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Tips on a new Pennsylvania law and rewarding your hospitality workers

By Joe Mueller | The Center Square (The Center Square) – If you tip your server in Pennsylvania on Friday, she or he might get to keep more of it and the cumulative amount might affect hourly wages. A new law taking effect increases the amount of money an employee will receive when they get a tip paid with a credit card. Employers pay fees to credit card companies for using the payment services. Previously, if a server received a $20 tip on a credit card, a typical fee paid to the card company would be 2% and the employer could legally deduct that amount – 40 cents – from the employee’s tip. The law now makes it illegal for employers to deduct credit card transaction fees from employee tips. The new law also changes the “tip credit” businesses are allowed. The credit allows businesses to pay employees a wage lower than the minimum wage if employees receive tips. In Pennsylvania, the minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The maximum “tip credit” a Pennsylvania business can claim is $4.42 an hour, resulting in an employee wage of $2.83 an hour, plus tips. The new law increases the “tip credit” threshold for lowering the employees’ wage from $30 in tips per month to $135. To be considered a “tipped worker,” the employee isn’t allowed to perform more than 20% of their tasks not directly generating tips. If an employee doesn’t meet the definition of a “tipped worker” and doesn’t receive $135 per month in tips, the employer can’t pay less than the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The new law also will change how businesses bill customers for service charges. Businesses charging for administration of a banquet, special function or a package of services must notify customers of any service or administrative charges on a contract or a menu. The business must inform customers the service or administrative charges is not a tip to be distributed to employees. Bills must have a separate line item for tips. The law allows employers to distribute service or administrative charges to workers but not in the form of a tip. Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in January challenged legislators to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour and annually increase it 50 cents per hour until it reaches $15 an hour in 2028. Thirty states, including all states surrounding Pennsylvania, have minimum wages higher than $7.25 an hour.

Pa. Supreme Court upholds no-excuse mail voting ahead of midterms

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — The state Supreme Court has upheld Pennsylvania’s mail ballot law, preserving for the time being a popular voting method that passed the legislature with bipartisan support but was later challenged by Republican elected officials. In a 5-2 decision released Tuesday, the justices rejected the GOP argument that the legislature did not have the power under the state constitution to allow Pennsylvanians to vote by mail without an excuse. The 2019 law, known as Act 77 and employed for the first time during the contentious 2020 presidential election, ushered in the most sweeping expansion of voting access in Pennsylvania in decades. More challenges to the law are on the horizon. Republican elected officials who brought the suit said Tuesday that they plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. A handful of Republican state lawmakers are also pursuing another avenue to have the entire law thrown out. That separate challenge, working its way through the state court system, was sparked by a federal ruling that found mail ballots that a voter failed to date, as required by state law, must still be counted. The timeline to resolve the additional legal challenges is unclear, but supporters of the law said Tuesday’s ruling will preserve voters’ options ahead of the critical midterm election. “This ruling assures that mail-in voting remains in place and Pennsylvanians will be able to cast their ballot legally in person or by mail without any disruption or confusion,” Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said in a statement. A lower appellate court earlier this year struck down Act 77, saying that permitting no-excuse mail voting required amending the state constitution, a lengthy process in which voters decide the matter through a ballot question. But in Tuesday’s majority opinion for the state Supreme Court, Justice Christine Donohue wrote that the Pennsylvania General Assembly “is endowed with great legislative power, subject only to express restrictions in the Constitution.” While the expansion of voting rights is not guaranteed to be permanent, the legislature made a lawful policy decision, “based on the authority afforded it by our Charter, to afford all qualified voters the convenience of casting their votes by mail,” Donohue wrote. All five of the justices who upheld Act 77 were elected as Democrats. Both of the dissenting justices were elected as Republicans. Before the law’s passage, Pennsylvania had one of the most restrictive absentee ballot laws in the country. In late 2019, Wolf and the Republican General Assembly struck a deal to allow 50 days of no-excuse mail voting before each election in exchange for eliminating straight-ticket voting. All but two GOP lawmakers voted for the bill. Despite the early support, Republican sentiment on the law shifted throughout the 2020 election cycle as former President Donald Trump played up baseless fears of fraud via mail voting, claims which allies repeated in Pennsylvania. GOP lawmakers in the state House and Senate — such as state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), his party’s gubernatorial nominee — have introduced legislation to repeal the law, but so far none of the proposals have received a vote in the General Assembly. In fall 2021, a county commissioner and 14 state House Republicans — 11 of whom voted for the law in 2019 — filed separate suits claiming the law was unconstitutionally implemented as a statute when it should have been sent to the voters as a constitutional referendum. That argument was first used in a 2020 lawsuit brought by U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Pa.) that attempted to toss out 2.6 million votes cast by mail, likely handing the state’s 20 electoral votes to Trump. The high court rejected Kelly’s case on procedural grounds, arguing that it could not post-facto reject millions of ballots cast in good faith under what was at the time a legal method of voting. This is breaking news and will be updated. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Drugmaker agrees to $2.37 billion opiate settlement

By Bruce Walker | The Center Square (The Center Square) – Allergan has agreed in principle to a proposed $2.37 billion settlement to participating states and local governments, including Iowa. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and a bipartisan group of attorneys general announced the settlement Friday. The news comes the same week as a $4.25 billion national settlement between more than 2,500 government entities and tribes with Teva Pharmaceuticals. “We’ve worked hard to get the best result for Americans harmed by the opioid crisis, and it’s rewarding to take another step in the right direction,” Miller said in a statement. “We continue to make it a priority to hold manufacturers responsible, while ensuring victims of this epidemic receive the help they need.” The coalition of states alleged that Allergan deceptively marketed opioids by downplaying the risk of addiction, overstating their benefits, and encouraging doctors to treat patients showing signs addiction by prescribing them more opioids; and failed to maintain effective controls to prevent diversion of opioids. The $2.37 billion figure includes money that Allergan has already agreed to pay under settlements with individual states. Details remain that need to be ironed out, including the settlement structure, but it’s anticipated states will follow established precedents with other multi-state drug company settlements. States participating in the settlement include Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. New York settled separately with Allergan in December 2021.

Pennsylvania county, second-oldest and smallest, a ‘hidden gem’ weathering the pandemic

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – Recent data from the Census Bureau shows that Pennsylvania’s median age, 40.9, is higher than the national average of 38.8.  A higher median age doesn’t mean a state will struggle to grow economically or in population – Florida and New Hampshire are older yet growing – but it can present some challenges. The oldest counties in Pennsylvania tend to be some of the smallest. The oldest, Sullivan County, has a median age of 55.2 and 5,868 people. Cameron County is second with a median age of 52.8 and 4,459 people. Forest County is third with a median age of 49.3 and 7,032 people. But a smaller, older population has its benefits, too. The counties weathered the pandemic, and arguably better than most. Cameron County had the fewest cases and deaths from COVID-19, County Commissioner Chair Lori Reed said. The county reported 880 cases and 21 deaths from COVID-19. “Most older people rushed to get vaccines,” Reed said. The rural nature of the county gave it another boost during the pandemic: the extra space attracted new residents. “House sales skyrocketed,” she said. “During COVID, we really were inundated with a lot of people.” That experience tracks with what researchers have found elsewhere. A study from Penn State University noted almost half of adults do some form of outdoor recreation on a monthly basis, and 20% of those were new to it during the pandemic.  Cameron and Sullivan counties, and Forest County to a lesser extent, have another commonality: significant payouts from natural gas and fracking.  Cameron County has received just under $1.5 million from the Act 13 impact fee since 2017, according to data from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and Sullivan County has received $5.6 million since 2011. While the natural gas fees have helped, the county has losses in manufacturing, Reed said. Population decline has also been steady; except for a 1% increase in the 2000 census, Cameron County has lost population since 1960, when it had almost 7,600 residents. The 2010 census noted a 15% decline and the 2020 census noted an 11% decline. It’s too early to tell whether the pandemic-induced spike will lead to growth in the next census. Unsurprisingly, health care access is more limited: residents must routinely travel 25 miles or more for treatment. Funding emergency medical services is also “a huge issue here,” Reed said. Despite those challenges, the effects of the pandemic have given some hope for growth. “We want to grow, but slowly,” Reed said. The county has also hired a new marketing director to work with the Office of Community and Economic Development to promote the area as a tourism destination. “We’re the safest county in the state but also the most beautiful,” Reed said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous here.”

Pennsylvania Legislature sends $1M to address hunger at higher education institutions

By Joe Mueller | The Center Square (The Center Square) – The Pennsylvania Legislature is sending $1 million to college campuses for the upcoming school year to address student food insecurity at institutions of higher learning. The Hunger-Free Campus Grant Program will help colleges and universities create or expand campus food pantries and increase awareness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Funding also will be used to help determine the nutritional needs of the student population. Research by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2016 found less than half of college students who were eligible for SNAP benefits participated in the program. In 2018, more than 650 colleges reported having a food pantry on campus that provided free food to college students in need. Penn State University tuition and fees for an academic year are approximately $36,000 for out-of-state students and about $19,000 for in-state. A study by the university discovered 35% of students across the commonwealth experience some level of food insecurity. Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit organization devoted to addressing hunger among college students, surveyed 86,000 students from 123 two- and four-year higher education institutions. It found 45% experienced food insecurity during the previous month. Frances Wolf, wife of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, emphasized the importance of the funding last week during an online panel discussion held by Nazun, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending campus hunger. After seeing the success of nutrition programs in elementary and secondary schools, she was shocked to learn programs didn’t exist in higher education. “I asked, ‘What happens when they go on?’ and it was crickets, silence,” Wolf said. “There wasn’t anything there and that’s what really caught me and took my breath away.” She quoted 2016 research stating the average age of college students is 25 and half of undergraduate students were financially independent. She said approximately 22% have dependent children and 14% are single parents. Wolf said food insecurity is problematic at both private and public institutions, but grassroots efforts are meeting the need. “I’ve met incredible people – administrators, deans and vice presidents – at institutions, but the ones who take my breath away are the students,” Wolf said. “They are the ones running the programs, the worker bees. They are setting up these pantries, sometimes in their dorm closets. They go to food pantries to stock their own pantry and become part of the campus.”

Only five governors less popular than Pennsylvania Democrat Tom Wolf

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – Gov. Tom Wolf is term-limited and not running for reelection, and it may be for the best. Only five governors in the country are less popular. That’s according to the latest Morning Consult survey, which looked at governors’ popularity across the nation. Wolf isn’t underwater, however. He has a 47% approval rating and a 46% disapproval rating. Pennsylvanians are divided on Wolf, but that has been consistent since early 2021 when Morning Consult polls showed his rating moving between 46% and 48% approval. Wolf lags behind most other governors; 38 have an approval rating of 50% or higher. Yet, he and all governors are more popular than President Joe Biden, who has an approval rating of 39%. Neighboring state governors all have better ratings than Wolf: Kathy Hochul (New York, 49%), Phil Murphy (New Jersey, 52%), John Carney (Delaware, 56%), Mike DeWine (Ohio, 57%), Jim Justice (West Virginia, 66%), and Larry Hogan (Maryland, 70%). Of the 10 governors with the highest approval ratings, eight are Republicans and two are Democrats. Of the 10 governors with the lowest approval ratings, five are Republicans and five are Democrats. “The latest surveys, conducted April 1-June 30, 2022, show that – with only a few exceptions – most Democratic governors have been able to float above their party’s deteriorating political environment,” Eli Yokely wrote for Morning Consult. Biden’s low numbers might help governors of all political stripes. With voters more upset about federal politics, they pay less attention to state-level politics. “Virtually every measurement of public opinion shows that Americans are in a foul mood about their political leaders and institutions,” Louis Jacobson of Sabato’s Crystal Ball from the University of Virginia wrote. “But one group seems to have escaped this wrath: governors.” Voters have focused on issues that governors have less control over like inflation, the economy, and supply chain problems. Aside from crime, most of the attention has been on federal, not state, problems.  Whether the public’s view of Wolf will affect the gubernatorial race between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano is unclear. A recent AARP poll shows that Shapiro has a 49-46 lead over Mastriano, and a narrow 48-47 lead among voters aged 50+.

Police arrests dropped 60% in Pittsburgh, following nationwide trend

By Elyse Apel | The Center Square (The Center Square) – Pittsburgh has a 60% decrease in arrests over the past eight years, following similar trends in many major cities across the country.  From 2013 to 2021, the number of arrests made by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police dropped from 18,541 to 7,405. The latest audited report from the city provides data back to 2013.  The drop in arrests in Pittsburgh, unlike other cities with significant drops in arrests, was most noticeable in 2020 and 2021 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, city crime stats from 2015 to 2021 show that “violence trends” – shootings, murders and assaults – have been on par with pre-pandemic years. Traffic stops and calls for services have also dropped over that period. Traffic stops in 2013 were 28,894 and declined to 10,243 in 2021. That is a 65% decrease. Calls for services decreased from 230,497 in 2013 to 218,881 in 2021, a 5% decline.  Though arrests and traffic stops have declined, the number of full-time police officers in the city has remained flat. In 2013, there were 1,092 police officers, while in 2021 that number had only dropped 2.7%, to 1,062.  Expenses for public safety in the city, which includes police, fire, EMS, animal control, and administration, has significantly increased every year from 2013 to 2021. In 2013, $258 million was spent on public safety in Pittsburgh. By 2021, that rose 35.3%, to $349 million. Of that, police department expenses rose from $71 million in 2013 to $116 million in 2021 – a 63% rise. The Center Square reached out to the police department and the mayor’s office for a response about the drop in arrests and received no immediate response.

Pennsylvania’s sales tax: Lower than national average, but a narrow base

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – Pennsylvania is well-known for its high gas tax and high corporate net income tax until a recent change, but residents get a break compared to other states in one area: sales tax. A new report from the Tax Foundation notes that Pennsylvania’s combined 6.34% sales tax rate is No. 34 in the nation. That’s lower than most of its border states, except for Maryland (6%) and Delaware’s non-existent sales tax. The state sales tax rate of 6% is the 17th-lowest rate in the nation, but the average local tax rate pushes it up to 34th, the report notes.  What’s crucial may not be how a state does compared to the national average, but to nearby states. People take notice and adjust their spending habits accordingly. “State and local governments should be cautious about raising rates too high relative to their neighbors because doing so will yield less revenue than expected or, in extreme cases, revenue losses despite the higher tax rate,” wrote Janelle Fritts, state policy analyst at the Tax Foundation. Businesses will shift from a city to a suburb, or from one side of a state border to another, to avoid a higher sales tax. What’s convenient about a sales tax is its clarity and transparency. Consumers know how much they’re paying. Though the below-average sales tax gives residents a break at the register compared to high-sales tax states like Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas, the exceptions and complexity involved in how Pennsylvania applies the sales tax creates an unnecessary burden. “Many economists feel the sales tax is the ‘least bad tax’ in terms of economic harms, thus some of the fastest growth states (Texas, Florida, Tennessee) have higher sales tax rates, but no income tax,” said Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation. Benefield pointed out that Pennsylvania has a narrow tax base (40th in the nation) and 101 exclusionsfrom the sales tax, limiting its reach. He says “There is plenty of room to expand the base and lower the rate” and/or lower other taxes without increasing the burden on taxpayers. Businesses, too, face complexity in collecting the tax. A broader and simpler structure could make it easier for small businesses to deal with the sales tax, along with reforming local tax structures to clean up the “patchwork of local taxes,” Benefield said.

