Altoona Mirror. November 18, 2023

Editorial: Regional road projects, sadly, still on hold

Some people old enough to remember the late 1960s and 1970s might recall a Pennsylvania highway funding “tidbit” of that time.

The essence of it was that once the major highway projects in and around the state’s big cities were completed, construction attention would shift to places such as the six-county Southern Alleghenies region.

The trouble was that when it was this part of the state’s turn to be accorded deserved attention, funding started to dry up, and much of the promised attention was put on hold until some future time.

Fifty or more years later, it is difficult to assess how much highway funding — for new construction or maintenance — never materialized because of the lesser political clout that this region wielded.

Progress has been achieved to a degree in the decades since, but the region still is lacking on numerous fronts, including completion of the southernmost leg of Route 219 in Somerset County, as well as in regard to Route 22 east of Hollidaysburg. Back then, who would have thought a half-century would pass without either of those projects getting the attention they deserve.

At this time, it is reasonable to ponder how much economic development might have been lost because those projects have remained in limbo — as well as Route 219 north to Interstate 80. Promises made, and promises not kept.

But can there truly be hope that a new development on the state front will give a fair shake to the Southern Alleghenies? Probably all that can be said is “we’ll see.”

The issue at hand is the weaning of the state police from Motor License Fund subsidies, allowing that money to be put to the use for what it no doubt was intended initially, maintaining and building roads.

Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Mike Carroll said during a visit to PennDOT District 9 headquarters in Hollidaysburg on Nov. 3 that the change regarding state police funding would allow more attention to maintaining secondary roads and upgrading PennDOT’s fleet.

According to PennDOT officials, the funds in question will be distributed across the state by a formula based on the number of road miles and bridges and their conditions along with vehicle miles traveled.

How this region will fare under the formula in question remains to be seen, but there seems to be grounds for cautious optimism about what will take place, going forward.

According to Carroll, the “financial ability to take on new capacity projects is not in the mix.”

He said the smart thing to do is to maintain the network currently in place. He added strict attention to maintenance is just as necessary for roads and bridges as it is for private homes.

Considerable progress has been made on the maintenance front since the 1990s and early 2000s, but there is plenty more to do. However, PennDOT also needs to direct close attention to any opportunities for new construction that might be financially feasible.

Many Pennsylvania residents, seeing new construction in other states, often wonder why that can take place in those states but not here. Whatever the reason regarding specific ventures elsewhere, the Keystone State needs to do better.

The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and now the money being weaned from state police funding are providing highway project funding opportunities that might not be available again for decades.

Fix some roads; save some lives.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. November 20, 2023

Editorial: Reliable power means shoring up natural gas infrastructure

While Pennsylvania’s power grid is gradually shifting towards renewable energies, the state continues to rely heavily on natural gas to meet its power needs. In this transitional period, ensuring the reliability of the power grid is crucial — and expanding existing oversight might be necessary.

The US electric grid has been correctly identified as a modern-day necessity that must be reliable for users, and the federal government has ensured robust reliability standards. Since 2006, the federally-recognized North American Electric Reliability Corporation has developed and enforced compliance across US electric grids.

For regional enforcers, this includes everything from auditing utility companies, handling internal cybersecurity, cutting back overgrown vegetation near power lines, and preparing the electric power grid for severe weather.

But none of these same stringent standards are applied to the natural gas grid. That’s a major problem, because natural gas is the largest power source underpinning electricity production. Over half of all electricity is generated through the use of natural gas, and as long as the gas network is unreliable, the electric grid will be, too.

The consequences of an unreliable power grid are dire. When severe weather hits unprepared and unregulated infrastructure, it leads to scenarios like the Texas outages in 2021, in which catastrophic power losses resulted in up to 800 deaths. Texas had famously avoided federal regulation of its power grid for decades leading up the storm. Pennsylvania’s own power grid experienced some of the same failures last year during Winter Storm Elliott, albeit on a much smaller scale, as many power plants couldn’t start up or broke down in the extreme cold. Seventy percent of outages came from the natural gas sector.

It could have been much worse, and experts know it. “We narrowly dodged a crisis last year,” Jim Robb, president and CEO of the NERC, said in written remarks accompanying the final report on the lessons learned from Elliot. He said the breakdown of the system reflected the “extraordinary interconnectedness of the gas and electric systems,” as well as their “combined vulnerability.”

It also underscores the need for congressional and state legislation to establish reliability rules for natural gas infrastructure, and to increase communication between natural gas suppliers and electric grid operators during extreme weather events. These systems are inextricably linked, and addressing the reliability of only one will never be sufficient.

Natural gas, for better or worse, is our most reliable source of energy for the time being, and its infrastructure must be handled with the same responsibility and regulation as the electrical grid.


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. November 16, 2023

Editorial: Could pension increase prompt a new pension crisis for Pennsylvania?

Pensions for state employees and teachers have been a wrench in the gears of Pennsylvania government for decades.

In 2001, Gov. Tom Ridge signed a law that expanded pensions for those employees by 25% — and even more for state lawmakers. He was thrilled to do it, saying it was something he’d waited years to accomplish.

But that law had two problems.

First, it set in motion a pension problem that became a full-blown crisis because of the Great Recession of 2008. The surpluses of 2001 had disappeared and markets were no longer stable. From 2010 to 2016, taxpayer contributions ballooned by 400%.

