TIE TOGETHER MASS TRANSIT
Gov. Tom Corbett defied many legislative leaders of his own party when he included mass transit in his plan to increase annual transportation funding by $1.8 billion a year.
Many Republican lawmakers want transit to be considered separately but the governor chose the better course, even though his proposed increase of $40 million in the first year, statewide, is modest. The budget also includes a challenge to agencies to consolidate services where possible.
Lackawanna and Luzerne counties already have taken a step in that direction, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars, individually, by having the county transit agencies take over shared-ride programs. The counties have explored consolidating or, at least, coordinating their entire transit systems, and 10 transit systems in Southwest Pennsylvania have begun to do so.
At issue is not simply the cost of mass transit, but how to ensure that it best serves its communities as the economy evolves. Most transit agencies are set up mostly around urban hubs, for example, even though many jobs and other economic activity has moved to the suburbs.
Consolidating transit systems would serve an added purpose in fostering a regional, rather than county-based, economic outlook. The economic reality is that jobs and other public business are not defined by county lines.
How to economically provide services to a core constituency while expanding services to meet changing demands of the economy is a complex question for transit agencies. Combining forces would expand their scope and provide greater flexibility, while reducing administrative costs. Local agencies should act on the incentives in the governor's budget proposal to coherently serve a single economic region.
— The (Scranton) Times-Tribune
STATE-SPONSORED RACKETS: GLARING HYPOCRISY
Pennsylvania's hypocrisy on gambling — keeping illegal barroom video poker that long has paid winners while operating a lottery and legalizing casinos — would be downright glaring under Gov. Tom Corbett's now-delayed lottery privatization deal with Camelot, the British firm that still hopes to offer keno in bars.
"Any video poker with payouts is unregulated and illegal in Pennsylvania," says Eric Shirk, Gov. Corbett's deputy communications director, in the expected drone-like recitation defense of what is, by definition, nothing less than a state-sponsored rackets operation.
Yet many bars do pay winners. It's a wink-and-nod practice that occasional raids do little to deter (which, by the way, raises questions about selective enforcement).
Mr. Shirk says it's inaccurate to portray keno as a video poker alternative for bars. Yet a Camelot spokesman calls keno "a more convenient way for players to participate in social situations," mainly in taverns and bars.
So, instead of legitimizing video poker payouts — and tavern owners' cut — Corbett would reserve legal barroom "action" for Camelot's keno. Oh, he'd also avoid $25 million in refunds that the state, under the 2004 casino legalization law, would owe each casino licensee if video poker payouts were legalized.
The continuing video poker ban is at odds with reality for tavern owners and patrons and with the state sanctioning so many other forms of gambling.
And if the Camelot deal eventually goes through and brings legal keno to bars, Pennsylvania's gambling hypocrisy will be more indefensible than ever.
— Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
JEWISH? PROVE IT
When food costs at the York County Prison spiked by more than 50 percent last month, county officials suspected something wasn't kosher.
It turns out, they say, the problem was too much kosher — food, that is.
Kosher food is food that meets the strict standards of Jewish dietary law. The law prohibits adherents from eating certain types of animals, directs how some animals are slaughtered and prescribes how some foods should be prepared and consumed.
Is kosher food better-tasting?
Some York County Prison inmates apparently think so -- at least they find it more appealing than the non-kosher menu on certain days.
Prison officials say they're suspicious of an increase in the number of inmates requesting kosher meals, especially because some of those prisoners specified a different religious affiliation when they entered the prison.
The big tip-off, they say, are the "flip-floppers." Those are the "converts" who suddenly aren't so Jewish on days when the regular meals are more to their liking.
Certified kosher meals, which are pre-packaged and delivered to the prison, are nearly four times the cost of meals made in house, and prison officials say they can't afford anyone gaming the system.
From now on, prisoners who are being served kosher meals and ask to return to non-kosher will be permitted, but those who later ask to return to kosher meals will be denied.
It's a logical reaction, but in practice it will likely be dicey determining who's scamming a meal and who, perhaps, is simply not as devout as others of the Jewish faith.
After all, everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs and the prison is obliged to accommodate them. Who are prison officials to judge what's in an inmate's heart and whether he or she is entitled to accommodations?
Prisoners denied kosher meals can file a complaint and request a hearing, at which time they'll be asked to provide proof of their religious affiliation, such as a statement from a rabbi.
But suppose one of them can't. That doesn't mean they aren't Jewish and don't try to follow kosher rules. It just means they can't prove it to the satisfaction of prison officials.
And will inmates of other faiths have to prove their affiliation before they receive any accommodations?
County officials are wading into very murky waters with this one.
They might be better off trying to find ways to bring down the costs of kosher meals, such as preparing them in house, and make sure they're on par with the non-kosher offerings.
That's better than unjustly denying anyone the right to practice his or her religion.
— York Dispatch
DEP SECRETARY: GAS INDUSTRY REMAINS STRONG AND SAFE
Rumors of the demise of the natural gas industry have apparently been greatly exaggerated.
The source of that information is none other than state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer.
And Krancer has some facts to back up his observation. There were more than 20 new oil and gas permits in Lycoming County alone in the first month of 2013.
Krancer, in a recent visit to the Sun-Gazette, pointed out that the gas drilling industry may be suffering from a perception problem. There is not as much drilling going on because that's already been done, so it looks as though the business has slowed more than it actually has.
The gas industry is cyclical and there was movement toward "wet" gas supplies in Ohio and West Virginia for much of last year. But Krancer joins a list of people familiar with the industry who believe Pennsylvania's natural gas industry is poised for a strong year.
Krancer added that the thinking that the industry will thrive for generations in Pennsylvania remains accurate.
The other, more established perception of the natural gas industry is that it is environmentally unsafe.
To the contrary, Krancer said that the industry, as experience is being gained with new drilling technologies, is become safer and more efficient. Communication between the industry and the DEP also has improved, Krancer said, making inspections more fruitful.
Krancer emphasized "we don't make deals with anyone" regarding enforcement but also emphasized that isn't necessary because most gas drilling operators possess "a strong ethos toward environmental safety."
That's a lot of good news about the industry, which is important, because the natural gas industry is Pennsylvania's strongest asset in any quest to become an economic leader in the nation.
— Williamsport Sun-Gazette