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Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. March 10, 2023.

Editorial: At long last, an equitable ruling on school funding. Change must now follow swiftly.

A Commonwealth Court judge found what many have long said about the way Pennsylvania pays for K-12 public education: The state’s method of funding schools is unfair and inadequate. Even more egregious, it is unconstitutional.

Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s landmark 786-page decision is a long-overdue victory for students across the state — especially those in poorer rural and urban districts. It is also a triumph for justice, equality, and the rule of law.

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However, when real change will come remains unclear.

After all, the lawsuit was first filed in 2014 and did not go to trial until November 2021. After three months of arguments, the ruling came a year later. The decision will likely be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

That process could take another year or so. If the Supreme Court upholds the decision, it will be left to the General Assembly and Gov. Josh Shapiro to determine how to properly fund the schools, as the judge’s ruling did not prescribe a remedy.

Kudos to the attorneys at the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center, and the private firm of O’Melveny & Myers for their tenacity throughout the long legal process. They shined a light on the state’s inability to provide a “thorough and efficient” education for all children, as the Pennsylvania Constitution’s education clause requires.

Hurdles remain, but Shapiro and state lawmakers do not have to wait for the courts to tell them what is obvious to everyone: It is past time to properly fund public education for all students. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

The price, though, will not be cheap. A Penn State professor’s analysis provided at the trial found it would take an additional $4.6 billion invested over time to adequately fund the schools. The entire state budget for 2022-23 is $45.2 billion.

In effect, to properly fund the schools, lawmakers would have to increase revenues by roughly 10%. Those revenues mainly come from three sources: sales taxes, personal income taxes, and corporate income taxes.

Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg will surely oppose tax increases and instead use the ruling to call for more school choice, which has failed to solve the state’s education woes.

The good news is Democrats control the state House, and Shapiro supports increasing education funding and making it more equitable for students in every zip code.

As state attorney general, Shapiro filed an amicus brief supporting the legal challenge to the current funding method. Shapiro’s brief said the “Commonwealth’s most fundamental need is an intelligent and informed citizenry, which will support our democratic institutions, grow our economy, and strengthen the foundations of our shared civic life.”

That cuts to the heart of the matter.

Pennsylvania does a good job of investing in the elderly. The state funds nursing homes, offers seniors property tax rebates, and earmarks lottery proceeds for a variety of programs that benefit senior citizens.

Now, Pennsylvania must also invest in its future.

Research shows that states with well-educated workers have stronger economies. One study found increasing student achievement to basic mastery levels across the country would increase the nation’s gross domestic product by $32 trillion, or 14.6%.

There is also a clear correlation that shows investing in education lowers crime. Pennsylvania spends more than $42,000 a year, per inmate, to house people in prison. The state would be better off investing in education, thus reducing prison costs and the number of incarcerated individuals.

Pennsylvania has long lagged behind other states in terms of funding public schools and job growth. Students in poorer school districts especially lack many basic resources, including books, libraries, counselors, and even enough teachers.

The state’s uneven funding was underscored during the pandemic, when schools in poorer districts lacked resources to transition to online learning, leaving kids to fall further behind.

Republicans in Harrisburg have long ignored education as an investment. More than a decade ago, then-Gov. Tom Corbett slashed education funding statewide by $1 billion and crippled Philadelphia’s schools.

Doug Mastriano, last year’s Republican nominee for governor, wanted to eliminate property taxes and give parents vouchers for $9,000, which would have effectively cut education funding by a third. Voters ensured that disaster was averted.

But Republicans in Washington have also been hostile to public education for more than a generation. Former President Ronald Reagan promised to kill the U.S. Department of Education in 1980. Donald Trump repeatedly proposed cutting billions in funding meant for after-school programs, teacher training, and grants.

Starving education is a losing policy on many levels. Public education is a public good. Pennsylvania students have already waited too long for state leaders to do what is right.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 14, 2023.

Editorial: Shapiro takes first step in fixing state’s shameful indigent defense system

Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of one the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 20th century. The High Court’s unanimous ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright established the right of the accused to an attorney and adequate defense, regardless of income.

The landmark 1963 ruling brought justice to millions of Americans, while leaving others behind, as state legislatures failed to adequately fund or oversee local public defense efforts. That’s especially true in Pennsylvania, one of only two states — South Dakota is the other — that provides no state funding or oversight for local public defenders or court-appointed attorneys.

