the information they need to safely and effectively respond.

And because of the size of some trains, which often have different materials on different cars, more than one municipality may have to deal with a train disaster. It’s difficult to coordinate a response without knowing what you’re dealing with.

“There’s not enough information upfront, and it is frustrating,” Duane Hagelgans, emergency management coordinator for Millersville and Manor Township, told LNP ‘ LancasterOnline. He’s also the fire commissioner for Blue Rock Fire Rescue and a professor of emergency management at Millersville University.

“When you have an event like a train derailment, and if you throw hazardous materials on top … it is such a low-frequency event for the average fire department that it can be quickly catastrophic,” Hagelgans said.

Jay Barninger, emergency management coordinator for Columbia, said anytime “you’re facing the unknown, it’s scarier than when you know what you’re going into.”

He added: “If you know what the chemical is ahead of time, it would be different.”

Post-9/11 secrecy

It seems ludicrous that railroad companies are not required by law to make that information available to emergency responders. The reason for the secrecy — that information might fall into the hands of those intent on causing maximum harm — doesn’t seem adequate, particularly as one of the lessons of 9/11 was the critical need to be prepared to deal with unthinkable catastrophes.

Those who mean to cause harm can do so just by assuming it’s hazardous material. And not having the ability to respond is a hazard of its own.

We also found it unbelievable that the state requires county officials to compile hazardous commodities transportation lists only every five years.

To their credit, Lancaster County officials aim to compile such a list every other year. To do so, they need to go to rail lines, observe trains and record the hazardous material codes from placards on the side of the cars — one of the most low-tech and inefficient information collection methods we can imagine.

As Rejrat wrote last Sunday, emergency responders can — in the event of a disaster — access hazardous material manifests through the AskRail app, which was developed in 2014 by Class 1 railroads like Norfolk Southern and Amtrak to provide real-time data. But the app is not mandated and, as Rejrat noted, “since the East Palestine disaster, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the communication system.”

Trains carry a manifest, or train inventory, that must be kept within arm’s reach of the train’s engineer. But if the engineer is incapacitated by injury and the train car containing the manifest is seriously damaged, that wouldn’t be much help.

Promising measures

We wish this issue had been addressed before the East Palestine catastrophe, but at least there are efforts in both Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., to do so now.

We urge readers to encourage U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County to support the Railway Safety Act of 2023 and the Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act when those bills get to the U.S. House.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania were among the lawmakers who introduced the bills.

The Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act sensibly includes a proposal that would direct the transportation secretary and the Transportation Security Administration to develop regulations requiring railroads to notify local emergency response groups, fire departments and law enforcement agencies when hazardous materials are moving through their communities. As the senators correctly pointed out, emergency responders — many of them volunteers — risk their lives to protect their communities and deserve more than just gratitude.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed a rule last month that would require all railroads to immediately send the details of the contents of their trains to every emergency responder within 10 miles during an emergency.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania House Bill 1028 proposes the creation of a database of hazardous material being transported through the state on railways; that database would be accessible to emergency management agencies.

Appallingly, four Lancaster County Republicans — state Reps. David Zimmerman, Keith Greiner, Brett Miller and Tom Jones — were among 62 votes against the bipartisan bill.

They should explain their “nay” votes to the Lancaster County residents who live near the railway lines on which hazardous materials are transported. And to the emergency responders who will rush to the scene should a train carrying those materials derail or crash.



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