Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Pennsylvania’s newspapers:
New voting improvements come at a cost
The Citizens’ Voice
Gov. Tom Wolf has signed into law the most significant revision to Pennsylvania election laws in about 80 years. With one important exception, the new law truly constitutes reform.
The law eliminates Pennsylvania’s status as the state with the most restrictive laws regarding absentee voting and, therefore, holds the promise of vastly increasing voting access.
Beginning next year, voters no longer will need an excuse to get an absentee ballot. That, in effect, means that anyone can vote by mail in any or every election.
Even better, the law expands the window to obtain and return absentee ballots. The application deadline is reduce to 15 days before the election from 30 days and, most important, allows the ballot to be returned up to 8 p.m. on Election Day instead of 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election. That will result in thousands more votes being counted rather than disqualified, ending Pennsylvania’s ranking as the state with the highest level of absentee rejections. And it is even more important in light of the other changes regarding absentee ballots.
Unfortunately, those improvements come at the cost of a regressive measure — elimination of straight-party voting. That likely will reduce the vote count in down-ballot races, which was the objective of Republican lawmakers who insisted on the measure in exchange for actual reforms. The administration carefully should monitor that voting and be prepared to move for straight-ticket restoration.
The bill also authorizes borrowing of up to $90 million to help counties pay for secure new voting systems required by the administration in response to a federal mandate. Statewide, the new systems for 67 counties will cost between $125 million and $148 million.
Lawmakers also agreed to provide $4 million to help prepare for the 2020 census, but they should reconsider and provide the full $13 million recommended by a commission that studied the issue. According to the administration, each uncounted resident will cost the state $2,100 in federal money, which is distributed according to census figures. The census is a nonpartisan matter, and lawmakers of both parties should ensure that the state is not subjected to a costly under-count.
Start small with Sunday hunting
The Reading Eagle
Pennsylvania’s nearly century and a half ban on most forms of hunting on Sundays will probably end soon thanks to a Harrisburg compromise on the issue.
Given how big a step it is — and the significant and legitimate opposition it faced — the compromise that brings its end should be the rule for a while, not a small step toward a quick leap to unraveling it.
Legislation to allow Sunday hunting — for game beyond the current restriction to crows, foxes and coyotes — passed a key committee thanks to an agreement reached last month with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
The three Sundays of hunting to be allowed under the bill — one following the opening of archery deer season, one following the new Saturday start of firearm deer season and another to be determined by the state Game Commission — is a far smaller step than supporters of a relaxation of the ban had originally sought. They wanted 14 Sundays per year open to hunting.
Supporters certainly appear to have won their legislative fight fairly. They cited significant concerns such as a decline in hunting and the need for hunting revenue for game land conservation in Pennsylvania. They hope an extra weekend day will allow more young people to hunt, increasing its popularity among a new generation and generating revenue to continue to take care of Pennsylvania’s forests.
“I support Sunday hunting 100%,” Nathan Hertzog, a sportsman from Kutztown, told the Reading Eagle. “I don’t see any reason why not. It’s needed nowadays with the modern lifestyle for the working man and the youth.”
Those are fair points, much better than saying, as some have, that Pennsylvania’s Sunday hunting ban, which dates to 1873, is “archaic” merely for being old. Pointing to the rarity of the ban — Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states with statutes that either ban or restrict hunting on Sundays — is equally unpersuasive.
The ban has benefits for others who enjoy Pennsylvania’s natural beauty, and for farmers who welcome hunters, just not on Sundays. Pennsylvania’s limit on Sunday hunting has lasted as long as it has because of these advantages for people who want to enjoy the woods without taking safety precautions required during hunting seasons.
“Hikers and trail users really want that day to not worry about being in the woods,” according to Joe Neville, executive director of the Keystone Trails Association, which continues to oppose any crack in the Sunday hunting ban.
Neville said the current day of rest from hunting has been more than break from having to wear orange for hikers, bird watchers and others who share a love of Penn’s Woods equal to that of those who harvest deer, bears, elk, wild turkeys and other game here.
