PENNSYLVANIA MUST START FRESH AND FIND BETTER WAY TO FIX ITS POOR ROADS
The situation is grim for Pennsylvania's roadway infrastructure, The Caucus' Mike Wereschagin explained in a comprehensive article that was published in LNP on April 1. (The Caucus is an LNP Media Group watchdog publication.) The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is "billions of dollars short of what's needed to maintain one of the largest networks of roadways in the country." It's a complicated issue that involves the diversion of the highest gas tax in the United States, a debt-ridden Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, maintenance and reconstruction needs that are years or decades overdue and Pennsylvania drivers and taxpayers who are continually paying the price for these messes.
We love Pennsylvania, but sometimes it truly tries our patience. Specifically, our elected officials in Harrisburg try our patience.
There are myriad crucial issues that rightfully should be the top priority in the Capitol: fair funding for public education, local property taxes and greenhouse gas emissions, to name a few.
But the slow-moving catastrophe involving our roads, highways and bridges arguably could supersede all of those.
Without our roads, we are lost.
Or, at the very least, stuck.
Stuck economically. Stuck trying to get across the county or the state. Stuck at the repair shop with the estimated $341 per year each of us pays for car repairs that are directly attributable to Pennsylvania's poor road conditions, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Writes Wereschagin: "The laws, short-term fixes and diversions of billions of dollars meant for road and bridge maintenance have brought the state to the brink of multiple simultaneous crises."
How we got here
Wereschagin detailed our state's road to road woes.
— Pennsylvania's 58.7-cent gas tax is the highest in America. It is the primary source of revenue for the fund that's meant to pay for road and bridge projects. But the Pennsylvania State Police budget ballooned earlier this century when "an ever-growing number of municipalities abandoned the cost of local police departments and began relying on state troopers." So, Wereschagin notes, legislators responded to that budget problem by raiding the gas-tax revenue.
— Meanwhile, the Turnpike Commission is supposed to be providing PennDOT with $450 million per year for public transit. (The payment decreases to $50 million per year in 2023.) But it's been borrowing to pay that tab. The turnpike is now sitting on $11.8 billion in debt and furthermore has raised tolls 11 times since 2007. So our wallets get hit harder, with little to show for it.
— Amid all this, our critical road maintenance needs continue to accumulate. About 57 percent of Pennsylvania's interstate system is well past the age of requiring reconstruction, PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards says. Additionally, "nearly 2,600 bridges connect that interstate system, and more than half are past their 50-year designed lifespan," Wereschagin reports.
PennDOT estimates the cost of maintenance, repair and modernization for our interstate highways alone would require $40 billion over the next 15 years. Obviously, that kind of money is not available, leading to, as Wereschagin notes, "a constant game of catch-up."
Constant catch-up means constant headaches for us. And it's terribly inefficient. Says Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark Crompton: "When you don't change out the roadbed as often as required, what you do is you mill and pave and do overlays. ... We're going back into those same areas, inconveniencing those same customers, repaving on a three-year cycle when it should really be 10 or 15 (years) depending on what the quality of the roadbed is. ... That slows traffic, diverts traffic, takes resources from other areas."
Only getting worse
With each season, the crisis compounds itself.
This time of year, the end of the freeze-thaw cycle can buckle pavement and lead to a fresh outbreak of potholes. Spring rains add to the dire equation.
Drivers bear these costs at double to triple the rate we might if the roads were properly maintained, according to economists at the World Bank. "For every dollar a government cuts from road maintenance, drivers pay an extra $2 to $3," Wereschagin writes, further stating, "Kick the can down the road long enough, eventually it'll land in a pothole. That time might have arrived for Pennsylvania's roadway infrastructure funding."
Indeed, we are in the pothole.
Can we get out?
Pennsylvania clearly does not have the funds — as they are currently allocated — to adequately address its crumbling transportation infrastructure.
There can be no quick or short-sighted fix, either. Quick fixes got us here.
Harrisburg needs to look at this as if it's starting from scratch. The first thing we might suggest would be making sure that as much of the state gas tax as possible goes directly toward road projects, increasing the funding available to PennDOT for much-needed work.