Pennsylvania gambling expected to hit $5B in revenues for 2022

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – The Pennsylvania gaming industry has recovered from a pandemic dip as options for gambling have increased in recent years.  Not only is it a recovery, but strong growth. Total revenues for the industry hit $3.2 billion in 2018 and are projected to crack $5 billion in 2022 if trends continue, according to a new report from the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. For tax revenues, the commonwealth is looking at an estimated $2 billion from the industry, said Frank Gamrat, executive director of the Allegheny Institute. His estimate extrapolates the revenue data from the Gaming Control Board, but cautioned that revenues and taxes could change based on the economy. If a recession hits, tax revenues could fall short. “Things seem to be moving along,” Gamrat said. “The economy’s not improving, but it’s not degrading either.” The gaming industry depends on economic growth in other sectors of the economy. “One thing to consider is that it’s the discretionary money that (people) are using to gamble with. As long as they have discretionary money they’ll keep gambling,” Gamrat said. For growth, the industry also relies on bringing something new to the table for the public to try. From traditional casinos with slots and table games to the state government approval of mini-casinos to the legalization of internet gaming and fantasy sports betting, gambling in Pennsylvania has been fueled by additions. When sports gambling became legal in 2019, revenues were about $4 million per month. By April 2022, that had jumped to $30 million. But the growth has its limits. “When I look at total revenues from prior to the pandemic, you hit a plateau,” Gamrat said. “From 2011 to 2019, which was primarily slots and tables only, it was about $3 billion a year in total revenue. So if we hit $5 billion in total revenue from all forms of gaming, my guess is it’ll probably be consistent for the next few handful of years unless there’s another expansion.” The legalization of gambling in nearby states also means more competition and less likelihood of residents from Ohio or New Jersey visiting Pennsylvania to gamble. “All that money comes from Pennsylvanians,” Gamrat said. Slot machines and internet gaming comprise about 70% of gaming revenue, followed by table games. Not all gambling is equal for tax purposes, however. Rates differ, and tax revenues go to different places. Slot machine taxes go primarily toward property tax relief (in-person or online), Gamrat noted, while table game taxes go into the general fund. The industry’s expansion may not be as fruitful behind casino doors or websites as some other economic sectors, however. “The gaming industry does not have the spinoff effects as does a factory, as does an office building,” Gamrat said. “Those casinos are designed for you to go there as a destination. You’re going there to spend your money in the casino, you’re not looking for restaurants around the casino.”

New Pa. budget injects $125M into private school tax credit program that lacks basic accountability

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — When Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-led legislature hammered out the $45.2 billion budget deal in early July, they delivered a historic windfall to a popular tax credit program that underwrites scholarships for Pennsylvania students to attend private schools. The additional $125 million in the state budget for Pennsylvania’s educational tax credits represented the largest one-time funding boost for the program since its inception nearly two decades ago, according to state data. And it was quickly hailed by GOP legislators who insisted on the increase, calling it a win for low- and middle-income students who attend low-performing schools. But the program as recently as this year was singled out for a fundamental lack of transparency and accountability that makes it impossible to determine whether it’s actually improving outcomes for students. At the same time, bills to remedy its secrecy, or to make it more efficient, have languished in the legislature. “We have zero quantitative data to see if it’s effective,” said state Sen. Lindsey Williams, a Democrat from Allegheny County who also spoke out against the program’s funding increase when lawmakers voted on the budget. “And we don’t even get additional accountability in exchange for the largest increase to the program.” Republicans who control both chambers said in statements to Spotlight PA that they supported the historic increase, not just for the educational tax credit, but for public education as well. But they sidestepped questions about whether they had reservations about supercharging funding for a program that is difficult to evaluate for effectiveness. Wolf has said that he believes the program needs to be more accountable. When asked why the governor signed off on its biggest funding increase ever, spokesperson Beth Rementer said: “Unfortunately, Republicans refuse to move legislation that would adequately address this [accountability] and they insisted on this increased funding in the budget.” In 2001, under Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, the legislature voted, without debate, to create the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC. At the time, some lawmakers and public education activists viewed it as a backdoor way for Ridge, an advocate of government-funded tuition vouchers, to get a school choice program in place in Pennsylvania. The EITC program, however, was structured differently. Instead of government-funded vouchers, it created a system for businesses to donate money to educational nonprofit organizations, which in turn would distribute those dollars to help offset tuition costs for students wanting to attend a different — often private — school. Participating businesses were rewarded with state tax breaks of up to 90 cents on every dollar they contributed. The EITC law also allowed for some money to go to public schools for innovative programming — including academic summer camps or author visits to classrooms — that wouldn’t otherwise be funded by a local district. That first year, the EITC program was capped at $30 million, but legislators have negotiated increases to it nearly every year since. With the additional $115 million in this year’s budget deal, the cap now stands at $340 million. The tax credit program has been expanded since 2001 to include so-called opportunity scholarship tax credits, or OSTC, which provide tuition assistance specifically to students who live within the boundaries of Pennsylvania’s worst-performing schools. OSTC also received a $10 million boost in this fiscal year’s budget. Nathan Benefield, senior vice president at the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think based in Harrisburg, said the funding increases directly reflect the popularity of the program, both in the business community and among parents. “The need is clearly there,” said Benefield, whose organization supports increases to the program. Indeed, the program is in demand. In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the latest data available, there were roughly 164,500 applications for tuition assistance, a 36% increase from the previous year, according to data collected by the state’s Independent Fiscal Office, which analyzes the state’s budgetary and economic landscapes. Despite the influx of applications, only about 68,400 scholarships — or roughly 42% — were awarded, although the IFO noted in a recent report that students weren’t turned away solely because the program didn’t have enough money to meet demand. That report, published in January of this year, concluded that a thorough review of the educational tax credit program was impossible, given the dearth of information about it. The educational tax credit law sharply limits the data the state can collect from the scholarship organizations that dole out tuition dollars and the schools that host those students. Instead, the state receives largely aggregate information, including the number of applications received, the number of scholarships awarded, and the average amount of tuition assistance. But officials from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which oversees the educational tax credit program, told Spotlight PA that do not know how many scholarships went to students who already attended private schools, as opposed to students who switched from public schools. Nor is the department able to collect data on the income levels of families whose children benefit from the program. Students can apply for tuition assistance if their families have a maximum household income of about $96,600, plus $17,017 per dependent, according to the IFO report. The report noted that Pennsylvania has the highest income limitations among states that offer such educational tax credit programs. The IFO’s analysts recommended the legislature amend the law to permit the state to collect student performance and demographic data so that the program can be meaningfully evaluated. “Across states, Pennsylvania has one of the largest tax credits, but collects and publishes the least amount of outcome data,” the IFO report noted. Yet the legislature has not taken action on legislation seeking such changes. One bill, introduced by state Sen. Tim Kearney (D., Delaware) would, among other changes, require more information on the students and families that receive scholarships and their educational outcomes. Another measure, championed by state Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Philadelphia), would require similar information, but would also lower the income threshold to qualify for assistance. Neither has received a committee vote, the first step in moving a bill forward. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Where’s the Pennsylvania worker? In retirement or living out-of-state

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – Though pandemic restrictions have faded away, Pennsylvania’s economy is yet to bounce back. The commonwealth has lost 120,000 workers since 2019, according to a new report from the Independent Fiscal Office, and its 4.6% unemployment rate is higher than the national rate of 3.6%. The report, “Where Did the Workers Go?”, shows that “many workers left the labor force and no longer work or actively seek employment.” Even though the labor market is strong, with many job openings and employers offering higher wages, Pennsylvania has fewer people ready to work a job than before the pandemic.  The commonwealth has an “unmet demand of roughly 100,000 additional workers,” the IFO report noted. And​​ the problem isn’t only in Pennsylvania; the national trend reflects a labor force that’s smaller than it was a few years ago. The state lost 139,000 payroll jobs between May 2019 and May 2022, and the biggest losses came from two sectors: nursing home and residential care, and full-service restaurants. Together, they made up 40% of the losses, more than 56,000 jobs. Payroll jobs do not include the self-employed. Nonprofit groups lost 14,000 jobs, manufacturing businesses lost 13,000 jobs, and employment services lost 12,000 jobs. Only two sectors had notable increases in employment: warehouse and storage businesses gained 34,000 jobs, and couriers-messengers grew by 12,000. Pennsylvania’s shrinking labor force, the IFO noted, was tied to its disappearing and aging population, parents leaving jobs to care for children in online or home schools, and other factors. “From 2019 to 2022, the state population contracted by an estimated 48,000 residents and the median age increased,” the report noted.  The number of “prime working age Pennsylvanians,” those who are age 25-54, fell by 50,000. Residents age 55-64, who may work or choose an early retirement, fell by 78,000. But those aged 65 and up grew by 164,000 people. Pennsylvania isn’t attracting younger workers – as its current population ages out of the workforce. The need for child care has also presented a tradeoff. When school districts switched from in-person to online classes, parents left.  Since the pandemic, public schools lost almost 51,000 students, the IFO noted. Schools that stayed open or returned sooner to physical classes, such as in-person charter schools and non-public schools, each lost fewer than 3,000 students.  Meanwhile, the biggest enrollment gains went to online charter schools (almost 20,000 students) and homeschooling (16,000 students). With the shrinking labor force, the commonwealth’s problems have ripple effects. Fewer workers can make economic growth a pressing concern, as does a potential drop in tax revenues that fund government services.

Pennsylvania has a new child care tax credit. Here’s what you need to know.

By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf has approved a new, permanent child care tax credit that will allow families to claim thousands of dollars in benefits. The new tax credit was created as part of Pennsylvania’s new $45.2 billion budget, which Wolf signed into law in early July. Wolf and lawmakers also allocated over $140 million to a one-time expansion of a property tax credit for low-income and older Pennsylvanians. Here’s what you need to know about these credits and how you can access them: The Pennsylvania child care tax credit What does it do? Modeled off of the federal Child Tax Credit, the Child and Dependent Care Enhancement Program will return up to 30% of child care-related expenses that filers claim on their federal return. This program is meant to support working families by lessening their tax liability. A total of $24.6 million went into the program, which is now a permanent fixture of the state’s tax code. Who is eligible? People who have one or more dependents and fall under a certain income level are eligible. For people who care for one dependent, expenses claimed cannot surpass $3,000. For those with two or more dependents, it cannot surpass $6,000. The percentage of expenses that can be credited will vary depending on income level, but that detail has yet to be determined. Per a state House budget committee representative, the rules will be similar to those for federal returns. Married couples with up to $150,000 in annual income or a single filer who made half that were eligible for the full amount of the federal tax credit in 2021. How is it claimed? This credit can be claimed when filing state taxes beginning in 2023. The rebate will be subtracted from the total amount of taxes owed to the state. If the amount credited is worth more than the amount of taxes owed to the state, the rebate will be refunded to the filer. The (temporary) boost for property tax relief What does it do? This one-time allocation temporarily boosts the state’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program. Under the current program, eligible Pennsylvanians receive rebates ranging from $650 to $975 depending on whether the filer is a renter or homeowner. The year’s budget uses $140 million in federal stimulus money to expand payments for one year by 70%. If a person already received $975 from the program last year, they will get an additional $682.50. Who is eligible? The program benefits Pennsylvanians 65 or older, widowed people older than 49, and people with disabilities age 18 and older. Homeowners with annual incomes under $35,000 are eligible, as are renters with annual incomes under $15,000 (certain types of income are excluded). How is it claimed? Anyone who received a property tax or rent rebate during the 2021 tax season is automatically eligible for the additional rebate. Pennsylvanians can still apply for the 2021 rebate program and obtain the 70% bonus rebate until the end of this year. However, the bonus rebate will not be available for those applying to next year’s rebate program. Correction: A sentence has been updated to note that the 2021 tax rebate program is still accepting applications. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

More oversight for Pennsylvania nursing home staffing agencies in the pipeline

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – Health care service agencies, which supply nursing homes and others with temporary staff, could deal with more oversight and regulation if a bill continues to advance in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Price ceilings that would have capped what staffing agencies could charge, however, were removed from the legislation. House Bill 2293 would apply a number of requirements for agencies to register with the Department of Human Services. Among them would be verification employees are properly credentialed; background checks; ownership disclosure; and pay a $500 annual registration fee. It would also require agencies to carry malpractice insurance and establish a complaint process. “State agencies do not have oversight of supplemental health care service agencies,” Rep. Tim Bonner, R-Grove City, wrote in a legislative memo. “Recognizing the increased role that these agencies play in the day-to-day operations of nearly 700 nursing homes and 1,200 assisted living residences and personal care homes, we must ensure they are operating in a manner that supports the long-term care sector and high-quality resident care.” The bill passed in the House, 198-2, on July 1 and awaits action in the Senate.  Pennsylvania has relied on agencies to recruit staff during the pandemic. In January 2020, 6% of certified nursing assistants, 8% of licensed practical nurses, and 5% of registered nurses came to nursing homes and assisted living facilities through staffing agencies, according to quarterly data from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  By October 2021, those numbers had jumped, respectively, to 14.6%, 17.4%, and 11.5%. That reliance on staffing agencies is relatively high, but in line with other states in the Northeast. Nursing homes have high staff turnover rates; one study found that “mean and median annual turnover rates for total nursing staff were roughly 128% and 94%, respectively.”  When nursing homes struggle to hire long-term care workers, they rely on staffing agencies to fill in the gaps. And rates for those short-term workers can be much higher. The bill has attracted the support of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, an advocacy group for long-term care providers, which has been critical of health care service agencies. “It’s oversight and accountability, that’s the most important part of the bill,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the PHCA. “There’s no oversight and accountability in Pennsylvania over staffing agencies.” Shamberg framed it as a victory for bringing agencies in line with other organizations in health care. “This really puts guardrails around what they can do, how they can operate,” he said. “It really ensures that we’re all operating on a level playing field.” Shamberg noted that staffing problems grow from low Medicaid reimbursement rates. “Medicaid reimbursement rates in Pennsylvania have remained stagnant since 2014,” he said, while costs have gone up. “Everything is driven by Medicaid reimbursement,” Shamberg said. “Our stagnant Medicaid reimbursement rate hasn’t allowed providers to truly invest in their staff.” Transparency for staffing agencies isn’t totally missing. “Anyone can go look (at CMS data) and see how many hours any given nursing home in the country had contract staff, so this idea of having some sort of registration – I’m honestly not sure what the idea, what they’re even trying to pretend the idea is,” said Markus Brun Bjoerkheim, a postdoctoral fellow in the Open Health program of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. One portion of the bill, removed when it was in committee, would have capped maximum rates charged by staffing agencies. Bjoerkheim warned against such policies. “If we’re going to cap these rates, then some patients aren’t going to be cared for,” he said. In April, Pennsylvania was down 30,000 workers in nursing homes since the start of the pandemic, as The Center Square previously reported. 

