SPEAKING OUT FOR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION AND SUNSHINE WEEK
It’s an election year in Pennsylvania. Like dandelions in spring, legislators and their challengers will be popping up everywhere. They’ll be visiting civic clubs, fraternal organizations, classrooms, parades and debates, asking you to trust them enough to put them in charge.
This means you’ll get a chance to find out how much they trust you.
This week is National Sunshine Week, a celebration of open government and the people’s right to know what their public servants are doing in their name.
It so happens that a number of bills are working their way through the Legislature to change which taxpayer-funded documents you, the people who paid for them, are allowed to see.
So now’s a good chance to ask those candidates exactly where they stand.
Ask them why Pennsylvanians aren’t allowed to hear 9-1-1 tapes, when, according to the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, citizens in 29 other states are trusted with that information. Remind them of Eddie Polec, the 16-year-old who died in Philadelphia in 1994 in part because emergency dispatchers – seven of whom were later disciplined – shrugged off the desperate calls of witnesses trying to summon police to stop the teens who beat him to death. The only reason we found out about the behavior of the dispatchers was because someone leaked the tapes to a television station.
Ask them why police incident reports aren’t public in Pennsylvania. Ask if they remember Shannon Schieber, who was murdered in Philadelphia in 1998 while police hid the fact that the serial rapist who became her killer had been stalking the streets for months.
Ask them what they think about an effort to exempt the home addresses of teachers from public records. I haven’t been able to find a single case of someone using public records to find and harm a teacher. But matching addresses helped residents of Central Columbia School District realize that the drunken, drugged woman who crashed her car one morning near Berwick was on her way to teach their sixth-graders.
Ask your candidates if they’re in favor of making Penn State and other state-related institutions follow the same open records rules as schools in the state system. After all, the 14 schools in the state system would split only $412.8 million in taxpayer money under Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2014-2015 budget. The state-related institutions – Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Lincoln, and Temple -would get $503 million. Why shouldn’t we be able to see where all of our higher education money is going?
Ask them if they’re in favor of bills that would allow private contractors doing work for government agencies to conceal documents that would be public if the government agency were doing the work for itself. Ask them why government agencies should be allowed to sign away their requirement to be accountable to the public. Tell them you have a right to know what’s being done in your name with your money.
Ask them whether they approve of an effort to hide the names of the winners of the state lottery. Remind them about the Triple Six Fix, when a corrupt lottery district manager, a television announcer and a few bettors arranged to inject the balls in the Daily Number drawing with paint, so the winning numbers would be a combination of 4 and 6. Tell them you wouldn’t enter a local church 50/50 drawing if organizers said winners would be kept secret. Why would you want to allow such secrecy in a game run by strangers in Harrisburg?
Too many politicians think they can get away with chipping away the public’s ability to keep an eye on government because they don’t believe regular citizens care. This is the time to show them that what your government does matters to you. Election season is one time you can be sure they’ll be listening.
- Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition
IS THERE a kinder, gentler Tom Corbett governing the state? Last week, his administration announced changes to policies that suggest that he’s more concerned about the plight of low-income people than he’s previously let on. Either that, or he’s more concerned about his low approval ratings as he runs for re-election. Whatever the case, we’re not arguing.
The first major change would let up on a job-search requirement that he added to a state Medicaid plan recently submitted for federal approval; this proposal is his alternative to accepting millions of dollars from the feds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Many Republican governors have refused a federal infusion of money to expand health coverage to low-income people, children, the elderly and the disabled. Corbett’s plan would allow Medicaid recipients to purchase health coverage on the open exchange. The most controversial aspect was a job-search requirement, which has now become optional. Those who do fulfill a job search will get reduced premiums. That’s better, but still not ideal.
Like many advocates, we question whether Medicaid funds should be used as a work program. Advocates for Medicaid recipients also point out that those who are disabled and unable to work will be unfairly penalized with higher premium payments.
Corbett’s Medicaid plan is also problematic in the cuts to benefits that come along with it. His plan includes new limits and caps on certain procedures, lab tests and radiology, and eliminates optometry and podiatry coverage. That will have real and negative impact on people’s health.
Add those consequences to the impact of Corbett’s refusal to expand Medicaid, which still will leave more than 400,000 low-income Pennsylvanians without any health coverage at all. In January, Harvard University and City University of New York released a depressing study estimating how many deaths will result in those states that have refused the federal Medicaid expansion. The researchers predicted that 398 to 1,491 deaths will occur in Pennsylvania each year, with many more families facing catastrophic medical expenses. This prospect makes Sarah Palin’s “death panels” myth look like a day at the beach.
In a separate action, the governor has decided to make life less difficult for hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania families who were about to have their food-stamp benefits cut. Recently, Congress passed a new farm bill that cut $8.6 billion over the next decade, and the cuts were designed in a way that would hit residents of cold-weather states the hardest, by eliminating a “heat & eat” program that gave slightly higher food-stamp allocations to those who pay more for heat. The state will now step in and use energy-assistance money to allow those families to still qualify for the supplemental food stamps – helping them avoid the impossible choice between eating and heating their home.
While it’s natural to question Corbett’s motivations in making such changes, the bottom line is that they will reduce the potential misery for thousands of struggling Pennsylvanians. That’s good enough for us.
- The Philadelphia Daily News
AUDITOR GENERAL’S REPORT VALIDATES SERIOUS PENSION WOES
Maybe the state’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale can do what no one else has been able to do regarding public pension funds – that is, reform them before they bankrupt government.