Aside from Philadelphia’s robust system, Pennsylvania delivers a hodgepodge of fast, cheap and ineffective indigent legal services. Elsewhere in the state, vastly disparate spending results in justice by geography, where outgunned and underpaid public defenders, with more cases than they can competently handle, are forced to cut corners, including forgoing expert witnesses and investigators.

To his credit, Gov. Josh Shapiro included $10 million in his 2023-24 budget, effective July 1, to start fixing Pennsylvania’s shameful system. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will distribute this unprecedented investment locally, based on a formula that considers needs and available resources, the governor’s office said.

Altogether, Pennsylvania’s 67 counties spend more than $100 million on indigent defense, but Philadelphia accounts for 40% of that. Allegheny County spends roughly $9.2 million, close to the average per-capita expenditure. Statewide, an added $10 million is not enough to ensure adequate legal services for every defendant — but it’s a long-overdue start.

The governor’s office and PCCD ought to determine how much state funding Pennsylvania needs to adequately fund every county, and then earmark that amount in the 2024-25 budget. Meantime, the PCCD should develop uniform standards for indigent defense, including training, qualifications, data collection, caseloads, eligibility requirements and employee compensation. A statewide Office of Indigent Defense would help ensure sufficient and uniform funding and services throughout Pennsylvania.

Not doing so would be not only unjust, but also expensive, resulting in inflated sentences, court-ordered retrials, incarcerating the innocent and wrongful-conviction lawsuits. Over the last 30 years, more than 100 people have been exonerated in Pennsylvania. Since 1976, in capital cases alone, 10 prisoners have been exonerated and hundreds resentenced.

Sixty years ago, a Florida court convicted Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter with an eight-grade education, of breaking-and-entering, and sentenced him to five years in prison. Mr. Gideon couldn’t afford an attorney, and the judge refused to appoint one. Mr. Gideon appealed the conviction, first, to the Florida Supreme Court and then, with a handwritten petition, to the U.S Supreme Court. The High Court reversed his conviction and established the right to legal counsel, regardless of income. Mr. Gideon was retried and acquitted.

By allocating state funding for indigent defense for the first time in Pennsylvania, Mr. Shapiro has taken a commendable step toward making the Gideon decision a reality in the commonwealth.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. March 13, 2023.

Editorial: Motor License Fund bill could mean decisions for municipalities

A Pennsylvania Senate bill would see state police get less money from a dedicated pool with a different purpose.

The Motor License Fund is a coffer set up to collect money from various automotive-related sources. It is filled by things such as the 61-cent gas tax, a chunk of the vehicle registration fees and money you pay for a driver’s license.

In 2021, it generated $2.9 billion.

You would think all of these transportation- related funds would be exclusively used for transportation- related reasons. But this is Pennsylvania, where escalating turnpike tolls are, at least in part, tied to mandatory and massive payments from the turnpike commission to PennDOT for non-toll road uses such as mass transit.

A portion of the Motor License Fund — up to 17% — goes to pay for the state police.

There has been an effort to change that in recent years.

In the 2016-17 fiscal year, money dedicated to state police from the Motor License Fund was $800 million. That drew the attention of lawmakers, who decided to try to scale that back. A 2016 law aimed to ramp down the allocation to $500 million over 10 years.

State Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Johnstown, has introduced a bill that would separate police funding from the Motor License Fund entirely by 2028-29, weaning the maximum down by $50 million annually.

“The General Fund will continue to absorb additional costs for law enforcement services. As our revenue outlook improves, I believe we can lower the transfers even further to properly invest in our highway and bridge network,” Langerholc said.

If this passes, it would mean pivoting from “how do we fund transportation infrastructure” to “how do we fund police.” That will no doubt mean revisiting how to make that funding fair regarding municipalities that rely on state police for coverage rather than hiring their own police force or participating in a regional department.

Hempfield should think ahead about how it will address this issue. The Westmoreland County municipality is the largest in the state that doesn’t provide its own law enforcement.

It’s only fair that if the state finally figures out how to stop relying on the Motor License Fund to pay for police, Hempfield could stop relying on other Pennsylvanians’ taxes and fees to do the same.

Scranton Times-Tribune. March 11, 2023.

Editorial: Key state industry green, growing

Pennsylvanians voted with their feet during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, discovering or rediscovering state parks and forests as a vast outdoor refuge from pandemic restrictions.

