Editorials from around Pennsylvania



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WOLF'S LESSON FOR LAWMAKERS

This is the season for gift-giving but at the state Capitol, it covers 365 days.

The controversy around the arrests of two Philadelphia legislators and the expected arrests of two more centers on state Attorney General Kathleen Kane's earlier decision not to prosecute.

But there is an underlying issue that transcends the people and personalities involved in that case, to which the Legislature must attend in its new session.

In Philadelphia, an informant is said to have recorded the lawmakers allegedly agreeing to support specific public policies in exchange for cash or items of value. That's classic bribery. But in Pennsylvania, if the legislators had not agreed to a specific quid pro quo, they legally could have accepted any "gifts" from just about anyone, in any amount.

State law requires only that legislators report any gift worth more than $250, and any travel or lodging worth more than $650. There is no way to know how many supplicants grease legislators with "gifts" below those thresholds, or how many lawmakers accept the offerings with a wink and a nod rather than a promise to act a certain way on a specific policy matter.

The rules invite chicanery and should be abolished in favor of an absolute ban on gifts to lawmakers, who are paid a base salary of more than $85,000, plus an extremely generous benefits package, to represent the public.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf announced soon after his election that he would impose an absolute gift ban throughout the executive branch, covering everything from a cup of coffee upward.

Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a Lancaster Republican and chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, said recently that he will introduce a bill in the next session that will ban all gifts but those of nominal value to all state and local government employees. He should rethink that to ban all gifts, but he fundamentally is on the right track.

The fundamental question is why anyone would feel the need to give a gift to a legislator. Unfortunately, such largesse is not to reward public officials for good governance.

It's time for lawmakers to protect themselves and the integrity of the government by banning all gifts.

— The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice


ROLLING ALONG ON BETTER ROADS

Lower gas prices have eased the sting of the state's wholesale gasoline tax and allowed us to appreciate the good work being done with our money.

As Harrisburg reporter John Finnerty detailed in a Dec. 21 story, Pennsylvania turned the gas tax into 682 bridge improvement projects and numerous road upgrades in 2014, with more on the way in 2015.

PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said the state's first highway bill in years allowed for more work than in any year in Pennsylvania's history except 2009 — the year of the federal stimulus program.

That is making roads and bridges — including the highly visible Hickory Street Bridge in Johnstown — safer for travelers.

Between gas tax revenue and other programs, 1,100 bridges are targeted for work in the coming year.

"There's never a good time for a tax increase," state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, told Finnerty. "But there's no question the impact the spending is having."

Many had criticized the state for failure to keep up roads and bridges.

As recently as 2007, Pennsylvania reportedly had 6,000 bridges categorized as "structurally deficient."

That number stands at 4,100 as 2014 rolls to a close, Kirkpatrick said. That means some headway has been made, but more is necessary.

The PennDOT spokesman said roads also benefitted from the highway bill, Act 89.

"We improved roughly 1,600 miles of pavement," he said.

Somerset County is slated to see 22.26 miles of road work valued at $9.4 million.

In Cambria County, nearly $7 million is targeted to upgrade four bridges and perform 12.43 miles of road improvements.

The effects of the program can be seen all around — in Bedford, Blair, Clearfield, Indiana and Westmoreland counties.

Another short-term benefit of all this road construction: employment.

Theresa Elliott, a spokeswoman with the Department of Labor and Industry, said every $1 billion invested in transportation generates "20,000 to 30,000 additional jobs."

As we've stated before, we oppose a national gasoline tax hike — especially since Pennsylvanians are already paying similar fees for highway upgrades.

But perhaps the progress we've seen in the Keystone State has been noted nationally as a model that can be successful in making roads and bridges safer.

At least as long as gasoline prices are low at the pump.

— The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat


BAN THE SALE OF E-CIGARETTES TO ANYONE YOUNGER THAN 18

The popularity of vaping, or using e-cigarettes, is growing exponentially. E-cigarettes are battery-operated smoking devices that deliver vapor in flavors without burning like traditional cigarettes. The liquid used in the devices comes with or without nicotine.

