LNP/LancasterOnline. August 9, 2023

Editorial: The Pennsylvania Legislature needs to pass sensible gun laws, instead of pandering to pro-gun interests

The lawsuit at the heart of this open-records dispute was enabled by a terrible piece of state legislation.

It’s worth revisiting that legislation, as it’s illustrative of the preferential treatment that gun-rights organizations get in Harrisburg — and how the public safety interests of ordinary citizens are too often ignored.

Act 192 of 2014 was so terrible that it was struck down by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in June 2015. The state Supreme Court affirmed that ruling in 2016.

The mercifully short-lived law had gone into effect in January 2015. It enabled anyone or any organization “adversely affected” by a municipality’s local gun ordinance to sue the municipality; legal standing was afforded even if the plaintiff didn’t reside in the municipality.

Emboldened by that law, the National Rifle Association sued the City of Lancaster over an ordinance that sensibly requires gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to the police within 72 hours.

Under Act 192’s provisions, if the NRA had won its lawsuit against Lancaster, the city would have had to pay the NRA’s legal costs. But there was no provision in the law that would have required the NRA to pay the city’s legal costs should the city have prevailed. The NRA ultimately dropped its lawsuit.

Act 192 was an appalling gift to the gun lobby and a rebuke to municipal officials seeking to protect their constituents from gun violence. It empowered gun-rights activists to make life miserable for municipalities by ensnaring them in costly lawsuits.

So intent were Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg on cravenly pandering to pro-gun interests that they tried to pass another version of Act 192 after that law was struck down. Some state lawmakers wax on about “local control” — but never in the face of pressure from guns-rights organizations.

Meanwhile, bills that would help to curb gun violence tend to languish in Harrisburg.

The advocacy organization CeaseFirePA maintains a list of bills that have been proposed in the state Legislature. Those commonsense measures would:

— Require the safe storage of guns.

— Mandate training for first-time gun owners.

— Establish a 72-hour waiting period for all firearm transfers in Pennsylvania.

— Prohibit the sale, purchase or production of untraceable “ghost” gun parts.

The state House did pass two bills in May. One would enable judges to issue extreme-risk protection orders to allow authorities to temporarily seize firearms from individuals deemed to be at risk of harming themselves or others. This important bill could curtail suicides, as well as other forms of gun violence.

According to a report issued in June by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, firearms were the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens ages 1 to 19 in 2021. And 55% of all suicides were by firearm in 2021 (the most recent year for which final data is available). Research shows that extreme-risk protection order laws — enacted in 21 states, plus the District of Columbia — “are associated with lower rates of firearm suicide,” that report noted.

The other bill passed by the state House in May would sensibly require background checks for all gun purchases, including private transactions involving long guns.

But a third bill — which, similarly to Lancaster’s ordinance, would have required gun owners to report a lost or stolen firearm to law enforcement within three days — inexplicably failed.

The seesaw control of the state House once again hinges on a special election — this one in September to fill an Allegheny County seat. Democrats are expected to retain control of that seat, and therefore the narrow House majority. But whatever happens, gun legislation also needs to pass in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

We’d like to think that an overriding interest in public safety would unite members of both parties to pass reasonable gun measures.

In reality, it would take an enormous amount of public pressure to counter the influence of gun-rights organizations in Harrisburg. As Act 192 showed, the odds are stacked against those seeking sensible gun legislation.

Please try anyway by contacting your state lawmakers. Others persist. We can, too.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. August 9, 2023

Editorial: A roadmap to a practical state budget deal

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, made the right call in bringing members of the upper chamber back to Harrisburg so Gov. Josh Shapiro could sign the lion’s share of the state budget into law.

Now the tough-minded leaders have to forget July’s shenanigans — both Mr. Shapiro’s unprecedented line-item veto and Ms. Ward’s month-long holdout — and deal with the reality of divided government. They should rebuild trust by passing the most agreeable budget items that still require legislation, before finalizing the remaining contentious matters.

The now-signed General Appropriation bill, which keeps all departments and agencies funded at no more than last year’s levels, was only the first part of the budget process. Now the Democratic governor, Republican Senate and (for now) evenly-divided House have to agree on the so-called Fiscal Code bill — or bills — that will fund new or expanded programs.

These include everything from the popular Whole-Home Repairs program, which pays for needed renovations for low-income homeowners, to a first-ever state appropriation for indigent criminal defense. And — roiling Harrisburg even further — the negotiations could include the $100 million Pennsylvania Award for Student Success school voucher program, which Mr. Shapiro supported on the campaign trail but line-item vetoed from the first bill.