DePasquale issued a recent report bringing into focus just how bad the municipal pension funding system is in the state.
He warned that rising pension costs for local government workers could push municipalities into bankruptcy and spur tax increases if policymakers do not make changes.
The state’s 1,200 municipal pension systems are underfunded by billions of dollars and DePasquale warned that the commitments could be at risk if municipalities follow the path of Detroit.
DePasquale called for the municipal pension systems to convert to a 401(k)-style retirement plan and make other changes to try to lower pension obligations to future employees. The changes he recommended include barring high amounts of an employee’s overtime pay from influencing pension obligations and adjusting age and service requirements for retirement eligibility to account for increased life expectancy.
He called for the state to increase pension aid to municipal systems meeting certain requirements. He called on the governor and state Legislature to act now on legislation that can make many of the suggestions happen.
This has all been said before.
Our modest hope would be that when the words come from the numbers guru the auditor general they might matter.
We won’t hold our breath. But we’d love to be surprised.
- The (Williamsport) Sun-Gazette
MEDICALLY, POT OF ANOTHER COLOR
When it comes to the view of Pennsylvania voters on a specific issue, especially one affecting their health, 85 percent can be an impressive number.
That’s how many said they favor the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in a recent poll by Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University. If only it were that simple.
When it comes to whether small amounts of marijuana should be legal for recreational use, Pennsylvanians, according to the poll, are split almost down the middle – 49 percent opposed and 48 percent in favor.
Naturally, there’s a political side to the issue, mainly for those Democrats vying for the primary nod to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett.
In an election year that boils down to a testy exchange of campaign polemics, the crux of Pennsylvania’s legalized marijuana debate will be fought out in the General Assembly.
Don’t look for a legislative OK on recreational marijuana use such as happened two years ago in Washington state and Colorado. But the use of marijuana for medical purposes is a pot of a different color. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana while 15 states have such legislation pending.
In Harrisburg, the Compassionate Use of Cannabis Act introduced by state Sens. Daylin Leach and Mike Folmer, a Democrat and Republican, respectively, would allow the prescribing of what’s described as a marijuana mixture containing anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties while providing low levels of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient known as THC. Advocates told a state Senate hearing the prescription of the drug would help bring relief for children suffering from epileptic seizures.
Opponents of such legislation – and there will be many – will argue that legalization on a medical level opens the oft-cliched “slippery slope” to open recreational use, higher crime rates and addiction to stronger drugs, legal and illegal.
Such opposition, however, stands in sharp contrast to voter opinion statewide regarding the legalization of marijuana for medical prescription use. The public pressure on lawmakers to lead on this issue, not follow, couldn’t be more obvious.
- The (Carlisle) Sentinel
PASS LAW TAMING ERRANT TEACHERS
In education circles, they refer to it as “passing the trash.”
It’s unprofessional. Plenty of people, perhaps you, would describe it as unethical. It ought to be illegal.
A misbehaving teacher shouldn’t be able to resign from – and dodge penalties in – one school district only to re-emerge in a Pennsylvania classroom elsewhere, perhaps to repeat the offense, with no notification of the past dirty deeds provided to the new employer.
Yet that’s how some districts historically have unloaded their worst “professionals.” The practice sounds eerily like the way the Catholic Church used to shuffle its problem priests from parish to parish, blindly allowing troubled men to repeat their crimes without facing consequences.
Proposed legislation in Harrisburg seeks to stop the unfettered flow of unfit educators. Senate Bill 46 would require school districts to confidentially share certain information about teachers, closing loopholes that have allowed people unsuited for the classroom to slink from job to job.
For instance, the law would require a district to disclose whether a teacher:
- “has been the subject of an abuse or sexual misconduct investigation” unless it was determined the allegations were false.
- “has ever been disciplined, discharged, nonrenewed, asked to resign from employment, resigned from or otherwise separated from any employment while allegations of abuse or sexual misconduct” were pending or being investigated.
Members of the House education committee, including state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Hughestown, reviewed this legislation, apparently liked what they saw and unanimously voted to forward the measure to their House colleagues. In a highly functioning system, Senate Bill 46 would then have been debated, put forth for a vote and possibly fast-tracked to Gov. Tom Corbett’s office for his signature.
This, however, is Pennsylvania’s Legislature.
Stalled Senate Bill 46 seems to be headed nowhere. Instead, if things unfold as certain Democrats suspect, another piece of legislation that closely mirrors Senate Bill 46 will be introduced, perhaps as soon as today, and gradually wind its way through the process over the next several months. Presumably certain Republicans intended to use the popular legislation as a bargaining chip during budget negotiations and later claim credit for its introduction and passage.
If so, shame on them. Shame on anyone who plays political games for personal benefit while postponing action on a bill intended, in large part, to safeguard children.
One might logically expect state lawmakers to avoid this sort of high jinks on principle, or at least be sensitive during this election year to suggestions that the governor delayed a high-profile investigation years ago that also involved young people’s welfare.
Alas, logic does not consistently apply in Harrisburg.
If it did, “passing the trash” already would be illegal in Pennsylvania, and discussions would focus on how to further expand school districts’ information-sharing obligations across state borders. After all, our miscreants certainly don’t belong at the head of a classroom in Kansas, Kentucky or anyplace else in the country.
- (Wilkes-Barre) Times Leader