Some say they help smokers become ex-smokers, while others say not enough is known about them to categorize their risks. Still others are making money selling them. But nearly everyone agrees that they should be kept away from minors.

The Food and Drug Administration has not implemented any restrictions, and the Pennsylvania Legislature has balked at limited purchases to adults.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is among the 29 attorneys general who have asked for tight regulations on e-cigarettes, including prohibiting sales to anyone under 18.

"Vaping has become trendy and attractive," said Jaclyn Steed, prevention program manager at the Council on Chemical Abuse in Reading, in a story in the Reading Eagle.

She has reason to be concerned.

Last spring, administrators at Reading's Northwest Middle School asked for guidance because two seventh-graders were caught with the devices.

Administrators at two other county districts, Exeter and Wilson, are concerned enough that they have banned the devices.

What about claims that e-cigarettes help smokers quit?

The American Heart Association's first policy statement on electronic cigarettes backs them as a last resort to help smokers quit.

The American Cancer Society has no formal policy but quietly took a similar stance in May.

Both groups express great concern about these popular nicotine-vapor products and urge more regulation, especially to keep them away from youth.

They also stress that proven smoking cessation methods always should be tried first.

Meanwhile a survey at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine found that e-cigarettes appear to be less addictive than tobacco cigarettes in a large sample of long-term users, said Jonathan Foulds, professor of public health sciences and psychiatry.

This is a good start, but more research must be done.

Still another facet of the issue is taking shape. In August, this newspaper featured a business in Hamburg that is going gangbusters over e-cigarettes. The business, Sabor Vapors, is Berks County's first vape shop, whose owners say they do not sell e-cigarettes to minors unless they are with a guardian.

Amelia Rivera, co-owner of Sabor Vapors with her husband, said: "No matter the regulations imposed now, there will be no way to completely eliminate or enforce the regulations to already established electronic cigarettes users. Adults and children find different ways of getting legal and illegal substances and contraband."

She's right. Which is why state and federal lawmakers must do what they can to regulate e-cigarettes to keep them out of the hands of minors.

Sellers of e-cigarettes are riding a wave.

Those trying to keep them away from young people are trying to escape a tsunami.

— Reading Eagle


IT'S A MATTER OF TRANSPARENCY

The Pennsylvania state Ethics Commission's built-in handicaps sharply limits its ability to police, or even effectively monitor, ethical breaches in the conduct of public business by lawmakers and other officials.

There are many rubs. Among them, the Legislature controls the commission's purse strings and four of the seven panel members are legislative appointments while the governor gets to name the other three.

Its list of accomplishments is on the sorry side; but the indifferent watchdog designation is not all due to lack of initiative.

The commission has made numerous proposals to the Legislature to bolster its powers — 27 in all — which went nowhere. The fox who watches the henhouse holds a comfortable sinecure after all.

Meanwhile, instances which could be policed as conflicts of interest involving state lawmakers go virtually unmonitored.

A recent review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of lawmakers' required financial interest statements shows more than half the state's 203 House members have outside financial interests, along with 36 of 50 state senators.

Further, public transparency is not in the Ethics Commission's playbook. It functions in secret, along with ethics committees operated by both Houses of the Legislature. Any findings are mostly of an advisory nature. Up to now, it's been a creature of the General Assembly, with most members having close ties to the Legislature.

And while the panel can rule on ethical violations at the municipal level, investigating House or Senate members regarding possible conflict-of-interest matters remains verboten due to a constitutional restriction.

A replacement entity for the Ethics Commission, a Public Integrity Commission as proposed four years ago by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale when he was a member of the House, failed to gain traction. So did a similar attempt last June by a Luzerne County Democrat, Sen. John Yudichak. His bill would have created an agency with broader policing powers.

Clearly, public transparency regarding the individuals transacting people's business in the Legislature is quite far down lawmakers' lists of priorities. It shouldn't be.

The quicker strong enforcement powers can be implanted in the Ethics Commission's mandate, along with transparency, the better the public trust will be served.

— The (Carlisle) Sentinel

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