Editorials from around Pennsylvania
FARMLAND PRESERVATION ABOUT AGRICULTURE, NOT GREEN SPACE
On farmland preservation, the federal government should take a lesson from Lancaster County.
Before a change in federal law, Lancaster County has allowed farmers to add a building to farmland preserved using federal funds, so long as that building took up no more than 6 percent of the preserved farm's acreage and would be used for agricultural production. An example of a permitted building is a grain-drying silo to be used for selling grain, at least half of which is produced on the farm.
The idea is to allow a farmer preserving his land the flexibility later to add a related agricultural business that makes productive use of the farm's crops, livestock or both.
Under the previous rule, any building proposed on a farm preserved with federal funds required approval by the county's Agricultural Preserve Board to make sure it was within the 6 percent limitation; its location on the farm was not restricted.
Farms preserved with county and state funds include no restrictions on the size or location of buildings, but added buildings are restricted to agricultural uses and a single additional residential structure. Preserved farms are visited by staff with the county board about every two years to be sure they are in compliance with their deed restrictions as preserved farms.
If it restricts agricultural buildings, the new federal rule likely would do more harm to the national program than to Lancaster County's preservation efforts. The share of federal funding here, after all, has been small.
What should worry fans of farmland preservation is its potential effect elsewhere: If other states adapt to meet the new federal rule, they might steer their programs toward preserving green space rather than productive farmland.
That would be a shame. And it's why either the federal government should be flexible in setting policy based on the new rule or Congress should rewrite it.
The goal of farmland preservation should not be purely aesthetic. Its goal should be, as it has been in Lancaster County, to support agriculture as a way of life. For that to be true, it must make economic sense and allow owners the flexibility to maintain their preserved farms as successful businesses into the future.
The Lancaster County program is a public-private partnership that leads the nation in acres preserved. Two key aspects of its successful strategy to preserve productive farms: favoring farms with soils that yield substantial crops, and paying for acreage near other preserved farms to maintain farming communities.
This latter consideration is based on the premise that the best neighbor a farmer can have is another farmer, to help in a pinch. And a farming neighbor is much less likely to complain about the odors and sounds a productive farm emits.
The flexibility of the Lancaster County program is no doubt part of what makes it the nation's leader in acres preserved. The federal government should take the hint.
OUR MAIN CONCERN
The City Council's messy killing of the deal for UIL Holdings Corp. to buy the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works is a nasty gift that just keeps on giving.
This week, the Public Utilities Commission, the state agency charged with overseeing the state's utilities, including their safe operation, renewed its concerns about the city's aging cast-iron gas mains, and suggested that the $18 million payment that PGW makes to the city each year should be directed to gas-main replacement.
The PUC is concerned about the safety of the aging gas mains, one of the many issues addressed during the long and ultimately frustrating process of the purchase of the city-owned gas company.
Half of Philadelphia's 3,000 miles of gas mains are considered "high risk" — second only to New York. Eleven people have died in PGW gas-main explosions in the past 35 years.
PGW's current schedule for updating gas mains would see completion in 2103 — 88 years from now. Council claims that UIL hadn't agreed to rapid gas-main replacement, though UIL had made a point throughout the process that, as a private company, it would be in a better position to be able to finance an accelerated gas-main replacement schedule, with the goal of cutting the current schedule by half.
UIL also made gas-main replacement a point of a marketing campaign while Council was pretending to deliberate over the pending sale. After the city received UIL's bid, Council dragged its feet, commissioned a study that took months and, finally, without public hearing or frankly any good reason they killed the deal.
To add injury to stupidity, Council's reaction to PUC's recent concerns about gas mains defies belief: Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who heads the gas commission, which oversees PGW, said that the PUC was using gas-main safety as "a red herring," and said that the PUC, in airing its concerns, was trying to punish the city.
Calling safety a "red herring" strikes us as a totally irresponsible statement from the head of the city's gas commission.
The Nutter administration is not happy about the prospect of forgoing the $18 million payment that PGW is supposed to make to the city. No one in the city should be. Already, the city had to forgo this payment for seven years, since PGW was in such dire financial straits.