Trail maintenance days are often held on Sundays, Neville said. And he fears the three-day exception to Pennsylvania’s traditional Sunday hunting ban is just the beginning.
“We view this as the camel’s nose under the tent,” Neville said.
It’s a point virtually conceded by state Rep. Mark Rozzi of Muhlenberg Township, the Berks County legislative delegation’s most outspoken supporter of the change.
“I wish it would include more Sundays, but we’ll take what we can get,” Rozzi said.
What supporters should get from the Sunday hunting test run that appears ready to become law in Pennsylvania is just that: a test run.
Only after several years of three days of Sunday hunting should any expansion be considered. In that time, all the issues raised in the debate over the change should be assessed: its effectiveness in driving up interest in the sport, and its impact on hikers and private property owners who open their land to hunting.
Pennsylvania’s hunting ban is due for a relaxation, but it should not be repealed. And further relaxation of it should come only if there’s strong evidence of a need for it.
Limit kids’ online video time
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If it seems as though the kids are watching a lot more videos online than they were just a few years ago, appearances are reality. New research shows the typical American youth is spending an hour every day viewing online videos.
The news is unlikely to surprise any parent who has tried to pry a child away from YouTube or other sites with video content.
One of the many problems with this, according to Common Sense Media, the group that produced the study, is that much of the video content kids stumble across online is not appropriate for children and teens.
The study is yet another warning to adults to closely monitor children’s digital viewing habits. And it should also be a wake-up call to regulators and YouTube executives about the need to develop better filters and technology to help control children’s access to inappropriate material. YouTube’s platform is set up to cycle viewers from one video to another automatically. Even YouTube officials say that the site’s content is not appropriate for anyone younger than 13.
Common Sense Media compiled its report after surveying more than 1,600 participants between the ages of 8 and 18, asking them about their video-viewing habits. Fifty-six percent of 8-year-olds to 12-year-olds and 69% of 13-year-olds to 18-year-olds reported watching online videos every day. Those figures are up from 24% and 34%, respectively, in 2015.
One bit of good news in the report is that while more children have a daily video habit, their overall screen time remains roughly the same as it was in 2015 with kids ages 8 to 12 spending an average four hours and 44 minutes on digital devices a day and teens ages 13 to 18 spending seven hours and 22 minutes on them. These statistics do not count time children spent using devices to do their homework, read books or listen to music.
The children whose parents and grandparents were likely chided for spending too much time in front of the television now have increasingly less interest in traditional television or streaming programs, favoring online videos instead.
The Common Sense Media study ought to be another reminder for families to prioritize real-world, non-digital activities together and to limit screen time overall.
‘Old network’ not about boys
The Scranton Times-Tribune
Paige Cognetti won Tuesday’s special election for Scranton mayor by overcoming what she had described as the “old-boy network” of city Democratic politics.
The victory is historic because Cognetti is the first woman to be elected mayor of Scranton. And Jessica Rothchild’s election to city council is an exclamation point on the historic vote, in that she will became the first openly gay person elected to any position in the city government.
But that “old network” that Cognetti challenged is about much more than gender or sexual orientation alone. It’s about the traditions of self-interest, rather than public-interest governance, that have brought low the city government. It’s evident in the reason for the special election — former Mayor Bill Courtright’s federal corruption conviction. But it is just as evident in lesser fiascoes, such as the fire chief using his public vehicle and city-purchased fuel for personal purposes and lying about it to the mayor, the inability to conduct simple internal audits, and obfuscation instead of accountability.
It also was evident in the contrast between the campaigns conducted by Cognetti and Councilman Kyle Donahue, the runner-up in the seven-candidate race.
After Cognetti, a native Oregonian, focused on her education at Harvard and finance industry and government service experience in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg, Donahue resorted to a negative, nativist campaign — as if the city’s problems were generated elsewhere rather than homegrown.
That Cognetti and Rothchild are Scranton immigrants might be more significant than that they are women. Rothchild is a New Jersey native who is, in a sense, the holy grail of the city’s future — a University of Scranton graduate who settled in Scranton.
