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MERIT SELECTION FOR JUDGES MERITS STUDY

Do you recognize the names of Ronald D. Castile, Thomas G. Saylor, J. Michael Eakin, Max Baer, Debra McCloskey Todd or Seamus P. McCaffery?

All six serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They were elected by voters who also choose the 15 judges on the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the nine judges on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, often with little knowledge of the candidates beyond their names, gender and perhaps the county where they live.

Four former Pennsylvania governors — Republicans Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge and Democrats George Leader and Ed Rendell — say that a merit system would be a better way to choose judges for Pennsylvania's appellate court system, and they use the example of Joan Orie Melvin to bolster their case.

You likely have heard of Orie Melvin. Suspended as a state Supreme Court justice in August, Orie Melvin was convicted on Feb. 21 of public corruption for using taxpayer-paid staffers in her campaigns for state Supreme Court — in 2003, when she lost, and in 2009, when she won. Orie Melvin submitted her resignation to Gov. Tom Corbett, effective May 1, and will be sentenced May 7.

The former governors explained their support for merit selection in a joint letter on March 18 to the Pennsylvania Legislature and Corbett. "The conviction of a Supreme Court justice for campaign corruption is just one more example that highlights the need for reform," they wrote. "Electing appellate court judges in divisive, expensive, partisan elections is not working for the people of Pennsylvania. This is an issue that transcends politics, party lines, and individual agendas."

They support a system proposed by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, in which a citizen commission would recommend the most qualified candidates to the governor and the state Senate would confirm the candidates. After four years, the judges would face a vote for retention for 10 years.

The current system "puts a premium on how much money you can raise," Thornburgh said in a conference call with reporters. "It's not an election run on issues. It's very rare that the average person has any knowledge of the individual, other than what's imparted by TV advertising."

Ridge said: "The whole process casts a very dark shadow, a heavy cloud, over the integrity, the independence of the judicial system." Rendell said: "The influence of money in judicial elections is pernicious and creates a feeling among ordinary folks that the system is for sale."

The change would require a constitutional amendment. The Legislature must approve identical bills in two consecutive sessions. Voters would then have to approve the change by a referendum.

This is a serious proposal with bipartisan support, backed by research. Lawmakers should start the process to change to merit selection for appellate judges. Learn more at www.pmconline.org .

— Erie Times-News

STATE LETS CHIP DECLINE: KIDS DON'T FRACK

One of the Corbett administration's first acts upon taking office in 2011 was to dismantle adultBasic. The health insurance program used a combination of money from the tobacco settlement fund and contributions from tax-exempt Blue Cross health insurers to provide low-cost basic coverage, mostly for low-income workers who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid but could not afford market-rate private coverage.

Very few of the 42,000 people who lost coverage were able to replace it with the higher-cost, lower coverage options that insurers offered as replacements for adultBasic.

Now the administration has discovered that neglect works as well as activism in shredding aspects of the health coverage safety net.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Tuesday that, since the beginning of the Corbett administration in 2011, 93,000 have lost their coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicaid.

CHIP was created in 1992 by former Gov. Robert P. Casey, using dedicated revenue from the cigarette tax. It quickly became a national model and the template for a similar federal program.

The program is important in many ways, beginning with ensuring that kids have basic insurance coverage to ensure treatment when they're sick. But studies show that coverage helps to prevent illness by ensuring access to preventive care, and to save money through early intervention.

This isn't a case of actively trimming the rolls but of quietly failing to fill them. The administration has stopped funding marketing to families with children to make them aware of the program (Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed budget would restore some of those funds), and has created a massive backlog of Medicaid case reviews.

This is a case of penny-wise, pound-foolish. Tricia Brooks of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, told the Inquirer that New Jersey, which runs its program like Pennsylvania once did, has qualified for more than $50 million in federal performance bonuses. If much larger Pennsylvania did likewise, it would be eligible for more than $100 million per year.

Corbett, meanwhile, went to Washington this week to discuss his decision to reject an expansion of Medicaid under the new federal health care law, which would result in even more Pennsylvania children losing coverage while federal taxpayers in the state contribute to coverage for children elsewhere.

The administration often attends to vital interests. But, unfortunately, kids don't frack.

— The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

FASTER SERVICE AT CHEAPER COST

More than $3.8 million in Pennsylvania tax dollars will go this year to help maintain rail passenger service in the Keystone State.

Yet most of the people who pay those dollars will never set foot on Amtrak's Pennsylvanian, which runs between Pittsburgh and New York, with stops in Johnstown and Altoona.

That's unfortunate. We believe anyone who gave it a try would like it. It's a comfortable mode of travel.

With reservation, we applaud Gov. Tom Corbett's efforts late last month that hammered out an agreement with the rail carrier on a new funding plan that would maintain that service.

A lot of riders certainly welcomed the news, including the dozens of people who rallied last month at Johnstown's train station to show support for the service.

