BIG BID FOR AMAZON, BIG SECRET FOR TAXPAYERS, Oct. 24
The late Tom Petty summed up Greater Pittsburgh’s situation now that regional leaders have submitted their bid for Amazon’s $5 billion, 50,000-job second headquarters: “The waiting is the hardest part.” Yet residents await not just Amazon’s decision, for which there’s no time frame, but specifics on what being chosen would cost them in terms of taxpayer-funded incentives.
Mr. Fitzgerald portrayed the region’s “artificial sweeteners” as requiring Amazon to deliver on jobs and economic impact before tax credits or breaks kick in. But both he and Mr. Peduto declined to give even a “ballpark figure” for their cost to taxpayers, citing confidentiality agreements — which raises questions.
Various media outlets reported dollar figures for other regions’ incentives, including New Jersey’s $7 billion for Amazon to choose Newark and Georgia’s $1 billion to boost the Atlanta area’s chances. Did those regions’ leaders sign the same sort of confidentiality agreements that Greater Pittsburgh’s leaders say they did? If those regions’ leaders did, why do they apparently feel they can make such figures public, while Peduto and Fitzgerald don’t?
State officials have been similarly tight-lipped. Yet the head of Philadelphia’s Chamber of Commerce says Pennsylvania’s Amazon incentives could top $1 billion. With the Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philly regions all bidding, are state “sweeteners” the same for each? Or is the state offering more on one region’s behalf than another’s? Will taxpayers statewide be told how one Pennsylvania region’s state incentives compared to those for the other two regions if one is chosen? Or if Amazon chooses some other location?
Not just taxpayers deserve to know how much regional and state leaders propose to take from them and give to Amazon. Don’t existing Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philly businesses — indeed, all Pennsylvania businesses, and all businesses besides Amazon considering locating or expanding in the Keystone State — deserve to know how what Amazon’s being offered compares to what they are, or aren’t, being offered?
With taxpayers statewide potentially on the hook for $1 billion or more, and with other regions’ incentive numbers already out there, isn’t Pennsylvanians’ right to know what’s being done with public money getting short shrift? And doesn’t that secrecy create an informational void for misinformation and speculation to fill?
It all boils down to a couple of fundamental questions: What’s the big secret? And why all the secrecy?
—The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
COURTS MUST DRAW THE LINE ON GERRYMANDERING, Oct. 22
Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania is a joke — a bad joke that needs a constitutional correction.
The good news is that court and legislative scalpels are being sharpened that could — the key word being “could” — cut up distorted voting-district maps and inject some fairness into this process.
But first, a quiz:
What do U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, and a nonprofit group called Fair Districts PA have in common?
They hold the future of democracy in their hands — at least the part that says the people’s representatives in Washington and state capitols should, proportionately, reflect the feelings and leanings of the folks back home.
Gerrymandering defeats this principle. It allows a party in power (Republicans or Democrats, they’re equally opportunistic), to pack legislative and congressional districts by party registration to dominate elections.
Pennsylvania is considered by many observers the most gerrymandered state in the U.S.
That assertion is borne out the freaky districts themselves, breaking up towns and communities, snaking around in search of Rs or Ds. The tortured 7th Congressional District in suburban Philadelphia may be the best (or worst) example in the country. The 17th District, which connects the Easton area to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, is an abomination, too. It’s a “super” Democratic enclave, which allows for a greater number of majority-Republican districts around Pennsylvania.
Consider that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, 5 to 4. Helped by a GOP-directed redrawing of districts, Republicans hold 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts.
Unconstitutional? That’s what we need to find out.
The case before the U.S. Supreme Court, argued earlier this month, alleges that Republican legislators in Wisconsin used majority power and highly evolved computer programs to tilt districts in their favor. The court heard a similar case from Pennsylvania in 2004 and declined to overturn anything — but Kennedy, the swing vote that 5-4 decision, left the door open to court action if things were to get worse.
Today’s gerrymandering has taken a giant step forward. In past years the Supreme Court has rejected a stacking of the deck against minority voters; the question now is whether partisan shakedowns in redistricting violate the Constitution’s guarantee of representative government.
We believe that it does — and the proof is in the electoral pudding.
With the high court divided, it will be up to Kennedy, still the swing vote, to decide if Wisconsin’s districts have taken an unconstitutional turn. Any reversal could have a limited impact — or it could establish a standard applicable to other states.
It’s time for the court to upset a badly loaded apple cart — if not in time for the 2018 elections, to guide the 2020 elections — and most critically, the redrawing of districts after the 2020 Census.
—The Easton Express-Times
THEORY OF ENDANGERED DEFICIT HAWKS, Oct. 25
Senate Republicans who occasionally attempt to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act need to be careful that they don’t bring about the extinction of their own breed — deficit hawks.
Last week, the Senate Republicans approved a 10-year budget plan that would add up to $1.5 trillion to the national debt — a proposal that would have resulted in the same majority’s wailing and gnashing of teeth if President Barack Obama had proposed it last year. The approval is needed to facilitate massive tax cuts, which the House and Senate GOP leadership and the Trump administration are working on in secret.
Friday, the administration issued a report that the deficit this fiscal year has climbed by $80 billion to $666 billion.
