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Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Philadelphia Inquirer. January 10, 2022.

Editorial: To help Pennsylvanians, Biden must alleviate student loan debt

Fourteen percent of people in our state carry student loan debt. Forgiving those debts could be a game changer for Pennsylvania residents.

Two years ago, in the heat of the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, then-candidate Joe Biden put forth a plan to alleviate student debt: $10,000 in federal loans forgiven for all borrowers.

Biden’s proposal also called for graduates of public universities and historically Black colleges and universities who earned less than $125,000 per year to see their entire federal debt eliminated. In addition, Biden promised to expand access and reduce payments for income-based repayment plans.

As Biden reaches the end of his first year in office, it’s time for him to make good on his promises to a generation of Americans struggling with student loan debt. This would have an enormous impact on Pennsylvania, where 14% of the population has an outstanding federal student loan. According to an analysis by the Institute for College Access and Success, the average student loan debt in Pennsylvania for the Class of 2020 is $39,375, the third-highest in the nation.

Even before the pandemic, student debt had become a major lag on the economy. In the 2019 federal fiscal year, 1.2 million borrowers defaulted on their loans. Even before then, many other borrowers reported that their debts had compelled them to delay personal milestones like getting married, buying a house, and having children. The pause has allowed many young borrowers to reduce other debts or build modest savings.

The Biden administration, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, claims that it doesn’t have the authority to cancel debt unilaterally and that it needs an act of Congress in order to get it done. Given how many priorities have already been cut from the beleaguered Build Back Better Act, it seems unlikely that loan forgiveness will make its way back in.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, disagrees with this assessment. He claims that Biden can eliminate debt with a stroke of a pen. Schumer also wants to forgive a much higher amount of debt, up to $50,000.

While many young Americans would welcome that kind of munificence, Biden had the right idea during the campaign: $10,000 would provide the biggest benefit to borrowers who need it most.

If the Biden administration is unable to legally forgive debt through executive action or is unwilling to risk a forgiveness that might later be revoked, there’s another option available to him, which is extending the current freeze — set to expire in May — until Congress passes the forgiveness plan his campaign proposed back in 2020.

For Biden, this represents not just an opportunity to fulfill a campaign promise, it also forces Republicans to choose between two options they’d prefer to avoid: forgiving debt or extending the freeze.

If Republicans opt against allowing Biden’s moderate debt forgiveness to pass the Senate, extending the debt freeze allows borrowers at least two and a half years to make payments that directly reduce their principal, rather than paying off accumulated interest. If Republicans opt to take the deal and forgive debt, Biden is able to post another campaign promise fulfilled alongside the bipartisan infrastructure investment. Either way, borrowers, particularly those most in need, win — and they certainly could use one.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. January 10, 2022.

Editorial: Growing Pennsylvania

The U.S. population is shifting in ways that don’t bode well for Pennsylvania.

The 2020 census showed the Keystone State — still the nation’s fifth-most populous with roughly 13 million residents — has grown at a rate far slower than the national average. Now, new data from the moving company U-Haul ranks the state 48th in growth in 2021, measured by comparing the number of one-way U-Haul trucks entering a state to those leaving it.

About 35% of residents cited a new job as their reason for leaving; an additional 28% cited family reasons and 20% retirement.

The U-Haul survey is a useful snapshot. Another U.S. Census Bureau report confirms the decline and reveals that Pennsylvania lost more than 25,000 residents from 2020-2021.

The exodus will hurt the state in many ways.

Politically, Pennsylvania has already lost an electoral vote as well as a seat in Congress, reducing residents’ representation and the state’s ability to advocate for federal attention and funds.

Economically, population decline can undermine local tax bases and erode basic services, as well as infrastructure, police and fire services, electricity grids and quality schools. Pennsylvania is already struggling to care for its elderly residents. Population decline also means a growing imbalance between workers and retirees.

These trends will continue, unless local and state governments, working with the private sector, do something about them.

Pennsylvania’s decades long decline correlates to shrinking industrial jobs, aggravated by a pandemic that is permanently shifting the country’s demographics. Birth rates also are declining nationwide.

Pennsylvania is not the only state to have seen a COVID-era exodus. So have New York, California, Illinois and Massachusetts. Conversely, Texas, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina have experienced significant growth in population.