The good news is that in each of the past three years, Amtrak has set ridership records, luring more than 31 million passengers in 2012. That's up nearly 10 million people since 2001. In Pennsylvania, more than 212,000 people rode The Pennsylvanian last year, up 2.2 percent from the year before. A record 1.4 million boarded Amtrak's Keystone Service trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Yet, rail service continues to struggle financially, needing annual infusions.

And that's the bad news.

Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971, as a for-profit corporation, but has never been able to show a profit on its own. It has always required government funding to stay on line.

Critics argue that Amtrak subsidies — from both the federal and state governments — are wasteful. Supporters say public subsidies of mass transportation are good energy and good environmental policies. Just as governments support air travel and highway construction, they say, so should they help keep passenger trains running.

"It's money well-spent," state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, said during last month's rally in the city.

"This is the most important thing we can do to keep this community vibrant," he said. "It is a way to connect to the rest of the state and connect to the nation."

His points are well taken, but the service has never been able to meet some of its greatest expectations. High-speed rail travel has been touted for decades, but has been slow as molasses in taking hold, mostly because of the huge investment it involves. It's still much quicker to travel to New York by car, and a layover is required to make a return trip.

America has never shown the drive or the will to invest the kind of money it would take to bring our nation's railroads up to a par with those in Europe and Japan.

Talk with little real action has been ongoing for decades.

With our highways and skies becoming more clogged with passenger traffic, cheap, reliable, expanded rail service would be a welcome addition. But we need rapid rail service that could prove more convenient than the airlines and certainly both faster and safer than highway travel.

You attract people by giving them what they want and need, not by taking away the little they already have — and that includes services like The Pennsylvanian.

We believe Amtrak is trying harder to accommodate travelers by getting them to their destinations more quickly and more comfortably. But it also has to find ways to do it more cost-effectively, certainly without relying year after year on millions and millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

— The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat

COMPTON CLEANS UP TURNPIKE AFTER SCANDAL

A statewide grand jury recently wrapped up work on an 85-page presentment that, in part, described the inner workings of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

It wasn't pretty.

Charges of bid-rigging, bribery, extorting political favors — it read like an encyclopedia entry on how to run a corrupt government entity.

For instance, the grand jury singled out the commission's dealings with a technology consulting firm called Ciber Inc. The presentment alleged the commission paid Ciber $82 million — a cost allegedly inflated by the company billing for unnecessary tasks — and in return, the company helped raise money from sub-consultants for an influential state senator and bought expensive dinners and gifts for top turnpike officials.

And, to no surprise, the grand jury wrote, "Witness after witness testified that the turnpike did not need the system proposed by and implemented by Ciber."

The grand jury also alleged a spoils system, in which the party in control of the Legislature was allowed to grant 60 percent of the turnpike commission's contracts to politically connected cronies and the minority party got 40 percent of that business.

No wonder tolls on the turnpike are so high if motorists have to subsidize what is essentially graft. (The high cost might also be attributable to bloated staff. The turnpike has 2,100 employees to manage 552 miles of roadway — nearly four employees for every mile of highway.)

The company's vice president, Dennis Miller, was among the eight people charged in the scandal, facing bid-rigging charges, among others. Those charged included former Senate Democratic leader Robert J. Mellow, former Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin and former turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, all charged with crimes ranging from bribery to bid-rigging.

This could be a turning point for the turnpike commission — long believed to be a cesspool of political patronage and corruption.

Current CEO Mark Compton, who took the reins of the turnpike just last month, ordered the commission's compliance officer to review every professional service contract cited in the grand jury report. He said he wants to make sure all of the contracts are on the up-and-up and were awarded to companies that perform vital work and were not awarded a key to the state treasury for being politically connected.

Compton made sure to point out — accurately — that the agency's contracting procedures have improved and that the grand jury report singles out the actions of a few, not the majority, of turnpike employees. He also made sure to point out that he was "personally offended by the conduct" alleged by the grand jury.

Still, the scandal leaves a stain on the commission, and on the state Legislature, a body marked in recent years with stains that no dry cleaner could remove.

So Compton's efforts to remove the stain are commendable. In addition to reviewing every contract mentioned by the grand jury, he ordered reviews of every contract granted during the four years the grand jury investigated the turnpike.

He made it clear that any company that participated in the alleged pay-for-play will have its contract rescinded and be sued to recover reimbursement for unnecessary expenses — just as the commission has done to Ciber, terminating its contracts and seeking restitution.

The steps, Compton said, "signify a clean break from any past offenses."

And that's what's needed now. It'll take a lot of bleach to remove this stain and Compton is showing a willingness to apply it.

In fact, it might be that more is needed. There have been recent discussions about privatizing the turnpike or essentially turning its operations over to PennDOT.

Both ideas deserve serious consideration by lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett in light of this grand jury presentment.

The Pennsylvania taxpayers have been ripped off by this money-eating cesspool long enough.

— Delaware County Daily Times

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