Pennsylvania Senate bill would give voters say in abortion, voter ID

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – A late-night Republican push for a constitutional amendment declaring no right to an abortion has caused controversy. The resolution would also change elections to require voter ID, raise the voting age to 21, and allow gubernatorial candidates to pick their running mate for lieutenant governor, rather than have two separate races. Senate Bill 106 would amend Article I of the Pennsylvania Constitution to read: “This Constitution does not grant the right to taxpayer-funded abortion or any other right relating to abortion.” The amendment would be a way to avoid a veto from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has promised to defend abortion as long as he serves as governor. During a session on Friday debating the bill, Senate Republicans argued that voters deserve a choice on abortion law. The amendment, which would need to be approved by voters, would allow “voters to decide whether taxpayers should be required to pay for abortions,” said Sen. David Argall, R-Berks/Schuylkill. “We have no choice but to turn to the constitutional process to give the voters a say.” Democrats strongly disagreed with the amendment popping up late Thursday night for a vote.  “This is a straight-up attempt to change the constitution of Pennsylvania to deny women the right to control what happens with their own bodies,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia. The amendment would “make them second-class citizens,” he said. Some Democrats, however, embraced the idea of letting voters decide as a way to subvert politicking in the General Assembly. “I’m a yes on this bill because I’m tired of the demagoguing,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Bethlehem. “Let the voters reject this, let them deliver a message once and for all: a women’s right to choose deserves protection.” The voter ID amendment raises the voting age and requires valid proof of identification, but also provides an ID at no cost to the voter once their identity is confirmed. “Showing ID is not a controversial topic,” said Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland/York. “This amendment is the first step to protecting our voting system … there is no justification not to do this.” The bill passed a Senate vote, 28-22, and heads to the House. Both chambers are majority Republican.

School districts get big boost in new PA budget

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania lawmakers have sent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf a $45.2 billion spending plan that boosts education spending by more than $1 billion, creates a new child care tax credit, and squirrels away money for a rainy day. The wide-reaching budget, completed a week after the June 30 deadline, was made possible by higher-than-expected revenues that led to a multibillion dollar surplus. Democrats and Republicans also agreed on a plan to spend $2.2 billion in remaining federal stimulus funds, including $660 million on environmental projects and $375 million on housing. The state House approved the spending plan in a 180-20 vote Thursday afternoon. The state Senate followed, in a 47-3 vote, on Friday after a contentious debate on adding language to the state constitution declaring it does not grant any right relating to abortion and requiring voter ID to vote in all instances. Wolf signed the budget Friday. In a statement, he said the plan solidified “his commitment to education at all levels.” “Since I took office, Pennsylvania’s students and families have been my top priority,” Wolf said. “We have made long overdue investments in the people of Pennsylvania, including better education for all, safer communities, and a brighter future.” Overall, the deal represents a 2.9% increase in state spending compared to last year’s budget. Education saw a major investment, with $525 million more appropriated for K-12 schools, $225 million for some of the state’s poorest districts, and $100 million each for special education, school safety, and school mental health services. A tax credit for individuals or businesses who donate to parochial and private schools, so they can in turn offer scholarships to students, was also expanded by $125 million, a 45% increase. The plan includes a gradual decrease in corporate net income tax from 9.99% to 4.99% by 2031, the repeal of new regulations on charter schools, and a $2.1 billion deposit into the state’s rainy day fund, which Republican leaders pointed to as key wins. “This bill is exactly the medicine this commonwealth needs,” House Appropriations Chair Stan Saylor (R., York) said Thursday on the House floor. The General Assembly also agreed to spend $2.2 billion in remaining federal stimulus dollars on a number of one-off conservation, water infrastructure, housing, childcare, and public safety projects. A property tax rebate program for people 65 or older and those with disabilities, typically funded by the Pennsylvania Lottery, will get a one-time $140 million infusion, which represents a 70% expansion. Last year, the program provided checks to 430,000 renters who make under $15,000 and homeowners who make under $35,000. Someone who received the maximum refund of $650 will receive an additional $455 under the one-year expansion. The plan also funds a new $125 million home repair program, championed by state Sen. Nikil Saval (D., Philadelphia). The program targets homeowners whose annual income is less than 80% of the area’s median income and landlords who own less than 15 rental units. Democrats largely backed the budget and stimulus spending plan, seizing the opportunity to at last spend billions provided by the federal government during the pandemic on their priorities and expand state education funding by three-quarters of a billion dollars. “We are poised to enact the largest increase in education funding in the history of Pennsylvania,” state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia), minority chair of the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, said Thursday. “To have this kind of increase for the children of Pennsylvania, teachers, those who work in schools, I think is significant.” Lawmakers also created a new tax credit aimed at supporting working families. People with one or more dependents can claim up to 30% of the childcare expenses they claimed on their federal taxes. The budget was delayed by a week as state House Republicans tried to withhold funding from four major universities unless the schools swore under oath that they do not “engage in research or experimentation using fetal tissue obtained from an elective abortion.” The ban specifically targeted the University of Pittsburgh. On Wednesday, the lower chamber took a different course, advancing a clean version of a bill to fund the universities and adding the research ban to unrelated broadband legislation. The clean bill is now on Wolf’s desk for his approval, and the latter is parked in a state Senate committee. While some Capitol observers feared the state House would be the one to derail the budget, it was in fact state Senate Republicans who signaled Thursday that all was not well, stating that budget talks were “deteriorating” and “reaching an impasse.” In the end, it wasn’t the budget package that led to hours of contentious debate but rather an omnibus bill containing five separate proposed constitutional amendments including one on abortion. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Philadelphia’s Jim Kenney: ‘I’ll be happy when I’m not mayor’

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – A moment of frustration for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has led to two city councilmen to call for his resignation. Kenney’s comments came after a shooting incident where two police officers were injured during the city’s Fourth of July celebration on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. During a post-midnight press conference, he spoke about the stress and concern brought by large events in the city. “I’m concerned every single day. There’s not an event or a day where I don’t lay on my back at night and look at the ceiling, and worry about stuff,” Kenney said. “So everything we have in the city, over the last seven years, I worry about. I don’t enjoy (the) Fourth of July, I don’t enjoy the Democratic National Convention, I didn’t enjoy the NFL draft – I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time. So it’s – I’ll be happy when I’m not mayor and I can enjoy some stuff.” “You’re looking forward to not being mayor?” a reporter asked. “Yeah, as a matter of fact,” Kenney said. The 63-year-old has been mayor – the 1.6 million population city’s 99th – since January 2016, and elected city representative since he was 32. In each of the general elections of 2015 and 2019, the Democrat captured 80% or more of the vote. He’s term-limited. Kenney has been criticized during his tenure for a lack of leadership or visibility in city affairs. The mayor’s comments angered other elected leaders who have disagreed with him in the past. “Philadelphia is in a crisis and needs a mayor who wants the job and all its responsibilities,” City Councilman Allan Domb wrote on Twitter. “It is beyond time for @PhillyMayor to resign for the good of the city and its residents.” Nor was Domb the only council member to call for Kenney’s resignation. “We are all exhausted by the level of gun violence in our City,” Councilman Derek Green tweeted. “However, our City needs someone now with the passion and vision to lead us forward. Resign.” Both Domb and Green are expected to run for mayor in 2023. After the press conference, Kenney focused on gun violence in the city. “We will continue to do everything we can to combat our city’s gun violence – including taking a record number of guns off the streets – but we are fighting an uphill battle. We are pleading with lawmakers to help us stop the flow of guns into our city,” he tweeted. “I love this city, and as Mayor, there’s nothing more I want than to help solve this problem and keep our residents and visitors safe.” Kenney isn’t the only city official to face calls for resignation. State Republicans have focused attention on District Attorney Larry Krasner, passing a resolution last week to form a committee to investigate and impeach Krasner over rising rates of crime in Philadelphia. The city has seen a significant increase in murder in recent years.

Pa. House Republicans want to block state funding for the University of Pittsburgh over fetal tissue research

By Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — A proxy fight over abortion led by state House Republicans jeopardizes hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition assistance for Pennsylvania college students. At issue is public funding for Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities — Lincoln University, Penn State University, Temple University, and the University of Pittsburgh. Last year, the state allocated almost $600 million to these four institutions. Most of the money subsidizes in-state tuition for Pennsylvanians. On Monday, the state House voted 108-92 to approve an amendment that would require the schools to swear under oath they do not “engage in research or experimentation using fetal tissue obtained from an elective abortion” to receive state funding. The move is the culmination of years of pressure from opponents of abortion access, who have argued since at least 2019 that Pitt’s funding should be axed for research conducted using tissue obtained from aborted fetuses. The vote complicates budget negotiations as GOP lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf try to complete the process before the June 30 deadline. In recent years, the number of Republican representatives who support blocking Pitt’s funding has steadily increased. Legislative rules make blocking the funding fairly easy. Two-thirds of lawmakers must agree to fund educational institutions not under the complete control of the state, like Pitt and Penn State. That means the defection of 68 Republican representatives — just over half of the caucus — is enough to prevent Pitt from getting taxpayer dollars. In May 2021, one anti-abortion activist advised lawmakers at a public hearing to “exercise all of the oversight authority that is available to you” to ensure that “crimes … are not being perpetuated in Pennsylvania by an unaccountable taxpayer-funded abortion industry.” Under pressure from lawmakers, Pitt hired a law firm to conduct an independent review of its research practices. Released in December 2021, the review found that the 31 studies using fetal tissue since 2001 had all been “conducted in compliance with federal and state laws.” Those laws, for instance, ban financial compensation for fetal tissue and require researchers to be approved by an internal university board before they begin their research. Despite the findings, multiple Republican lawmakers, including top leaders, faced political attacks from anti-abortion groups for voting for Pitt’s funding. Some lost their primary this year. Insiders have noted that multiple factors could be contributing to the opposition to Pitt’s funding, including former university chancellor Mark Nordenberg’s stint as chair of the state’s redistricting commission, which produced a state House map that will likely reduce Republicans’ majority, and an overall distrust of higher education institutions. But on the floor Monday, state Rep. Jerry Knowles (R., Schuylkill) focused on the tissue research when he offered his rider to the funding bill for the four state-related universities. He described a 2020 study that involved the grafting of fetal skin onto lab rats to analyze hair growth, before telling lawmakers that a vote for the amendment would be supported by influential groups that oppose abortion access, including the Pennsylvania Family Council and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. “My goal is not to stop the funding,” Knowles said. “As a matter of fact, I want to help Pitt get themselves out of a problem they have created for themselves.” While the amendment may have won the backing of many state House Republicans, the research ban does not appear to have the same level of support elsewhere in the Capitol as lawmakers try to put the finishing touches on the state’s budget. In an email, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said that the chamber needs to review anything that comes from the state House first. But generally, “the Senate does not believe that students and their in-state tuition status should be held hostage to research grants established by” the National Institutes of Health. “Any such issues can be addressed outside of the budget process,” spokesperson Erica Clayton Wright added. Wolf also signaled his opposition. His spokesperson, Elizabeth Rementer, said the ban would “jeopardize important funding that supports tuition assistance, education and research at a world-class university.” The spending plan, due under state law by June 30, has been delayed by conflicting priorities between Wolf and legislative Republicans, as well as differences among GOP lawmakers. The exact funding levels for the universities and dozens of other items, from basic education to human services, are still under negotiation. As of Wednesday, talks were ongoing. Despite pessimism among Capitol sources early Tuesday, Ward said in the afternoon that “we’re getting to a good spot.” More action is expected Wednesday. Still, the funding for the state-related universities remains a stumbling block. The bill to approve the universities’ funding — without the research ban — passed the state Senate 44-5 earlier this month, comfortably above the two-thirds margin needed. All the dissenters were Republicans, including GOP gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin). This year, the state Senate combined funding for the state-related schools into a single bill, rather than the separate bills seen traditionally. That tactic is commonly used in the legislature to muscle through politically unpopular options — in this case, Pitt’s funding — with less controversial measures. The hope is that the good outweighs the bad, and swings some votes from no to yes. The state House voted to add the research ban amendment Monday, but the bill awaits a final vote by the chamber. While the amendment only needed a simple majority to be approved, the bill needs two-thirds of lawmakers to back it — meaning Democrats will have to get on board. At a Tuesday news conference, Democratic legislators from western Pennsylvania said they will not support the legislation. “I do believe that individuals are entitled to their own views and personal beliefs around abortion,” state Rep. Sara Innamorato (D., Allegheny) said. “What they are not entitled to do is to spread misinformation in the name of them and stop life-saving and life-sustaining research.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Across Pennsylvania, police funding and more health services unite parties

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) – As murders have risen in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and public safety has garnered more political attention, Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans have suggested different solutions, some big and some small. On public safety funding, however, both parties are aligned, at least for some level of increase. The most contentious areas have been gun control and related restrictions.  While action on the local and state levels has attracted Republicans and Democrats to fund police departments, grow anti-violence community efforts, and provide health care-related aid to those struggling with addiction, guns remain a contentious policy area. Philadelphia’s new budget, for example, includes $184 million for violence prevention measures and an extra $30 million for police above last year’s budget. The General Assembly may also increase spending for policing, given the public safety hearings held by the Senate Majority Policy Committee in the spring. Those hearings focused on staffing problems for police and drug-related crime, as The Center Square previously reported. Republicans have not shied away from an emphasis on funding police departments, but they have also proposed changes that are concerned with the well-being of prisoners. In addition to funding increases, Republican efforts have taken the opioid crisis more seriously. Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano has proposed legislation to increase the penalty on drug dealers for overdose deaths and improve Pennsylvania’s reporting requirements for where overdoses happen. He has also proposed more funding for faith-based recovery programs. Other Republican proposals would increase penalties for evading arrest on foot and eliminate medical co-pays for prisoners. Democrats’ efforts have focused more on guns, though police funding has either held steady or increased on the local level. Pittsburgh’s police budget, while not increasing as much as in Philadelphia, is seeing aslight increase over 2021. Democratic legislation has prosed a reporting requirement for lost or stolen guns, regulation of 3D-printed firearms, and waiting periods on firearm transfers. Democrats have also proposed a “red flag” law that would temporarily suspend an individual’s access to firearms and allow municipalities to regulate guns, something state Republicans have opposed. Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey has urged the General Assembly to take more action on gun control and released a “Plan for Peace” to create emergency services hubs, an overdose response unit, and expand violence intervention programs. In Philadelphia, Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia, has called upon Mayor Jim Kenney to provide more funding for community groups to reduce gun violence. The bipartisan efforts to provide health services to those struggling with addiction and mental health services, while less contentious than gun regulation or police funding, may come from a growing recognition of reality. As The Center Square previously reported, the Department of Corrections is “the largest provider of services in terms of institutional care in the commonwealth,” Secretary of Corrections George Little told the Senate Appropriations Committee in February. Providing more services before Pennsylvanians enter the criminal justice system at all may be politically wise and financially frugal. That can shape what local and state politicians prioritize in budgets.

