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Five tips for redistricting in Pennsylvania from the most ungovernable state in the nation

Harrisburg Patriot News/Pennlive.com

Oct. 7

Pennsylvania is not California, we know. But we may be able to learn some valuable lessons from a place that once was called "the most ungovernable state in the nation" because of gerrymandering.

According to three people who spent years working on California's redistricting plan, the gerrymandering in their state was so bad there was complete government gridlock.

"We couldn't pass a budget, and we had the lowest bond rating in the nation," said Cynthia Dai, one of the commissioners elected to solve the problem.

"Pennsylvania is now where California was with the bond ratings," Dai said. In fact, she said, Pennsylvania is widely considered to be the worst state in the nation for gerrymandered districts. The courts have redrawn Pennsylvania's congressional map, but it's past time for us to do something about the legislative one.

Common Cause and other civic organization are beginning a grassroots campaign to establish an independent legislative redistricting commission in Pennsylvania, much like the one that took charge in California. Common Cause in Pennsylvania recently invited three California redistricting commissioners to share their experiences as Pennsylvania steps into the same murky waters Californians tread only a few years ago.

In 2010, Californians put the burden of redrawing the state's legislative and congressional districts into the hands of an independent commission composed of five Democrats that included Dai, five Republicans and four non-aligned voters determined to get the job done.

California's commissioners had seven months to agree to new maps. According to Dai, as well as Peter Yao, Republican and independent Stanley Forbes, the process was far from easy. All of the commissioners were passionate and committed, frequently deliberating late into the night, holding many town halls throughout the state, and staying focused amid all the controversy and lawsuits one would expect when lines of power are being moved.

Dai, Yao and Forbes clearly were proud of what they accomplished in California, and they offered five tips Pennsylvanians would do well to contemplate as we consider righting the wrongs of gerrymandering:

Tip 1: Establish an independent, bipartisan commission to redraw the maps, and make sure commissioners have no conflicts of interest:

California's commissioners were elected after a thorough vetting process that excluded candidates for even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Since the redistricting process is supposed to restore public trust in state government, it's important to have commissioners who don't stand to gain in any way from how the maps are redrawn. In California, all commissioners pledged to look beyond narrow party interests to work for the good of the entire state.

Tip 2: The commission must reflect the diversity of the state:

"It won't work to have a commission made up of all white men from Harrisburg," Dai warned. The commission should be composed of people from different regions of the state - urban and rural - as well as from diverse ethnic groups, professions, ages and economic strata. There even was a very busy mother with four young kids. Voters have to be able to see themselves reflected on the commission to instill the trust that will be needed to reshape power maps.

Tips 3: The process must be absolutely transparent:

No back room deals, no side bar meetings, no commissioners whispering outside of the public eye. Dai said the commissioners were not allowed to talk about their work except when they were officially meeting. When they got together over dinner or coffee, they talked about their families, their kids or TV shows, never about redistricting. The process has to be open and above board.

Tip 4: People must be involved in the process from day one:

California's commissioners held lots of public meetings and regularly heard from different constituent groups. Their meetings were open to the public, and they met throughout the state to allow as many people as possible to participate. In the seven months they worked on the plan, they held more than 100 meetings.

Tip 5 : Make sure failure is not more attractive than success:

California's commissioners had to agree on a plan of action in case they were unable to meet the deadline to agree on a redistricting map. But they had to make sure failure was not more attractive than success, allowing existing power brokers to maintain their stranglehold on government. If the commissioners had failed to have a supermajority - at least three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents-- agree on the final map, the issue would have gone to a panel of judges to decide. No one wanted that, and no party would benefit. The backup plan was to be avoided at all costs, or as Dai said, "Over our dead bodies were we going to hand off the decision to anybody else.

We need people in Pennsylvania with the same passion and spunk, because the legislative redistricting battle is upon us. The California commissioners have offered a solid roadmap that just might save us some blood, sweat and tears in the months ahead.

We would do well to follow their advice.

Online: https://bit.ly/2pcpmAT

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Take steps to protect against fire

The Reading Eagle

Oct. 8

The American calendar is filled with days, weeks and months set aside to draw attention to a wide variety of worthy causes and issues. Often there are several such observances going on at once. A great many of these are worthy of respect and deserve note, but the sheer number of them can make it difficult for people to focus on those that are most important.