It’s simplistic to reduce complex population trends to the partisan political narrative of people in blue states leaving for red states. In Pennsylvania, for example, most of the departures have been concentrated in the state’s Republican-leaning rural areas; urban areas either decreased more marginally or even grew.

Tax rates, housing costs, transportation, growth potential, crime rates, climate, arts and culture, and access to services all influence population trends.

It’s time for Pennsylvania to jump-start an honest debate and self-assessment on how it attracts, or doesn’t attract, jobs and residents. Why is Florida, for example, growing and Pennsylvania shrinking? As the problem accelerates and reaches a crisis, Pennsylvania must explore new strategies to grow jobs and population.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. January 11, 2022.

Editorial: Gerrymandering truest form of election fraud

Republicans who have controlled the state Legislature for all but four of the past 27 years have been able to do so partly because of gerrymandering.

Several generations of GOP legislative leaders steadfastly have rejected creation of a nonpartisan citizens commission to draw new electoral maps every 10 years, following each census.

In 2011 the Republican majority devised a legislative district map so badly gerrymandered that the state Supreme Court precluded its use in the 2012 elections. The final map for the 2014 elections — the current map — skews Republican by more than 8%, according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

The proposed new map was produced by a commission comprising the partisan leaders of legislative Republican and Democratic caucuses and a court-appointed independent chairman, former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg — the key player. According to the Princeton group, it would shrink the GOP edge to 1.2%.

Cynically playing on the public’s preference for an independent commission, Republican legislative leaders have concocted a constitutional amendment to create a fake one.

The legislative majority alone would appoint members to a “citizens commission,” but that majority would retain the right to throw out the commission’s work and adopt its own map. Attacking the judicial branch, the amendment also requires that if the Supreme Court invalidates a map, the legislative majority would draw the replacement.

Republican state Rep. Seth Grove of York County, the sponsor, said, “We’ll ... have the final check to make sure there’s no skulduggery at the end of the day,” apparently by guaranteeing skulduggery at the beginning of the day.

“It’s a power grab disguised as reform,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

To emphasize that, the amendment would require the districts to be redrawn immediately if voters approve it. That means the legislative majority itself would redraw the districts for 2024 rather than after the 2030 census.

And, of course, the cynics aim to place the measure on the 2023 primary ballot, to take advantage of typical low turnout in an off-year primary to preserve minority rule.

Pennsylvanians have a history of reflexively approving amendments. If this one makes the ballot, they must reject it to prevent Pennsylvania from replacing representative democracy with cynicism as its form of government.

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Uniontown Herald-Standard. January 11, 2022.

Editorial: Wolf, Legislature must raise wages for home workers

Everyone’s dealing with something during this pandemic, but thousands of parents caring for children with physical or intellectual disabilities are facing a catastrophic crisis. They can’t get help to take care of their families at a time when they need it most.

Thousands of families can’t find people willing to accept the meager wages the state pays workers who come into homes to support people with disabilities. If you think Walmart, Amazon or McDonald’s can’t find workers, the situation is doubly dire for families who depend on “direct support professionals,” or DSPs, to help them care for their children.

Gary Blumenthal, vice president of government relations and advocacy for InVision Human Services, says up to 80% of DSPs quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, unwilling to face the risks of catching the virus for $14 an hour.

Most DSPS are employed by nonprofits and are paid under the state Medicaid program, matched by federal dollars. But the DSPs nonprofits employ are paid less than those who provide similar service to people in state facilities. These days, they can make more flipping burgers or selling cosmetics at a department store.

The job of a DSP is physically and mentally arduous. They often feed, bathe and care for kids and adults who can’t care for themselves. It’s hard work, and it takes people who are dedicated, caring and compassionate.

Families of people with disabilities are pleading with Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature to help. They are asking them to work together to raise the wages of the DSPs. We are, too.

Nancy Murray, mother of three adult children with intellectual disabilities, wrote a recent op-ed for PennLive asking Gov. Wolf to pay DSPs the same wages it pays state employees. That seems reasonable. That seems rational. That seems mandatory during times like these.

Murray also is president of The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh and senior vice president of Achieva, an organization serving people with disabilities. She and other disability advocates say the intellectual disability system needs $541 million to stop its collapse. But they fear Wolf’s proposed budget will offer $141 less than what is needed.

