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Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. September 18, 2022. Editorial: It’s time to repeal the Pa. law that allows the sale of municipal water systems Officials in Bucks County were absolutely right not to sell their system to a private company.

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. September 18, 2022.

Editorial: It’s time to repeal the Pa. law that allows the sale of municipal water systems

Officials in Bucks County were absolutely right not to sell their system to a private company. Now, lawmakers must reverse the measure known as Act 12.

The Bucks County commissioners were correct to cancel the proposed $1.1 billion sale of the county’s sewer system to a private company. Other local governments should follow suit and stop the sale of any public sewer or water systems to a for-profit company.

Better yet, lawmakers in Harrisburg should repeal Act 12, the reckless 2016 bill that opened the door for private companies to gobble up public water and sewer utilities.

The proposed $1.1 billion sale in Bucks County would have been the largest privatization of a public wastewater treatment system in the country. While the sale to Aqua Pennsylvania would have generated a one-time windfall for the county coffers, it also would have led to steep increases in sewer bills for consumers for years to come.

Other local governments have sold off their public water and sewer systems only to regret it as residents have seen their water bills increase by as much as 98%.

The main argument from privatization supporters is that it leads to lower prices. But that has not been the case. An exhaustive study of the 500 largest water systems in the United States found that for-profit water systems charge an average of 58% more than publicly owned ones.

The costs were even higher for residents in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For-profit systems in Pennsylvania charged 84% more than public systems, while in New Jersey the charges were 79% higher, according to the study titled “The State of Public Water in the United States,” by Food & Water Watch, a consumer rights organization.

Access to clean and safe water is quickly becoming a precious commodity. By 2050, demand for water is projected to increase by 55% globally, one study found. Another study found nearly half of the freshwater basins in the United States will not be able to meet the demand by 2071.

In many ways, the water crisis is already here. In addition to the increased demand, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods are wreaking havoc on water systems.

Witness the 150,000 people without clean water after floods in Jackson, Miss. Earlier this summer, deadly floods left 25,000 people in Kentucky without clean water, some for weeks. A water emergency in West Baltimore was recently lifted after E. coli bacteria were found in the water supply.

More than 2 million people in the United States today don’t even have running water — a disgrace in 2022 in the richest country in the world. Access to clean, safe, and affordable water will only worsen as increased demand and climate change stress water systems. Letting profit-driven companies sort out water policy is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, public systems aren’t perfect. Many cities, counties, and towns have failed to properly maintain their aging infrastructure, leading to water-main breaks and pollutants seeping into leaky pipes. The mounting costs from the deferred maintenance are driving governments to unload their water and sewer systems.

Much of the problem stems from the federal government. Federal funding for water utility improvement projects has been slashed for decades. From 1977 to 2014, federal support for water utilities decreased by 74% even after factoring for inflation. Funding for wastewater treatment has faced even steeper cuts.

President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill provides a good down payment of $55 billion to upgrade water systems, including $240 million for Pennsylvania. But the Environmental Protection Agency estimated $472.6 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s drinking-water infrastructure over the next 20 years. So it should come as little surprise that officials are looking for ways to bridge that gap.

Selling off publicly owned water and sewer assets is not the answer. Clean, safe, and affordable water should not be left to the free market.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. September 17, 2022.

Editorial: Rich Fitzgerald’s plan for statewide review of jail fatalities demands action

Short stints in local jails can turn into horrific death sentences.

Every year, dozens of Pennsylvania prisoners die needlessly in county jails operating without oversight. Most are pre-trail detainees charged with minor crimes for which they haven’t been convicted. A few serve sentences of less than two years for low-level offenses. Allegheny County’s jail, holding about 1,500 prisoners, is more lethal than most. Since April 2020, 16 prisoners have died there, a rate double the national average.

Here and around the state, jails are in urgent need of independent oversight, unfettered by the tunnel vision of institutional bias. Autonomy is essential to holding people accountable. Only fresh eyes can prescribe life-saving solutions that break with the past and suggest new ways of managing and thinking about corrections.

In an interview Tuesday, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he is working with legislators, including state Rep. Austin Davis and state Sen. Jay Costa of Allegheny County, to establish statewide reviews of county jail fatalities. Given the health care crisis in Pennsylvania’s 73 jails, the General Assembly should approve such legislation as soon as possible.