With that in mind, we urge readers to pay particular attention to the message of Fire Prevention Week, which is underway. The event offers important lessons that could be the difference between life and death.

While about 80 percent of U.S. fire deaths occur in homes, people tend to underestimate their risk. The challenge here is to persuade people that a fire most certainly could happen to them and that they and their families need to be prepared. A fire is tragic enough, but it is far more so when they result in death that could have been prevented had some basic precautions been taken.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2017 there were 1.3 million fires reported in the United States, causing 3,400 civilian deaths, 14,670 civilian injuries and $23 billion in property damage. That was just in one year. The NFPA says that in an average lifetime, each U.S. household has a one in four chance of having a home fire large enough to be reported to a fire department during and a 1 in 10 chance someone will suffer an injury in a home fire. Why risk being unprepared?

One of the easiest steps is to ensure your home has working smoke alarms. That means not just having the devices but making sure they have fresh batteries and testing them regularly. The NFPA says that about three out of every five home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no working smoke alarms.

Once you've ensured that your family will receive adequate warning in the event of a fire, the next step is to develop and practice a home escape plan. That's the focus of this year's Fire Prevention Week theme. The NFPA notes that today's home fires burn faster than ever, making it crucial that people are able to get out quickly. Studies show that in the past, people had about 17 minutes to escape a typical home fire from the time the smoke alarm sounds. Now they may have as little as two minutes to get out safely. NFPA officials attribute the change to synthetic fibers used in modern home furnishings along with changes in construction trends.

NFPA statistics show that the number of reported U.S. home fires in 2018 is half that reported in 1980. However, the death rate per 1,000 reported fires has remained fairly steady, reflecting the continued challenges of safely escaping today's home fires.

A home escape plan includes working smoke alarms on every level of the home, in every bedroom and near all sleeping areas. There should be two ways out of every room, usually a door and a window, with a clear path to an outside meeting place such as a tree, light pole or mailbox that's a safe distance from the home. Home escape plans should be practiced twice a year by all members of the household.

Then there are steps people can take to prevent fires from happening in the first place.

Cooking is the leading cause of house fires. Never leave cooking food unattended, especially if you're cooking in grease or if the oven is at a very high heat. Keep paper and cloth items such as towels away from the stove.

Make sure home heating equipment is properly maintained. Avoid using portable and fixed space heaters. Malfunction or misuse of such devices is a common cause of fire-related deaths.

Be extremely careful when using candles. Keep them away from cloth items such as curtains or drapes, and never leave a lit candle unattended.

And if you must smoke, don't do it in or near the house. Smoking was the leading cause of home fire deaths between 2012 and 2016, according to the NFPA. And the leading origin of smoking-related fires was on an exterior balcony or open porch. If there's something that can catch fire, chances are that it will.

Please heed these warnings year round and avoid the risk of unspeakable regret should a tragedy happen due to a lack of preparedness.

Online: https://bit.ly/2AW2R5Q

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Primaries should be open to all

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Oct. 6

In a Penn Township, Westmoreland County, precinct, a woman stood confused as she looked at her ballot.

"These are all the candidates? The one I was voting for isn't here."

The poll worker explained to her that all the candidates she was allowed to vote for were on the ballot. The candidate she wanted wasn't in her party, so she couldn't make that choice.

That is the Pennsylvania primary system in a nutshell.

The state has a closed primary. If you want to pick which Democrats are going to move on to the general election in November, you can't be registered as a Republican in the spring.

If you want to cross party lines and say, "I don't like any of these options," you have to plan ahead in the Keystone State. Neighbors like New York and New Jersey are similar.

But not all states do it that way. In Ohio, voters don't register as party members, but request the ballot of their party at the poll or remain unaffiliated and just vote on referendums or amendments. In West Virginia primaries, unaffiliated voters can pick either ballot, but those who registered as a party member are limited to that party.

Nationwide, the options range from Election Day registration with wide-open options to rigid rules like Pennsylvania and a lot in between.

The woman voting in Penn Township couldn't understand the restriction. She's not alone. Plenty of people have advocated for updating the process to at least allow voters who aren't R's or D's to have a say.

In June, the state Senate voted 42 to 8 for a change that would let the hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated voters choose a Republican or Democratic ballot on a primary election day.

The state House should follow suit and give Pennsylvania voters — regardless of which team they support — the opportunity to raise their voices in every election, not just in November.