Roe v. Wade: Pennsylvania law protects abortion; bipartisan effort to change looms

(The Center Square) – The future of abortion in Pennsylvania is an open question, as current state law protects it but both parties would like to change the law. The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The court ruled 6-3 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that no Constitutional right to abortion exists and the regulation of abortion “is returned to the people and their elected representatives,” as described in the ruling’s syllabus. The Supreme Court argued that Roe v. Wade decision was an error “without any grounding in the constitutional text, history, or precedent” that overstepped the court’s bounds at the expense of state legislatures. “Abortion presents a profound moral question,” the ruling said. “The Constitution does not prohibit the citizens of each State from regulating or prohibiting abortion. Roe and Casey arrogated that authority. The court overrules those decisions and returns that authority to the people and their elected representatives.” What that means for Pennsylvania remains to be seen. About 31,000 abortions were performed in Pennsylvania in 2017, according to the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute. The commonwealth had 43 facilities providing abortions that same year. Current state law prohibits abortions after 24 weeks unless the mother’s life or health is endangered. Republicans praised the ruling for respecting state authority. “Today’s Supreme Court ruling reestablishes the authority of states to regulate abortion. The ruling once again makes clear it is the authority of individual states to establish laws that are in the best interest of their residents,” Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, said in a statement. The Abortion Control Act remains in effect, which “places firm restrictions on abortions … including a ban on all late-term abortion procedures,” Cutler and Benninghoff said. “This ruling presents a necessary opportunity to examine our existing abortion law, and discussions around possible changes are already underway.” Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf called the ruling a “dismantling.” “First and most importantly, it is critical that everyone understands that abortion services are available and unharmed in Pennsylvania by today’s Supreme Court action,” Wolf said in a press release. “Nonetheless, I am deeply disappointed in today’s Supreme Court opinion and the impact this decision will have nationwide. The right to bodily autonomy – and privacy as a whole – is under attack in this country. We must do more to protect the rights of women and pregnant people in every state across the country that doesn’t have a governor willing to wield their veto pen.”

Anti-abortion pregnancy centers will likely outlast the age of Roe – here’s how they’re funded and the services they provide

By Laura Antkowiak, University of Maryland, Baltimore County Experts predict increased economic hardship now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Three-quarters of abortion patients in the United States have incomes that place them below or just barely above the federal poverty line of US$26,500 for a family of four in 2021. The inability to afford a child ranks among the most common reasons women give when they explain why they are ending a pregnancy. The anti-abortion movement is often criticized as caring little about these matters. But as a political scientist who has studied the intersections of abortion and social welfare issues, I became intrigued by a large but little-known subset of anti-abortion activists who claimed to support women during pregnancy and after childbirth. My 2020 book on this “pregnancy help” work indicates that the anti-abortion movement does provide support to low-income families, even if not in the way its critics might prefer. The ‘pregnancy help’ movement This work mostly occurs within the anti-abortion movement’s own charitable organizations. Participants in this “pregnancy help movement,” according to Margaret Hartshorn, the former president of one such organization, strive to make abortion “unwanted now and unthinkable in future generations” by ensuring “that no woman ever feels forced to have an abortion because of lack of support or practical alternatives.” People in the movement run maternity homes, adoption and social service agencies, charitable medical practices, hotlines, support groups and aid networks. However, the core institutions of their movement are pregnancy centers. Pregnancy centers typically offer free pregnancy tests, sonograms, counseling and promises of material support in the hopes of persuading women to carry unintended pregnancies to term. The first ones began to open in the U.S. in the late 1960s. They outnumbered abortion providers at least as early as 2013. A July 2018 directory listed 2,740 U.S. pregnancy centers. Lehigh University sociologist Ziad Munson writes that such outreach involves more people, volunteer hours and organizations than any other type of anti-abortion activism. Based on my interviews of pregnancy center leaders and review of various movement communications, these organizations are mostly funded by individual donations, commonly raised through banquets, walks, races or church-based collections of money and goods. Some anti-abortion groups like Focus on the Family and the Knights of Columbus give them grants. Pregnancy centers typically aren’t affiliated with specific churches, though they often frame themselves as ministries modeled on Jesus Christ’s love for people who are hurting and marginalized. In 13 states as of 2021, pregnancy centers could apply for funding from state-run Alternatives to Abortion programs. As of March 2022, as many as 19 states may have directed a proportion of “Choose Life” license plate proceeds to pregnancy centers. An Associated Press investigation of fiscal 2022 state budgets found that 12 states funded pregnancy centers, providing US$89 million. Centers can also apply for select federal grants. According to a report on U.S. pregnancy center services by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion think tank, 17% of U.S. centers received some public money in 2019. By comparison, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which provides abortions and other reproductive health care services, reported receiving about $618 million – or 38% of its revenue – in government grants and payments for services in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020. U.S. pregnancy centers in 2019, also according to the Lozier Institute, performed more than 730,000 pregnancy tests and met with nearly 1 million new clients. For perspective, the U.S. recorded 3.75 million live births that year. In 2017, the most recent data available, just over 860,000 abortions were performed. A new peer-reviewed study of pregnant women who were searching online for an abortion provider – suggesting they may be more internet-savvy, older and more socioeconomically advantaged than U.S. abortion-seekers generally – found that at least 13% of them visited a pregnancy center. Pregnancy center aid Anti-abortion advocates paint pregnancy centers as the compassionate alternative to abortion. Abortion-rights activists describe them as threats to public health that advertise deceptively, offer few health care services and infuse their counseling with misinformation and emotional coercion. My research did not attempt to assess the quality of counseling provided by the centers. Rather, I focused on broadly understanding and describing the movement and measuring the extent of help they provide to needy families. Similar to data I collected in 2012, a 2019 report by the Lozier Institute claimed that 94% of centers provided material aid. The report credited U.S. pregnancy centers with distributing about 1.3 million packages of diapers, 690,000 packages of wipes, 2 million baby outfits, 30,000 new car seats and 20,000 strollers. They valued these goods at nearly $27 million. I also found pregnancy centers provided personalized help in navigating community resources for housing, health care, creditor mediation and domestic violence recovery. Activists told me that helping families meet their material needs was integral to their missions, greatly needed, and simply “Christian” or “pro-life.” Available data suggests that the women who use these centers tend to be under 30 and unmarried. My research also noted that pregnancy centers were increasingly tying material aid to participation in their parenting programs. Another trending service they offer is ultrasound imaging. Leaders I interviewed felt that offering a medical service could increase centers’ credibility and that viewing an image of their fetus would inspire clients to “choose life.” Trained nurses overseen by an often off-site physician “medical director” usually perform the scans, but otherwise, critics correctly assert that most pregnancy center staff lack medical training. Interviews of 21 pregnancy center clients over a period between 2015 and 2017 led medical sociologist Katrina Kimport of the University of California, San Francisco to conclude that “low-income women can find these centers to be meaningful and appreciated sources of free emotional support, pregnancy-related services and material goods,” even if the women ultimately needed more economic resources than centers could provide and sometimes struggled with program requirements. Kimport continued: “Although these centers have been rightly criticized for disseminating scientifically inaccurate materials and employing potentially deceptive practices, the policy debate about their legitimacy needs to be more nuanced.” Pregnancy help in a post-Roe America Pregnancy center volunteers and employees I surveyed in 2012 overwhelmingly agreed that pregnancy centers would remain needed if the federal right to abortion was overturned. Centers are already most numerous, my statistical analysis of location data found, where public opposition to abortion is highest, abortion rates are lowest and abortion providers are the most scarce. Some anti-abortion leaders are calling the movement to follow the fall of Roe with increased aid to low-income people, some of which would flow through pregnancy centers. The kind of aid pregnancy help groups offer won’t begin to cover all costs of childbearing, or solve larger socioeconomic problems. Many women inclined toward abortion likely don’t see anti-abortion pregnancy centers as desirable service providers. Still, they attract anti-abortion activists who appear to take seriously what one interviewee called the “consequences to a choice for life.” In my view, they could potentially participate constructively in a conversation about poverty and childbearing in a post-Roe America. Laura Antkowiak, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Maryland, Baltimore County This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Doug Mastriano built a grassroots movement in Pa. on election denial, Christianity, and Facebook

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Ethan Edward Coston of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Two years ago, one Republican operative responded to the thought of a Doug Mastriano gubernatorial run with: “Seriously?” Now, despite last-minute efforts by Republican insiders, he is Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor. The 58-year-old, arch-conservative state senator and retired Army colonel won 44% of the vote Tuesday, according to unofficial results, defying the last-minute efforts of top consultants and party bigwigs to cast him as unelectable against Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro. On the issues, Mastriano gave full-throated endorsements of the conservative agenda, including the repeal of Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail-in ballot law, an abortion ban, and former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud. These positions were echoed by many in the nine-person primary field. But what made him stand out was his unapologetic embrace of those positions’ extremes — such as allowing no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the parent on the former, or sharing patently false information on the number of mail-in ballots requested in 2020. GOP operatives, many of whom worked for rival candidates, had argued that such positions won’t fly with the moderates and independent voters needed to win the state come November. He also was a middling fundraiser, raising just $1.5 million, fifth-most in the GOP field, but almost all from individual, small-dollar donors. And he garnered just a handful of endorsements from state GOP officials, instead racking up endorsements from former Trump administration officials, such as former National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn. So his win, insiders told Spotlight PA, cannot be attributed to prolific fundraising or institutional support, but to a grassroots movement slowly built through sharing those beliefs in earnest social media videos and during intimate gatherings, often in speeches riddled with sarcasm, historical allusions, and attacks on his perceived enemies in the media and across the political spectrum. The first sign of this power, sources said, was when Mastriano submitted 28,000 signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot in Pennsylvania. He needed only 2,000. Signatures are the first test for most candidates — and a grind at that. Usually, paid campaign staff can struggle to collect the bare minimum number required by law. Mastriano’s signatures are what convinced Jason Richey, a lawyer from Western Pennsylvania, to drop out of the gubernatorial race. Despite making the ballot and sinking $1 million of his own money into his candidacy, he opted to end his campaign and endorse ex-federal prosecutor Bill McSwain in March. He encouraged others to do the same. The suggestion didn’t go over well. “I may not be able to use some of the words that were said to me, but there was stiff resistance,” Richey said. Jeff Coleman, a former western Pennsylvania state representative and political operative who barnstormed the state this year in an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor, said Mastriano’s campaign methods “fit the moment” for GOP voters. Coleman, who sparred with Mastriano’s preferred running mate Teddy Daniels over his tone and approach, said that rank-and-file Republicans had a “fireside chat” relationship with Mastriano. Over the past two years, Mastriano has done hundreds of Facebook Live videos to explain his thoughts and feelings about the state of the world, often repeating conspiracy theories or railing against mainstream Republicans in the process. “They know his voice. They know if he is angry. They know when he is calling them to action,” Coleman said, “and it’s a relationship.” One campaign, under God Mastriano built a broad coalition of supporters based on his work combating COVID-19 lockdowns early in the pandemic, combatting mask and vaccine mandates, and his work to overturn the results of the 2020 election. His religious appeals have also helped him get support from evangelicals. Mastriano was central in Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He hosted a taxpayer-funded meeting in Gettysburg to amplify the Trump campaign’s false claims of widespread voter fraud, and later called on the legislature to ignore the popular vote and appoint its own slate of electors. His statements that the state legislature can ignore the popular vote to appoint electors have raised concerns that he could overturn the results of the 2024 election if a Democrat wins, and he’d have the power to appoint the secretary of state, who leads the department responsible for conducting elections. Those positions played a key role in Mastriano’s appeal to some voters. Toni Shuppe is co-founder of Audit the Vote PA, an organization that has alleged widespread voter fraud in 2020 based on faulty data, according to LNP | Lancaster Online. “[Mastriano] was actually the only senator, first of all, that was willing to admit that the 2020 election was not completely free and fair,” she said in a video endorsement. A national Axios poll conducted in early 2022 found that close to 75% of Republican voters believe voter fraud happens in their state, and 53% believe President Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election. At a March campaign event in Harrisburg hosted by the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Pennsylvania, Mastriano emphasized his faith, condemned the “genocide” of abortion, and criticized COVID-19 lockdowns. “Under Gov. Mastriano, you’ll choose how to live your life,” Mastriano said. “You will walk as free men and women the way God intended it to be.” Mastriano gained support from evangelicals by harnessing Christian nationalism, a movement of people who believe the United States is a Christian nation and needs to be kept that way. And on the campaign trail, he’s spoken of how he believes God told him to run for governor, and used calls to action invoking biblical and historical references. This can even be seen on his campaign yard signs, which often include in the bottom right corner the reference point John 8:36, a Bible verse that states “so if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Leaders of the state Hispanic assembly said they supported Mastriano because he took the time to engage with the group when it was new and other lawmakers wouldn’t meet with them. “When we met him, he gave us the time of day when nobody else would,” said the group’s co-chair Sheila Perez-Smith. She told Spotlight PA that Mastriano embodies the Hispanic community’s values. “Mastriano is a person that we believe God is using to be a leader for this community,” she said. Perez-Smith claimed seven Democrats switched their voter registration to the Republican party after hearing Mastriano speak. Voter registration data from the PA Department of State show that Republicans have made gains in party registration, but Democrats still have a lead of a little over half a million. A coming pivot? On May 17, Mastriano’s name appeared alongside eight other Republicans including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.). Much of the field was recruited by big-name GOP consulting firms, not because they had an overarching vision for the state, but because they fit a checklist of electable traits, whether its name ID, personal wealth, or “a moldable public policy persona,” Coleman said. These candidates, he said, had a hard time gaining traction compared to Mastriano, while their attacks sounded hollow. “Campaigns that are reduced to 30-second ads or mailpieces don’t give you enough information when you are up against a voice that feels and sounds totally authentic,” Coleman said. Without any consolidation, the race remained open. It wasn’t until early May, with the primary less than two weeks away and polls showing a growing Mastriano lead, that Republican power players, such as Jeff Yass-funded operative Matt Brouillette, again tried to consolidate the field behind Barletta. Insiders argued in the press that Mastriano couldn’t win the general election against Shapiro. But by then, it was too little too late. Just two candidates polling in the single digits, Corman and ex-U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart (R., Pa.), agreed to endorse Barletta — though their names stayed on the ballot. Sources from the top candidates’ campaigns argued that the late efforts didn’t succeed because no one wanted to give up their chance to win after months of campaigning. State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) is a colleague of Mastriano’s who dropped out of the gubernatorial race in December to endorse Delaware County business owner Dave White. In the lead-up to the primary, he called for others to do the same while arguing that Mastriano would be the weakest candidate in November. Now, post-primary, he believes Mastriano has a shot at winning. “Doug built a grassroots army, and he handily beat a field of some very well-funded candidates,” he said. “So I don’t think Josh Shapiro should take this race for granted.” Laughlin isn’t alone. In the days since Mastriano’s victory, other GOP officials and operatives have said publicly they see a clear, albeit slim, path for him to win in November. Mastriano noted the overnight change in tone in a Wednesday interview. “Some of the candidates really hit me hard with negative ads, but all the major candidates called me up yesterday and said, basically, we’re going to get behind you. And that’s exactly how we take our state back,” Mastriano said. “It’s time to come together and push back on these radical far-left Democrats that are trying to take over our state and our nation.” Laughlin, a vocal moderate who has supported paid family leave, recreational marijuana, and a minimum wage increase, cited internal polling he conducted during his run to argue that Mastriano can win if he softens his stances on specific issues, such as abortion. Following the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Mastriano committed again to signing a bill that would ban abortion around six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape, incest, or parental health, something he’s introduced as a state senator. A March 2022 Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 31% of Pennsylvania voters think abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 13% in none, and 53% under “certain circumstances.” What those circumstances are was not defined in the question. The shadow of January 6 Whether Mastriano will pivot to positions mainstream Republicans find more palatable is unclear. Former gubernatorial candidate Richey said he would support down-ballot Republicans, but was undecided on Mastriano. “If he wants to sit down and talk, I would certainly sit down with him,” Richey said. “But some of the background, I do have some hesitancy.” Along with promoting false claims of voter fraud, U.S. Senate Democrats have alleged Mastriano tried to pressure U.S. Department of Justice officials to overturn the 2020 election. Using his campaign account, he chartered buses to a rally that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection. He marched to the U.S. Capitol but claimed he left when the mob became violent. Video later emerged showing Mastriano crossed breached barricades. In February, the U.S. House of Representatives Jan. 6 select committee subpoenaed Mastriano, telling him to turn over documents by March 1 and appear for a deposition on March 10. Committee spokespersons did not respond to Spotlight PA’s questions about whether he complied. In April, Mastriano said during a debate, “There are no legal issues.” A top national Republican group that pours millions into electing Republican governors also issued a tepid statement after Mastriano’s win. The Republican Governors Association did not, as it has in other races, play up Mastriano’s candidacy, simply stating that “the country, and Pennsylvania, is worse off under Democratic leadership” and that the group “remains committed to engaging in competitive gubernatorial contests.” Access to such a group’s money, insiders noted, will also be key for Mastriano to defeat Shapiro, a top-dollar fundraiser who has at least $15.8 million in the bank, with November still six months away. Highlighting all these stances will be a big part of Shapiro’s campaign. In a statement issued after his win, Shapiro, referencing Mastriano’s stances on voting and abortion, said that he “wants to dictate how Pennsylvanians live their lives – that’s not freedom.” Coleman said that Mastriano, and any other candidate who was at or near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, should explain if they would go to D.C. again on that day, knowing what they know now. “I think that’s the question that you want any mature leader to be able to answer,” he said. But he warned that “just making people aware of a certain set of core negative facts about Mastriano” won’t be enough to sink his chances. At Coleman’s election night party, Bob Lauric, a 47-year-old teacher and Camp Hill resident, said he voted for Barletta in the primary because friends told him that Mastriano wouldn’t win a general election. He has “nothing against” Mastriano, and wants to do more research on him and Shapiro before the general election, but typically votes straight Republican. A Christian, he supports abortion restrictions, an issue that normally decides who he votes for. Lauric added that he “wasn’t a fan” of Mastriano’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and acknowledged that it is “damaging to our system of democracy.” But “to me personally, it’s not a huge deal,” he said. Either way, “it doesn’t excite me.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Rabbittransit introduces new service: Gettysburg-Hanover Connector

