Editorials from around Pennsylvania

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MAYOR BY DAY, SCIENTIST BY NIGHT

The old adage has it that you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

Somebody better clue in Punxsutawney Mayor James Wehrle about this.

The leader of the borough best known for a no-doubt puzzled groundhog peering out of the ground every February to massed cameras and spectators, vetoed a measure last week that would outlaw outdoor smoking in public places. Despite abundant, reliable evidence that secondhand smoke is not healthy in any circumstance, Wehrle insisted that puffing away outdoors is a civil liberty and, thanks to his own “research,” the cancer risk for smoking outdoors is a “red herring.”

“I think in open air, people can get out of the way,” Wehrle said, apparently summing up the extent of his findings.

The borough’s council is apparently unconvinced by Wehrle’s scientific freelancing and is contemplating overriding the mayor’s veto next month. And that bring to mind another adage: If at first you don’t succeed.

— (Washington) Observer-Reporter

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FINALLY, PENNSYLVANIA HAS A TRANSPORTATION BILL

Pain at the pump, a smoother ride under the wheels. On selected high-speed roads, a 70 mph speed limit. Replacement of bridges exceeding their life expectancies. Mass transit systems, including LANTA, can map out a five-year plan. The Lehigh Valley can look beyond limited traffic-flow improvements and take in the big picture — such as moving the widening of Route 22 into the design stage.

That’s a quick summary of the transportation bill squeezed through the Pennsylvania House and Senate last week, which Gov. Tom Corbett intends to sign — a $2.3 billion, five-year grab bag that can be criticized for any number of flaws and uncertainties.

Except for the fact that it finally got done.

The centerpiece of the bill is the lifting of the cap on the wholesale oil tax, which is expected to add 28 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline by 2018. Not all at once, though, and actual increases will be affected by the wholesale price of fuel, which could go down but also skyrocket if the market is jolted. That’s part of the bargain Corbett struck so that he’d be able to face voters and say he never directly raised taxes on anyone.

Semantics.

The net effect will be that the average driver (12,000 miles a year, 24 miles per gallon) will pay $22 more at the pump in 2014, rising to $132 by 2018.

Also, license and registration fees are going up with inflation bumps each subsequent year. Fines for traffic violations are going up. First-timers caught driving without insurance will be able to buy their way out of a three-month license suspension with a $500 fine.

Locally, we can expect 65 mph speed limits to be hiked to 70 mph on some high-speed roads — Interstates 78 and 80, and possibly Route 33. (Faster speeds mean more fuel consumption, higher tax revenue).

If it had been up to the Lehigh Valley delegation, however, this deal would still be sitting on blocks. All but one local House member (Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh) voted against it. Most Democrats opposed the loosening of the prevailing wage rules for public improvement projects (counties and towns will be able to avoid the higher costs for contracts under $100,000). Some representatives objected to a tax system that will fluctuate, with a floor but no ceiling, on wholesale gas prices. Some didn’t like the nickel-and-diming approach to fee and fine increases.

Corbett and GOP legislative leaders also passed up another opportunity to tap into the state’s natural gas drilling boom and use an extraction tax for long-term capital improvements, although that issue was sewn up earlier by Corbett’s “no tax” pledge and the energy industry’s campaign support.

Still, nit-picking a transportation bill to death would have been the worst possible outcome for a state that has become a national joke in its commitment to the quality of roads, bridges and mass transportation.

The Legislature should revisit this legislation at some point to ensure that a market shock doesn’t gouge motorists. That’s the one big flaw in this compromise.

We’ll all feel the pain of higher gas taxes, but we’ll get something tangible in return for deteriorating roads and bridges. In the increasingly congested Lehigh Valley, that’s no small priority.

— The (Easton) Express-Times

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REFORM U.S. FARM SUBSIDIES

Though getting government spending under control often is seen as a Democrats vs. Republicans battle, some of the most egregious waste gets bipartisan support.

“Farm support” spending is exhibit No. 1. Taxpayers fork over about $30 billion a year in various agriculture subsidy programs. Originally created to help small family farms and to – critically – to ensure this country produces enough food, the spending too often benefits big agri-corporations and rich investors, not farmers.

About $5 billion a year is sent out in direct payments to alleged farmers. But the Government Accountability Office has revealed that during the past five years, such payments went to about 2,300 farms that have grown nothing except their bank accounts.

Another report was that 18,000 recipients of such payments live in cities, not on farms.

But both Republican and Democrat lawmakers vote to continue the handouts, year after year. It is long past time they were plowed under.

And About ethanol …

Mention “renewable energy” and many normally skeptical Americans begin taking the government’s word for the allegedly undiluted benefits of fuels such as ethanol. Why, midwestern corn farmers can slash our dependence on foreign petroleum by producing cheap, efficient, low-polluting ethanol, we were assured for years.

But very little, if any, of that is apparently true. Last week, The Associated Press released the results of an intensive, objective investigation into the ethanol industry.

Most informed people already understood the federal law mandating ethanol be mixed with petroleum products in gasoline production is a bad deal. For one thing, it drives up food prices because so much corn goes to ethanol refineries.

For another, ethanol is not as efficient as oil-based gasoline. It takes more ethanol-blend fuel than old-style gasoline to move a car one mile. And the more ethanol blended into gasoline, the more wear on an engine.

So much for the bulk of arguments in favor of the government’s ethanol mandate.

