Philadelphia Inquirer. Feb. 7, 2021.

Editorial: Gov. Wolf’s Pa. budget includes bold proposals. Now it requires bold action

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget — and the response it has generated — presents a somewhat jarring déjà vu to budgets of the recent past. On Wolf’s side, he has put forth bold plans to hike education funding, support environmental spending, give tax cuts to some families, and hike the state income tax for others.

Republican lawmakers responded by immediately calling the budget a nonstarter.

Bad enough that this performance is so predictable during normal times. But following a year of economic devastation due to the pandemic, it’s a particular disappointment. Lawmakers are missing the opportunity presented by the pandemic to throw out the old partisan and unproductive script and look at things differently.

Contrary to expectations that this proposal would be a decimated shadow of past budgets, the new $37.8 billion general fund budget represents an 11% increase over last year’s. That increase comes from a combination of new taxes, reallocating revenues, and federal dollars.

The elements of Gov. Wolf’s budget are indeed bold. Any proposal to increase income taxes in the midst of a recession takes guts. The hike in personal income tax from 3.07% to 4.49% is targeted to higher-income families (and will also impact businesses) and is coupled with tax cuts for working families hit hardest by the pandemic.

Bringing in new revenue — in the form of increasing taxes on better-off Pennsylvanians and the gas industry, as well as legalizing and taxing marijuana — is an economic imperative for recovery. The pandemic exposed the weak underbelly of the commonwealth’s, and the nation’s, social safety net, public health infrastructure, and capacity to provide high-quality education for all.

Moves include a $1.35 billion increase in basic education funding. The budget also includes a $25 million increase for Pre-K Counts and increases for Head Start and Special Education, among others.

Another notable proposal would provide overdue reforms to the Charter School Law, adjusting the way cyber charters get funded to include a flat per student rate of $9,500 per year. Cyber schools who do not have expenses tied to brick-and-mortar structures have benefited unduly from the lack of meaningful charter-funding reform. This change alone represents $229 million in savings to districts.

Wolf also proposes to alter the state’s education tax credit program, lowering the administrative dollars organizations can set aside, freeing up an additional $36 million in student scholarships.

Wolf additionally wants to redirect $199 million in slots revenues that currently benefit the Race Horse Development Trust Fund to provide financial assistance to higher-education students in state-owned universities and colleges. Since 2004, the $3 billion the horse-race industry has gotten has had little impact on its decline.

Finally, Wolf wants a severance tax on the natural gas industry to fund workforce development programs. He has unsuccessfully proposed this in every one of his budgets.

Having bold proposals is not enough. Wolf needs to be bold in his approach to getting his proposals past the finish line. With two years left in his term, Wolf must show a willingness to spend political capital and use all levers at his disposal to play hardball.

There is a parallel between the moment Wolf finds himself in and the one faced by President Joe Biden, who is battling Republicans who want a smaller coronavirus relief package than he is proposing. The White House issued a statement that “(Biden) will not settle for a package that fails to meet the moment.” Senate Democrats then voted to start a budget reconciliation process that would allow the relief package to pass without Republican votes.

Wolf is in a tougher position than Biden because his party is the minority in the General Assembly. But he can still flex some muscle.

For example: Without a severance tax, Wolf’s budget starts with a $300 million annual hole. The natural gas industry has had devastating impacts on the environment. If a severance tax fails, Wolf’s administration should explore options like slowing new permits, or stop issuing them.

Gov. Wolf is right to start the process with a call for unity around a budget that meets the moment. But he should also have a clear plan B. It will be no comfort for struggling families in Pennsylvania that the administration’s starting position was bold if it ends up falling short.

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LNP/Lancaster Online. Feb. 8, 2021.

Editorial: President Biden’s plan to allow more refugees is welcome news for Lancaster

THE ISSUE: President Joe Biden announced plans Thursday to increase the annual cap on the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States to more than eight times the level of the previous presidential administration. Former President Donald Trump had “drastically reduced the cap to only 15,000,” The Associated Press explained. “Biden’s plan would raise it to 125,000. ... Biden, through executive order, also called for rescinding Trump-era rules that resulted in excessive vetting of applicants, expanding capacity for adjudicating applications for refugee applications, and other steps.”

