Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. July 9, 2023

Editorial: High marks for Gov. Shapiro’s first state budget even as GOP lawmakers fail to learn their lesson

As Republicans engaged in culture war tactics to please their base, the governor and Democrats focused on ensuring quality education, ample economic opportunity, and dependable public safety.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first state budget may not fulfill every Pennsylvanian’s wish list, but the $45.5 billion plan represents serious progress for the Keystone State, with significant increases in funding for public education, an extension to a home repair and weatherization program, and finally weaning the Pennsylvania State Police off of its reliance on transportation funding.

Shapiro also demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice his own priorities in the service of what’s best for the commonwealth. State Republicans could learn from his example.

Initially, the governor forged a deal with Senate Republicans. In exchange for their support for a $567 million increase in money for schools through the state basic education funding formula, Shapiro backed a new $100 million program to establish Lifeline Scholarships — essentially vouchers that would allow lower-income families in underperforming school districts to opt for private schooling. K-12 students would get $5,000, high school students would get $10,000, and special-needs students, regardless of age, would receive $15,000.

Given the one-vote Democratic majority in the state House, which includes members who have in the past strongly supported school choice, Shapiro had legitimate reason to believe that the program could pass in both chambers. House Democrats, however, balked at the potential threat to public education. In the end, Shapiro promised to line-item veto his own proposal to avert a showdown.

While this move has upset Republicans eager to achieve a long-standing priority, it was the right call for the state. Given the way voucher programs elsewhere have drained critical support away from public education while failing to produce improved test scores, launching a large voucher program as part of the budget process was never a good idea.

Even with a relatively small outlay, such a big change to the way Pennsylvania educates its children requires a more significant public debate before proceeding. House Democrats were right to use their newfound power to push back.

Rather than raging at the governor, Harrisburg Republicans need to recognize a new reality: Their party no longer dominates the General Assembly. They also should remember it was their ongoing prioritization of culture war issues over delivering for Pennsylvanians that cost them control of the House.

Yet, judging from GOP lawmakers’ approach to higher education funding and thecombative confirmation process forcabinet nominees, they remain committed to this approach.

For generations, Pennsylvania’s state-affiliated universities — Temple University, Lincoln University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania State University — have provided a quality college education at a reasonable price for residents. Thanks to a meltdown from Pennsylvania House Republicans, that promise was jeopardized.

Republicans wanted to end fetal research and medical support for transgender people. According to Inquirer reporting, a vendetta against Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg for helping to enact the state’s first non-gerrymandered legislative map animated some Republican votes as well.

Without state funding, the universities would need to significantly increase in-state tuition. This would force students to either defer attendance or take on more student debt, just because of political posturing in Harrisburg. Whatever the motivation, this stunt was ill-advised — Pennsylvania’s students and families deserve better.

While their House colleagues picked fights with college students, Senate Republicans embarrassed themselves with their decision to deny a successful confirmation vote to Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt, acting Health Secretary Debra Bogen, and other cabinet nominees.

Schmidt, himself a Republican, is uniquely suited to the job. For roughly a decade, he served as one of three City Commissioners, responsible for administering Philadelphia’s elections. His track record in that role was impressive. Schmidt used his position to make more election data publicly available, pursued workplace reforms, and helped launch the first departmental website. Schmidt’s office also helped clean up local elections. It was a referral from his office that led to the conviction of former U.S. Rep. Ozzie Myers for election fraud.

He also stood up against former President Donald Trump’s attempts to suppress Philadelphia’s votes and steal Pennsylvania’s electors. For that, the mild-mannered reformer became a bogeyman for the far-right. Former Trump attorneyLinda Kerns blasted Schmidt’s nomination, and State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the party’s failed nominee for governor who marched on the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, voted against him in committee.

While Schmidt was confirmed by default — after Republicans avoided a full Senate vote on the nomination, likely to prevent recrimination from Trump — Bogen, who helped lead Allegheny County through the COVID-19 pandemic, saw her nomination withdrawn after Republicans on the Health and Human Services Committee opted to deny her a favorable recommendation.

Bogen, who is eminently qualified for the position, acted prudently and recommended the same public health policies as other county, state, and federal health officials. Yet for some Harrisburg Republicans, trying to protect Pennsylvanians from the pandemic disqualified her for the job.

There’s a pattern in these Harrisburg GOP maneuvers. Each represents an attempt to placate the party base rather than an attempt to improve the lives of all.