rabbittransit, in partnership with @Home in Adams County, announces a new pilot program geared towards workforce development. The Gettysburg-Hanover Connector will launch Monday, February 8. Ralph M. Serpe, President & CEO, Adams County Community Foundation said, “Transportation is one of three interdependent elements identified by the Adams County Community Foundation as essential to affordable living in our community. The Community Foundation’s three year @Home in Adams County initiative addresses affordable housing, economic development and transportation as equally crucial keys to family stability and economic sustainability. Our @Home partners support solutions that help residents find affordable transportation between home, work and school.”   The Gettysburg-Hanover Connector is an addition to fixed route service connecting Gettysburg to New Oxford and Hanover. This service will operate on weekdays from 6am to 6pm with round trips traveling to and from the Gettysburg Transfer Center to downtown Hanover via Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30) and Carlisle Pike (PA 94) with destinations along the way every two hours.  “Employers working in collaboration with transit is critical to the development of a model for a sustainable workforce solution. It is our mission to aid in the creation of such partnerships that advance mobility for our communities to thrive.  The Workforce Development Pilot Program is an example of such a partnership” said Richard Farr, Executive Director. Hanover’s fixed route is comprised of 4 routes which are the 20N, 20S, 22N and 16.  The Gettysburg system is made up of the Blue Line, Gray Line, Lincoln Line and, seasonally, Gold Line. For more information on the Gettysburg-Hanover Connector, visit www.rabbittransit.org.  rabbittransit, a regional public transportation provider, offers a variety of transportation services to the residents of Adams, Columbia, Cumberland, Franklin, Montour, Northumberland, Perry, Snyder, Union and York Counties. More than 8,000 people depend on rabbittransit each day to get to work, medical facilities, school and other life-sustaining activities. rabbittransit is dedicated to helping all residents in the region get to where they want to go. 

Pa. Election Day 2022: A complete guide to the May 17 primary, including how to vote, find your polling place, understand mail-in ballots, and more

By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — More than a few things have changed since Pennsylvanians last went to the polls. Your congressional and legislative districts might be different, some counties are supervising or reducing drop boxes, and the mail-in voting law has been ruled unconstitutional — but, for now, it remains in effect and a valid form of voting. Here’s what you need to know to be prepared for Pennsylvania’s 2022 primary election: When is the 2022 primary election day in Pennsylvania? Tuesday, May 17, 2022. Mark your calendar! When do polls open for Pa.’s 2022 primary election? Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Can I still register to vote? The last day to register to vote is May 2. You can register here. You can check if you’ve already registered here using either your name and address or a form of state-issued identification. What if I want to change parties? To change your party affiliation, fill out the same voter registration form that you used to register the first time. When filling out the form, simply select the box that says “change of party.” If you register less than 15 days before the election, then the change will not take place until the next election cycle. If you are an unaffiliated/independent voter, you will not be allowed to vote for major party candidates in key races like governor or U.S. Senate. In order to do so, you must change your registration to one of the parties on or before May 2. Where do I vote? If you’re voting in person, you can look up your polling place here. Can I vote by mail? Yes! Although Commonwealth Court has found the way the state’s mail-in voting law was passed to be unconstitutional, the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court (the highest court in Pennsylvania). The Supreme Court allowed the law to remain in effect while the case is heard, so if you want to vote by mail, you can. How do I vote by mail? You can request a mail-in ballot here using either a state-issued form of identification or your Social Security number. What is the deadline to request a mail-in ballot? The deadline for the primary is May 10, 2022. How do I properly prepare my mail-in ballot so it’s not thrown out? After receiving your mail-in ballot, be sure to read the instructions and complete the front and back of each page. After filling it out, place the ballot in the inner secrecy envelope that came with it. The secrecy envelope will be labeled, “official election ballot.” Be sure not to make any marks on it. Finally, put the secrecy envelope in the return envelope that has been pre-addressed. Remember to sign and date the return envelope, otherwise your vote will not be counted! For more details you can check here. How do I drop off a mail-in ballot? Mail-in ballots must be received by your county’s board of elections by 8 p.m. on the day of the primary, Tuesday, May 17. You can return your mail-in ballot at a drop box, your county election board, or another designated location, or through the mail. You can locate a dropoff location here. Voters must return their own ballots unless otherwise permitted. Only voters with a disability may designate someone to deliver their ballot for them. To officially designate someone, fill out this form and send it with your mail-in ballot. If you’ve already sent in your mail-in ballot, you can contact your local county election office for information on where to turn in the form. How do I vote absentee? The process to request an absentee ballot is similar to that of requesting a mail-in ballot. You can apply online or download the form and send it to your county election office. However, the application requires you to list a reason for your absence, unlike a mail-in ballot. You can find the application here. What is the deadline to request an absentee ballot? The deadline for the primary is 5 p.m. May 10, 2022. Has my legislative or congressional district changed? Possibly. You can use our map comparison tool to see how new legislative and congressional district maps might affect you. What’s on the ballot? All Pennsylvanians will be voting for a new governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. senator, and U.S representative. Many will also be electing new state representatives based on their new legislative district lines. While the new Senate lines leave the balance of power relatively unchanged in that chamber, the new House districts have the potential to level the playing field for Democrats come the general election. Ballots will also differ depending on which municipality you reside in. Some voters might be selecting new city council members or ward representatives. Most counties provide a preview of what their ballot will look like. You can find your county election site here. The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan national voter advocacy group, also offers a ballot preview tool. Are there any constitutional amendments or statewide referendums on the ballot? No. You can track the status of all current proposals using our Amendment Tracker. Why does the primary matter? Primaries often decide which candidate will win the general election. Legislative districts tend to be small and politically cohesive. In the new legislative maps, only 15% of the seats are considered competitive, according to nonpartisan analysis. That means most districts have one party with a strong majority. So whichever candidate wins the primary of the dominant party is all but guaranteed to win the general election in November. Full coverage of the Pennsylvania primary election 2022: Your guide to the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor A guide to the often-overlooked race for Pa. lieutenant governor Big donations to GOP guv candidates: Who gave and how much? Josh Shapiro is amassing a big war chest. Who gave and how much? WATCH: Spotlight PA GOP governor candidates debate 5 takeaways from Spotlight PA’s Republican gubernatorial debate WATCH: Spotlight PA GOP U.S. Senate candidates debate WATCH: Spotlight PA DEM U.S. Senate candidates debate What they’re saying about Spotlight PA’s Democratic and Republican U.S. Senate debates Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far Tell Spotlight PA what election coverage matters the most to you WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Election 2022: Policy summary of top GOP candidates for Pennsylvania governor

By Anthony Hennen Pennsylvania voters are less than a month away from the primaries on May 17, and some of the top Republican candidates for governor among a crowded field will appear in a televised debate on Wednesday. As it stands from polls aggregated by Real Clear Politics, the Republican field is led by five candidates: state Sen. Doug Mastriano, former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, President Pro Tempore of the state Senate Jake Corman, and former Delaware County Councilman Dave White. All but Corman will appear in this week’s debate. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is term-limited and cannot run for reelection. Other Pennsylvania Republicans campaigning for governor are Joe Gale, who serves on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners; Charlie Gerow, vice chairman of the American Conservative Union; Melissa Hart, a former U.S. representative; and Nche Zama, a cardiothoracic surgeon. The presumptive Democratic nominee will be Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has no primary challengers. For a policy overview of the candidates, The Center Square took a look at the candidates’ websites. The candidates are generally aligned ideologically, though emphases differ. Lou Barletta Barletta wants to rebuild the economy by keeping taxes low and reducing regulations. He claims to be “a champion of the production of coal, oil, and natural gas” to boost the economy and protect well-paying union jobs. He pledges to combat illegal immigration, fully fund law enforcement’s needs, strengthen election security, and rebuild the state’s infrastructure. He is also pro-school choice, pro-life, and pro-2nd Amendment, and wants to eliminate waste in state government. Jake Corman Corman announced five priority areas for his campaign. He’s running to defend freedom and reform emergency laws to prevent their abuse, securing elections by reviewing the 2020 election through an audit and pass electoral reforms, create new job opportunities across the state, improve education by supporting public supports and offer parents school choice, and protect communities by putting more cops on the street and defend the 1st Amendment. Doug Mastriano Mastriano announced four priorities for his campaign: protecting life, protecting the 2nd Amendment, protecting families, and protecting taxpayers. On protecting families, he emphasized religious liberties, parental rights, and educational choice. For protecting taxpayers, Mastriano said he “will be a constant reminder that Harrisburg has a duty to be fiscally responsible with other peoples’ hard earned money.” Mastriano also released his goals for his first 100 days that includes leaving the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, protecting freedoms by ending mandates related to COVID-19, and stimulating the state’s economy.  Bill McSwain McSwain focuses on criminal justice and economics. He wants to “bring back law and order” and put criminals in jail and combat the opioid crisis. He also wants to create jobs, lower taxes, improve the state’s business climate and unleash Pennsylvania’s energy, and lower gas prices. McSwain also talked about “putting a stop to out-of-control spending in Harrisburg.” He is also pro-life and pro-2nd Amendment.  Dave White White’s campaign platform centers on being pro-life and pro-2nd Amendment. He wants to keep school athletics programs divided by sex, not gender identity. White is a strong promoter of vocational training and wants to increase the percentage of high school students from 3% to 30% over the next decade. He’d like to expand school choice and ban Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools. White also wants to prioritize speeding up approval times for permits and reduce regulations, leave the RGGI and fund energy infrastructure projects like natural gas pipelines, fix road infrastructure, and reduce the gas tax.

Pa. primary election 2022: 5 takeaways from Spotlight PA’s Republican gubernatorial debate

By Ethan Edward Coston of Spotlight PA and Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Five of the nine Republican candidates running to be Pennsylvania’s next governor participated in a debate hosted by Spotlight PA and its founding members Tuesday, aiming to differentiate themselves in a crowded field and make an impression on a largely undecided electorate. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, political strategist Charlie Gerow, former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart (R., Pa.), and surgeon Nche Zama answered questions on issues including no-excuse mail voting, infrastructure, education, energy, and abortion. The other four candidates — including poll frontrunners state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) and ex-U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.) — did not participate. Three of them signed a letter demanding a partisan moderator. All nine will appear on the May 17 primary ballots, as will Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is the only Democrat running for his party’s nomination. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is prevented by statute from seeking another term. Here are the key takeaways from the debate, which can be viewed here: READ MORE: Your guide to the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor See how much money the GOP candidates for governor have raised A guide to the primary race few voters are paying attention to Pa. election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you Voting Act 77, a bill passed with bipartisan support in 2019 that instituted no-excuse mail voting, was unanimously condemned by the candidates at the debate. They said it enabled fraudulent voting, a debunked claim. They also cast aspersions about the use of ballot drop boxes, pointing out two instances in which ballots were dropped off by someone other than the voter. While that is illegal under current law except for voters with disabilities or in the case of an emergency absentee ballot, it does not mean the ballot itself was invalid or fraudulent. Corman, who voted for the bill in 2019, now says he would repeal it because Wolf and the courts interpreted it in ways with which he disagrees. Hart previously sidestepped the question, saying she would need to conduct more research before committing to a position, but confirmed during the debate that she would repeal the law. Better roads and bridges, but different paths All of the candidates stressed the importance of improving the conditions of Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges, but they disagreed on how to accomplish that task. Corman said Pennsylvania should use more general fund dollars for the State Police budget rather than take money from the Motor License Fund, which is intended for road and bridge repairs. Hart and Gale targeted unions and said they would get rid of prevailing wage rules, which require contractors to pay their employees based on minimum wages set by the state department of labor. Hart also said she would use COVID-19 relief money to improve infrastructure. Gerow said he would use COVID-19 relief money to lower the gas tax, while Zama claimed the problem lies in efficient management of funds. Public vs. private schools All five candidates said they support “school choice,” which allows parents to choose alternatives such as homeschooling or private schools through access to state-provided tax credits or vouchers. Critics say school choice depletes funding for the public school system over time. The state is currently in the midst of a lawsuit — filed on behalf of seven school districts, parents, and several educational organizations — that alleges Pennsylvania fails to fulfill its constitutional requirement of providing high-quality public education. If successful, the suit could force the state to significantly increase funding for public schools. However, most candidates said that Pennsylvania already spends enough. Zama said he would grow Pennsylvania’s economy, specifically citing the agriculture and energy industries, and use that revenue to offset any lack of education funding and relieve “the burden of property taxes,” the primary funder of the state’s public schools. Gerow said he wants to get rid of the property taxes that fund schools and introduce a “specific package” to the legislature to replace the system, though he did not specify what would be in it. Hart suggested funding schools with the sales tax rather than property taxes, but said enough money is spent on the public school system. Corman and Gale both contended that the problem with the education system is parents’ lack of choice rather than a funding gap. Gale argued that if parents were able to freely choose different schooling options, public school systems would be forced to “shape up and get it right” as they compete with alternative schooling. More drilling, natural gas production All candidates showed unfettered enthusiasm for the energy industry and said they want to reinvigorate and invest in Pennsylvania’s fossil fuel producers, arguing the state should expand natural gas drilling, loosen regulations, and bring more manufacturing to Pennsylvania. Corman criticized Wolf’s desire to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — an interstate program to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — and said the state will rely on natural gas for “decades to come.” Gale advocated for additional natural gas drilling. Gerow echoed those sentiments, stating Pennsylvania needs to “drill baby, drill.” Hart and Zama felt similarly but said the state needs to make home energy bills more affordable and grow its clean energy industry. A vow to limit abortion access All five candidates oppose abortion and would sign legislation to curtail it, but they disagreed on the extent to which it should be banned. Corman, Gale, and Zama said they believe life begins at conception, but Corman was the only person to explicitly support exceptions for maternal health, rape, or incest. Gale and Zama argued there should be no exceptions to a ban on abortion. Hart emphasized her legislative experience with bills that protect mothers, but didn’t specify the extent of her views against abortion access. Gerow said he would sign a pending “heartbeat bill” — which would ban abortion at around six weeks of pregnancy when an embryo’s cardiac activity can first be detected — as well as legislation that would ban abortion if a fetus has Down syndrome. Wolf has either vetoed or vowed to veto such bills. Correction: Due to an editing error, this story incorrectly stated why state Sen. Doug Mastriano did not participate in the debate. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania county demolition funds for blighted properties: a rural and urban divide

By Anthony Hennen Blighted properties are a problem in every county across Pennsylvania, and a proposed bill would make permanent a new fee counties can impose to raise funds for demolition. SB439, sponsored by Sen. David Argall, R-Berks/Schuylkill, would remove a 10-year sunset provision from Act 152 of 2016 that authorizes counties to create a demolition program to tear down blighted properties. The program would otherwise expire in 2027, at which point it could be evaluated for renewal. Twenty-four counties have established a demolition program fee, which adds a $15 charge to each deed and mortgage recorded by the county. The attempt to make the program permanent has raised some questions, however. “It seems to me that the point of passing some type of program that is supposed to achieve certain objectives, and one way to do it is to stop it, give it some time to evaluate it – why the rush to do away with the sunset now when it’s supposed to go away in 2027?” said Eric Montarti, research director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. “There’s a lot of time left.” Montarti has tracked the effects of the demolition program in Allegheny County, trying to draw out what happens to properties after demolition and the effects on property values in neighborhoods. What’s needed, Montarti said, is “some evaluation to say, ‘this is a worthwhile undertaking here.’” The fee revenue varies greatly by county. More-urban counties tend to do better: Allegheny County generated more than $2 million in 2020 according to its annual report and Delaware County generated $774,000 in 2021. Rural places like Venango County or Somerset County, however, generated $31,000 and $75,000, respectively, in 2021 and 2020. For low-population counties, such a fund may not be enough to cover its need for combating blight. Indiana County, a rural county that’s lost population since the 1990s, hasn’t created a demolition fund. For dealing with blight, programs like a land bank might work in Pittsburgh but not Indiana, said LuAnn Zak, assistant director of the Indiana County Office of Planning. “You can’t just jump in and do these land banks,” Zak said. “You don’t want to go out and just buy up all the properties because then they’re in your repository,” Zak said. “If a land bank is going to get a hold of a property, take ownership, well then you pretty much need to know there’s a buyer on the other end once you clean that property up.” Rural counties also have an issue in staffing and funding programs. “What I find in all programs, not just in blight, in any of the programs that come from the federal or state governments is a lack of financial assistance to the county or the local people who are administering programs,” Zak said. “There’s no money to pay staff.” Fighting blight is multi-faceted, and rural counties may also struggle with funding action that stops a property from becoming blighted in the first place. “Code enforcement is huge, a key factor from my standpoint,” said Josh Krug, deputy director of planning for Indiana County.

Pa. primary election 2022: Your guide to the Democratic and GOP candidates for governor

By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA and Ethan Edward Coston of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — When Democrats head to the polls on May 17 for Pennsylvania’s 2022 primary election for governor, there will be just one choice on the ballot. Republicans will face a much different situation, with nine candidates and still no clear frontrunner. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat first elected in 2014, is unable to run for re-election due to term limit restrictions. In this vacuum, Republicans have an opportunity to win the executive branch, which would leave them in control of the governor’s office as well as the legislature. Wolf has often served as a foil to the GOP-majority General Assembly during his tenure, vetoing efforts to rewrite the state’s Election Code, roll back environmental policies, and further restrict abortion access. Many GOP candidates have vowed to sign such legislation. Democrats have a voter registration edge over Republicans in the state, though that 500,000-plus advantage has been shrinking. While Wolf easily won reelection in 2018, close gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia last year have political watchers expecting a tight race here. Here’s what you need to know about the 2022 primary governor election before going to the polls: >> READ MORE: See how much money the GOP candidates for governor have raised Democrat Josh Shapiro |Website Elected attorney general in 2016, Shapiro has been involved in Pennsylvania politics since 2004 — first as a state representative, then as a county commissioner in Montgomery County. As Pennsylvania’s top prosecutor, Shapiro investigated sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church and pursued cases relating to the opioid epidemic. Shapiro has listed defending voting access, maintaining abortion rights, and rebuilding infrastructure as major tenets of his campaign. Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? No. Shapiro has said he would reject any effort to repeal the law known as Act 77. Endorsements: Pennsylvania Democratic Party, AFL-CIO Read more: Bloomberg: There’s Exactly One Democrat Running for Governor of Pennsylvania Capital-Star: Josh Shapiro on the death penalty, climate, and Harrisburg New York Times: In Pennsylvania Governor’s Race, Josh Shapiro Focuses on Voting Rights >> WATCH LIVE: Spotlight PA hosts GOP gubernatorial debate April 19 Republicans Lou Barletta | Website Barletta started his political career in Hazleton on the city council in 1998 and then as mayor in 2000. In 2010, Barletta was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for eight years. He unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2018. Without providing specifics, Barletta is running on a myriad of issues including strengthening the economy, school choice, and oil and natural gas production; limiting access to abortion; and addressing “illegal immigration.” Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. Barletta has called Act 77 “unconstitutional” and believes the state needs signature verification and stricter voter ID requirements. During Republican attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Barletta was included on a list of alternate Republican electors for Trump. “The language of the Pennsylvania document clearly states that this was done in case it was later determined that different electors were needed,” a Barletta campaign spokesperson told The Citizens’ Voice. Endorsements: Oil & Gas Workers Association, state Rep. Barb Gleim, state Rep Aaron Kaufer Read more: Capital-Star: Capital-Star Q+A: Lou Barletta thinks second time’s the charm in GOP governor’s run City & State PA: Lou Barletta’s seeking a political comeback as Pennsylvania governor Jake Corman | Website Corman replaced his father as a state senator in 1999. He served as the state Senate majority leader from 2015 to 2020, and he’s been the Senate president pro tempore since 2020. His vague platform includes “improving education,” election security, jobs, policing, and “defending freedoms.” Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. Corman voted for Act 77, but following the 2020 election, he’s supported its repeal and called for stricter voter ID requirements and third-party audits. Corman directed his chamber to conduct a “full forensic investigation” of the 2020 election, an idea fueled by baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. Endorsements: Spotlight PA could not identify any endorsements. Read more: Inquirer: Jake Corman on his run for Pa. governor, Trump’s influence on the primary, and the 2020 election WGAL: One-on-one with Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman WHYY: A Pa. state lawmaker hasn’t become governor in 70 years. Jake Corman hopes to be the exception Joe Gale | Website Gale became a Montgomery County commissioner after being elected in an upset in 2015 with virtually no political experience. Gale labels himself an outsider and considers the Pennsylvania Republican party insufficiently conservative. In particular, he has criticized the Republican establishment, including his opponents Lou Barletta and Doug Mastriano. Gale calls himself “staunchly pro-life,” and said one of his top priorities is ousting Republicans he considers insufficiently conservative. Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. He also wrote in the Times Herald, a Montgomery County paper, that any elected official who voted in favor of Act 77 “should be disqualified from holding office.” Endorsements: Spotlight PA could not identify any endorsements. Read more: Capital-Star: Capital-Star Q+A: RINO hunter Joe Gale wants to make sure conservatives are energized for 2022 Philly Voice: Suburban politician, who called BLM a hate group and COVID-19 lockdowns ‘un-American,’ will run for governor WHYY: Montco’s Joe Gale announces bid for governor, denounces Pa. Republicans as ‘lousy’ Charlie Gerow | Website Gerow, a prominent Republican political strategist, began his career working for Ronald Reagan. Since then, Gerow has worked as a lobbyist and consultant, opening his own public communications firm. He currently serves as the vice-chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Gerow has called himself a “Ronald Reagan Republican,” saying that he is best positioned to bridge the gap between the traditional Republican party and the increasingly radical wing of his party. His election platform has focused on promoting economic growth through traditional conservative fiscal policies of reducing taxes and regulation and wants to promote the state’s energy industry. Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. When Commonwealth Court struck down Act 77 as unconstitutional (a ruling being appealed in the state Supreme Court), Gerow called it “great news for election integrity and the prevention of voter fraud and ballot harvesting.” Gerow’s name was also listed on a certificate to assign Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes to Trump, should a court challenge have succeeded. Endorsements: U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson; Michael Regan, son of President Ronald Regan; former Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich; Matt Schlapp, executive director of CPAC; former U.S. Rep. Bob Walker; state Rep. Jerry Knowles; former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich Read more: Capital-Star: Capital-Star Q+A: Longtime GOP activist Charlie Gerow thinks he’s the man to beat in 2022 Inquirer: A GOP strategist who worked for Reagan will run for Pa. governor as a ‘conservative happy warrior’ Melissa Hart | Website Hart has served as both a member of Congress and as a state senator representing Allegheny County. She has said that her success in areas that had majority Democratic registration speaks to her electability. Hart has been working as a lawyer for the past 14 years and is currently an attorney at Hergenroeder Rega Ewing & Kennedy, a law firm based in Pittsburgh. Hart’s campaign has focused on deregulating corporations and lowering taxes, expanding the natural gas industries, and implementing more restrictive abortion laws. Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Maybe. Hart told the Capital-Star she personally doesn’t like no-excuse mail voting, but would need to do more study before committing to a repeal. Endorsements: Spotlight PA could not identify any endorsements. Read more: Capital-Star: Capital-Star Q+A: Reentering public life for governor run, Melissa Hart talks regulations, abortion WGAL: One-on-one with Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Melissa Hart Doug Mastriano | Website A retired Army colonel, Mastriano began serving as a state senator in 2019 and has been called a Christian nationalist, a label he rejects. However, he has often shared Islamophobic posts on social media, the New Yorker reported. Mastriano has highlighted anti-abortion policy, fiscal conservatism, and Second Amendment rights as central tenets of his campaign. He led many anti-shutdown rallies during the early months of the pandemic. Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. Mastriano has propagated false claims of widespread election fraud. He has been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee over his communication with the Trump White House during attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He was also seen near the Capitol on the day of the insurrection. Endorsements: Michael Flynn, former national security advisor to Trump; state Rep. Rob Kauffman; state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz; conservative commentator and U.S. Senate candidate Kathy Barnette; Gun Owners of America Read more: City & State PA: 5 takeaways from Doug Mastriano’s gubernatorial campaign launch Inquirer: What to know about Doug Mastriano and why he got subpoenaed in the Jan. 6 Capitol probe Bill McSwain | Website McSwain is a former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, where he had a contentious relationship with its elected officials. If elected governor, he has promised to focus on stimulating the economy and energy production, improving access to education, limiting access to abortion, dealing with the opioid epidemic, and “bringing back law and order.” Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. McSwain says no-excuse mail voting caused confusion and delayed the election results (something that can be blamed, in part, on the state’s lack of robust pre-canvassing time). Endorsements: Sean Parnell, a former candidate for U.S. Senate who dropped out after he lost custody of his children in a case that also revealed allegations of domestic abuse; state Rep. Kathy Rapp; Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs; Republican State Committee of Chester County Read more: Erie News Now: Meet the Candidates: Bill McSwain for Governor Inquirer: Bill McSwain was ‘angling to run for something’ as U.S. attorney. Now his run for governor is all about his time as a prosecutor. Dave White | Website White is the owner of an HVAC company and a former Delaware County Council member. He’s campaigning as a political outsider and someone with “real world” experience. In a press release announcing his candidacy, he called for allocating more funding to police, lowering taxes, and railed against “critical race theory” — an academic framework to study race in society and law that has been co-opted by right-wing activists as indoctrination by progressives — and “kids failing in schools.” On his website, White listed protecting Second Amendment rights, limiting access to abortion, and preventing transgender women from competing in women’s sports as priorities. Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. White has said that no-excuse mail voting is a “disaster.” Endorsements: State Sen. Dan Laughlin, former Trump Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, Butler County GOP Read more: PoliticsPA: Who is Dave White and Why Is He Doing So Well? Zama is a cardiothoracic surgeon who lives in the Poconos and immigrated to the United States from Cameroon as a teenager on a student visa. With virtually no political experience, Zama believes his independence from the political establishment will distinguish him from the other candidates. Zama’s campaign has centered on education and health care, two things he says he has personally benefited from after immigrating to the United States. Supports repealing Pa.’s no-excuse mail voting law? Yes. Zama has said he supports its repeal and would want to set up a commission to look more deeply into the topic. Endorsements: Spotlight PA could not identify any endorsements. Read more: Capital-Star: Capital-Star Q+A: Pa. is sick and needs a doctor, says GOP Gov. candidate Nche Zama City & State PA: GOP gubernatorial hopeful Dr. Nche Zama promises to unite Pennsylvania Pocono Record: Renowned surgeon from the Poconos throws hat into ring for governor WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Oversight of Pa. addiction recovery homes will begin soon, but operators slow to opt-in

By Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — The Wolf administration is preparing to enforce its long-awaited licensing system for addiction recovery homes, which have operated with limited oversight for years. But with only two months before a major deadline, only a few dozen houses have submitted applications for a license, raising concerns that not enough operators will get on board with a reform meant to provide greater support for people struggling with addiction. Recovery homes are supposed to offer safe places to live, while enforcing rules to help people avoid drugs and alcohol. They vary in size, but eight to 12 residents is a typical range, advocates told Spotlight PA, and homes often are owned by nonprofits, small businesses, or people who have personal experiences with recovery. They provide an important service. But recovery advocates say some homes take advantage of vulnerable residents, crowd people into rooms, and condone illegal drug use. Without protections in place, the Wolf administration has argued, an unknown number of unregulated and substandard houses provide low-quality to no supportive services — potentially increasing the chance residents will relapse, overdose, and die. In 2017, lawmakers gave the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs the power to license recovery homes. But Wolf administration officials missed a deadline to formally introduce the rules for the new licensing system. And when they did propose the rules, they received strong pushback from some recovery home operators, advocates, and county officials who warned that requirements like financial audits placed too much of a burden on homes. In response, the department eliminated the financial audit requirement, scaled back other rules, and began accepting recovery house applications in late 2021. While operators will be able to apply for a license at any time, requirements under state regulations take effect in early June. A big question is how many homes will sign up. No one knows exactly how many recovery homes there are in Pennsylvania, but they are believed to number in the thousands. Last year, the Wolf administration estimated about 600 houses would seek one of the state’s new licenses. But applications got off to a “slow start,” Jennifer Smith, secretary for the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, recently told lawmakers. “I think a lot of the hesitation is fear of not knowing what that process looks like and thinking that it might be more daunting than what it really is,” Smith said at a March 3 budget hearing. She suggested those concerns will fade as more homes undergo the licensing process. As of April 11, there were four licensed homes and 30 applications under review, according to a department spokesperson. About 100 more incomplete applications for recovery houses were in the state’s online application portal but hadn’t been submitted yet. “There’s clearly a long way to go,” said William Stauffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance, which advocates for people in recovery. “And I think the jury is out. Will we have enough that can afford to go through it? …And then we need to consider what happens to people who are unable to afford the more expensive licensed houses.” Licensed homes will have to pay an annual $250 fee to the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. To be licensed, the homes must comply with increased staff training requirements, follow other department policies, meet certain safety standards, and pass state inspections. The Wolf administration has acknowledged operators are likely to pass extra costs onto residents, but it said situations will vary, and licenses also bring benefits. Applying for a license is voluntary, but there are incentives. Only licensed homes, for instance, can receive referrals from state agencies or state-funded facilities — which includes addiction treatment facilities that receive state money. Any person whose treatment is funded with federal or state money can also only be referred to a licensed home. And only licensed homes can receive funding from federal, state, or county agencies. Beginning June 9, unlicensed homes receiving public funding could receive fines of up to $1,000 per day, the department recently warned. In late March, the state announced another incentive for licensed homes: more than $1 million in grant money earmarked to help 22 to 25 homes pay for health and safety upgrades. Despite those incentives, state Rep. Doyle Heffley (R., Carbon), who asked Smith about the number of licenses during the March budget hearing, worries there won’t be enough licensed recovery homes. That means many people will be pushed into homes that operate with no oversight. “That’s what we were trying to get away from,” Heffley told Spotlight PA. Operators of the state’s first two licensed recovery homes had kind words for the process, and are optimistic about the potential impact of the new system. “It’s going to make owners … step up their game,” the Rev. Michelle Simmons, founder and executive director of the Philadelphia nonprofit Why Not Prosper, told Spotlight PA. Her organization, which serves formerly incarcerated women, received a license for one of its recovery homes, and Simmons plans to seek licenses for its other facilities. Those licenses build credibility and open up new funding opportunities, she said. While the state’s licensing system is new, Simmons said she has previous experience working with voluntary certification rules. “For people that have got all their paperwork straightened out, it’s going to be kind of like a breeze,” Simmons said. But people starting from scratch, Simmons said, should find a mentor. In Monroe County’s Coolbaugh Township, Amanda Ramirez said the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs was helpful during the application process and explained technical issues like what type of fire exit was acceptable. Ramirez, 34, has owned a recovery home with her husband and mother for several years. After her brother Justin Bacher died from a fentanyl overdose last year, they renamed the home to honor him. Ramirez said her family did a lot of outreach in the community to build a good reputation for their recovery home. She sees the licensing process as a way to stand apart. “We’re going to have protocols to follow. We’re going to have inspections. We have people to answer to,” Ramirez said. “That was something that was really important to us. …We really just want the best.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Gov. Wolf proposes $200 million for college scholarships

By Anthony Hennen A push from Gov. Tom Wolf could create a $200 million scholarship fund for students who attend public colleges in the state. “When it comes to pursuing a higher education, skyrocketing costs over the last decade have put that dream out of reach for too many families. Pennsylvanians are being priced out of a brighter future,” Wolf said at a visit to Millersville University. “When our brightest and best Pennsylvanians can’t pursue a higher education because it’s unaffordable, that means we’re doing something wrong.” To address that, Wolf has proposed the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program, funded by money from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Race Horse Development Trust Fund. Students could use the scholarship for tuition and attendance costs, and would be required to stay in Pennsylvania for as long as they receive the scholarship. They must be full-time students and enroll at a community college or a public college within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The scholarship would also focus on students in health care, education, and public service-related programs, where there’s a high need for workers. For community college students, they could receive up to $2,000 annually, and public university students could receive up to $4,000. Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, introduced legislation to establish the program, which would also submit a report to the General Assembly to detail how many students receive scholarships, as well as graduation rates. While the cost of college could fall for students receiving the scholarship, the rising cost of college will not be affected, only students’ ability to pay. While some blame a lack of state funding for higher education in driving up costs, others blame the availability of federal student loans for helping universities expand noneducation-related activity, such as administrative roles and athletics programs. “More federal aid to students enables colleges to raise tuition more. Salaries rise; bureaucracies expand; more courses – from “History and Analysis of Rock Music” to “Ultimate Frisbee” – are offered; dorms, dining halls, and recreational centers become more lavish,” wrote David Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute. “Even with all this spending, employers don’t find that new grads are well prepared for the workplace.” As Pennsylvania’s college-aged population drops, its public college enrollment has fallen by almost 22% since 2010. The Department of Education has moved to combine six PASSHE colleges into three to cut costs and attract students recently.

Pa. election 2022: A guide to the primary race few voters are paying attention to

By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — By now, most voters have likely heard about the congested, double-digit field of contenders jockeying in this year’s primary race for the chance to snag the state’s top job of governor. But there is another crowded primary contest unfolding with far less fanfare: that of lieutenant governor. In all, there are 12 people running to become Pennsylvania’s second-in-command — two more than in the governor’s race. That uneven math is the result of Pennsylvania’s quirky rules for electing top executives. The state is among a minority that elects its governors and lieutenant governors separately in the primary, but then as a single ticket in the general election. That election method has produced some odd pairings over the years, most recently in Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term, during which his icy relationship with then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, driven in part by how different they were in both style and personality, became one of the worst-kept secrets in the Capitol. On paper, as it stands now, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately during the primary election. Off the books, however, candidates often align early on and campaign together even in the months before the primary. That has been the case for this year’s May 17 primary race with Attorney General Josh Shapiro and state Rep. Austin Davis of Allegheny County on the Democratic end; and Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County and Teddy Daniels on the Republican side of the election ballot. But it’s all unofficial. One lawmaker has tried for years to change that. State Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill) introduced legislation back in 2017 to change the way voters select the lieutenant governor. His proposal would allow Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial nominees to choose a running mate, similar to how the president of the United States selects one. His measure, Argall said at the time, was inspired by the strained relationship between Wolf and Stack. Such a change would require a change to the state constitution, which takes time and effort. A proposed amendment must be approved by the legislature in two consecutive two-year sessions and the language must be identical both times. Then, voters have the final say, deciding via a ballot question. Argall’s bill passed for the first time in the 2019-2020 session. It appeared to be on track to be approved in the current two-year session — setting the stage for it to appear on the ballot this year — but the proposal has been laden with additional proposed election-related changes, clouding its future path. What remains constant for the moment are the duties of the office. The lieutenant governor’s job is often described as one of the best in the Capitol because it carries with it the clout of the executive — and pays $178,940 annually — without the work or pressures of being governor. The lieutenant governorship has some prescribed duties, including presiding over the 50-member state Senate and chairing the state Board of Pardons. But beyond that, lieutenant governors are only as powerful as governors choose to make them. A governor could delegate important research or advocacy work to their lieutenant. Wolf, for instance, tasked Lt. Gov. John Fetterman at the start of his second term with completing a report on attitudes toward legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana. Or they could ignore them completely. Here is who is running for the office: Democrats Austin Davis: A state representative from the Mon Valley near Pittsburgh, Davis worked for the Allegheny County government before becoming a lawmaker in 2018. Brian Sims: An attorney and advocate for the LGBTQ community and women’s rights, Sims, of Philadelphia, was elected in 2012 to the House of Representatives, becoming one of the legislature’s first openly gay members. Ray Sosa: A career banker and insurance agent from Montgomery County, Sosa also ran in 2018 for the job. He has been appointed by three governors to multiple state task forces, including ones on criminal justice and emergency management. Republicans John Brown: A former elected executive of Northampton County, Brown was the Republican party’s nominee for auditor general in 2016, but lost to Democrat Eugene DePasquale. Spotlight PA could not locate a campaign website for Brown. Jeff Coleman: A former legislator, the Central Pennsylvania resident is a longtime political consultant who has worked to elect conservatives and advance conservative causes. Teddy Daniels: A supporter of former President Donald Trump, Daniels is a retired police officer and Army combat veteran who founded a security/transport consulting firm. The Wayne County resident posted on social media that he was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. Carrie DelRosso: The Allegheny County resident and first-term lawmaker made headlines in 2020 when she defeated the minority leader in the state House. Russ Diamond: A Lebanon County businessman who also became a well-known government reform advocate in the mid-2000s, Diamond was later elected to the state House, where he is serving his fourth term. Chris Frye: The mayor of New Castle in Lawrence County, Frye has worked in federal reentry and workforce development programs and was an adjunct professor at Slippery Rock University. James Jones: The Montgomery County resident founded and runs an oil and petroleum products trading business, and has twice run for Congress in the past two decades, both times unsuccessfully. Rick Saccone: A Western Pennsylvania resident, Saccone is a former state lawmaker who made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2018. He was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Clarice Schillinger: A Bucks County resident, Schillinger founded and ran political action committees to help elect school board candidates supportive of pushing back on pandemic-era restrictions on in-person learning. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania tax revenues stronger than anticipated, $580 million above estimates

By Anthony Hennen Pennsylvania’s tax receipts were strong for March 2022, with the Independent Fiscal Office revising its projections up by $580 million from its August estimate. Sales taxes, personal income taxes, and corporate net income taxes drove the rise, indicating that the economy is recovering from pandemic-related slowdowns. The labor force participation rate and unemployment rate still have not returned to prepandemic levels, however, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The Independent Fiscal Office’s estimate was closer than the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue’s figures. The Department of Revenue underestimated collections by $659 million. The General Fund collections have been strong through the fiscal year-to-date, totaling $34.1 billion, $2.7 billion more than the Department of Revenue anticipated. The windfall is even greater than the remaining federal funds the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act; Republicans and Democrats remain at odds on what to do with the $1.7 billion of remaining federal money. For comparison, Pennsylvania generates $4.5 billion from the state gas tax and motor license fees, and $2.7 billion of that covers roads and bridges. The stronger-than-anticipated tax revenues could shore up existing programs (as state Republicans have argued for federal ARPA funds) or be used for new spending programs (as state Democrats have argued). It’s unclear how long extra tax revenues will continue. Consumption taxes, such as sales taxes and other General Fund tax revenues, could contract from rising inflation and as pent-up demand from the pandemic levels off. As the Department of Revenue’s update notes, the lion’s share of the tax revenues came from sales tax, personal income tax, and corporate tax. Those increases of 8%, 6.5%, and 18.6%, respectively, are unlikely to be a long-term trend.

Parents of teen shot by Pennsylvania State Police sue troopers, local DA

By Gary Harki of Spotlight PA and Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — The parents of a Chinese American teenager fatally shot by Pennsylvania State Police in 2020 filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday accusing state troopers and the local district attorney of trying to “thwart public oversight” by making misleading statements and refusing to release full video of the incident. Video recorded by the State Police and published in November by Spotlight PA and NBC News shows that the teenager, Christian Hall, was holding a pellet gun with his hands in the air above his head when troopers fired at him. The lawsuit says the troopers used excessive force, killing Hall as he tried to surrender and after they said they would not shoot him. Devon Jacob and Ben Crump, the Hall family’s attorneys, also allege that the Monroe County district attorney and his deputy misled the public by showing an edited version of the video. The suit, filed in federal court in Harrisburg, lists as defendants State Police Superintendent Robert Evanchick and four troopers – two unnamed “John Doe’s” and Charles S. Phelps and Ian D. MacMillan. State Police officials, including Evanchick, did not respond to a request for comment. Phelps and MacMillan could not immediately be reached for comment. Other defendants include Monroe County and District Attorney E. David Christine Jr. and  Assistant District Attorney Michael Mancuso. They issued a statement defending their handling of the case and saying their actions were “in keeping with the DA’s responsibility to keep the public informed and reassured that this tragic incident was not due to the unjustified use of deadly force by law enforcement.” “The attempts by the attorneys to mislead the public and now the filing of a frivolous suit against the DA’s Office is yet another example that they are motivated not by the pursuit of justice but the allure of monetary gain,” Mancuso wrote in the statement. “What happened to Christian and his parents is not excusable,” said Jacob and Crump in a press release. The two also represented the family of George Floyd, whose killing in May 2020 sparked a national outcry. “Just like George Floyd’s unlawful homicide, the involved Troopers who committed this unlawful homicide took time to deliberate before they decided to end Christian Hall’s life. We obtained justice for George Floyd and we will obtain justice for Christian Hall.” On the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2020, Hall called 911 about a “possible suicider” on an Interstate 80 overpass in the Poconos. Hall, 19, had been upset about a breakup with his former girlfriend, Christian’s father, Gareth Hall, said. Christian Hall posted a picture on Snapchat of the overpass with the text “who would miss me,” according to a report released by the DA’s office. When State Police troopers arrived a short time later, they found Hall on the overpass’ concrete ledge looking down. In his hand was a pellet gun, which troopers believed to be a real gun. State Police video shows troopers talking to Hall, trying to get him to put down the gun and walk toward them. After about 90 minutes, Hall moved toward the troopers with the pellet gun in his hand, arms at his sides. Huddled behind their vehicles about 70 feet away, troopers again told him to drop the gun. The video obtained by Spotlight PA and NBC News from Jacob and Crump shows Hall raising his hands after a trooper fired the initial shots, which missed him. Hall first raised his hands to his sides, then above his head, holding the gun in one hand, the video shows. “If he doesn’t drop it, just take him,” a voice can be heard saying on the video. Hall’s hands stayed above his head as a corporal and another trooper fired several more shots. Hall was struck, clutched his stomach, and fell to the ground. In the lawsuit, the Hall family claims that the initial State Police press release on the shooting, which stated that Hall had pointed the gun at troopers before shots were fired, was intentionally misleading. Troopers “did so with the intent to thwart public oversight” and to pressure Hall’s parents, Fe and Gareth, not to file a lawsuit, it states. In Pennsylvania, local district attorneys investigate police shootings unless they recuse themselves and send the case to the state attorney general. In this case, Christine and Mancuso investigated the killing along with the State Police. Gareth and Fe Hall publicly called for Christine to send the case to the attorney general and later criticized him for not doing so. The lawsuit alleges Christine and Mancuso retaliated against the Hall family by not answering questions or explaining their decisions. Crump and Jacob, the family’s lawyers, also allege that the district attorney’s office used portions of the video in a presentation shown at a March 2021 news conference in a way that misled the public. At that news conference, Mancuso announced that no troopers would be charged in the killing and that Hall was an imminent threat from the moment he put his hand on the gun. “Frankly, it’s a testament to the troopers that they didn’t shoot sooner,” Mancuso said. He mimicked Hall pulling the gun out of his waistband and raising it in the air, and said Hall “played with it in this way and at some point kind of moved the muzzle over in the direction of the troopers, then raised it upward.” The lawsuit asks for compensation for violations of the family’s legal rights, Hall’s death, pain and suffering, other damages, and attorney’s fees but does not list a specific amount. Fe Hall said that she is glad the lawsuit has been filed and that she still struggles with the loss of her son. “I do not have the strength to read about my son that way, about how his life was taken that way,” she said of the lawsuit. “I just refuse to look at any more videos. … I just refuse to see the last moment.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania bill would require mapping of overdose deaths