The main image on Church World Service Lancaster’s website the day after President Biden’s announcement featured the all-caps statement “REFUGEES ARE WELCOME HERE” in front of a background of brilliant fireworks.

Indeed, this news is cause for celebration in our community, which prides itself on providing opportunities to vulnerable people who seek safety and a new beginning in America.

It was a moment to cheer precisely because there were so many dispiriting developments during the four years of the Trump administration for separated refugee families, refugee resettlement agencies (like Church World Service) and the communities — like Lancaster — that have strong traditions of welcoming the stranger.

Of course, the Biden administration’s return to a philosophical approach that also was championed by President Barack Obama won’t take effect overnight. As Biden noted Thursday, “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.”

How badly? “The United States admitted 11,814 refugees between Oct. 1, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2020 — lower than any other year since the start of the refugee program decades ago, and barely 14 percent of the number admitted in the last year of the Obama administration,” The Washington Post reported. “Some states last year counted their newly arrived refugees in the single digits.”

America’s doors were closed to too many worldwide who needed refuge from violence and extreme hardship. The heartlessness of the Trump administration limited the extent to which families from war-torn countries such as Syria could be reunited here.

The Post further explained that Biden’s statement will not alone “be enough to reopen the valve to actual refugee arrivals on U.S. soil, as the effort will take considerable time and resources.” Those efforts must incorporate the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“Once refugees are cleared by the U.S. government to come to the United States, they are resettled with the help of nongovernmental resettlement organizations, many of them faith-based charities,” the Post wrote. “These organizations work in partnership with the federal government, placing refugee families in local housing and helping them to connect with schools and employers.”

Some of those charities and agencies, however, were financially decimated by the reduced flow of refugees during the Trump years. It will take time for them to get back on their feet — so they can help those who arrive from around the globe get their own sure footing.

It is vital from a humanitarian standpoint that the system be pieced back together. We agree with the view of the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, which wrote of the United States’ moral obligation, as one of the world’s wealthiest democracies, to help dispossessed people.

“It is who we are as a nation,” that editorial board wrote. “Refugees seek resettlement because they do not have homes to which they can return safely, often because they face persecution on account of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or politics. As a society, we believe in personal freedom, in the right to openly discuss political views without fear of retribution, to hold and express religious beliefs (or to not believe at all), and that all people should be treated equally, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.”

Valentina Ross, director of Church World Service Lancaster, said last October that the U.S. under Trump had abdicated “its responsibility to offer safe haven to the most vulnerable, at a time when the world is facing the worst displacement crisis in history.”

Last June, several Lancaster County residents — former refugees themselves — wrote op-eds for LNP ' LancasterOnline about what it means for America to welcome refugees and how they make us stronger as a nation and as a community.

“Many refugees accomplish incredible things, given the opportunity,” wrote Bhim Thapaliya, a former refugee who graduated from Elizabethtown College and is now an entrepreneur and advocate for refugee and immigrant communities. “Like me, they want nothing more than to contribute to the place that gave them so much.”

Under Biden, we can hope to get back on track. And Lancaster County can perhaps return to being a leader in refugee resettlement. As LNP ' LancasterOnline’s Hurubie Meko noted last year, “Lancaster was dubbed as the ‘Refugee Capital’ by BBC in 2017 based on the county’s reception of 1,300 refugees from 2013 to 2017 — 20 times more per capita than the U.S. as a whole.”

This was not just good for those whom we welcomed, but for the companies for which they ended up working and our local economy, which benefited from the businesses they started.

Under the Biden administration, we can hope to be that capital again.

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Erie Times-News. Feb. 4, 2021.

Editorial: Don’t make child victims wait for justice

Child sexual abuse victims long denied justice in Pennsylvania should have been celebrating a hard-fought legal victory this week. The Senate was teed up for second and final passage of a constitutional amendment that, had voters approved it in May, would finally have lifted the statute of limitations and opened a two-year window for them to sue their abusers and the institutions that enabled them.

Instead they learned that the Pennsylvania Department of State had failed to advertise the proposed amendment as required by law, a dumbfounding oversight that foiled years of advocacy and reset the clock. The earliest a constitutional amendment could now reach a ballot is 2023.

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she learned of the mistake a week ago and rightly submitted her resignation. But the harm can’t be minimized.