Online: https://bit.ly/324XFIQ

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State should guarantee basic rights

Scranton Times-Tribune

Oct. 9

The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments Tuesday on the remarkable question, here in 2019, of whether employers may freely discriminate against an entire class of Americans because of who they are.

Even more remarkable is that Pennsylvania law does not provide protection from the discrimination at issue, which should be resolved.

The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on race and sex. But it does not specifically exclude discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. In recent years, several federal courts have ruled the law bars such bias under the broad umbrella of sex-based discrimination.

It was not clear how the court would vote after Tuesday's argument. But if the court actually gives its blessing to blatant discrimination against an entire class of Americans, Congress easily can correct it by amending the Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation and sexual identity. It has included such provisions in a series of laws on more specific subjects that have passed since the 1964 law, including the relatively recent Violence Against Women Act and the Hate Crimes Act.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania law does not specifically outlaw discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or identity. At least 40 cities in the state, including Scranton, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown and Reading have ordinances outlawing such discrimination.

Bills to correct that have come close to passing several times over the last decade, with broad bipartisan support, including from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. And in August 2018, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission announced it would accept discrimination complaints from LGBTQ residents under state law barring sex-based discrimination.

But as the federal case demonstrates, the law matters. Lawmakers finally should pass the specific provisions barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity.

Online: https://bit.ly/322EPSS

____Personal finance could be most important course that a student ever takes

York Dispatch

Oct. 9

The student loan crisis is an epidemic.

The horror stories of young adults leaving college with debts in excess of $100,000 have become all-too commonplace.

It's a situation that can result in a cavernous financial hole that is impossible to escape. It can become a black mark on the student's credit that never goes away.

Often, young graduates use high-interest credit cards to pay off their student loans, which just exacerbates an already bad situation.

That's why it's absolutely imperative that high school students learn early on the critical importance of handling their personal finances.

That's also why we fully support a state Senate bill that would allow personal finance courses to count as a credit toward fulfilling graduation requirements in social studies, family and consumer science, mathematics or business education.

Personal finance courses could fulfill grad requirement in Pa.

Senate Bill 723, which passed unanimously in the state Senate on Sept. 23, is now in the House Education Committee. There is optimism that the bill will pass the House, as well, before going to Gov. Tom Wolf for his signature.

"If this can help the next generation be a little more prudent and keep them out of either credit-card or student-loan debt, then it's a big win for us," said bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Laughlin, R-Erie.

Not a mandate: It is important to note that the bill is not a mandate, but rather gives schools the flexibility to use finance courses as graduation requirements. It's a much-needed incentive to get our kids into the courses.

That was key to getting the unanimous Senate support. Many legislators, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, are dead set against adding any more mandates on our school districts. That's understandable. Our schools are already burdened with a ton of legislative mandates that can be difficult to fulfill.

Senate Bill 723 is a practical, bi-partisan solution to a critical problem.

Schools should make it a requirement: However, we would encourage all of our local school districts to make the personal finance courses a requirement, not just an option.

Northern York High School, in fact, has already taken that step. Beginning with the class of 2022, Northern will require students to take one of two classes with personal finance elements to graduate — one of which will count for math, and the other for a social studies credit.

South Western High School, meanwhile, already requires seniors to take personal finance but doesn't make it a credit required to graduate. South Western Principal Keith Downs, however, said the district would definitely be interested in doing so if the bill became law.

Personal finance courses can work: There is some local anecdotal evidence that a personal finance course can have a positive impact on the decisions of students.

Northern Principal Steve Lehman remembers one student who had been considering a large investment in a top college, but it wasn't until taking the course that she realized there were better options for her. Her parents told him they'd been having those conversations with her for months.

"That kind of stuff makes me feel like this was the right move," Lehman said, adding that having this information in course curriculum sometimes makes students more likely to use it than hearing it at home.

Pivotal decision: Choosing a college can be the most important decision in a high school student's life. It can have a life-long impact, for both finances and careers.

Anything we can do to help our students make prudent and practical choices should be encouraged.

Students must learn that their "dream schools" can sometimes turn into nightmares and leave them with a debt that they can never escape.

That's why teaching our students proper personal finance should be required. It could be the most important course our students ever take.

Online: https://bit.ly/33h5oDR

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