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It is fitting that the announcement of Pope Francis’ pending visit to Philadelphia fell on the same day as a citywide summit on poverty.

The pope has been vocal and consistent in his concern for the world’s poor. His focus has come at a very apt time: As the gap between rich and poor grows wider, at the same time compassion for those less fortunate seems to have diminished.

Although the occasion of the pope’s visit is the World Meeting of Families to be held here, if he wishes the pontiff will have plenty of poor people to visit while he’s here.

Mayor Nutter himself pointed out the timeliness of the announcement yesterday during the poverty summit at Community College of Philadelphia, designed not only to bring organizations together but to provide the first status update of the work of the city’s poverty office, the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment.

Last year’s establishment of the office, and its signature program, called Shared Prosperity, was a milestone, but poverty in the city remains a persistent and pervasive problem. The city’s poverty rate stands at 26.3 percent – a 2 percent decline from 2011 – and among the 10 biggest cities in the country, we hold the unfortunate lead in those living in deep poverty.

The problem is complex – and that itself is a problem. By definition, political attention spans can be short, and government responses can be fragmented and ill-defined. One of the values of the city’s Shared Prosperity plan has been to establish better networks among the many programs and organizations who deal with the problem. But the goal of “building better networks” can be squishy and hard to measure.

The office has also detailed some harder statistics on the progress that’s been made. For example, the city has been favored with federal grants to help develop neighborhoods – one for $30 million and one for $500,000, as well as a federal “Promise Zone” designation that comes with preferences for grants. Six Bene-Philly centers have helped more people get access to public benefits. In addition, more ground-level accomplishments include helping Philadelphians reduce debt and save more, and helping taxpayers fill out tax returns and get their share of $7.5 million in earned income tax credits.

Perhaps one of the biggest values of the progress report (find it at sharedprosperityphila.org) is a three-page chart of goals and progress made on each. This not only can provide an ongoing tracking of progress, but also helps document, maybe for the first time, the many complex interwoven pieces of the poverty issue.

But to focus solely on statistics would be doing a disservice to the city and all the people who work in the field. The newly elected pope refreshingly reminded the world, almost as soon as he ascended to the Vatican, about the importance of compassion.

A year ago, Pope Francis said: “The times talk to us of so much poverty in the world, and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.”

The city has an advantage in the many people who care about our struggling fellow citizens and who are attempting to answer this cry.

– Philadelphia Daily News



There are hopeful signs in the College Board’s annual study of tuition trends, but prices for Pennsylvania students remain far higher than national averages.

Tuition and fees at the nation’s colleges are not increasing as sharply as in the recent past. Likewise, while students continue to take out loans to pay for their educations, total borrowing is declining. That’s what passes for good news in a sector of the economy where costs long have outpaced inflation.

Despite those modest changes for the better, Pennsylvania’s position in the tuition marketplace remains an unenviable one.

Among public institutions, the cost at four-year institutions in the state ranks third-highest in the nation, behind only New Hampshire and Vermont; for two-year schools, Pennsylvania comes in at seventh highest. Students who attend private, nonprofit universities also pay far more than the national average, ranking sixth.

In comparing what the report calls each state’s flagship university, Penn State had the highest in-state rate for tuition and fees, at $18,464 for the 2014-15 academic year – nearly four times the rate at the nation’s cheapest comparable institution, the University of Wyoming, where the cost was lowest, $4,646.

If Pennsylvania wants to keep its best and brightest within its borders, and by extension, retain those talented young adults after graduation, it must find a way to offer the highest quality in educational programs at prices its residents can afford.

The schools themselves must keep a lid on their expenses. Under chancellor Frank T. Brogan, the 14 state-owned universities have taken significant steps in the past year, and the three state-related schools – the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and Temple University – have been doing a better job of controlling tuition increases in the past few years, but they remain out of reach for many families.

Harrisburg also must do more. A report earlier this year by the State Higher Education Executive Officers said Pennsylvania ranked 47th in its support for public higher education.

The high costs associated with higher education have been building for a long time. State and university officials have to work together to reverse the trend.

– Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



There’s a big difference between compromise and capitulation. The Pennsylvania General Assembly soon will reveal if it knows the difference.

There’s talk that the newly emboldened majority-Republican Legislature (though not veto-proof) might trade a tax on natural gas extraction with incoming Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf for a privatized liquor system.

Maybe the pols in leadership positions aren’t saying as much – in fact, incoming House Speaker Mike Turzai says revenue discussions must start with liquor reform – but at least one analyst thinks as much.

Perhaps Republicans are so frustrated by four years of inaction on marquee issues and Mr. Wolf so wants to avoid gridlock that a deal could be cut, Muhlenberg College poli-sci professor Christopher Borick speculated for the Trib’s Dave Conti.

But since when does trading one great idea for one truly lousy idea make sense? How could any GOP pol argue with any credibility that enacting an onerous industry-retarding tax (on top of a corporate tax already too high) is a fair and balanced trade to end a Soviet-style liquor system that has perverted the marketplace and handicapped consumer choice since Prohibition ended? As rational economic policy goes, it’s a nonstarter.