The breakdown delivered crushing disappointment and pain to advocates including clergy-abuse survivor Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, who has labored for more than a decade to advance justice for victims.

And it represented generally the kind of fecklessness that erodes confidence in government.

Lawmakers and the Governor’s Office, through transparent, bipartisan means, must investigate and ensure nothing like this happens again.

That said, Republican leaders’ leveraging of this crisis to revive debunked, partisan attacks on Boockvar’s handling of the state’s free and fair 2020 election strike us as opportunistic and distracting. The focus now, as it ever should have been, must be on the victims, and this certainly is not the first time they have been failed in Pennsylvania.

Some Republican leaders this week cast the long, arduous pursuit of a constitutional amendment as the only means available to protect the constitution and give victims certainty and relief.

It is true that many Republican lawmakers, especially former Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, along with powerful insurance and church lobbyists, long argued that lifting the statute of limitations via legislation would be unconstitutional and also cost the church too much.

But there has never been consensus — including among Republicans — that passing legislation to temporarily lift the statute of limitations would violate the constitution. Experts such as Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and statute of limitations reform advocate, have long maintained that lawmakers could take legislative action to temporarily restore victims’ rights to sue, as so many other states have done.

Recall that when the last push for reform peaked in October 2018, with the Republican-controlled House supporting legislation that would temporarily lift the statute of limitations, Scarnati abandoned his constitutional objections and agreed to open courtroom doors temporarily to victims — but only to sue perpetrators, not the deep-pocketed institutions that enabled them.

The reform effort collapsed in the face of that unacceptable compromise. Advocates like Rozzi and Rep. Jim Gregory, R- Blair, pivoted to seek a constitutional amendment. Dioceses across the state established compensation funds and independent panels to adjudicate and pay out victims’ claims, but only for a short amount of time.

The mess left victims who wanted justice in a terrible position — forced to choose between filing the claim with a diocese or wait in uncertain hope that a constitutional amendment would pass and give them access to independent justice. Some did not wait, but braved legal uncertainty and pressed their claims in court anyway.

We cannot ask them to wait any longer and we owe them a clear, expedient, legal path forward.

Years-long, successive pushes to temporarily restore the right of victims to sue arose not from a vacuum, but at the recommendation of the grand juries who presided over galling investigations over the past two decades that exposed serial clergy sexual abuse of children and cover-up in Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses.

In the most recent 2018 probe, overseen by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, jurors told the world the damage they saw: Victims “marked for life,” many “addicted, or impaired, or dead before their time.”

Victims were cowed or silenced, sometimes with confidential settlements that prevented them from reporting the crimes against them. Church leaders too often shuttled offending clergy to treatment, not police stations, and too often returned them to new, unaware parishes to prey again.

According to Spotlight PA, Democratic lawmakers early this week raised two possible options as alternatives to a constitutional amendment — legislation or an emergency constitutional amendment. Expert opinions and Republicans’ previous willingness to drop their constitutional objections indicate this situation is more legally pliable than the constitutional posturing suggests. Lawmakers must act.

Church leaders deserve credit for the long strides toward transparency and accountability taken since these scandals first emerged. But compensation funds, which allow the church to choose the setting and terms of its own reckoning, can’t be the only option. Moreover, this reform would extend beyond church victims to those harmed in other settings as well.

Victims who want access to a courtroom — where Americans resolve their differences under the law — should not have to wait two more years.

Open the doors now.

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Johnstown Tribune Democrat. Feb. 6, 2021.

Editorial: Simplify scheduling of shots, increase availability of vaccines

Gov. Tom Wolf says the state must do a better job of getting vaccines distributed and injected, but claimed the real problem is the limited availability of the COVID-19 inoculations.

We see the biggest problem as a lack of leadership and coordination in a distribution process that has been confusing, ridiculously complicated and needlessly frustrating for residents who are trying to do the right thing and get those shots.

The extremes include:

• Hospitals and pharmacies that say they don’t have enough shots to treat the thousands of people clamoring for appointments.

• Medical centers that say they’re racing to get the vaccines they have into people’s arms before the shots reach their expiration dates.

Wolf’s administration has pushed back against calls for a central scheduling system, which might be a lot to ask of a Harrisburg team that dropped the ball on simply advertising for a vote to change the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.

