PA.'S PENSION CRISIS: SOUNDING THE ALARM

Gov. Tom Corbett may not like ranking priorities, but the pension crisis facing Pennsylvania needs to be one of his top issues this year.

The problem Pennsylvania faces is clearly apparent as top gubernatorial aides and the governor himself outlined to representatives from five Ogden Newspapers in Pennsylvania, including The Express, the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, Lewistown Sentinel and The (Altoona) Mirror, last Monday in Harrisburg.

Simply put: Bad decisions by previous legislatures and governors coupled with economic downturns that trashed investment returns for much of a decade have left Pennsylvania with a huge unfunded liability that threatens to swallow up larger and larger portions of the state budget.

As demands of the pension system grow, they will squeeze out other things in the budget and/or eventually leading to tax hikes.

The same issue will hit school districts as well because they and the state split the employer cost for pensions for public school employees. Already a number of districts are struggling with the higher pension contributions.

Currently, there is a $41 billion shortfall between the funding on hand and what the State Employees' Retirement System and the Public School Employees' Retirement System are obligated pay out based on current formulas. And it's up to the state and school districts i.e. taxpayers to fill that hole.

It's important to note that state and school employees have been contributing their required amounts toward the pension systems each year.

The same can't be said for the state and school districts. In an effort to soften the blow for investment declines over the past decade, legislators capped below the amount required what the state and schools have to contribute in pension payments.

This put off the day of reckoning until later.

Well, later has arrived.

The percentage of payroll that the state and school districts have to contribute to the pension systems will increase annually for most or all of this decade and then remain at those peak levels into the 2030s or beyond assuming investments earn at least 7.5 percent annually.

Putting this in dollars, the state's share of the pension costs will increase from slightly more than $1 billion this fiscal year to $1.5 billion in the next. Pennsylvania is projected to be on the hook for $4.3 billion in payments to the pension plans in fiscal year 2016-17 and for $5.1 billion in fiscal year 2019-20.

Those increases pose a huge problem.

While Corbett is providing an important service by alerting the public much like Paul Revere did in the Revolutionary War to fix this problem, the Keystone State is going to need a general forcing a plan of attack if we are to have any hopes of securing a victory.

That's not likely to happen unless Gov. Corbett ranks it as a top priority.

— The (Lock Haven) Express

BREATH EASY: NEW EPA RULES ON SOOT WILL HELP THE NATION'S LUNGS

As conservatives like to say, the Environmental Protection Agency and the rules it writes do no good for the nation and are instead a burden on economic recovery. Back in the real world, Americans can now take a deep breath of relief that the EPA is still in business.

What business is that? It is the business of ensuring that the air we breathe does not corrupt our lungs and the water we drink is fresh and clear. As it happens, the EPA's key role was underscored just this month.

New EPA standards finalized on Dec. 14 target soot particles and force industry, utilities and local governments to reduce this harmful form of pollution which emanates from smokestacks, power plants, diesel exhaust and wood-burning stoves. Basing its action on numerous scientific studies, the EPA set the standard for soot particles at 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The previous standard, set in 1997, was 15 micrograms.

This is good news for Americans concerned about their health. Fine particles of pollution can go deep into the lungs and are linked to a wide range of health problems -- premature death, hearts attacks, strokes, acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children. Older people with heart and lung conditions and children are especially at risk from soot pollution.

If anybody still thinks the EPA is being dictatorial, despite the health benefits of its regulations and the expected saving of thousands of lives, consider that the agency was fulfilling a court order. The EPA had been sued and a federal court ruled that the old standard was too weak and needed to be toughened according to the best available evidence.

Sixty-six counties in eight states -- and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area -- do not meet the new standards, but by 2020, with the help of other regulations, only seven counties (all in California) will be out of compliance. The EPA estimates that implementation will cost $53 million to $350 million annually, but the health benefits will total $4 billion to $9 billion a year.

Although industry is complaining that the new standard will destroy jobs, it's a good deal for the nation as a whole. Call it a fresh breath of air.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

THERE ARE BETTER WAYS TO SHOW SUPPORT FOR TEAMMATE

There is nothing wrong with wanting to support a teammate who is facing criminal charges, but the Dallas Cowboys sent the wrong message to a national television audience that saw nose tackle Josh Brent standing on the sidelines during the team's game against Pittsburgh last week.

Brent is facing charges of intoxication manslaughter stemming from the death of close friend and teammate Jerry Brown a week earlier and has been placed on the NFL's non-football illness list pending the outcome of his court case.

Team owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett said after the game that Brown's mother, Stacey Jackson, asked the Cowboys as a group to show support for Brent, who is accused of driving with twice the legal limit of alcohol in his blood when he had an accident that killed Brown, a passenger in his vehicle.

"We wanted him here, he's our brother," defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "He was very supportive. He was able to tell us what was going on on the field, and he was there for us. He came in here and said, 'Don't feel sorry for me.' That's the type of guy he is. He's a young guy who made a mistake, and at the end of the day, God has a purpose for his life."

"Our team and our players wanted him today on the sideline," Jones added.

The team and especially Brown's mother should be applauded for supporting the player. He is going to need all the support he can get. If convicted, he likely will serve some jail time, and his career in football may have seen its final day. But it was improper to have him on the sidelines.

Drunken driving is a national problem. According to the Century Council, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 31 percent of the total vehicle traffic fatalities in 2010, the most recent year for which figures were available.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, more than 1.41 million drivers were arrested in 2010 for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.

Those drivers endanger everyone on the highway.

Brent, a professional athlete playing for one of America's most popular sports franchises, serves as a role model for millions of adolescent boys and young men, which, the Century Council said, is the group that is most likely to get behind the wheel after having a few drinks. Seeing him on the sideline minimized not only the charges he is facing but also the lost life of his friend and teammate.

There would have been far better ways for the team to demonstrate its support for Brent, not the least of which would have been for Jones to have announced a donation in the names of Brent and Brown to help educate other young men about the dangers inherent in driving after one's judgment and reactions have been slowed by drugs or alcohol.

CBS studio analyst and former Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason tweeted, "Am I the only one who is wondering what in the world the Cowboys are thinking with Josh Brent on the sideline?"

No, he wasn't, and he shouldn't be.

It is one thing to show support for a teammate who faces problems, but that support should come in the form of getting help for him to deal with those problems, not allowing him on the sideline.

— Reading Eagle

NRA'S SILENCE WAS GOLDEN

The National Rifle Association understandably remained silent for a week following the Dec. 14 slaughter at a Connecticut elementary school, which was carried out with a semi-automatic weapon that its relentless advocacy has kept on the street.

Given the nonsense uttered Friday by the NRA's chief lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, the group would have been better off to maintain its silence.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," LaPierre declared. He called for an armed cop in every school and said the NRA will develop security plans for schools using armed volunteers.

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population but more than half of its guns, which is why the probability of being shot here is far higher than in any other country, including many that are war zones.

But in NRA world, the issue isn't instruments of death but instruments of information.

"How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame from a national media machine that rewards them with wall-to-wall attention and a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark?" he asked.

Every country has mentally ill people. Media are pervasive around the world. But the media too often cover mass murders in the United States because we are the only country crazy enough to provide easy access to semi-automatic weapons.

The week since the murders of 20 children and their teachers produced many sensible proposals, from many quarters, for measures that would restrict instruments of mass murder without adversely affecting the right to bear arms.

It is to the eternal disgrace of the NRA that it has chosen to double down on the carnage by posing ever more guns as the only answer to too many of the wrong kind of guns, too easily placed in the wrong hands.

— The (Scranton) Times-Tribune