That meant years of school districts trying to pare budgets to cover their shares of something the state obligated them to do. It was also a contributing factor for multiple budget showdowns between lawmakers and governors.

Second, there were the people it left out of the increase. On the one hand, maybe that wasn’t a problem given how much worse it could have made the way school districts were drowning in contribution demands. But people who had already retired definitely had a reason to be angry that they weren’t included.

Are lawmakers setting up a replay? On Tuesday, the state House of Representatives approved a $1.8 billion increase in pensions f or state and school retirees by a margin of 140-63. It wasn’t a party-line vote, but every Democratic legislator supported it.

There is no doubt that the 69,000 affected public servants don’t deserve “to be marred by financial hardship,” as sponsor Rep. Steve Malagari, D-Montgomery, said. No one wants that.

But after years of pension-induced panic in every school district in the state, it’s hard to see this proposal and not brace for a gut punch.

Passage in the GOP-led Senate is much less certain. Discussion there, however, should include deeper dives into the cost of the increases for both the districts and the individual property-owning taxpayers.

Should those retirees who were left out of increases under Ridge see a way to better cope with rising costs and inflation? Probably — although it is worth noting that anyone qualifying for a pension also should be seeing such a cost-of-living adjustment with their Social Security checks.

But Pennsylvania taxpayers have been owed tax reform for far longer.


Uniontown Herald-Standard. November 19, 2023

Editorial: Lung cancer report offers encouraging news for Pennsylvania

It wasn’t that long ago that the distinctive odor of cigarette smoke – and the way it would burn the throats of nonsmokers – was an everyday part of life.

People smoked in restaurants. They smoked on planes. They smoked at concerts of all types. They smoked at shopping centers. They even smoked in movie theaters.

Now, smoking is prohibited in most public places, and legions of adult Americans have either quit smoking or have never taken up the habit. In 1970, close to half of American adults smoked. Now, it’s just 14%. That is an undeniably positive development for public health, lifespans, and our pocketbooks, given the toll smoking exacts on both individuals and the wider public in the form of increased health care costs.

It’s long been known that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, and this week the American Lung Association released its annual report on the state of lung cancer in Pennsylvania, and it contains plenty of encouraging news. The commonwealth is eighth in the nation for screening, 10th for survival and seventh for treatment. It puts Pennsylvania in the top rank of states in combating lung cancer.

Aimee VanCleave, the director of advocacy for the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania, said that more people are surviving lung cancer because of increased awareness, research into new treatments and improved health care access. But, VanCleave noted that lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths both here and across the country – more people die of lung cancer in any year than cancers of the prostate, breast and colon combined – and that “we have more work to do to defeat lung cancer….”

To this end, the American Lung Association is supporting legislation being put forward by state Rep. Dan Frankel that would end smoking in casinos, bars and other establishments where it is still allowed. Frankel, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Pittsburgh, points out that smoking in casinos and bars endangers the workers who toil in those establishments. Frankel and supporters of the proposed revision to the state’s indoor air laws contend that, rather than harming business at the commonwealth’s casinos, it would actually get a boost from customers who don’t want to inhale smoke while they try their luck at the slots or table games. They also cite a finding from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, who say that ventilation systems in casinos are not effective when it comes to secondhand smoke.

“This legislation is not just good for health, it’s also good for business,” Frankel said.

We look with some amazement now at how many people smoked 50 years ago. Fifty years from now, it could be so rare that most people will probably wonder why anyone ever took up such a deadly habit in the first place.


Scranton Times-Tribune. November 19, 2023

Editorial: Harrisburg should make Level Up school funding a priority

The state Senate got its priorities wrong when it approved a school-funding bill last week that added $150 million in tax credits to a program that largely subsidizes private-school tuition but neglected to include $100 million in Level Up funding for the state’s poorest school districts.

The Level Up spending supported by House Democrats would go to the 100 districts with the biggest funding shortfalls — those whose property values fail to generate adequate local taxes when compared to wealthier districts.

Those 100 districts serve a majority of Pennsylvania’s students of color, English language learners and families who live below the poverty level.

Fifteen of the Level Up districts are in Carbon, Lackawanna, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties. They would receive nearly $8 million in extra funding this year under Level Up.

Pennsylvania’s antiquated school funding system, with its reliance on local property revenues that vary wildly between its 500 public school districts, combined with a decades-long decline in the share of education funding provided through state subsidies, has left its least affluent districts in a bind. The districts with the greatest need have the fewest resources.

But the Level Up funding withheld in the Senate bill would be just a stopgap.

An analysis presented to a bipartisan legislative commission in September found that 412 of the state’s 500 districts are inadequately funded. The commission is exploring ways to conform to a Commonwealth Court ruling that found the state’s school funding system violates the state constitution because “students attending low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.”

The end goal is to equalize spending per pupil across the Commonwealth.

But until Pennsylvania reaches the promised land of full and fair funding of education, Harrisburg has an obligation to reverse years of chronic underfunding that has disadvantaged generations of students in the 100 Level Up districts.

The state House, Senate and the Shapiro administration should prioritize passing Level Up funding as soon as possible and sever the issue from other less-pressing education issues, such as private school tax breaks and vouchers, which affect relatively few of Pennsylvania’s students and families.

Under the current system, 83 percent of the Commonwealth’s public school students live in underfunded districts, according to the analysis presented to the Basic Education Funding Commission. That is a sign of an education funding system in crisis. Our legislators ought to act accordingly.


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