The Cognetti and Rothchild victories, coupled with the five-member reform slate elected to the Scranton School Board, including four women, are not just blows to the old-boy network, but to the old governance network. They are a shot to the solar plexus for the sclerotic City Democratic Committee.
Like all newly elected officials, Tuesday’s winners will find that campaigning, as hard as it is, is the easy part of the process. Governing is harder. But they are armed now with a mandate to govern as they campaigned, to reject the conventions of old-school politics and governance and to vault not just the gender bar, but the competence and transparency bar.
In the race for Lackawanna County commissioner, incumbent Democrat Jerry Notarianni attained the majority position he thought he had won four years ago.
He and Debi Domenick, a Dunmore attorney and first-time candidate, defeated Republicans Chris Chermak and Michael Giannetta, with Chermak apparently winning the minority seat.
As in 2015, Notarianni was the top vote-getter Tuesday. But now it is unlikely that he will be cast into the minority as he was upon taking office in 2016, when his running mate Patrick O’Malley in effect decided to govern as a Republican after winning as a Democrat. He formed an alliance with Laureen Cummings, who had won the minority seat by just 73 votes.
Domenick ran with O’Malley in the Democratic primary while Notarianni ran with a former county official, George Kelly. O’Malley and Kelly lost, leaving Domenick and Notarianni as a de facto team.
They ran a positive campaign, whereas Giannetta and Chermak bizarrely attempted to tie Notarianni to corruption, including Courtright’s, without evidence to support it.
This year, it appears that the voters will get the county majority for which they voted.
Bugging out about city council’s bed bug bill
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Hiding under mattresses and sneaking out under cover of darkness to feed on the blood of sleeping people, bed bugs (rhymes with ughs) have been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth. In other words, they’re survivors; they persist. And getting rid of these ingenious but totally revolting creatures requires persistence, too.
That’s why First District City Councilman Mark Squilla deserves credit for taking on a problem that has earned Philadelphia the unappetizing title of America’s most bed bug-infested city. Might this be due to the fact that unlike other big towns, Philly has no clear or specific bed bug control strategies or policies? That’s worth considering.
But whatever the case, Squilla, who set up a task force of experts to make recommendations, also should be applauded for acknowledging that his own South Philadelphia household had been among the many affected citywide. Bed bugs don’t discriminate or cause disease but they can carry a stigma, despite the fact that hotels worldwide and even the Manhattan headquarters of the New York Times have experienced an infestation. Good housekeeping is surely a good idea, but it offers no guarantee against bed bugs.
Last week, Squilla was assailed for amending his anti-bed bug bill to split certain extermination costs between tenants and landlords. The pests can readily spread from apartment to apartment and rowhouse to rowhouse, and they often hitch a ride on clothing or luggage. So it’s difficult to assign blame, much less create the equivalent of a chain of custody, for these icky little critters, who — to further complicate matters — can hole up under rugs, in baseboards, and even inside electrical sockets for months before emerging to search for their next blood meal.
Squilla’s measure is still under review, but as amended it would make renters and landlords jointly responsible for the extermination costs of infestations discovered after an apartment or home has been occupied by the tenants for 90 days. If a tenant moves in and detects bugs before 90 days, the landlord is liable for the full cost, which can range from hundreds to well over a thousand dollars.
Critics cried foul: In an Inquirer op-ed, Michael Z. Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania who has long studied bed bugs. wrote that the cost-shifting amendment is contrary to the original intent of the bill and would set back rather than advance eradication efforts. Research suggests that making landlords responsible, period, is the best approach, he said.
But Squilla said the cost-sharing was recommended by the task force and is intended not as a favor to landlords but as an incentive to tenants to promptly report bed bugs. An infestation worsens as the insects rapidly reproduce, and the larger the population, the more time and money is needed to exterminate it. The fact is, with it being impossible to know the origins of any single infestation, it seems fair for all to share the burden of eradicating it.
Squilla’s newly amended proposal isn’t perfect. But he says he is willing to fine-tune it further. It deserves a shot.