PGW has, of course, made great organizational and management strides in the past decade to move out of the disastrous mess it was once in. But even under the best of circumstances, it's still a struggling company with a huge debt. Its sale would have helped stabilize the company, helped bring down the city's pension obligation and gotten the city out of the business of utilities.
The PUC's safety concerns underscore just what a misstep Council made in killing the sale. Even if the UIL sale wasn't perfect, it was a sale that could have solved many problems. The utility's eroding and possibly dangerous infrastructure is one of them.
Preventing deadly gas explosions is the ultimate responsibility of PUC. Morally, if one happens, Council should have to answer for it.
— Philadelphia Daily News
PRESERVE SUNDAY HUNTING BANS IN NEW JERSEY, PENNSYLVANIA
New Jersey and Pennsylvania have long traditions of hunting and trapping, and those activities today are greatly changed from their historical roots. Modern equipment is a far cry from 18th-century firearms and bows. Game populations and habitat have shrunk with the encroachment of suburbs and highways. Outfitting the hunter (and everyone else who takes to the outdoors) is serious business.
One hunting tradition is resistant to change, however. Both states have refused to end bans on Sunday hunting, a type of blue law that dates to the 19th century.
In Harrisburg, a Sunday hunting bill died in committee last year. A group called Hunters United for Sunday Hunting sued the state Game Commission, saying the Sunday ban violated hunters' First and Second Amendment rights. A federal judge dismissed the suit, saying there's no constitutional right to hunt, nor does a one-day-a-week ban violate anyone's right to bear arms or exercise religion.
New Jersey is revisiting the issue. Four bills — including measures to allow Sunday firearm hunting, expand beaver trapping, and allow 10-year-olds to get provisional hunting licenses without taking a safety course — were approved by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee Monday. The state already allows limited bow hunting on Sunday under a 2008 law.
State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos said allowing Sunday firearm hunting "will provide some of our hard-working residents with a better quality of life and greater opportunity, while also generating additional revenue and tourism dollars for the state and local businesses." State Sen. Steven Oroho, who represents part of Warren County, sponsored three of the bills approved by the committee.
With all due respect to this time-honored sport, the Sunday ban still serves a purpose and should be preserved. The push to end it seems to be coming from outfitters and gun retailers as much as any groundswell from hunters.
There's a lot to be said for the economic activity generated by hunting, and there's no question northwest New Jersey could become a destination for out-of-state Sunday hunters, as long as adjoining states maintain their bans. But is that really what local residents want?
Keeping Sundays free of firearms hunting is important to other outdoor enthusiasts — hikers, birders, mountain bikers, dog-walkers, joggers, campers, off-roaders — who want weekend access to the woods and fields in fall and early winter. Many will reconsider if they have to share the space with hunters. The increasing miles of pedestrian trails financed by tax dollars — such as recently preserved acreage on Scotts Mountain on the border of Harmony and White townships in Warren County — cut around and through hunting areas.
Many farmers appreciate the absence of shooting on Sundays. Some who now permit hunting on their lands may post their farms altogether, rather than enforce their own Sunday bans. Losing that access is a concern for hunters, too.
The push for Sunday hunting threatens to drive a wedge between like-minded groups. Hunters share common interests with farmers, tourism entrepreneurs, environmentalists, anglers, outfitters, and the state regulators who oversee public lands and enforce the laws. Keeping these groups on the same page in terms of preserving open space is important; part of that bargain is giving everyone reasonable access to the unspoiled areas we still have. Legislators in Trenton and Harrisburg should consider all these factors before joining the Sunday hunting movement.
The (Easton) Express-Times.
PENNSYLVANIA SPENDS FAR TOO MUCH ON ITS LEGISLATURE
About $263 million. That's what has been budgeted for the Pennsylvania General Assembly this fiscal year.
That's a lot of money — especially when you consider the state is looking at some serious structural deficits in the coming years.
Think about it: More than a quarter of a billion dollars just to make laws.