It once was said that while compromise makes a good umbrella, it makes a poor roof. It’s an axiom Republicans must remember as Harrisburg embarks on a new era.

– Pittsburgh Tribune-Review



Welcome to the Harrisburg area, Uber X.

The innovative ride-sharing service that Uber X offers, using independent drivers dispatched by smart phone, is eventually going to end the outdated, cumbersome, consumer-unfriendly way government now regulates the taxi industry.

Uber X has won state Public Utility Commission permission to operate in Harrisburg and most other parts of the state, except some rural counties and Philadelphia.

It was a long, hard fight because Uber X’s business model challenges the government-regulated, competition-suppressing structure of today’s taxi business.

It’s clear that the old-fashioned way of regulating the taxi industry is on the way out.

Governments typically limit the number of taxis or taxi companies that can operate in an area, dictate the rates they can charge and set safety rules for operators.

This arrangement is supposed to protect consumers from being gouged and ensure drivers and taxi companies can make decent money while operating vehicles that are safe. (The fear was that unlimited competition would drive down rates to the point that drivers and cab companies, desperate to make a living, would skip necessary repairs and possibly rip off riders.)

But government regulation of taxis hasn’t worked out so well. Service can be spotty, drivers can run up fares by taking round-about routes, and the cabs, while mechanically safe, can be pretty tired and worn.

On top of all that, artificially limiting who can compete in the taxi business by capping the total number of taxis that can operate, as some large U.S. cities like Philadelphia do, produces an economic windfall to permit owners.

In those places, just one permit can cost tens of thousands of dollars – far beyond what most individual cab drivers could afford. Permits there are typically bought by entrepreneurs who own or cooperate with cab companies, which then hire drivers as “independent contractors.” Each day a driver works, a big chunk of the fares goes for the cost of using one of those artificially-limited, government-issued permits.

Because government permission to run a taxi business in a given area is valuable, their owners will spend money on lawyers, lobbyists and even campaign contributions to persuade government regulators to protect their interests. Drivers and passengers have far less influence in the process.

When government regulators consider improving service for customers by expanding the number of taxi companies or taxi permits, existing taxi companies say, “You can’t do that. You’ll slash the value of my business.” It takes considerable money and time to fight back for the right to compete, as Uber X showed.

Ride-sharing services like Uber X are showing that there’s another way to protect consumers and allow drivers make a decent living.

The smart phone revolution enables consumers to get information about the ride they will buy – photos of the driver and the vehicle, the driver’s ratings by other riders, and a firm price for the trip. Drivers pay a flat 20 percent for Uber’s services – unlike a traditional cab company, where a driver can work all night and not cover fixed costs.

In Uber’s system, drivers can also evaluate riders. That can improve safety for drivers, but it also creates the potential for discrimination, if residents of certain neighborhoods are routinely denied service.

The state utility commission, which held exhaustive hearings on the issue last summer, set some reasonable conditions on Uber X’s operation, during what will be a two-year experiment. Its drivers will have to have background checks and proper insurance, and no vehicle older than eight years is permitted.

Those kinds of safety and quality of service regulations will need to continue. But it’s clear that the old-fashioned way of regulating the taxi industry is on the way out. It has been a great deal for those who own the taxi operating permits. It’s not so great for drivers or the passengers they carry.

– PennLive.com



Amid all the discussion during this year’s gubernatorial campaign about public education funding, another bastion of learning was largely ignored.

Ignored, that is, until Ephrata Public Library, one of the busiest libraries in Lancaster County, cut its staff in half and said it will no longer be open Fridays and Sundays through the end of the year.

Public libraries are not the same as public schools, of course, and the differences include the portion of their budgets that state funding provides.

State aid – which fell from a high of $75 million in 2002 to about $53.5 million today – provides between 16 percent and 18 percent of public libraries’ income, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, through which their funding comes.

In Pennsylvania this year, public schools are getting about 40 percent of their funding from the state, 55 percent from local property taxes and the rest from the federal government.

Locally, Lancaster County kicks in about $2 million per year toward libraries – about half of it going to the county’s library system, which provides support services such as database subscriptions, staff training and the online catalog county residents can use to find a book in one of the county’s 14 member libraries.

Libraries also get some support from the municipalities they serve.

But the vast bulk of their funding comes from fundraising – 64 percent in Ephrata Public Library’s case. And that is what fell short, leading to the significant cuts announced Wednesday, according to Penny Talbert, the Ephrata library’s executive director.

The future looks no better.

“I’m putting together the most pathetic library budget for next year,” Talbert said.

And that’s a shame, given that the Ephrata library trails only the Lancaster Public Library in programs and is among the largest-circulation libraries in the county – both total and per capita.

Times are tight and taxpayers are in no mood for tax increases, but budgets, and our tolerance for taxes, are about priorities.

The county commissioners will hold a public session on the 2015 county budget 6 p.m. Nov. 25 on the first floor of the County Government Center, near its Binns Park entrance on North Queen Street.

A new governor takes office and a new session of the state General Assembly begins in January.

And local libraries will accept donations.

If public libraries – a key information source for many people – are a priority, it’s time to start speaking up or making donations.

As recent reductions in Ephrata show, public libraries are about at the end of their fiscal ropes.



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