That, in turn, will require a new vision for funding Pennsylvania State Police. We wrote in February that we support the philosophy behind Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal to charge a sliding-scale fee to municipalities that rely solely on state police coverage (of which there are 19 in Lancaster County). While Wolf's proposal wouldn't fully cover the cost of state police, it's a start. We must fund state police properly, so that we can do the same with infrastructure. No more taking from one fund to pay another unrelated budgetary expense.
What else can be done? We don't believe higher turnpike tolls are the answer. Those costs spread the financial burden unevenly and may eventually reach the point — if they haven't already — at which, as Wereschagin notes, "truckers decide it's more cost-effective for them to trade the turnpike's tolls for a longer travel time on an alternate route." That would lead to more woes.
Fixing our roads isn't going to be easy, but we cannot fail. "We will have to be creative," said state Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from the southeast corner of the state. "We'll have to figure out a way to get a new revenue stream so the infrastructure is not abandoned."
We can no longer leave this problem for the next Legislature. No more diversions of funds. No more temporary fixes. If Pennsylvania is to have a financially successful future, it must have a solid, well-maintained system of roads and highways.
__ LPN/Lancaster Online
__ Online: https://bit.ly/2DbpMM9
DON'T OVERLY POLITICIZE FED
It is impossible to divorce politics entirely from the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Individual members have political philosophies. The institution itself, often regarded as the fourth branch of the federal government, has tense relations with the administration, or Congress, or both. And its policies inevitably highlight the eternal tensions between consumers and the banking industry from which most Fed governors come, between labor and capital, and all of the subdivisions within the vast American economy.
But ever since the Fed's creation in 1913 to help standardize and stabilize the economy, presidents mostly have striven to avoid overtly politicizing the Fed. In recent times, for example, three presidents have reappointed chairmen who had been appointed by their predecessors — Ronald Reagan chose Paul Volcker; Bill Clinton chose Alan Greenspan and Barack Obama retained Ben Bernanke.
Now, however, President Donald Trump has blamed the Fed for almost any negative economic news, even though the 10-year expansion following the Great Recession has continued under his and the current Fed's stewardship.
And the administration has nominated Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore, and has floated nominating former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, for 14-year terms on the 12-member Fed board.
Moore's record is dubious. He predicted incorrectly that Fed interest rate cuts and "quantitative easing" following the Great Recession would drive inflation to unmanageable levels, and he was a key adviser on former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's disastrous tax cuts.
Cain advocated a series of bizarre theories during his presidential run, including his farcical "9-9-9" tax plan and a call to return the country to the gold standard.
Neither man deserves confirmation on their records. Their political activism adds to the case for the Senate to reject them.
__ The Scranton Times-Tribune
__ Online: https://bit.ly/2KzrlKa
A SOLUTION NEEDED FOR SURPRISE BILLING
A local resolution to one of the nastiest aspects of American health care — "surprise billing" — should point state legislators to a broader solution.
Surprise billing occurs when a patient who believes he is covered, but receives multiple services from multiple providers, receives a bill from a doctor or hospital who was out of the insurer's network.
One of the most common sources of surprise billing is the hospital emergency room. Hospitals often contract with outside groups for physician services in emergency rooms. So a patient might be covered for ER facilities and nursing services, but not for treating doctors who work for a different employer.
Recently, Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton and Emergency Services PC, of Dunmore, agreed to a new contract under which the emergency services provider will accept the same insurances as those accepted by the hospital, thus eliminating surprise billing.
And surprise billing is just one problem that arises for patients from business relationships between medical providers and insurers. Northeast Pennsylvania has experienced many cases where some medical groups suddenly have been rendered "out of network" by insurers, often disrupting the continuity of care for long-time patients.
That is a major element of a dispute in Western Pennsylvania between the University of Pittsburgh Medical System, the largest health care system in the state, and Highmark, the largest health insurer. A state-negotiated consent decree requiring UPMC to accept Highmark patients, is set to expire June 30, and court recently has declined to extend it. That could disrupt care for tens of thousands of Pennsylvania patients.