Murray and others argue President Joe Biden has targeted money in the American Recovery Act specifically to help such families. The governor and the legislature must allocate those funds where they are needed most and where the president intended them to be used.

Advocates for people with disabilities say the whole system is on the verge of collapse, and they fear many people will suffer and some will die unless Wolf and the Legislature act now to increase wages and help desperate families.

Consider this: thousands of parents may have to stop working permanently and rely on state welfare if they can’t get help in their homes. Even those with means to augment salaries of DSPs are forbidden to do so, as it would somehow represent Medicaid fraud. Families are being left without any options to protect those they love.

Unless we find a solution to this crisis, we all will suffer.

State institutions will have to care for thousands of children and adults now being care for at home. Or thousands of people who could be working will turn to state welfare to help them take care of their families.

It makes both financial and moral sense to help these families by ensuring they get the help they need inside their homes as soon as possible.

Wolf has proven throughout his tenure he has a compassionate heart. He’s shown courage during the COVID-19 pandemic by braving political opposition to protect the people. Now, he needs to show the same courage and compassion to help the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Wolf can help families caring for people with disabilities by increasing wages for DSPs in the state’s 2022 budget to the levels of workers employed in state institutions.

We urge Gov. Wolf to at least meet with advocates for people with disabilities and listen to their arguments. And we urge any caring legislators to do the same.

This is not politics. This is real. Lives are on the line. Thousands of families will continue to suffer unless the governor and the state act, and act now.

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Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. January 11, 2022.

Editorial: Facts, not fake news, show Marsicano’s true self

Everyone deserves a second chance, and third and fourth if they are truly trying to change for the better. Mike Marsicano proved in a mere matter of minutes he does not deserve yet another crack at a political career.

Marsicano wants to be a U.S. congressman (again). Marsicano also, incidentally, hates this newspaper. Why? Because we practiced honest and effective journalism on him when he was a one-term Hazleton mayor, and we remind people of his past every time he tries to run for another office.

This time he decided to switch registration to the Republican party, which alone should give Republicans pause in considering his bid. The man is an opportunist. Even if you are a staunch Trump supporter, you would do well to consider other candidates who have embraced the GOP more consistently.

He also couldn’t get through a brief interview with Times Leader staff writer Jerry Lynott without shouting “fake news” and using a curse word we can’t print in a family newspaper, showing his lifetime inability to face legitimate criticism, much less to defend his own past without hurling invective.

Marsicano used one of his favorite old saws: “Facts are stubborn things.” Well, as this paper has done in the past, let’s review some of those stubborn facts he prefers no one bring up.

Marsicano has become Luzerne County’s very own Rasputin of elections. The Russian mystic from the Tsarist era, you may recall, supposedly had to be stabbed, poisoned, poisoned, shot, shot again and finally dumped into a river before anyone felt sure he was dead.

In Marsicano’s case, he won one term as Hazleton City Council and parlayed it into one term as Hazleton mayor before he was roundly defeated in his reelection bid. He didn’t even make it through the spring. Despite the power of incumbency, Hazleton voters tossed him out in the Democratic primary for Jack Mundie, who in turn lost to Republican Lou Barletta.

Marsicano tried to become mayor again in 2007, and suffered an even more humiliating defeat: Despite being unopposed on the Democratic ticket, he lost the nomination to (drumroll) Barletta, who didn’t (and legally couldn’t) even officially appear on the Democratic slate, yet who got enough write-in votes to beat Marsicano. Anyone voting in the upcoming congressional Republican primary should keep in mind how thoroughly the people most familiar with his political behavior rejected him.

He took his first stab at becoming a U.S. congressman in 2016 by running against Barletta, who had himself managed to win a federal seat on his third try. Marsicano was again trounced, with Barletta taking more than 64% of the vote.

There are lots of other facts (not “fake news”): Marsicano took over Hazleton with a budget surplus and left it with a deficit. He spent years partnering and palling around with attorney Robert Powell, a pivotal figure in the county’s juvenile justice scandal known as “Kids for Cash.” As mayor, Marsicano hired a friend who had been on disability leave from the fire department to be fire chief over city council’s objections; And he boosted the city police maximum pension from 50 percent to 75% in a move the state auditor general ruled illegal.

And that’s just the most egregious stuff.

Facts are stubborn things, and Marsicano should learn to admit to them. Until then, GOP voters should look elsewhere. There are better candidates seeking the nomination.

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