As our John Finnerty reported, Pennsylvania ranked 35th this week in an analysis of the 50 states’ success in getting vaccines distributed and needles into arms, based on the number of doses per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ignoring the math, Wolf generously called that “middle of the pack,” even as reports were showing that only about 10% of those who registered to get vaccines were actually receiving appointments.

“They are relying on their phone systems,” Wolf said.

“They are relying on their website. Some of them are great, some of them aren’t up to the challenge of the huge influx of calls.

“We have a lot of work to do.”

Indeed. Where the public seems to be getting the message, finally, that vaccinations are the key to getting back to “normal” life, others are struggling.

As of Tuesday, Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said, the state had administered 737,817 doses – of the more than 2 million Pennsylvania had received – with 473,449 people having received one dose and 132,184 people receiving the necessary second dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna inoculations.

However, Pennsylvania has administered about 50% of the vaccine doses it received, the CDC reports – ahead of only Georgia, Alabama, Hawaii, California, Maryland, Rhode Island, Virginia and Kansas.

And Pennsylvania has given vaccines to about 5% of its population. The country as a whole was at about 6%.

Neither of those figures is very inspiring, as scientists – including Pitt-Johnstown’s Jill Henning on our bi-weekly COVID-19 Questions forums – have said we need to reach 80% to achieve “herd immunity” protection against the virus.

That’s in addition to whatever response is made necessary by COVID-19’s ability to adapt – as shown by new strains out of Europe and South Africa.

State House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a Centre County Republican, called the vaccine rollout “abysmal,” and said “many Pennsylvanians are frustrated” because they can’t get appointments.

The federal government is taking steps to begin shipping more vaccines to pharmacies, which would free up doses states already have for other sites, state Department of Health Senior Adviser Lindsey Mauldin said.

President Biden said 1 million doses will be distributed to pharmacies across the country starting next week.

The whole process is complicated by the reality that shots aren’t good forever.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have shelf lives of up to six months – if handled properly – according to national reports, and Pfizer’s drug requires ultra-cold storage.

What are the risks? Well, some residents of nursing homes in northeast Ohio are being re-vaccinated because they received shots that had not been kept at proper temperatures, as reported by The Star Beacon of Ashtabula, Ohio.

This all adds up to a crucial but tenuous system that requires precision and urgency of vaccination scheduling to ensure getting people through in sufficient numbers within the time period required for each batch of shots.

“We will catch up,” Beam said.

Do it quickly. It’s only the health of millions of Pennsylvanians and the future of our economy that are at stake.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Feb. 7, 2021.

Editorial: Work together for seniors

Community centers for senior citizens around the region and across the state are more than just a place to gather for a meal and some camaraderie. They’re a community within a community, concentric circles that share a common center — that center being a vulnerable population with special needs and considerations.

The sense of community and the actual community itself have been damaged by a pandemic that has forced partial or complete shutdowns of Area Agency on Aging-affiliated Senior Community Centers. It’s for the safety of the members, but the impact has hurt revenues and relationships.

Rebuilding will be necessary after the punch of COVID-19 has been softened by the broad vaccination initiative that is underway. Toward that end and with the future in mind, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging has awarded $2 million in grants to be equally divided among 405 AAA-affiliated community centers for seniors. The allocation is for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021.

The state shifted from its usual practice in the distribution of grants. That normal practice involved a competitive grant application process. Instead, each of the state’s 52 area agencies on aging will receive enough money to give each of its eligible senior centers $5,000. Proceeds come from the Pennsylvania Lottery.

The state is allowing each senior center the flexibility to spend its funding through June 30, 2022 — an extra year.

The funding can be used for many initiatives, from renovations to outreach to rent payments to programs.

It was smart to deviate in these unusual times from the usual grant-making process. The state is recognizing that time and effort to make those grant applications is likely in shorter supply during a deadly pandemic. Furthermore, every senior center in the state has been impacted in some way and could use a financial boost.

It’s now incumbent on the area agencies on aging to help their member senior centers spend the money wisely. While an equal grant of $5,000 is equitable, the money and the good it could do may go further if partnerships are made in its spending.

Local leaders of and advocates for the region’s senior centers should have the final say in how to spend their grants. But AAA administrators should encourage creative thinking and collaboration.

END