This is the exact style of culture war politics that voters resoundingly rejected in the 2022 election. If Pennsylvanians wanted a state government that is obsessed with persecuting trans people, relitigating the 2020 election, second-guessing the commonwealth’s pandemic response, and drawing legislative districts that are favorable to incumbents, they would have voted for Mastriano. Instead, he lost by roughly 800,000 votes.

Meanwhile, despite their disagreement over Lifeline Scholarships, House Democrats and Shapiro kept their focus where it mattered most: ensuring quality education, ample economic opportunity, and dependable public safety in every corner of the commonwealth.

Imagine how the state would benefit if Harrisburg Republicans did the same.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July 8, 2023

Editorial: Move transit tax options forward

Bills recently introduced in the General Assembly would potentially boost transit in the state’s most populous counties, including Allegheny and Philadelphia, by giving them local tax options to improve or expand their transit systems. Local revenue options for transit projects include taxes on income, alcohol, rental cars, and real-estate sales.

Allegheny and Philadelphia-area counties would decide which, of up to three additional, taxes to approve — or whether to use any of them at all. This flexible and sorely needed plan, now in the House Local Government Committee, should move forward immediately.

No city or state can become first-class without a first-class transit system. Systems in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia need to get better, as those regions will absorb most of the state’s additional 2.5 million people expected over the next two decades. Under the current funding system, however, significant improvements are difficult, if not impossible. Without the authority to raise more local money, large counties can’t secure federal grants that require local-funding matches.

As a result, Pennsylvania is losing millions of dollars from federal infrastructure and other grant programs. Transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh need upgrades and expansions, not only to improve service for people without vehicles or other transportation options, but also to attract more so-called choice riders, who use transit for convenience, lower stress, and other reasons.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has been a long-time proponent of giving counties more ways to raise money locally. Further property tax increases would be an unfair and unsustainable way to do it.

Owing to transit’s broad social, environmental, and economic benefits, local tax option bills in the House, sponsored by Philadelphia Democrat Joe Hohenstein, should get bi-partisan support. In 2019, a House Transportation Infrastructure Task Force, headed by Republican Martina White of Philadelphia, recommended them in an overview of Pennsylvania’s transportation systems and funding.

Mr. Hohenstein has also pointed out the vital role the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority played, following the recent collapse of an overpass on Interstate 95 in Northeast Philadelphia.

Transit is essential to support the independence of seniors and people with disabilities, as well as poor and working-class people who don’t have access to reliable vehicles to get to work and elsewhere.

Pennsylvania’s future depends largely on healthy and robust transit systems. The future of those system depends on local funding options unlocked by a House plan that should move ahead immediately.


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. July 6, 2023

Editorial: Is leaving Pa. the way to find lower taxes and cost of living?

Commonwealth Foundation poll shows a lot of Pennsylvanians are considering relocation.

Tell us something we didn’t know.

Pennsylvania has been aware of its changing demographics for years. Decades, actually.

Pennsylvania lost one of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2020 census, bringing the number of Keystone State lawmakers down to just 17. The state lost a seat after the 2010 count, too, just like 2000.

The good news was the bleeding slowed to just one every 10 years. The six prior censuses had taken away two or three congressional districts. You have to go back to 1920 to see a year in which Pennsylvania didn’t lose a seat — and to 1910 to see any gained.

It isn’t that Pennsylvania is losing people, per se. The population is growing — just not in that age group and not as fast as other places. Census numbers show Pennsylvania’s population rose about 300,000 people, or about 2.4%, between 2010 and 2020, topping 13 million.

But nationally, the population grew 7.4%, meaning Pennsylvania just isn’t growing at the same rate as America overall. That means other states are growing faster.

The Commonwealth Foundation poll of 800 registered voters showed that 42.25% considered moving. The reasons? Taxes and the cost of living primarily, but other issues noted show a grab bag of political motivations.

Pennsylvania has been a powerhouse state for the economy and politics. It contains the universities that drive innovation and education, the manufacturing that can push growth, a considerable amount of the financial sector and is a massive contributor to the energy industry. The state is a transportation linchpin for moving goods. Politically, you aren’t wrong to say that as Pennsylvania votes, so goes the nation.

The bottom line and the voting record require people to be here and stay here to contribute. With more people looking to leave, that’s the continuation of a troubling trend.

But is the survey telling us what we need to know? Or do we need more than a list of grievances?

People looking for greener pastures need more data about what they are hoping to find elsewhere and what the reality would look like when they get there. They also need to know that sometimes it’s better to fix up the house where you live than it is to pack up and move.