In the process, they spawned sound, bipartisan state policy. Lawmakers and former Gov. Tom Wolf decided to dedicate tens of millions of federal pandemic relief dollars to improving and expanding the park system, including a new one at the Howland Preserve in Wyoming County.

Now the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has issued a report further demonstrating the benefits of Pennsylvanians’ love affair with their state’s truly great outdoors.

The DCNR reported that the total outdoor recreation industry was responsible for 1.6% of the state’s economic output in 2021 and for 2.5% of the total workforce. From 2017 through 2021, the report stated, retail sales of hiking, climbing, camping and other equipment increased by 52%.

For the same year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the industry nationally generated $14 billion in gross domestic product and employed more than 150,000 people.

Now the agency’s Office of Outdoor Recreation wants to build on the momentum. It has put together a group of about 50 businesses, government agencies, environmental groups, recreation advocates and others with interests in the outdoor recreation industry, to further expand the industry while preserving the state’s abundant natural assets. The office will conduct a series of meetings around the state, including April 13 at the Montage Mountain ski area in Lackawanna County.

Outdoor recreation growth demonstrates that environmental stewardship and economic growth need not be mutually exclusive concepts. State lawmakers from both parties deserve credit for recognizing that and should bring the underlying policy to other aspects of state policy.

Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. March 11, 2023.

Editorial: Shapiro’s budget calls for governance

Gov. Josh Shapiro hit many of the right buttons in his achievable, reasonable budget proposal Tuesday. But the overarching effect may be to force lawmakers to govern rather than retreat into ideological silos.

The plan does not simply call for funding, but for major changes in many areas of state policy that would improve overall governance and, in many cases, the day-to-day lives of millions of Pennsylvanians.

Overall, the $44.4 billion proposal is a 3.6% increase over the current budget that would hold spending nearly flat while increasing it for public education, some aspects of the social safety net, and some aspects of public safety.

EDUCATION: Public education usually is the centerpiece of governors’ budget proposals, and that is all the more so this year because of a recent Commonwealth Court ruling that the state’s current distribution of education funding is unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs who brought the underlying lawsuit, and other education advocates, had calculated that the state would have to add more than $4 billion to fairly distribute education funding unless it reduced funding for some districts to give it to others — a nonstarter in the Legislature.

Shapiro proposed a $567 million, 7.8% increase for basic education and a $104 million increase for special education, calling it a “down payment” on the fair funding prescribed by the court. That would provide an additional

$32.4 million for Northeast Pennsylvania districts.

That should find bipartisan support because scores of underfunded districts are in predominantly Democratic cities and predominantly Republican rural areas.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE: Pennsylvania, shamefully, is the only state that does not fund county public defender offices. That creates vastly disparate quality in criminal defense, despite state and federal constitutional mandates for legal representation.

Shapiro proposed $10 million to help fund those offices. It’s not just about competent representation for defendants, but the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts. It will help to prevent successful and costly appeals for ineffective assistance of counsel.

A bipartisan bill to fund public defenders has been introduced in the Senate.

CRITICAL JOBS: Recognizing staff shortages in hospitals, schools and police forces statewide, Shapiro proposed a $2,500-a-year tax credit, for up to three years, for students who earn nursing, teaching or relevant law enforcement degree, or for people who move to Pennsylvania with those credentials. And, to alleviate state police staff shortages, he proposed funding for more than 300 additional troopers.

ECONOMIC JUSTICE: Unlike every other Northeast state, and almost all states outside of the South, Pennsylvania has not raised its minimum wage since the federal rate of $7.25 an hour took effect in 2009. That is unconscionable, especially for lawmakers who have tied their own automatic annual increases to an inflation index. Shapiro proposed raising the wage floor to $15 an hour on July 1.

The governor also proposed expanding rent and property tax rebates for older residents by increasing the income eligibility threshold from $35,000 to $45,000 year, and renewing the Universal Breakfast Program for all public school students.

TAXES: The revenue side of the budget especially should appeal to legislative Republicans. The governor did not propose any new taxes or tax increases. Instead, he proposed accelerating the reduction of the corporate net income tax to as little as 4% from its current 8.99% by 2025, four years ahead of schedule. He also proposed eliminating state cellphone taxes to save users

$124 million a year, while increasing a monthly fee from $1.65 to $2.05 a month to help alleviate staff shortages at emergency communications centers.

No budget proposed by a governor survives intact. But this budget does not attempt to break the bank while challenging legislators to produce some progress in key areas of Pennsylvania life. It’s time for governance.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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