Altoona Mirror. June 11, 2024

Blair County residents can be excused for not becoming very concerned about the worst-ever Atlantic hurricane season predicted last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Seldom is this county affected seriously by those weather events, witnessed most often in southern states such as Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana.

However, Blair has not always escaped impacts from such storms, as looking back, especially to 1972, can attest. That was the year when Hurricane Agnes, “downgraded” to tropical storm status, wreaked havoc in Pennsylvania, causing $2.3 billion in losses.

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Agnes, whose effects were widespread from the Caribbean to Canada, destroyed more than 3,000 businesses in the Keystone State alone, as well as 68,000 homes, while damaging numerous others.

The damage to Pennsylvania businesses exceeded $1 billion; damage to roadways totaled $500 million; and damage to crops and school districts was $120 million and $40 million, respectively.

Then there was what Wikipedia described as Agnes’ “devastating effect on the already-bankrupt railroads in the northeastern U.S., as lines were washed out and shipments delayed.”

The former Penn Central Railroad, important to the Blair County economy, sustained nearly $20 million in damages.

Many older Blair residents can recall clearly the damage that county population centers such as Altoona, Williamsburg and Tyrone experienced.

A ride eastbound on Route 22 east of Blair County revealed sights along the Juniata River that once seemed unimaginable. And Blair emerged from Agnes very lucky. Again, according to Wikipedia:

“Hundreds were trapped in their homes in Wilkes-Barre due to the overflowing Susquehanna River. At the historic cemetery in Forty Fort, 2,000 caskets were washed away, leaving body parts on porches, roofs and in basements. In Luzerne County alone, 25,000 homes and businesses were either damaged or destroyed. Losses in that county totaled to $1 billion.”

In Harrisburg, then-Gov. Milton Shapp and his wife Muriel had to be evacuated from the Governor’s Mansion by boat due to the flooding in the state’s capital city. Indeed, Agnes was a horrific watery experience unlike what Pennsylvania ever had to endure prior to 1972 — or which it has had to experience since.

Hopefully, 2024 will produce nothing to mimic 1972 but, nevertheless, even residents of Blair and other area counties should not pooh-pooh what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted for the current hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

According to a May 24 report in the Wall Street Journal, “this season will see between 17 and 25 named storms with winds of 39 miles an hour or higher (and) of those, 8 to 13 are forecast to become hurricanes with winds of 74 miles an hour or higher. Four to 7 major hurricanes of Category 3 or above with maximum sustained winds of 111 miles an hour or higher are expected to form.”

Each of those numbers is the highest NOAA has ever forecast since the federal agency began issuing seasonal hurricane outlooks in 1998. Ocean heat between 2 and 3½ degrees Fahrenheit above normal is the reason for NOAA’s prediction.

Ocean heat is the source of energy for hurricane formation. Local residents shouldn’t lose sleep over NOAA’s latest prediction, but 1972 provided an important lesson that always should be heeded.


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. June 11, 2024

In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade did more than just upend reproductive health law. It also made back-burner issues take on more urgency.

If limits on abortion result in more pregnancies, more policies will be required to respond to the resulting children’s needs.

States will need plans to handle more child care. Schools that have been shrinking in enrollment may see that change, possibly meaning more demands from school districts for buildings and staff.

Then there are the requirements of pregnant and postpartum parents who will need to adjust to their newborns.

America has long been behind many other countries when it comes to maternity and paternity leave. Sweden provides 69 weeks at a sliding scale of payment. The United Kingdom gives a year of leave and 39 weeks of pay at 90% of average wage. In Canada, a new mother gets 50 weeks at 55% pay.

But the U.S. is in a small minority of countries that doesn’t provide or require paid leave. Collectively, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau have a population half the size of Pittsburgh. The only other country with no paid parental leave is Papua New Guinea with a population of 10 million — still about 76% Pennsylvania’s population.

So how is this an area where the leader of the free world isn’t leading?

In 1993, the U.S. passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. It gives employees up to 12 weeks off for a list of covered incidents, including childbirth or adoption. The employee must have worked at the company for at least 12 months and the company has to have at least 50 employees to qualify. Otherwise, the job isn’t guaranteed to be there upon return. And pay is never a guarantee. That’s what vacation time — or a spouse to pick up the slack — is for.

The idea of whether and how to accommodate parental leave has been left to employers in the same way government frequently allows some industries to police themselves. That means 31 years after the Family and Medical Leave Act, many women are still healing from childbirth when they have to go back to work. A 2023 study by human resources company Remote found 15% of workers can’t afford to take the 12 weeks available by law.

States are making their own policies. Oregon has the most generous, with 12 weeks at 100% salary, with several others close to that. Overall, 13 states have their own family leave requirements. South Carolina would be 14th, but its 12-week paid policy refers only to its own employees.

A Pennsylvania bill has support from Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Ideally, that would mean good debate, little infighting and quick passage. But as the two chambers have differing ideas about funding, it may devolve without accomplishing anything.

It shouldn’t. Pennsylvania has bemoaned the loss of population to other states and the need to be attractive to employers. Solving the issue of paid parental leave could be a reason for people and companies to come to or stay in the Keystone State.