Amid the increasing pace of mergers of health care systems and between health care systems and insurers, state lawmakers finally should protect consumers' interests by requiring all health care providers to accept any valid health insurance. The state also should establish an arbitration panel to handle payment disputes between insurers and providers.
People with health insurance should not be denied care. State lawmakers can cure not only surprise billing, but basic access to care.
__ The Citizens' Voice
__ Online: https://bit.ly/2P1QGuB
OUR MINERS DESERVE BETTER THAN THIS
Many of the men who toiled until they could toil no more in some of the worst American working conditions to power this country — coal miners — won't live to see their grandchildren or even their own children reach adulthood because of their exposure to coal dust and the disease that results: pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.
This breath-taking illness leaves its victims disabled and in need of medical treatment that costs tens of thousands of dollars annually per person. That's why the federal government established a fund, paid for by an excise tax on coal, in 1978.
The fund is running dry because of inaction by Congress and the Trump administration.
A tax on coal that sets the revenue stream for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was cut by about half on Jan 1. It saves coal operators lots of money — hundreds of millions a year — and at the same time threatens the very existence of some 25,000 people who need it (a number that is expected to grow, as more miners are getting the disease at younger ages and after far less time in the mines). Federal budget officials estimate that by mid-2020, there won't be enough money to fully cover the fund's benefit payments.
It's a betrayal. President Donald Trump, who promised during his 2016 campaign to save the coal industry, repeatedly has praised coal miners as "great people. Brave people." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's home state of Kentucky is a top-five coal producer, and he had promised publicly in late 2018 that the excise tax rate would be maintained.
Our federal leaders must come together, and quickly, to ensure restoration of necessary funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund before it dies a slow death — like many of its recipients will. Black lung damages the lungs (sometimes after just five years or so in the mines). This causes the heart to work harder. In sum, victims die of respiratory or heart failure. There's no cure but there are — costly — treatments to prolong life and improve its quality.
This issue is especially important for Pennsylvania as it is on the top-five list of U.S. coal producers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The coal industry should redirect some of the political contributions it made to our nation's elected officials — including the president and Mr. McConnell — to the Black Lung Fund. But, let's get real: That won't happen. That's why the tax on coal must be restored at least to its 2018 levels. The 2018 excise tax rate was $1.10 per ton on underground coal and 55 cents on surface-mined coal. Together, the excise tax yielded $450 million. Rates fell to about 50 cents and 25 cents, respectively, when lawmakers didn't extend a Dec. 31 expiration date.
The fund provides health benefits and disability payments to about 25,000 retired miners, most of whom worked for companies that now are bankrupt. The mining industry loves the lower rate and says that restoring it to 2018 levels will lead to job losses.
So long as the U.S. chooses to derive some 25 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, its got to be willing to protect the workers who give their lives to the effort.
__ The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
__ Online: https://bit.ly/2KqO1fy
GRANDMA, SEND ME MONEY -- NOW!
The call goes something like this:
"Hello, grandma, it's me, Joey. Yes, it's really Joey. I have to talk low, and I'm sick, so I sound funny.
"Please don't tell Mom or Dad, but I've been arrested, and I need your help. Please, please don't tell anyone. I just need your help right away!
"I need you to wire me some money, so I don't have to go to jail! Please grandma, do it right away!"
What grandparent wouldn't rush to help their grandchild in trouble? And if the kid seems afraid or panicked, emotions and protective impulses take over and natural skepticism is pushed aside.
Some grandparents have wired thousands of dollars into the ether to try to rescue a grandchild in distress. Others have gone to Walmart or Kmart or Target and bought thousands of dollars in gift cards to mail off into the great unknown.
Don't think it couldn't happen to you. It could. It's happened to thousands of people. And while the scamsters prey most on the elderly, every one of us is at risk.
The Federal Trade Commission recently released a report showing even millennials can fall victim to fraud. In fact, they are more likely to be the subjects of fraud than people over 70 years of age.
Pennsylvania residents of all ages lose millions of dollars to scammers each year, but law enforcement officials will tell you this is an increasing problem for the elderly, who generally have more to lose than millennials.
The top scam now involves an officious caller claiming to be from the IRS and demanding payment of back taxes - now. He even threatens arrest if payment isn't made immediately over the phone.
