Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania's newspapers:
Pa. Sunday hunting bill strikes a good balance
Easton Express Times
It wasn’t exactly the shot heard around the commonwealth, but Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature on a bill allowing limited Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania represents a shift in centuries-old tradition. People on either side of this argument should be able to embrace the changes.
The compromise struck by Wolf and legislators marks the demise of one of Pennsylvania’s last antiquated blue laws — the notion, begun in the 19th century, that banning certain activities would preserve Sunday as a day dedicated to religious observance. And family time, along with some peace and quiet for farmers. And in later years, a weekend day for nonhunting enthusiasts to take to the outdoors without worrying about bullets or buckshot.
The debate over Sunday hunting has been raging for years in the Keystone State. Hunters and outfitters have lamented the decline in participation, partly because of societal and familial changes that make weekend days valuable to people on tight schedules. Farmers, for the most part, objected to an intrusion of firearm season into their Sunday routines.
Finally, the differences were worked out. The state Senate voted 38-11 for the bill on Wednesday. Wolf signed it the same day.
The primary change is approval for hunting on three Sundays — one during deer rifle season, one during statewide archery deer season and a third Sunday to be selected by the Game Commission.
To address the opposition, the bill includes a requirement that hunters and trappers to get a landowner’s written permission to venture onto private lands on a Sunday, and makes it easier for wardens to enforce the anti-trespassing law, exposing violators to fines ranging from $250 to $500.
The changes won’t go into effect for three months, meaning the kickoff for deer hunters will come in the 2020 season. (Sunday hunting has been allowed for many years for coyotes, fox and crows.)
Another significant change, approved by the Game Commission in April, is debuting today — beginning rifle deer season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, instead of the following Monday. A Monday start had been the rule since 1963, beginning a tradition of taking a day off from work or school to get into the field at dawn.
This expansion should be acceptable to both sides, assuming hunters respect the opportunities and get a written OK from private landowners for Sunday hunting.
Preserving Pennsylvania’s heritage for hunters and nonhunters requires cooperation. This bill looks like a way to share the land.
Unanswered questions about Harrisburg School District finances cloud its present and its future
Harrisburg Patriot News/Pennlive.com
It’s been several months now since the nightmare that once was the Harrisburg School District came to an end. Parents and teachers rallied around Court-appointed Receiver Janet Samuels as she and her new team plunged in, firing staff they deemed incompetent, establishing a new atmosphere of accountability and promising transparency in managing the district’s governance.
Nowhere was transparency more crucial than in figuring out the Harrisburg School District’s finances. Within the first week of the new regime, Samuels and her staff warned the budget that had been presented to the public was a sham, based on figures apparently pulled out of thin air, with procedures no self-respecting accountant would support.
But several key questions surfaced: was the budgetary fiasco a result of merely incompetence or malfeasance; or was it a question of fraud? That question remains unanswered.
Superintendent John George recently took the unusual step of calling reporters to his Lititz home to explain the new budget numbers in detail and to answer their questions in full. But the picture that has emerged is still cloudy, mainly because officials are still being surprised at the level of incompetence or negligence, or worse.
“Every day and every week there’s something new . . .an unpaid bill or something we didn’t expect,” said Harrisburg School District Chief Operating Officer Chris Celmer.
And as transparent as everyone says they’re trying to be, no one will come right out and say what many fear – there was not only incompetence but corruption.
To be fair, it isn’t the job of the new administration to hurl accusations of corruption, even though Celmer doesn’t hesitate to point out the district’s somewhat shady history of overpayments to the superintendent, staff, teachers and contractors, as well as missing financial documents and missing computers.
Then, there was the case of the former transportation supervisor charged with stealing nearly $180,000; and the audit that found more than $5 million in questionable spending over three years.
So as much as we’d like to move on, forget the past and trust in the future, the unanswered questions keep haunting us.
It’s a good sign that the new administration has instituted a fraud check system to try to detect future hanky panky. But for the schools to truly forge ahead and regain the community’s trust, there must be an accounting of who did what to cause the chaos that devastated the city’s schools.
The Attorney General’s office as well as the FBI are conducting investigations looking squarely at the fraud question.
The Attorney General’s office was compelled to step in after several computers and important documents went missing when Samuels fired former Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, former Business Manager Bilal Hasan, former Solicitor James Ellison and other district staff.
The FBI is particularly focused on improprieties related to federal government procurement, contracts and federally funded programs. The district spends about $13 million annually in federal funds.
All of this resulted after serious infighting among school board members and public discontent over the school district’s operations, forcing a state takeover. People were fed up with the former administration’s refusal to cooperate with a state audit. And the obstinacy of the former superintendent and her supporters on the school board raised public suspicions that still have not been put to rest.