There is overlap sometimes between states that are seeing growth and those that have lower cost of living, but not always. Among those growing fastest are Florida, Idaho and Montana. Montana is 15th for low cost of living, with Idaho 17th and Florida 36th, according to U.S. News and World Report. Pennsylvania is 28th.

The states with the lowest tax burdens are Alaska, Delaware and New Hampshire — all on the high side of cost of living. Pennsylvania is 30th in tax burden, according to financial services website WalletHub, although the state does tip the scales dramatically in some areas, like gas tax.

Pennsylvania has a lot to improve. We need more jobs and better jobs with the kind of paychecks that make supporting a family and owning a home more than a pipe dream. But the numbers don’t say that’s more likely to happen elsewhere.

We just need more Pennsylvanians willing to do the work of making the state where they live into the home of their dreams.


Scranton Times-Tribune. July 10, 2023

Editorial: Clock ticks on legal pot sales

Fully legalized marijuana sales began June 30 in Maryland. Through July 4, according to the Maryland Cannabis Administration, consumers purchased $10.4 million worth of medicinal and recreational pot — more than 2.5 times the amount of medicinal marijuana they bought over the same weekend in 2022.

In New Jersey, recreational pot sales began April 1, 2022. By Dec. 31, consumers had purchased $329 million worth of recreational pot plus $226 million worth of medicinal marijuana. New York projected total pot sales of $663 million this year, the first to include recreational pot.

In June, Forbes estimated that the national legal marijuana market was worth $45 billion.

Those numbers will make it more difficult for Pennsylvania lawmakers to hold out on fully legalizing marijuana. The situation is similar to the early 2000s, when many lawmakers opposed casino gambling but rolled over to ensure the state government’s share of the vigorish. Pennsylvania now draws more government revenue from gambling than any other state.

Two senators from opposite ends of the state and the political spectrum, Republican Dan Laughlin of Erie and Democrat Sharif Street of Philadelphia, have introduced a bill to legalize general retail marijuana sales.

Citing markets in neighboring states, Laughlin said “…we have a duty to Pennsylvania taxpayers to legalize adult-use marijuana to avoid losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue and thousands of new jobs.”

Street, citing the disproportionate impact of pot law enforcement on poor and minority communities, said “legalizing the use of adult cannabis will help us fully and equitably fund education, lower property taxes and address a variety of community needs ….”

The economic and social justice benefits of legalized pot use do not mean that it is problem-free. But the bill addresses safety issues.

It would make 21 the minimum purchase age, ensure police authority to prosecute pot-impaired drivers, ban marketing toward children, address workplace drug-testing, and more.

Given the pervasive regional and national pot markets, the senators are right that Pennsylvania cannot remain an island of prohibition.

Legalization has broad public support. Lawmakers finally should pull the trigger on it while including the strongest possible safety measures.


Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. July 8, 2023

Editorial: Mass murder template for gun reforms

Republican state lawmakers who have tried to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner as their scapegoat for gun violence, while refusing to consider gun safety laws, meet Kimbrady Carriker.

Police charged Carriker Wednesday with murdering five people in his southwest Philadelphia neighborhood and wounding four others Monday night.

Carriker is a poster child for several of the proposed gun safety laws that Republican majorities repeatedly have deposited in the state Capitol’s dumpster.

He used “ghost guns” for his alleged rampage. Such weapons are sold in pieces. Unlike fully assembled weapons, they do not include serial numbers and are not subject to background checks. Police say Carriker’s weapons were an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle and a handgun, both assembled from kits

“If he would’ve dropped that weapon and got away, we would’ve had no way to trace that weapon back to him,” Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Frank Vanore said.

Yet the Legislature will not outlaw ghost guns, require background checks to buy them, or even require registered serial numbers so that they can be traced. Philadelphia police recovered 575 ghost guns during criminal investigations in 2022.

Carriker also was deeply troubled. He had posted on social media that “evil spirits” were following him. His neighbors told police that he had been agitated in the days before the rampage, shouting biblical passages at all hours of the day and night. And a relative said he had taken to wearing body armor and other tactical equipment, which he also wore during his alleged murder spree.

Yet the Legislature will not approve a “red flag” law, under which relatives or police may remove weapons from a person whom a court, after an evaluation and hearing, deems to be danger to himself or others.

The latest tragedy probably won’t make any difference in Harrisburg — where lawmakers also won’t allow cities to adopt their own gun safety laws — because, you know, Krasner. But at least Da’Juan Brown, 15; Lashyd Merritt, 21; Ralph Moralis, 59; Dymir Stanton, 29; and Joseph Wamah Jr., 31; the murder victims, won’t have to worry about it.



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