External reviews of jail fatalities, Mr. Fitzgerald said, would operate similarly to the state’s 15-year-old Child Death Review program, which requires counties to work with review teams investigating the deaths of people ages 21 and under.

The proposed authority for jail fatalities would include medical, correctional and judicial professionals. Review teams should also, by law, include one or two former prisoners. Investigators will need people with ground-level experiences in the problems and circumstances they encounter.

Preventable deaths

Ideally, review teams would operate under a commission or body with the authority to enforce reforms and standards, as does a commission on jail standards in Texas. At minimum, the legislation should require all counties to participate in the reviews and to report all jail fatalities to the administrative body over the review teams. A reliable statewide registrar of jail deaths is essential in defining the scope of the problem, developing best practices, measuring progress and identifying trends.

The under-reporting of in-custody deaths is a national scandal. Many jails don’t report fatalities or exclude prisoner deaths in hospitals, even though the prisoner was in-custody. The federal Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 requires jails to include the hospital deaths of prisoners in their counts.

An estimated 56 prisoners in Pennsylvania jails died in 2020. Nationwide, more than 1,100 prisoners a year die in local jails, reports the U.S. Department of Justice.

Most fatalities are preventable. Diversion programs, better mental health care and screening at intake, rigorous monitoring of jail cells, responsive medical care, restricting the use of solitary, cells designed to prevent suicides, and better trained jail staffs can determine whether a prisoner lives or dies.

In examining the events and circumstances leading to jail fatalities, commission members will, inevitably, encounter the system’s flaws. Likewise, their recommendations on policies and protocols should cover housing, intake procedures, diversion, mental health and drug treatment, and other systemic practices.

Holding jails accountable

The high number of jail fatalities in Allegheny County has Mr. Fitzgerald’s attention. Last month, he authorized contracting with the National Commission on Correctional Health Care to conduct an independent review of jail fatalities. The county and NCCHC are finalizing the contract, and investigations should start this year.

An earlier NCCHC contract with Allegheny County produced a suicide prevention report in late 2019 that appeared to reduce suicides, the leading cause of jail deaths nationwide. Since then, the county jail has reported only one suicide.

Up to now, reviews of jail fatalities have consisted of internal investigations and rulings by the local medical examiner. Narrow in scope, those investigations have not shown whether jails could have prevented a death, or the role neglect, incompetence and indifference played in it. A death by “natural causes” simply excludes external causes like murder. A medical examiner ruling of suicide says nothing about whether the jail failed to properly monitor the prisoner or assess his mental state during intake.

In advocating statewide reviews of jail fatalities and a NCCHC study of those in Allegheny County, Mr. Fitzgerald will help bring independent oversight to the Allegheny County Jail and, potentially, jails statewide. That’s a step toward holding Pennsylvania’s dysfunctional jails accountable and providing more humane and effective ways to treat the more than 100,000 people who enter and leave them every year.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. September 18, 2022.

Editorial: Fix medical marijuana loopholes before growing to recreational use

Pennsylvania has a marijuana problem.

The state legalized weed for medical use in 2016. Dispensaries started opening their doors two years later, with the government picking up a 5% tax on sales. That translates to millions in revenue for the public coffers.

Dispensaries were barely opened when the discussion of recreational use started. Then-Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the few million in taxes generated on cannabis as a medicine could become hundreds of millions if pot became openly available beyond therapeutic use. In 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf conducted a listening tour asking Pennsylvanians how they felt. In 2020, Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman began to push for recreational use. Bills were introduced in the state House and Senate with bipartisan support — although they have languished since.

The timeline was no surprise. Almost 60% of Pennsylvanians supported the idea. Why not go for it?

Perhaps because it’s too fast. Whether you support it or not, the state hasn’t yet perfected dealing with medical marijuana. It’s just not ready for more widespread use.

A Spotlight PA investigation showed that while state law does keep workers from repercussions for being prescribed marijuana, actually using it can still get them in trouble. Marijuana showing up in a drug test is a valid reason for discipline, up to losing a job. That’s a problem.

Drug testing is meant to protect employers from risk and ensure safe workplaces. Regardless of support for legalization, most people would agree that being under the influence in many jobs could be dangerous. The problem is that urine drug testing doesn’t show how long ago someone used marijuana.

Contrast that with alcohol. It’s also legal in regulated circumstances, generally banned at work and people can be tested for it and dismissed if they show up positive. But a breath test shows active use, not what you had at home yesterday.