But AP reporters found it gets worse. Far from being good for the environment, the ethanol industry probably is harming it.

Millions of acres of land once set aside for conservation purposes have been converted to growing corn, solely to meet the artificial demand for ethanol.

An enormous amount of water pollution has resulted from such farms.

And it turns out the ethanol industry is a major polluter of the air. Ethanol factories release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide – the very pollutant President Barack Obama cites as his excuse for shutting down coal-fired power plants – into the air.

Requirements for blending ethanol into vehicle fuel were enacted under former President George W. Bush. But Obama’s administration embraces the rule, along with its other “alternative energy” schemes that waste billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money while failing to provide true alternatives.

As the AP pointed out, new technology for producing oil and natural gas right here in the United States means Americans may not need ethanol to become energy independent.

Instead of accepting claims about energy as gospel, members of Congress ought to be asking questions – and reversing costly, illogical policies. Those who continue with the status quo should have to explain themselves to voters.

— The (Lock Haven) Express

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FRIENDSHIP RIDGE DEAL COMES UNDER WHITE, HOT SPOTLIGHT

Calling the Friendship Ridge sale the biggest transaction in Beaver County’s 200-plus-year history, the county commissioners steadfastly stood by their belief that no details about the transaction should have been made public during the process.

The gentlemen from Comprehensive Healthcare Management Services, Friendship Ridge’s new owner, seemed nice enough. They said all the right things about trying to keep as many of the jobs there as possible and that their No. 1 priority was the residents’ care.

They talked about what a great business opportunity it was for a nursing home company because of Friendship Ridge’s proximity to Heritage Valley Beaver hospital, the on-site dialysis resources, the space and volume of residents to hold meaningful classes, rehabilitation options and social interaction that enhances the quality of life. “The facility has good bones,” said Mordy Lahasky, one of the new owners.

They talked about understanding that change was scary and they hoped everyone “would take a couple of minutes to see how the facility would run” under new management before passing judgment.

They talked about what a tough negotiation it was and how it almost came apart and was in jeopardy as recently as a month ago, with the county keeping the oil and gas rights a key component to the deal. They said the commissioners were tough, but fair, and, in the end, there would be a great partnership over the long term.

The new owners and commissioners both said that any good business deal usually is kept quiet until the end, essentially so that if it doesn’t work out, no one looks bad. And we get that when it involves two private businesses. But this was a publicly owned facility with significant public dollars at stake. The new owners appreciated the commissioners kept the negotiations under wraps and that they did so on their own without pressure from Comprehensive, which the commissioners confirmed.

The commissioners said, because of the difficulty and complexity of the negotiations, they are almost certain the deal probably would not have gone through had the details been out in the public.

So what the commissioners have done is played all-in poker and invited a scrutiny to this deal and its execution that will be at a high level. As Aaron Lichtman from Comprehensive said, they all will be judged on the quality of the care and the rapid improvements that he said will be made at Friendship Ridge.

They shined the white, hot spotlight on themselves after keeping in the community in the dark for so long and through stalling Right-to-Know requests since August that were deemed open by the Office of Open Records.

We’ve said it here before and we’ll say it again — it’s extremely positive that the county is out of the nursing home business. In hindsight, it was long overdue. But this wasn’t a private-party sale. This was a sale with, to use the commissioners’ words, the biggest impact in Beaver County history. The lack of transparency is something the parties will have to fight. Here’s hoping the commissioners’ hand has a bunch of aces in it. They’ll need them.

— Beaver County Times

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THIN SKINS AT NESHAMINY

Ever since the editors of Neshaminy High’s student newspaper decided not to use the word Redskins – the nickname their teams share with Washington’s NFL franchise – there has been a lot of loose talk about free speech.

Robert McGee, the principal of the Bucks County school and an opponent of the paper’s new policy, wondered, “How can one group of students limit what another group of students write? It becomes First Amendment vs. First Amendment.”

As we all should have learned in high school civics, though, the First Amendment protects expression from government infringement. When government officials, such as the principal of a public school, decide what may be published, it’s censorship. When editors do, it’s just, well, editing.

A majority of the editorial board of Neshaminy’s Playwickian decided the team name is derogatory toward American Indians, explaining in an editorial, “If racist institutions had remained in other areas of society simply because they were time-honored traditions, America would be a vastly different place.” The paper also carried a dissenting editorial by the minority of editors who don’t mind the term.

Many words never or rarely appear in this and other newspapers because their editors have deemed them offensive. In fact, the term Redskins has been banished from several publications. These are the sorts of decisions editors make, and the Playwickian’s editors made theirs with precocious skill and evenhandedness.

Unfortunately, their principal responded by asking them to reverse the ban, calling a meeting with their parents, and requiring the publication of an advertisement using the name. That ad was eventually dropped, but several student-press advocacy groups placed their own ad citing a school code provision that protects student expression.

Putting aside the students’ good point about the Redskins name, the courts have recognized their right to make it. The U.S. Supreme Court has famously ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The state’s Public School Code offers further protection, stating that student newspaper editors “are as free as editors of other newspapers to report the news and to editorialize.” While the code and case law make exceptions when student expression undermines education, that hasn’t happened here.

Quite the opposite: Free engagement in journalism is educational. Granted, since the term at issue is still in dispute, the editors could amend their policy — for example, by allowing outside contributors to use it. But as a matter of law and learning, that and other editorial decisions should be up to the student editors.

—The Philadelphia Inquirer

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