There's also the Social Security phone scam and people claiming to be calling on behalf of police and firemen. The one sign of a scam: They want money - now.
People throughout the country are being targeted, including thousands right here in Pennsylvania. And people often are so embarrassed to be victims of a scam, they don't even bother to report it.
The Attorney General's office is doing its part to keep getting the word out about scams and is hosting a scam prevention forum with Rep. John Hershey from 2-3 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at Cedar Grove Brethren in Christ Church, 287 Deerville Rd., in Mifflintown.
The discussion will focus on scams associated with charitable contributions, estate planning, family emergencies, home improvement, power of attorney, sweepstakes, account verification, Medicare cards, IRS, checks and money orders.
They are to be applauded for organizing such events to speak directly to those most likely to be targeted.
"Scams have become more prevalent than ever," said Hershey, "so we must learn how to prevent these scams and protect ourselves from those who wish to take advantage of us and our finances.
"We also need to talk to our loved ones to be sure that they know the red flags commonly associated with scams."
Hershey is right. It's incumbent upon all of us to do more to help educate and protect seniors from scams.
The Attorney General's office has started a text alert to notify people as soon as possible about any new scams and to keep reminding them about the old ones that continue to break through our defenses.
__ Harrisburg Patriot News
__ Online: https://bit.ly/2P2ecHW
STATE NEED TO EMBRACE ALL-DAY 'K'
Some Pennsylvania children probably have benefited from not having had to begin their formal education until age 8, currently the latest starting age allowed under state law.
Those children are a small minority, however.
Gov. Tom Wolf wants to lower the mandatory starting age to 6 — the age that most children already start first grade — and that is a laudable element of his 2019-20 state budget proposal.
Wolf has said the change would bring the Keystone State in line with laws in other states.
The governor also supports a further lowering of the mandatory starting age to 5, as part of his advocacy for implementing universal full-day kindergarten.
Wolf has recommended a full-day-kindergarten study focusing on issues such as availability of classroom space and staffing.
An estimated 49,000 Pennsylvania 5-year-olds currently are not enrolled in kindergarten. Meanwhile, it is estimated that more than 3,300 children ages 6 and 7 statewide have not yet started school.
Understandably, the mandatory-age changes that the governor favors might challenge facilities and budgets of numerous school districts. If — or whenever — lawmakers and the governor give the go-ahead to one or both of the starting-age changes, the commonwealth should make additional money available to districts for a specified implementation time period.
In regard to universal full-day kindergarten, an article in the March 26 Mirror reported that once a kindergarten-related study is completed, Wolf administration officials would work with state lawmakers to find the funding necessary for that expanded educational opportunity.
It's important to acknowledge that a number of area school districts already have full-day kindergarten, even though kindergarten currently isn't mandatory in this state.
Meanwhile, there are some area parents who support more early childhood learning opportunities for children younger than age 5.
The big uncertainty at this time is which Wolf educational proposals will survive the budget-preparation process in which lawmakers currently are engaged. Pennsylvania isn't swimming in surplus money.
Actually, there's no guarantee that the state will have any money to spare for new initiatives of significant size during the coming budget year, which begins July 1.
Looking ahead, state residents should pay attention to what's happening on the budget front, especially regarding education funding and proposals. Beyond that, they should not hesitate to provide input to lawmakers and the governor's office about what they feel should happen regarding the mandatory school-attendance age and universal full-day kindergarten.
Lawmakers should reflect on the following viewpoint of Spring Cove School District Superintendent Betsy Baker:
"Our students' achievement — particularly their literacy development and mathematical skills — improved significantly when we made the shift (to full-day kindergarten). The heightened student achievement impacted the curricula beyond kindergarten, so it would be difficult to return to half-day sessions."
She added that "a child's early years are the foundation for their educational development. Lowering the compulsory school age to 5 helps ensure that all children have access to high-quality early childhood education."
Meanwhile, Joe Hurd, president and CEO of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce, has made the good point that more opportunities for early education eventually will provide a better-educated workforce.
In this increasingly challenging world, early education is more important than it ever has been.