If the U.S. can’t lead on the issue, Pennsylvania can.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 10, 2024

A bid by Pennsylvania Senate Republicans — with the support of several of their Democratic colleagues — to cut the state’s earned income and electricity taxes is certainly tantalizing: Tax cuts in the Keystone State are few and far between.

But they also undercut Republicans’ own arguments, which are largely sound, about the importance of fiscal responsibility, even as Pennsylvania sits on record reserves. The state’s financial stability — much like Pittsburgh’s — is more fragile than it appears. Permanently cutting revenues by $3 billion would deplete the surpluses Pennsylvania has accumulated, almost entirely due to the federal pandemic stimulus windfall, in only about three years.

The proposal is the mirror image of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed 2024-2025 budget, which would spend $3 billion more than the commonwealth expects to bring in.

It sets up a classic debate: Should the state return $3 billion to the people in the form of tax cuts or in the form of spending on government services?

Either way, it’s too much. Making permanent $3 billion annual commitments, whether in tax cuts or in spending, will quickly draw down the state’s historic reserves. That will leave a deepened structural deficit that a future governor or legislature will have to remedy.

The prudent approach would be to drain less of the reserves — say, under $2 billion — and to split that between new spending and modest tax breaks.

The tax cuts passed the Senate, 36 to 14, in early May. They would cut Pennsylvania’s income tax by 9%, bringing it down from 3.07% to 2.8%. They would also eliminate the gross receipts tax as applied to electricity companies — 5.9% on all funds coming into the firm — and require that the savings be passed on entirely to customers.

With a median income of about $73,000, the income tax cut would save the average Pennsylvania household about $200 per year. While estimates of average electricity bills vary, getting rid of the gross receipts tax would probably save the average household another $100 or so.

A fair compromise that would keep the best of the GOP proposal, while preserving the state’s fiscal stability and the possibility for more spending, would be to keep the income tax at 3.07% — or, at most, cut it to an even 3% — but ditch the gross receipts tax.

Gross receipts taxes, which tax all revenues regardless of source, are notoriously inefficient and punitive. As applied to utilities, they are deeply regressive — even more than the state’s flat income tax — because poorer households pay a greater proportion of their income for electricity. While an income tax cut would be scaled based on income, ending the gross receipts tax would be felt more equally by everyone.

It’s good politics and good policy to return some of Pennsylvania’s windfall to the people. But it must be done right, or else future Pennsylvanians will have to pay for it.


Scranton Times-Tribune. June 9, 2024

Republicans appear to be of two minds about mail voting as we approach the November General Election.

On the one hand, Donald Trump, who has stubbornly, but wrongly, insisted mail voting is rife with fraud that cost him reelection in 2020, has spoken in favor of a Republican National Committee initiative called “Swamp the Vote,” which urges party members to use any means possible, including the mail, to cast their ballots.

On the other hand, the RNC continues to oppose efforts to ensure mail ballots are not rejected for purely technical reasons.

Last week, the committee criticized a legal effort to remove rules empowering Pennsylvania counties to reject mail ballots if voters fail to properly date the outside of the envelope. Liberal groups suing to abolish the date requirement say it serves no purpose, as all mail ballots must be received in county election bureaus by Election Day and the date they were mailed or signed is immaterial.

Such onerous restrictions routinely rob thousands of Pennsylvanians of their votes. Recent reporting by the nonprofit news organizations Spotlight PA and Votebeat concluded Pennsylvania counties rejected nearly 16,000 ballots cast in the April primary for various reasons, including incorrect or missing dates.

Republican resistance to mail voting, regardless of efforts to get GOP voters to at least consider that method, can be chalked up purely to numbers and politics. Roughly three-quarters of mail ballots in Pennsylvania are filed by Democrats, for example, so tighter restrictions on the practice here are most likely to reduce Democratic totals.

And despite persistent claims to the contrary, allegations that mail voting leads to widespread fraud remain unsupported by the evidence. In fact, in recent months, two stories that supposedly provided such evidence have totally fallen apart.

In February, the conservative group Project Veritas and its former leader publicly acknowledged the falsity of claims by a postal worker in Erie that his supervisors illegally backdated mail-in presidential ballots in 2020. The admission came as part of a legal settlement between a postmaster and Project Veritas, which had widely spread those claims.

And late last month, Salem Media Group Inc., the conservative media company behind the film “2000 Mules,” which alleged a nationwide conspiracy to stuff ballot drop boxes in 2020, said it would halt distribution of the widely debunked movie and a related book. Salem issued an apology to a Georgia man who was falsely depicted in the film as illegally putting multiple ballots in a drop box. That retraction also came as part of an out-of-court settlement.

It’s regrettable it has taken so long for Project Veritas and Salem to admit they spread misinformation that has so damaged many Americans’ faith in mail voting and the election system as a whole. Before 2020, 29 states allowed no-excuse mail voting — including five that used mail ballots exclusively —all without controversy. In the 2016 presidential election, one in four voters used ballots that were mailed to them.

Perhaps the softening of the Republican position on mail voting coupled with continued fact-checking of spurious fraud claims will eventually allow us to return to those happy days when mail voting was an uncontroversial option making it easier for Americans to participate in the democratic process.


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