Until they are, it will be hard for Samuels and her team to be fully transparent and forthright about the financial swamp they are now trying to drain.
Our judges shouldn't be appointed in the dark by politicians
Usually, the process by which judicial vacancies are filled is carried out with little fanfare. And, alarmingly, with little public notice.
We criticized this process before when, in 2018, Republican state Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin recommended Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman for a vacancy on the county Court of Common Pleas. The vacancy ultimately went unfilled, and last month, Stedman was elected to the county bench. But as we noted at the time, the process is ripe for inside deals and horse-trading, as the Senate and the governor can use judicial vacancies to get what they want in service of their political agendas.
“We need to take politics out of this process,” we wrote then, and still firmly believe.
The process is being questioned again, Spotlight PA reported, because of Drew Crompton, “the top lawyer, adviser and strategist to the top Republican in the state Senate.” Crompton’s political sway has earned him the moniker, the “51st senator.”
Crompton has been nominated to fill a Commonwealth Court post that would end in 2021, after which he would be well placed to run for a full 10-year term on that appellate court — a pretty sweet setup.
Here’s the controversy: Crompton is the person with whom Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf “must strike deals to advance his legislative platform,” Spotlight PA reported.
Crompton was among the judicial nominations made after “weeks of political negotiations and horse-trading between legislative leaders and the governor that occurred behind closed doors, with scarce, if any, public input,” Spotlight PA noted. “By the time Wolf sent the names, the deal had been cut, the handshakes made, and a vote on them, expected in the next few weeks, will likely be ceremonial.”
Crompton contends that his appointment is not uniquely political. Therein lies the rub.
As Spotlight PA noted, “Wolf has appointed lawyers who have worked for his administration to judicial posts.”
So, apparently, we’re supposed to be OK with this because it happens all the time.
To be honest, we really can’t blame Wolf or Crompton or the Senate Republicans backing him for using a judicial vacancy to do some political deal-making.
But we can question why they haven’t sought to remedy a process that only adds to Harrisburg’s reputation for secrecy and sketchy deal-making.
Consider Spotlight PA’s reporting:
“Wolf’s office has declined to say how many people applied for the Commonwealth Court vacancy or the other openings in county courts across the state. Applicants were vetted by an advisory committee that answers to the governor, but it’s unclear who sits on it, which applicants it recommended or if it even made recommendations.” (The italics are ours.)
The Caucus filed a public records request in October, seeking the applications for the Commonwealth Court seat, but the governor’s office declined to release the information. So The Caucus appealed, and last month, the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruled that the administration needed to make the documents public, with redactions for personal information. Wolf’s office is considering whether to appeal.
It should not. The governor has made transparency a core value of his administration. He should hew to that value now.
And if, as his spokesman J.J. Abbott told Spotlight PA, the package of judicial nominations was “negotiated on its own,” rather than as part of any deal, the governor should have nothing to fear from making the judicial applications public.
The reality is, as Spotlight PA explained, that names of possible judicial candidates are swapped by the governor and the top Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate, “who can make or break a nomination.” Consideration is “given not just to nominees’ resumes, but also their political affiliation.”
First-term Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, told Spotlight PA: “It amazes me that this is the process we’re using to choose judges.”
She believes the process benefits the “well-connected and privileged,” and she’s right, of course.
Spotlight PA examined a deal that was being negotiated to appoint a Republican to a vacancy on the Court of Common Pleas in Delaware County. Sen. Tim Kearney, a first-term Democrat who represents that area, said Republicans pushed for their choice in the face of historic losses to Democrats in county elections last month.
Kearney, whose father served as a judge, said given those election results he couldn’t “in good conscience” support the deal. The overall process, he said, also doesn’t “sit well” with him.
It doesn’t sit well with us, either.
We’ve argued repeatedly for merit selection, rather than election, of judges. It makes no sense, in our view, for judges to run as political partisans for positions that are supposed to be strictly apolitical.
State Rep. Bryan Cutler, a Republican from Peach Bottom, long has favored replacing statewide judicial elections with a process involving a 13-member nominating commission. That commission would consist of five gubernatorial appointees and eight appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the Legislature — with restrictions on the number of lawyers and the number of members from the same county and party. Elected or appointed public officials, employees of the commonwealth and political party officials would be barred from serving on that committee.
When a judicial seat opens on an appellate court, the panel would give the governor a list of five nominees from which to choose. At least 10 of the panel’s 13 members would have to approve of the list, and the Senate would have to confirm the governor’s final selection by a two-thirds supermajority.
Cutler is now the House majority leader. He still favors merit selection of judges. In a Sept. 15 Sunday LNP op-ed, Cutler wrote, “The residents of Pennsylvania expect the courts to be filled by members of the bar with the highest qualifications, not those with the best political skills. ... Even the perception that a judge is taking direction from something (or someone) other than the rule of law can be detrimental to his or her positions.”
We couldn’t agree more. And we hope Cutler keeps pressing for merit selection of judges. Because when judicial positions are viewed as bargaining chips, and deals for judgeships are made in secret, the public trust in judicial impartiality is seriously diminished.
Create DOJ digital bureau
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck a blow for privacy recently when it ruled, in a case from Luzerne County, that police may not force someone to reveal a personal computer password.
Justice Debra Todd’s majority opinion was especially controversial because the issue arose from a child pornography prosecution. But she was correct in asserting that “ ‘a shelter to the guilty’ is often ‘a protection to the innocent.’ ”
Like other cases involving digital evidence, such as the 2014 fight over unlocking the iPhone of a mass murderer in Santa Barbara, California, the Pennsylvania case demonstrates the problems that digital evidence poses amid evidentiary laws and rules that were enacted before the digital age.
State legislatures and Congress have updated some of those laws but the lesson of technology is that it always is faster than the government.
To close that gap, Democratic Rep. Val Demings of Florida, formerly police chief of Orlando, has introduced a bipartisan bill to create the Office of Digital Law Enforcement within the Department of Justice. Other sponsors are Democrat Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, and Republicans John Rutherford of Florida and Brian Babin of Texas.
Such an office would not settle the ongoing dispute over encrypted material. But it would create specific procedures for digital searches, train federal and local police in digital forensics and update them on legal standards involving digital privacy and create databases of its own detailing where to search for specific types of digital data.
Now, with 2020 elections looming in the wake of verified Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, would be a particularly good time to step up digital law enforcement.
Congress should pass the bill to give police a chance to keep pace with digital criminals.
A looming cliff: It’s time to fund our roads right
The taxes, tolls and fees meant to keep Pennsylvania moving safely from place to place, off course for a dozen years, appear headed toward a responsible track. This should be a top priority as lawmakers put together next year’s state budget.
In 2008, a law known as Act 44 forced the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to begin sending money to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for mass transit and road and bridge improvements beyond the 522 miles the commission manages. It was forced to pay PennDOT $750 million in 2007, $850 million in 2008, $950 million in 2009 and $450 million per year ever since for a total of nearly $7 billion so far.
Those payments prompted the turnpike to take on about $6.5 billion in extra debt and to hike tolls approximately 6% per year since 2008. The cash toll for a trip from Pittsburgh to Valley Forge (where many exit for Philadelphia) rose from $15.25 that year, cash or E-ZPass, to today’s $39.30 in cash or $27.90 via E-ZPass.
Call that strike one in the game Harrisburg has played with transportation funding over the past dozen years.
Strike two was the General Assembly’s 2012-13 budget, which shifted a large portion of the Motor License Fund, money raised by gasoline and diesel taxes and license and registration fees, to the state police. While state police fit in with the state constitution’s mandate that such monies support road construction and maintenance and the safety of our public highways and bridges, the 65% of the state police budget being covered by those dollars is beyond the estimated 47% of state police effort put toward patrolling our highways.
In 2013, the Legislature and then-Gov. Tom Corbett boosted the Motor License Fund by effectively giving Pennsylvania the highest gasoline tax in the nation. The measure, known as Act 89, also shifted all of the turnpike’s $450 million per year obligation to PennDOT toward mass transit. State police’s share of the Motor License Fund since has been put on track to be capped at nearer what’s needed to patrol our highways.
Bills that would reduce the turnpike’s burden faster and more quickly wean state police from road repair funds are moving in the Legislature.
Strike three will come if those bills languish, if nothing substantial is done in next year’s budget to speed the process of putting our state’s transportation funding on a more sustainable path.
The turnpike’s annual $450 million obligation to mass transit drops to $50 million in 2022, which state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, calls “a big cliff to jump off in one year.”
And, given the state’s improved finances, the time for the state Legislature to end its game of chicken with that cliff is now.
After making the first deposit into the state’s Rainy Day Fund in nearly 10 years last year, Gov. Tom Wolf added $317 million this year, bringing the total to $370 million. State revenues are up 22% over the past five years.
With the state’s coffers flush enough to boost its savings account, it’s time to give turnpike drivers a break from the big toll increases of the past 12 years; another 6% boost is coming in January. State police shouldn’t be relying on a source of money meant for road repairs. And Pennsylvanians, who’ve been paying the nation’s highest gasoline tax since 2014, deserve to see those funds spent as promised.