It’s an example of the way the state’s laws lag behind the needs of residents and businesses in a way that should be corrected before attempting to cast a wider net and drag in more tax dollars.

This doesn’t just lie at the feet of Wolf and Fetterman. Making medical marijuana legal was the Legislature’s job. Identifying problems in the law is the courts’ responsibility. There has been ample time to find holes in the law and sew them up. No one has.

It almost seems like leaders are only focused on how marijuana can benefit them. Keep it as a source of tax money and grow that pool if possible. Court the votes that want recreational use, but don’t offend the other 40% who may care more about enforcing laws. Move forward but maintain the status quo.

Pennsylvania’s real marijuana problem is that it can’t seem to make up its mind.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. September 20, 2022.

Editorial: How they spent their summer vacation

As state lawmakers trickle back to Harrisburg, state residents might be interested to know how the legislators spent their unduly long summer vacations.

Not surprisingly, some spent at least part of it in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with special-interest lobbyists.

Pace-O-Matic, which produces the slot-machine-like video gambling devices known as “skill games,” which have proliferated in gas stations and convenience stores, whisked five Republican state lawmakers to Cheyenne Frontier Days, billed as the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and celebration of Western American culture. The contingent included Rep. Kerry Benninghoff of Centre County, the House majority leader, and Rep. Sue Helm of Dauphin County, chairwoman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee. The state estimates Pennsylvania has about 50,000 of the gambling machines.

Benninghoff reimbursed Pace-O-Matic for the $1,700 cost of the junket, but Helm and several others left the company to pick up the tab. She told Spotlight PA, which reported on the lobbying sojourn, that it was “not a lavish trip. ...They weren’t paying for first-class airfare.”

The devices are controversial because they are not regulated. Neither the state nor casinos get a cut of the vigorish. Casinos have lobbied furiously against the devices, and that lobbying has produced pro- and anti-convenience-store gambling advocates, and not necessarily along strict party lines.

Since 2019, state records show, the “skill games” industry has contributed more than $1.2 million to the campaigns of Pennsylvania politicians, including $28,500 to Benninghoff and $8,500 to Helm.

The ostensible purpose of the rodeo trip was for Pennsylvania lawmakers to learn how their Wyoming counterparts had handled the non-casino gambling device issue. It was not clear why a trip to Wyoming was necessary to discover what the Wyoming Legislature had done.

Meanwhile back at the ranch — the Pennsylvania Capitol — legislators wine and dine with lobbyists and continue to refuse to entertain a ban on “gifts.” They may accept “gifts” in any amount but must disclose anything worth more than $250 and travel and hospitality of more than $650.

So, while the world’s largest outdoor rodeo might be in Wyoming, in the Legislature it’s always “Ride ’em, cowboy!”

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Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. September 19, 2022.

Editorial: State should accelerate its EV game

PennDOT has received the first $25.4 million of the $170 million it will receive from the new federal infrastructure law through 2026 to develop an electric vehicle charging network.

But that must be just the beginning, given the certainty that the transition to electric vehicles in unstoppable. The switch is not just a goal of governments around the world to slow dangerous global warming. Auto manufacturers worldwide have committed more than $515 billion to EV development over the next 10 years, according to an analysis by Reuters.

California, by far the nation’s largest vehicle market and one of the largest in the world, has announced that it will only allow EVs to be sold there beginning in 2035. In turn, companies will accelerate EV development to meet that market.

Only about 31,000 of Pennsylvania’s 4 million-plus registered vehicles are fully electric, but that is three times the number of registered EVs in 2019.

The Wolf administration plans a “full buildout” of EV charging stations with the federal money, which means at least one charging station for every 50 miles of interstate highway, within one mile of the highway.

The electric vehicle company Tesla already has developed 50 charging stations, many at Pennsylvania Turnpike service plazas.

The charging-station plan is crucial but just the beginning. The state government should upgrade its EV game in other ways.

Wolf has issued an executive order requiring that at least 25% of all new vehicles for the state government fleet be fully electric or plug-in hybrids. The Legislature should extend that requirement to municipal governments and school districts, and create a program for them to develop their own charging stations.

The state government also should provide incentives for battery development and production, and research money to recover the minerals that are essential to batteries from the state’s too-abundant coal waste.

EVs are not a question of “if,” or even “when,” but of “how fast?” The state government must ensure that Pennsylvania is ready.

END

The Associated Press