That's money we could use for schools, roads, police, firefighters — the kinds of government services citizens actually use daily. Instead, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on politicking in one of the nation's largest, most expensive and highest-paid legislatures.
We have 50 senators, 203 House members and scores of staffers in district and Harrisburg offices.
What do we get for all that money? One of the most corrupt and inefficient legislatures in the nation. It's embarrassing and wasteful — and it needs to change.
This year, Digital First Media editorial boards in Pennsylvania will produce a series of editorials on state government reforms — focusing particularly on reducing legislative costs and waste.
We'll take a look at the idea of reducing the size of our General Assembly.
Do we need so many lawmakers? Would the House be more efficient with fewer members? How about the Senate? Would it be less costly?
There are arguments on both sides of that debate — as we heard when a bill that would reduce the House by 50 seats passed the House but died in the Senate a couple of years ago.
Many of those arguments are self-serving on the part of lawmakers who simply don't want to lose their well-paid and perked positions (naturally).But we'll take a look at whether representative democracy would suffer with a smaller legislature, comparing Pennsylvania to states with different legislative systems — part-time, volunteer, unicameral, etc.
Admittedly, cutting the number of legislators would be a heavy political lift and a long process, requiring a Constitutional amendment. Shrinking the Legislature is also opposed by Governor-elect Tom Wolf.
But one thing that the governor and legislators ought to be able to agree on (if they're being honest) is that legislative costs are too high and must be brought under control.
It's absurd and hypocritical for a legislative body controlled by conservative Republicans to complain about wasteful government and then do very little to reduce legislative costs.
Yes, there were some cuts last year, thanks to Gov. Corbett's veto of some legislative funding. But not nearly enough — not when we're facing steep deficits and cuts in services that citizens actually need.
Lawmakers need to reduce staff, reduce overhead — do more with less, as they've demanded of other state agencies. If constituents need help navigating, say, PennDOT's bureaucracy, fix PennDOT rather than task legislative staffers with licensing and tagging efforts.
With the efficiency-enhancing technologies available nowadays, there must be better ways to run a state legislature. One suggestion on that front is to knock off partisan shenanigans between the Legislature and governor and to cooperate, but that's a topic for another day.
So, stay tuned for a series of editorials on fixing and shrinking the old Harrisburg sausage factory. If you have ideas and suggestions, please share them with us.
— York Daily Record
REPORT 'FACT-FINDING' TRIPS BY LAWMAKERS
Washington brims with expertise on any subject you can think of. If policy analysts in an executive agency don't have an answer sought by a member of Congress, it's a safe bet that a lobbyist representing that interest has it.
Congress wisely has endowed itself with a nonpartisan and highly capable Congressional Research Service, a division of the esteemed Library of Congress that has 450 policy analysts and lawyers dedicated to providing detailed answers on any policy question.
Yet facts can be elusive and members of the Congress often feel compelled to travel the world in search of them, on "fact-finding" missions.
Some of those are legitimate.
It sometimes makes sense for members of Congress to see in-the-field conditions about which they will have to make decisions.
But some fact-finding missions are excuses to visit exotic locales at public expense.
Unfortunately, there is no way for taxpayers to know the difference. Congress does not report to the public about such trips.
Rep. Walter Jones, a veteran North Carolina Republican, filed a bill as Congress convened this week that would require regular reporting of such travel. Jones slipped the same requirement into a must-pass defense authorization bill two years ago, but his colleagues stripped it out prior to passage.
"It's kind of ironic to me that members, not calling out any names, who take these frequent trips don't want the taxpayer to know the cost of the trips," Jones told The Washington Post.
Yes, it is. If the trip is worth taking for a congressman's education on an important subject, lawmakers should not have any problem reporting its cost to the public.
The public also is entitled to some fact-finding. Members of Congress should take seriously the point raised by Jones.
They should establish a reporting system for the destinations, purposes and cost of all of their travel. Doing so likely will ensure that very little future travel is for other than legitimate purposes.
— The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice.