REARRANGING FURNITURE ISN’T TAX REFORM
Generations of Pennsylvania lawmakers have failed to reform the commonwealth’s destructive over-reliance on local property taxes to fund education.
Politically, the reason is simple. Leaving so much of the burden at the local level means it isn’t a problem for the lawmakers themselves. They can reap the political credit for holding the line or cutting state-level taxes, and then blame local school boards that have no choice but to pass local tax increases.
That pattern causes substantial collateral damage. It perpetuates vast disparities in education funding among poor, mostly urban and rural districts, and affluent suburban districts.
For lawmakers, the political risk of perpetuating high local property taxes is the fallout from many older property owners, regular voters, who struggle to meet rising property taxes with limited incomes.
Some lawmakers have begun to talk about eliminating the local property tax, but in a way that will only serve their own political problem. A new bill proposed by Republican Rep. Seth Grove of York would provide only an option for local districts to replace or reduce local property taxes. But it would leave most of the tax burden at the local level, transferring it to higher local wage and business taxes. That would relieve a key constituency for lawmakers — older voters — of the property tax burden, but spare lawmakers of having to make the tough decisions on how to replace the revenue.
There are several fundamental problems with local property taxation and public schools. One is that there are too many school districts — 500. That guarantees heavily fragmented local property tax bases and ensures vast disparities in school funding.
The only way to make property tax reform meaningful and uniform is to make it a part of overall education reform. That means fewer, stronger school districts. And, it means replacing local property tax revenue with revenue derived from the largest tax base — that covering the entire commonwealth.
Any property tax reform that does not ensure adequate state funding will be a sham.
— The (Scranton) Times-Tribune
DON’T LET AMUSEMENT PARK INSPECTIONS LAPSE
The thrill rides are mostly quiet now in our region, as summer fun gives way to fall entertainment. But before the 2014 amusement park season begins, Pennsylvania lawmakers and the state Department of Agriculture must resolve serious deficiencies in the way amusement park rides are regulated.
PublicSource, an independent news organization based in Pittsburgh, uncovered numerous problems with Pennsylvania’s oversight of amusement parks in a series of reports that we published in August.
State Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny/Washington, said he will call on state officials to testify at legislative hearings in the fall. In response to the PublicSource investigation, the agriculture department said it will update its database that tracks park inspections and create an online database that the public can search, Maher said.
The searchable database will be a huge step forward toward transparency and accountability. But first, the Department of Agriculture needs to figure out why it didn’t have inspection records on file for more half of the state’s 171 amusement and water parks. PublicSource discovered that the reports were missing when it filed a Right to Know request to examine the records.
State law requires amusement parks to be inspected daily, with logs kept at the site. State-certified inspectors must file monthly reports with the state’s Bureau of Ride and Measurement Standards within 48 hours after the inspections are completed.
After PublicSource asked state officials for inspection reports and learned they were missing, Bureau Director Walter Remmert and his staff contacted the parks with missing reports for 2012. Some parks then sent 2012 reports to the bureau, which time-stamped them for July 2013.
Were those reports actually completed in 2012? Did some type of mailing or filing error occur? There is no way of knowing, but we do know that the government bureau responsible for overseeing amusement park inspections didn’t act to track down missing reports until PublicSource investigated.
Lawmakers must find out what role state funding cutbacks played in this fiasco. In 2009, there were seven state inspectors. Today there are four, and the budget for the agency’s enforcement staff has been reduced.
Waldameer Park & Water World filed all of its required reports for 2012, and the Erie amusement park follows stringent internal rules to inspect and maintain its rides. The 2012 records for Conneaut Lake Park, operated by Adams Amusements, were not on file. Leonard Adams owns Adams Amusements, which operates the rides at Conneaut Lake under a lease. Adams said he completed all of the necessary inspections and mailed them to the state.
Gov. Tom Corbett boasted in June that Pennsylvania’s amusement parks are unmatched in safety because of the state’s rigorous daily and monthly inspection program. Texas, site of a deadly roller coaster accident in July, only requires rides to be inspected once a year. But our state’s strict rules are useless if they aren’t enforced.
— Erie Times-News
IT’S TIME FOR FOOTBALL … AND TIME TO TALK ABOUT CONCUSSIONS
High school football is underway in central Pennsylvania, and for the second season, teams will play under a strict state law to protect student athletes who suffer a concussion.
Pennsylvania was the 35th state to pass such a law, which ends the “tough it out and go back in the game” culture that endangers players who have suffered a head injury.
Under the law, parents must sign a concussion-awareness form before their child can play a sport. A student-athlete showing signs of a concussion must be removed from play immediately and cannot play again until receiving written clearance from a medical professional. Coaches who don’t comply face escalating sanctions, with third-time offenders banned for life from coaching.
Of course, as Dr. Matthew Silvis, sports medicine director at Penn State Hershey medical center, notes, “This isn’t (just) a football problem. This is a contact sport problem. This is a problem in soccer, lacrosse, ice hockey, cheerleading.”
We aren’t talking about just another overreach by what some call the “nanny state,” sissifying sports in the name of player safety.
Even that testosterone-fueled bastion of machismo, the National Football League, realizes there is a serious problem. That’s why it will pay $765 million to settle the claims of players who said the league ignored mounting evidence of the long-term harm that concussions inflict.
The evidence was simply impossible for the NFL to ignore. There have been too many cases of former players suffering and dying too young of conditions where the brain goes haywire.
Cases like Junior Seau, a star linebacker who committed suicide last year at age 43. An examination of his brain after death showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a condition similar to Alzheimer’s that can arise from repeated blows to the head. At least 34 former NFL players, their brains studied after death, were found to have the same condition.
The Centers for Disease Control has looked at long-term harm that former NFL players may have suffered from concussions. It found that those who had played at least five seasons between 1959 to 1988 were three times more likely to suffer degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The NFL settlement lets players with catastrophic medical bills get money sooner, and it helps the multi-billion dollar league deflect a growing public relations problem. Still unresolved is whether the game at the NFL level, with huge and highly-skilled athletes routinely pounding each other and inflicting highlight-film hits to roars of approval from the crowd, is unavoidably dangerous to those who play it.
For student athletes, Pennsylvania’s concussion law deals with the greatest danger — returning from a concussion too soon and getting drilled in the head again.
When the brain is still recovering, it is so vulnerable that even milder impacts can cause far more serious injury, including potentially fatal swelling of the brain.
However, Pennsylvania’s law doesn’t do anything to prevent concussions in the first place. Better helmets aren’t the answer — they merely protect the skull from fractures and cuts; they don’t protect the brain from the shock of intense impacts.
One idea, sure to be resisted, is to limit heavy contact during youth sport practices. That proposal grows out of research showing that repeated, lower-impact blows to the head can produce more damage to the brain than a single, severe blow.
Nor does Pennsylvania law say much about how schools should help students cope with schoolwork as they recover. A concussion can leave the student in a fog that impairs learning. To teachers who are unaware, it may look as if the student is merely slacking off or has other undisclosed problems, like drug abuse.
Pennsylvania does offer brain-injured students a source of advice in getting back to normal in the classroom. Through the BrainSTEPS program, teams of experts in various regions of the state can help students and educators deal with the academic and medical challenges.
Pennsylvania’s law and the NFL settlement show that society has come a long way in understanding how serious concussions are. There is still much to learn — including whether contact sports that involve routine collisions at high speeds can be played with an acceptable degree of risk.
IMAGINE TMI AS A PUBLIC PARK
Imagine a summer day in, oh, let’s say, 2050.
The sun is shining. It’s about 85 degrees (let’s pretend for the moment that global warming hasn’t turned the earth into an oven by then) with no humidity.
Children are out playing on a swing set in a community park. Nearby, there is a sandbox where kids are digging. On the banks of the nearby river, kids are making mud pies. Moms and stay-at-home dads are chatting on park benches while their children frolic.
The site if this idyllic scene?
Three Mile Island.
The playground is on the former site of Unit 2.
The park extends to areas on the island that once held radioactive fuel.
But that’s all gone now. There is no trace of a nuclear reactor, or cooling towers, or fuel pools. It’s been dismantled, decommissioned, cleaned up, and now it’s a popular public park for Middletown residents.
Yes, you guessed it, this is science fiction. None of this seems likely to happen.
TMI, site of the nation’s worst nuclear accident, will eventually be shut down, but it will probably never be returned to a greenfield condition.
Admittedly, FirstEnergy officials don’t really present such a rosy scenario for the site. But at a public meeting about the eventual decommissioning of the facility, officials said the plan is to restore the property to a pre-plant site — at a cost of about $918 million.
That caused local TMI watchdogs to scoff — likely with some justification.
“After 35 years of doing this, let’s be honest, you don’t have the money,” said TMI Alert member Eric Epstein. “You don’t have the technology. The plant is not going to be cleaned up. The reality is that the plant will never be decommissioned. There is nowhere to take the waste. The plant is never going to be cleaned up. There’s no money. There’s no resources.”
He might not be accurate on all of those statements, but as things stand now it’s hard to imagine the property being restored to a pre-plant condition.
Whether the funding for such efforts will be adequate is debatable. FirstEnergy said it has about $665 million in a trust fund for the decommissioning, and it plans to use the earnings from that money to grow the fund to the billion dollars or so projected to be needed.
Maybe that will happen, maybe not.
But the real issue is the waste.
The spent fuel is being stored on site. There is no operative national plan to deal with the waste at TMI and other nuclear plants.
Plans to move waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada appear to be gridlocked by political NIMBYism — and understandably so.
If we can’t solve the fuel disposal problem, how can we even begin to imagine a pre-plant state for Three Mile Island?
The way it looks now, our nation will wind up with hundreds of storage sites at defunct plants – repositories of material that remains radioactive for about 10,000 years (longer than recorded human history).
Then again, things change. New scientific discoveries are made — solving seemingly intractable problems.
Science fiction sometimes comes true.
So, let’s tentatively pencil in a community picnic for Sept. 4, 2050 at TMI Park.
— York Daily Record/Sunday News