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Editorials from around Pennsylvania

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

A MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO LEAD, May 15

The cool reception to new rules for state pensions — and the dose of outrage being directed at hypocritical lawmakers — isn't surprising.

Lawmakers have only themselves to blame_not that they're taking responsibility for the pension mess, only for at least trying to fix it.

Faced with a pension choice for the first time this year, most of Pennsylvania's newly hired state government employees chose a plan that offered at least some traditional guaranteed pension component.

In 2017, they replaced the defined benefit pension plan for tens of thousands of state workers and elected officials with three more-financially sustainable options: a 401(k)-style plan and two others combining a 401(k) with some pension benefits.

It had to be done because the state's pension debt has been growing alarmingly since 2001, when lawmakers expanded the pension formula without paying for it. Unfunded pension debt has surpassed $70 billion.

The revised pension options are mandatory only for new employees and lawmakers who started Jan. 1. Current employees and lawmakers have a choice of sticking with the defined benefit plan, or choosing one of the new plans.

The plan deadlines have arrived, along with boos from employees and a helping of citizen ire. The number of current state employees and lawmakers who opted to forgo the traditional plan and pick a new option falls somewhere between slim and none. Those keeping a death grip their current pensions include most lawmakers who voted to phase out the state's traditional pension plan.

Just 20 of the 218 lawmakers participating in the state pension plan chose a new option, according to a PennLive analysis .

So, lawmakers broke the system, then sort of fixed it going forward, without addressing the $70 billion unfunded liability. Then most of them hypocritically opted out of participating in the new plans they voted for.

They're getting the brickbats they deserve, although there's some nuance involved that must be acknowledged.

As several of them, including the reform's champion, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, explained_in opting to stick with the old plan, he and others are doing what makes financial sense for them as individuals (especially those with decades of service).

"Everybody made a personal decision based on where they are at," said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, who switched to the 401(k) plan.

Putting personal interest first is human nature and we'd probably do the same. In this case, though, it's reasonable to expect our elected officials to adopt a higher standard.

Lawmakers brought the current approbation on themselves with their historical penchant for hypocrisy and acting too often out of naked self-interest — most famously by enacting the midnight pay raise of 2005.

It used to be accepted that public service entailed a degree of sacrifice. Now election to the general assembly is accompanied with a level of entitlement that can take your breath away.

To set a new tone and maybe engender some respect, current lawmakers should have chosen one of the new pension options. Political leadership requires walking the talk, setting an example and avoiding optics that undercut it.

State Rep. Seth Grove of York County, who voted for pension reform and also switched to a new plan, identified the problem underlying so much of today's public policy. He told PennLive: "Harrisburg has a 'greed' reputation. The only way to get rid of it is to show you aren't greedy."

Besides setting an example, lawmakers also could have gotten the program off to a better start had they been able to explain_credibly_to state employees that choosing the traditional pension comes with a trade-off cost that will have to be paid at some point:

Everyone will continue to see soaring real estate taxes and school programming cutbacks in order to fund the pensions. There will be a greater burden on younger taxpayers as waves of Boomers retire from their state jobs and claim their pensions. Everyone will have to bail out the system when the debt payment comes due.

It's like driving an inefficient vehicle, knowing you'll pay more for gas and your children's children will pay for the environmental damage. At some point the balance tips.

Making this kind of argument also would help lawmakers and policymakers set the stage for the future painful choices we'll face for refusing to pay up now for other things_like crumbling interstates_that we've allowed to fall apart.

__ Harrisburg Patriot-News

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2HqDj3P

___GOP SHOULD JETTISON ANY NOTION OF REGIONAL JUSTICE, May 10

How Pennsylvania picks judges for its appellate courts definitely needs work.

That's the upside of two proposed constitutional amendments recently approved on near party-line votes by the state House Judiciary Committee. Addressing an important flaw in the selection of top judges is a worthy effort. The way it was done late last month in Harrisburg did not even approach the level of serious deliberation the issue deserves.

Republicans upset over the 2018 Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision to rewrite the state's congressional map put two versions of reform up for votes. They did so without conducting a hearing worthy of the name, which led to two proposals with the same absurd premise: that justice is a matter of regional predilections.

Each proposed amendment would change the state constitution regarding how those serving on the state's Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth courts are chosen. All are now nominated in partisan primaries and chosen in statewide general elections. And voters get a chance to remove them in yes-or-no retention votes every 10 years after they're first elected.

Here's how the two proposed constitutional amendments would work.

Under one, voters would elect appellate judges from seven districts across the state. The districts would be as nearly equal in population as possible.

The other would split the state into three districts of equal population, from which future judges and justices would be nominated by the governor from a list provided by a bipartisan commission. The commission would be made up of lawyers and laymen, none of whom could be paid public officials or hold office in a political party. They would stand for retention by the voters four years later.

An amendment seeking to block consideration of such important changes until hearings could be held was rejected. The lack of deliberation on the proposed amendments is either the saddest or the second saddest thing about them.

One key flaw in the recently approved amendments is the politics that inspired them. Reacting to the Supreme Court's 2018 congressional districts ruling with a plan to similarly gerrymander judicial elections is not an honorable response.

A better answer to a congressional map that was hard to describe without the words "partisan gerrymander" was available. Putting a citizens commission in charge of redistricting would secure the system against another such ruling. And it would put voters in charge of choosing their lawmakers rather than, as under the current system, letting lawmakers pick their voters.

The failure to hold hearings on reforming judicial elections is equally troubling.

The current system is a mess. It forces candidates for top courts to raise a lot of money while being barred by ethical considerations from saying anything that might help a voter pick one over another.

One of the proposals' ideas — of a commission of people outside politics having a key role in the process — is a good one. Such a bipartisan panel should not, however, have its choices limited by geography. Let its members recommend people to the governor, have them approved by the Senate and, again as under the commission proposal, force them to stand before the voters for retention.

As usual, the voters deserve better than they're getting from their Legislature, which should ditch regional justice and give merit selection a chance.

__ The Reading Eagle

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2Q7peMt

___PHILADELPHIA'S RISING HOMICIDE PROBLEM, May 10

The issue: Philadelphia's homicide rate is rising, fast. In 2018, 351 homicides were recorded — the most since 2007. Since the last election in 2015, homicides increased 25 percent. Police Commissioner Richard Ross attributes the increase to drugs. The number of drug-related homicides doubled between 2013 and 2015, from 30 to 60, and then again by 2018, to 120. Two curiosities: Over the same time frame, overall crime has been decreasing — 11 percent since 2015. More strangely, shootings have been increasing at a slower rate, rising only 10 percent at the same time that homicides increased by 25 percent. In 2017, for example, Philadelphia saw the fewest shootings in the past five years — 1,220 — but the second highest homicides — 315.

How we fare nationally: At the same time that Philadelphia's homicide rate is increasing, other large cities — including Chicago, infamous for its high murder rate — reported declines, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center. The homicide rate in Philadelphia has seen sharp increases and decreases in the past. Between 2012 and 2013, homicide dropped by 25 percent — from 331 to 248. At the same time, the U.S. overall experienced the lowest homicide rate in decades in 2013.

What can a mayor do about it? In January, the Mayor's Office published the Philadelphia Roadmap to Safer Communities. Most of the programs outlined are not revolutionary — expanding job training, intelligence-led policing, cleaning vacant lots, and raising awareness. A few weeks before its release, the city Office of Violence Prevention published a review of the 40 city-funded violence-prevention programs. They found programs do not target those most at risk and that the city significantly overestimated how much money it spent on violence prevention.

There is a generational aspect to violence that can't be ignored — poverty, lack of opportunity, access to guns, and environmental hazards are factors. But one big lever is out of the hands of the city: Gun control measures must happen at the state level — and little action has been taken.

What more can be done in the short term? The city could be doing a better job vetting programs that receive funding and in making more funding available. Investment in research is also needed; deaths could be prevented, for example, if we knew more about why the number of shootings fluctuates while the number of homicides steadily increase.

What are long-term solutions? No candidate — for mayor or City Council — has suggested any cure-all policy for Philadelphia's shootings and homicides problem. Probably because there isn't one. Only long-term investment in eradicating poverty, addiction, offering mental-health services, containing illegal drug markets and ensuring opportunity for everyone will reduce violence in Philadelphia.

__ The Philadelphia Inquirer

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2vYZ45h

___

DEAL WITH TOTAL WATERSHED, May 14

Nature pays no heed to political boundaries. The air and water flow as the wind and gravity dictate, making it folly to attempt to deal with related environmental issues only on the local level.

Most of Northeast Pennsylvania is part of the sprawling Susquehanna River watershed, the largest source of freshwater in the Chesapeake Bay. To further the bay's restoration and improve water quality from the bay to the Susquehanna's source in Cooperstown, New York, the Environmental Protection Agency has established pollution standards for stormwater management throughout the watershed. They mandate reductions of sediment by 10%, phosphorous by 5% and nitrogen by 3% by 2023.

The only sensible way to deal with those mandates is to form a regional stormwater management authority, for which Democratic state Sen. John Blake of Lackawanna County recently made a strong case.

In Luzerne County, 32 municipal governments have agreed to joint stormwater management through the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority, an existing authority. It is controversial because it entails a fee atop local taxes and sanitary sewer fees.

But stormwater management is not optional under the new standards and the question is not whether to do it, but how best to do it. There is little doubt that regional management is superior for environmental and financial reasons.

According to the engineering consultant Herbert, Rowland & Grubic Inc., the fee for stormwater management through a joint authority is between 50% and 70% less than what Luzerne County residents would pay through individual stormwater agencies.

That is not only because the cost is distributed as widely as possible, but because a joint authority can develop the most effective projects across a broad geographic area to meet the EPA goals. The consultant estimates that it will take 65 projects across the Luzerne County authority's coverage area to meet the standards, whereas individual governments would have to undertake 455 projects to achieve the same results.

In Lackawanna County, the issue coincides with Scranton's need to deal with stormwater management, which was not included in its sale of the sanitary sewer system. The Scranton Sewer Authority used to handle much of stormwater management for the city and Dunmore.

A regional authority clearly is the best way for local governments within the common watershed to most economically improve local and bay water quality. As a bonus, it could help to wash away parochialism and help foster regional cooperation in many other areas.

__ The Scranton Times-Tribune

__ Online: https://bit.ly/2LMeOnb

___RIPE FOR ABUSE: CONSERVATORSHIP STATUTE SHOULD BE USED SPARINGLY, May 12

Contrary to the adage, a person's home isn't always his castle.

The government can take a home for non-payment of taxes or if the property is needed for a public-works project. Utilities can take a slice of property for pipeline projects. Now, nonprofits or neighbors also can take a home if they don't like what the owners are doing or not doing with it.

The process, called conservatorship, is supposed to help community groups take control of and fix up abandoned, vacant or blighted properties.

But the potential for abuse is sobering. In one case reported by the Post-Gazette, a McKeesport group tried to seize a house that people were living in and claimed to own. In another, a group took over a house even as the owners said they were trying to sell it and worried about being robbed of their equity.

Supporters note that a judge must rule on all conservatorship requests, giving property owners a level of due process.

But in Allegheny County, the judge overseeing these cases, Donald Walko, wrote the state's conservatorship law while serving in the Legislature. As a person who favors the concept, he's the last person who should be ruling on conservatorship issues. Property owners would be forgiven for doubting they'll get a fair shake in his courtroom.

There's no doubt that community groups wrestle with nuisance properties that mar their neighborhoods and affect home values. In those cases, they should lean on their elected officials and code enforcement agencies to force the owners to bring the structures up to code. Take the slumlords to court, if necessary. Properties condemned by a municipality can be demolished, permanently removing the blight.

Community groups also have the option of buying properties if government takes them for non-payment of real-estate taxes. Conservatorship shouldn't be an end run around the time-consuming tax-delinquency sales — although one supporter told the PG that's one reason the law has been embraced in her neighborhood.

There's also the question of whether some people — involved in conservatorship organizations not tied to specific communities — are making a business out of the process.

People who inherit properties, or have limited means to improve them, shouldn't be penalized for taking more time to restore them than impatient community groups would like. This is their property, their investment, their equity, and it shouldn't be taken from them lightly.

Conservatorship should be used sparingly, only by true neighborhood groups wrestling with long-problem properties, and it should be subject to vigorous oversight by judges who haven't advocated for the law governing the process.

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