But not to worry, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan.
“We’re Republicans. We’re sensitive to the deficit,” he said. Apparently he and his colleagues are so sensitive to the deficit that they will end their eight years of rhetoric bad-mouthing it and nurture its growth, instead.
Many of the endangered deficit hawks contend that vast tax reductions at the top of the tax brackets will stimulate economic growth to wipe out the deficit — a disproven theory that should be endangered but thrives.
—The Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice
WHY IT’S NOT A GOOD IDEA TO END PENNSYLVANIA’S PROPERTY TAX, Oct. 25
Citizens going into voting booth on Nov. 7 will find a pleasant surprise. They will be asked to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to do away with local property taxes.
That’s not precisely the wording on the ballot — it talks about raising the homestead exemption on residential properties to 100 percent — but that is its effect.
Naturally, most will have an irresistible urge to press the “Yes” button. After all, who likes to pay property taxes?
But, stop for a minute and consider the reality behind this simply worded question.
Property taxes are used to fund the public schools. They cannot be abolished without replacing that money. There are bills in the state legislature today to increase the state income tax from 3.07 percent to 4.95 percent to partly fill in the hole.
Another would increase the state sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent (or from 8 percent to 9 percent in Philadelphia) and remove exemptions on such items as food, non-prescription drugs, and some clothing.
Depending on your income and current property taxes, you could end up paying more.
The ballot question makes the plan look simple, but it is not. For instance, taxpayers will have to pay property taxes on the portion of their school district’s long-term debt.
The Philadelphia School District, for instance, has $270 million in long-term debt, a figure equal to about 10 percent of its total budget.
Another but: while the portion of property taxes that go to fund schools will be erased, taxpayers will still have to pay the portion of property taxes that finance local government. In Philadelphia, 45 percent of property tax revenue goes to city government.
Right now, the state has 503 elected school boards that both set policy and control spending and taxes when it comes to local schools. Under this proposal, the local boards would lose that control.
In effect, the legislature will have sole power to set spending and taxes.
One proposal would set up a special fund to receive and dole out school subsidy money. But, this new method bakes in the inequities already evident in the school funding formula. It ends all attempts to give more aid to poor districts. The state’s unfair system of funding education will remain unfair.
Under the ballot plan, districts are supposed to be held harmless; they will get as much the year this new system goes into effect as they did the year before. After that, the legislature will give them increases based on the rate of inflation.
What happens if expenses rise 3 percent while inflation is 2 percent? The district gets 2 percent. What happens if the legislature decides not to give any increase or takes money out of the special education fund to pay for other projects? (It’s been known to happen.) Tough luck for local districts.
What this ballot amendment adds up to is a state takeover of local education that offers no promise of either fair or increased funding for public education. A “No” vote is the best vote.
—The Philadelphia Daily News
IT’S TIME TO THINK ABOUT MODERATION WHEN IT COMES TO TECHNOLOGY, Oct. 24
Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group focused on the use of media and technology by children, said in a report last week that kids ages 8 and under spend an average of about two hours and 19 minutes with screens every day at home, according to The Associated Press. The same survey found children spend an average of 48 minutes a day on mobile devices, up from 15 minutes in 2013.
If you’re old enough, you can remember a time when your home contained no screens. Or, if you’re not quite of that vintage, you can recall a day when the television was your only option for electronic visual distraction. No laptops, cellphones or tablets.
But we’re here now, in an age where shiny, digital things can keep us busy for hours on end, perhaps without us even realizing it. Right or wrong, there is no turning back, unless of course you choose to leave the grid.
This is not an anti-technology rant. We use electronic devices just as much as anyone else. It makes our lives and our jobs easier. It helps us to save time and use resources more efficiently.
But when we see a survey that shows children are spending an average of more than two hours a day staring at screens, we’re a bit concerned. And we’re not alone.
As AP reported, some parents and experts worry that screens are taking time away from exercise and learning. And we’re particularly concerned that, according to the survey, children from lower-income households are spending quite a bit more time on mobile devices and other screens than middle- and higher-income children.
For more than two decades, the American Academy of Pediatrics believed that children under 2 should not be exposed to screens at all. But the AAP has since moderated that position.
“The AAP recommends that parents and caregivers develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child as well as the whole family,” the academy announced in its new recommendations for children’s media use.
Among the AAP’s specific recommendations:
—For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
—For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
—For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to good health.
—Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
—Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
Jen Bjorem, a pediatric speech pathologist, told AP that while it’s “quite unrealistic” for many families to totally do away with screen time — nor are we advocating such a thing — balance is key.
“Screen time can be a relief for many parents during times of high stress or just needing a break,” she said.
We get that, and parents shouldn’t feel guilty about using some screen time to get a breather.
But two hours and 19 minutes is more than a breather.
When technology becomes a substitute for interpersonal relationships, or play or learning, we’re in trouble. And this is not just about children.
“Neuroimaging research shows excessive screen time damages the brain,” according to a 2014 article in Psychology Today.
The magazine cited a study that revealed, “internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.”
Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves, and our children, that moderation, when it comes to all of our available technological distractions, is the right approach.
What might we do with all of that extra time? Read, talk, listen, play.
There are those among us who remember when that was enough.