Step one to get back on track is to break up the Fiscal Code bill into parts, as the legislature has done in the past, and to get popular and mutually agreeable items to the governor’s desk. Begin with Whole-Home Repairs and indigent defense, which are lined up in the same part of the Fiscal Code.

These appropriations fund needs the state should address as soon as possible. Pennsylvania is one of only two states where constitutionally mandated representation for low-income defendants is funded completely at the local level, which can mean that some defendants don’t get the legal defense they need. And the first tranche of Whole-Home Repairs money, from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, is already oversubscribed, so bringing state money to the program should be a priority.

Step two is to take up the harder matters, particularly education. The main cause of the budget impasse was the inflexibility of the state’s powerful teachers unions. They are said to have threatened Democratic lawmakers with primary challenges if they supported the original budget deal, which included the $100 million scholarship program. As the situation in Pittsburgh makes clear, government by special interest doesn’t serve the people well.

However, there are signs the threat may be weakening. Last week, Rep. Amen Brown, D-Philadelphia, publicly indicated his support for the PASS program. In an evenly divided House, it would only take one defection to approve the original deal. The fragility of their position should encourage House Democrats and their union backers to accept a compromise, including a version of the PASS program.

The state needs a completed budget and that means compromise from all sides. Getting the budget finished will get Mr. Shapiro’s administration back on track, and restore the working relationship between his office and Republican legislators. It’s up to them to make it happen.


Uniontown Herald-Standard. August 10, 2023

Editorial: Legislative negligence on guns

One of Pennsylvania’s recent gun-related tragedies occurred 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 do not have.


Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. August 11, 2023

Editorial: Right to cover SNAP thefts

More than 1 million Pennsylvanians rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, to help pay for food, but the program also is a bit of a fest for thieves.

So far in 2023, the state Department of Human Services has validated about 2,750 alleged incidents of SNAP electronic theft, totaling $459,084 in stolen funds. That’s not just money stolen from taxpayers, but food off the tables of the victimized beneficiaries.

Scammers use an array of techniques, including “skimming” devices clandestinely attached to grocery checkout terminals, that read cards and record their information, including customers’ personal identification numbers.

The Shapiro administration deserves credit for including Pennsylvania among the first states to launch programs to cover the stolen funds for victimized beneficiaries. In the bill appropriating $153 billion nationally for the SNAP program this fiscal year, Congress authorized state agencies to use federal money to reimburse SNAP theft victims.

The law also requires participating states to collect and report data on electronic SNAPs, with an objective of developing corrective measures and catching more of the thieves.

SNAP theft victims may find and file claim forms online at https://www.dhs.pa.gov/Pages/Scams.aspx, call the state DHS at 1-877-395-8930 or contact their local county assistance office.

Meanwhile, lawmakers should add to deterrence by creating a specific crime with severe punishment for anyone low enough to steal SNAP benefits.


Scranton Times-Tribune. August 13, 2023

Editorial: Better road to pay for state police

Debates over unresolved elements of the state government’s new $44.45 billion budget — including more than $600 million for four state-affiliated universities’ in-state tuition discounts, $100 million in “level-up” funding for poor school districts, and more — have obscured significant progress ensured by the completed parts of the budget.

One major achievement is the beginning of the end of using money designated for transportation improvements to fund state police.

When drivers refuel their vehicles, they expect the nation’s second-highest fuel taxes to go to highway and bridge maintenance and improvements — the purpose of the taxes.

But the state government regularly has siphoned away hundreds of millions of dollars of that revenue for state police. The amount gradually has declined from the record during the 2016-2017 fiscal year, when more than $800 million from the Motor License Fund went to state police. In the 2022-2023 fiscal year that ended June 30, transportation taxes and fees provided $500 million of the state police $1.4 billion budget.

The new budget reduces that funding to $375 million, the first step of a plan to reduce it by another $125 million in each of the next three years until it reaches zero.

In each of those years, without a tax increase, $125 million will be added to PennDOT’s road and bridge programs, as intended by the tax laws.

Because Pennsylvania places more responsibility on its transportation department than do most other states, PennDOT is responsible directly for about 41,000 miles of state and local roads, and 25,400 bridges. Though New York geographically is about 20% larger than Pennsylvania, for example, the state highway department is responsible for just over 15,000 miles of roadways.

Gov. Josh Shapiro wants to draw money from general state revenue and place it in a secure fund for state police that may not be used for any other purpose. That might well force legislators to make difficult decisions about spending, and it might create some accountability and transparency issues regarding a segregated account. But it is superior to misusing hundreds of millions of dollars that are sorely needed for their intended purpose.



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