By Anthony Hennen The high number of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania have been rising, but state agencies provide data on them on a voluntary basis only. That might change with a new bill requiring law enforcement and emergency responders to update the state’s map of overdoses quickly. SB1152 would require adding information on drug overdoses to a mapping system within 24 hours by first responders. Currently, the Pennsylvania State Police and some state agencies already do so on a voluntary basis, but the information is incomplete and not always timely. “The opioid crisis continues to have a stranglehold in communities across our Commonwealth. COVID-19 lockdowns and the fallout that ensued have exacerbated the crisis,” Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg, and sponsor of bill, said in a legislative memo. “In 2020, overdose deaths increased by 14% compared to 2019 and 5,000 lives were tragically lost.” Overdose deaths were as low as 2,700 in Pennsylvania in 2014, then jumped up to 5,400 in 2017 before the pandemic, according to the CDC. “Following discussions with stakeholders and law enforcement, I discovered that PA was lagging behind other neighboring states when it comes to real time tracking of overdose incidents,” Mastriano’s memo says. The state police could adopt a federal mapping system called ODMAP, a Pennsylvania system called ODIN, or another system as chosen by the state police, according to the proposed legislation. They would also be required to issue an annual report on overdose trends and patterns to county and local officials, along with the public. Mastriano argued an up-to-date map would make it easier for law enforcement and emergency responders to limit overdoses. “Accurately mapping overdoses within 24 hours of the incident will help save lives. County and local officials will have access to the real-time overdose data and can develop response plans when there is an overdose spike in the area,” Mastriano said. “A response plan could involve the coordination of public health, emergency management, first responders, community organizations, and health care providers with the goal of preventing and reducing the harm caused by overdose spikes.” ODMAP is free to state agencies to use, and the bill encourages the state police to pursue federal funds for any start-up or continuing costs.

Judge admonishes Pa. State Police for response to request seeking email, phone records

By Gary Harki of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — A judge last week scolded the Pennsylvania State Police for the agency’s poor response to a reporter seeking trooper emails, text messages, and voicemails — some of which may no longer exist. At issue was whether the State Police had the power to provide their own phone records to a freelance journalist requesting trooper communications about protests of Sunoco’s 350-mile Mariner East pipeline. Attorneys for the State Police argued the agency didn’t have the records or the authority to request them from Verizon, its cell phone contractor. After the hearing, attorneys for the reporter wrote in a filing that the Verizon contract includes a provision that makes it clear that such records must be released under the state’s Right-to-Know Law and the State Police should provide them. Verizon told Spotlight PA that providing the voicemails and texts from years ago is now impossible — they no longer exist. “At this point, we do not have access to any customer emails or voicemails,” wrote Rich Young, a corporate communications director for Verizon. “Our retention periods for text message data (and especially message content) are very brief.” The hearing, which was often contentious, started with Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler questioning Emily Rodriguez, an attorney for the State Police, about the blacking out of emails sent to reporter Dan Schwartz. “They did get it eventually,” Rodriguez said of the unredacted emails. “Yeah, I understand, but it is still glaring to see every piece of information blacked out,” Ceisler said, adding that there was no clear explanation for the State Police’s redactions. Schwartz filed his request for emails, text messages, and voicemails in March 2021. The State Police initially provided emails, many of which were heavily blacked out. They said no text messages or voicemails existed but failed to provide an affidavit, a legally required document explaining that. Schwartz then filed a petition with the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which prompted the State Police to produce less redacted copies of the emails. Still, troopers did not produce voicemails, text messages, or a full account of how they searched for the records, as required by law. Rodriguez told the judge that the State Police could not produce voicemails and texts because Verizon would not release them without a court order or a subpoena. “Ultimately the records were not in the possession or control of the Pennsylvania State Police and that was the bottom line,” she said. “I appreciate the state of the law hasn’t caught up with the technology and they don’t like it, but that’s where we are.” Paula Knudsen Burke, one of Schwartz’s attorneys and counsel for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a journalism-focused legal services group, told the judge the case had serious implications for similar public records requests of phone records. Most requesters don’t have the means to take their cases to court. “There has to be some additional recourse,” Burke said. Government agencies “can’t place records with a third-party vendor and say they can’t get those records.” Rodriguez said that there was no legal way to file a subpoena under the Right-to-Know Law and that the State Police could not file one for the phone records. She also said the Verizon contract was held by another state agency. Ceisler questioned why the issue of needing a subpoena had not come up earlier. “You could have included all this [in responses to the request], which would have put us all in the position of not being blindsided by this,” she said to Rodriguez. The judge had planned on filing a court order compelling Verizon to produce the State Police voicemails and text messages in the coming weeks. It’s not clear what will happen now that Schwartz’s lawyers filed a petition that included the contract, which states Verizon must comply with records requests. Ceisler also still has to rule on whether the State Police must pay attorneys fees to Schwartz’s lawyers. Cases like this are rare because of the way the state’s Right-to-Know Law is set up, said Melissa Melewsky, in-house counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which Spotlight PA is a member. Taking a public records case to court can be expensive, and even if a petitioner wins, there’s no guarantee the state will have to pay their attorneys fees. That means most cases are taken by lawyers from places like the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which took Schwartz’s case, or never make it in front of a judge. “In most cases, if you take a state agency to court and win you will not be reimbursed,” Melewsky said. “You’ll get your records, but you’ll also be out likely thousands of dollars. That’s a significant barrier to access and a significant deterrent to people pursuing public access rights under Pennsylvania law.” Schwartz, a freelance journalist based in Colorado, said it was reassuring to hear the judge’s comments and her order to release information. “I think as a journalist and a member of the public it is easy to lose faith,” he said. “It’s beyond nice to have faith in the judiciary in matters of public records.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Bill would give Pennsylvania voters power to reject any new taxes

By Anthony Hennen A proposed bill could mean more ballot referenda in Pennsylvania to prevent controversial tax increases, and also make it harder for localities or the General Assembly to boost tax revenues. Rep. David Rowe, R-Union/Snyder, introduced HB2432 to amend the Commonwealth’s constitution to add ballot questions during primary elections that would allow voters to override any new taxes or fees, or their increase or expansion. “As the financiers of the Commonwealth, our taxpayers deserve to have a direct say in any new tax proposal that will affect them,” Rowe said in a memo. “My legislation will give the people an opportunity to vote for or against any new tax, or expansion of an existing tax, allowing them to have direct say over what is being done with their hard-earned income.” If voters reject the tax, the General Assembly could override the referendum, but only with a two-thirds vote. Tax referenda periodically appear on ballots across the country; for example, Arizona might have a citizen referendum to reject a flat income tax later in 2022. Famously, California’s Prop 13 limited property tax increases in 1978 and had long-term consequences. HB2432, however, would subject many more taxes and tax increases to popular scrutiny. Doing so could reduce the tax burden placed on Pennsylvanians. The ballot questions would make Pennsylvania a bit similar to western states. Citizen initiatives and popular referenda are often used in western and Midwestern states to allow voters to bypass legislatures and change state law. Currently, Pennsylvania has neither. “Allowing the people to have this kind of direct hand in matters that directly affect them is crucial to ensuring that our society stays one that is governed by the people,” Rowe said in a memo.

What makes a political map fair? Here’s what we learned during Pa.’s recent redistricting cycle.

By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access. HARRISBURG — What makes a political map fair? It’s a question the people in charge of drawing Pennsylvania’s congressional and legislative boundaries wrestled with over the past year — with some major disagreements emerging in the process. There are four traditional redistricting criteria spelled out in the state constitution. The districts must be compact, contiguous, and made up of roughly equal population, with counties, municipalities, and wards kept together unless splits are “absolutely necessary.” But beyond those basic measures, lawmakers and state Supreme Court justices differed on what other criteria they should consider and prioritize, with perhaps the most debate over what’s known as “partisan fairness.” The term has no standard definition, but it has been used in Pennsylvania to mean a map that doesn’t dilute the voting power of a person based on their political affiliation. Democrats and good-government groups argued that it must be considered in order to satisfy the state constitution, while Republicans said the four traditional criteria — as well as Pennsylvania’s political geography and the map-drawing process — should be the deciding factors. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court decided the issue. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf rejected a congressional map sent to him by Republicans in the legislature, sending the decision to the high court. Those justices also had the final say on the constitutionality of the state House and Senate maps drawn by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. In the process, the majority endorsed partisan fairness as a key redistricting concept. “Indeed, we conclude that consideration of partisan fairness, when selecting a plan among several that meet the traditional core criteria, is necessary to ensure that a congressional plan is reflective of and responsive to the partisan preferences of the commonwealth’s voters,” Chief Justice Max Baer, a Democrat, wrote in his opinion on the winning congressional map. Below we break down the topic and lessons from this decade’s redistricting cycle. What is partisan fairness? Partisan fairness measures whether a map reflects the political leaning of a state using a combination of metrics. “Cracking” and “packing” — which describe when voting groups are broken apart and consolidated to manipulate voter power — are two ways to dilute a voter’s political power, and when this is done intentionally based on party affiliation, it is called partisan gerrymandering. Take the Pennsylvania congressional map signed by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011. Despite statewide victories for Democratic candidates — like former President Barack Obama, who secured 52% of the vote in 2012 — Republicans consistently won 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats. The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and a group of voters argued that the map was designed to “pack” Democrats into five districts and spread them out among the remaining 13. The state Supreme Court threw out the map for that reason in 2018 and put in place a new one that created nine Democratic-leaning districts and nine Republican ones. How is it measured? Partisan fairness can be measured through an amalgamation of metrics that use past election data to predict results based on the proposed district lines. Proportionality measures whether a map would produce a group of officials that reflects the state’s partisan divide. For example, if a party won 55% of the votes in a statewide election, then proportionally it would receive 55% of the seats. Another measure assesses the difference between a party’s median vote share in each district and its average vote share. If a map is gerrymandered to pack one political party into a few districts where they win with high numbers while their remaining party-members are spread across districts, comparing the average vote share to the median vote share will show a large difference. Typically, there shouldn’t be a large difference between the average and median numbers of votes a party receives across each district. The efficiency gap measures how many votes each party wastes. If a district is packed or cracked, then a large number of a party’s votes will not contribute to its success, making the district inefficient. This number should be fairly similar for both parties. If one party has significantly more wasted votes than the other, that indicates gerrymandering. Partisan bias looks at how many district seats a party would win if it receives exactly 50% of the statewide election. In a perfectly proportional map, a party would win 50% of the seats. If a party were to win 60% of the seats, then the proposed map would have a 10% bias in favor of that party. These metrics are taking on an increasingly important role in rulings as state courts adjudicate disputes about gerrymandering. In 2018 and 2022, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted testimony from academics who measured partisan fairness using some of these metrics, as did high courts in other states like North Carolina and Ohio. What is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s position on partisan fairness? At the heart of the 2018 ruling throwing out a previous congressional map is the free and equal elections clause of the state constitution, which guarantees that each vote has the same amount of power. “For our form of government to operate as intended, each and every Pennsylvania voter must have the same free and equal opportunity to select his or her representatives,” Justice Debra Todd wrote on behalf of the majority. In the same ruling, Todd, a Democrat, wrote, “It is axiomatic that a diluted vote is not an equal vote, as all voters do not have an equal opportunity to translate their votes into representation.” The exact term “partisan fairness” appears nowhere in the ruling, but some petitioners in the recent case over the congressional map argued that it must be considered to satisfy the elections clause and prevent vote dilution. “The Supreme Court has mandated that, in addition to evaluating a plan’s compliance with the traditional redistricting criteria, the Court must also evaluate whether a plan will nonetheless operate to unfairly dilute the power of a particular group’s vote for a congressional representative,” counsel for the Gressman petitioners — a group of math and science professors from Pennsylvania — wrote in a filing. “The parties in this case refer to this principle as ‘partisan fairness.’” That interpretation was essentially confirmed in Baer’s ruling. “Partisan fairness metrics provide tools for objective evaluation of proposed congressional districting plans to determine their political fairness and avoid vote dilution based on political affiliation,” the justice wrote on behalf of the majority. What does the GOP say about partisan fairness? In legal filings concerning both the congressional and legislative plans, state Republicans argued that valuing partisan fairness amounts to gerrymandering and that the “natural political geography” of Pennsylvania favors Republican voters. Because Democratic voters tend to live clustered in urban and suburban areas, district maps naturally have a Republican bias, they argued. “Call it proportionality, call it responsiveness, call it partisan fairness,” said Matthew Haverstick, counsel for U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R., Pa.). “I believe these are all code words for another way of saying gerrymandering.” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) made similar arguments in his legal challenge to the state House and Senate maps. He voted against the plan as a member of the five-person Legislative Reapportionment Commission. He described the maps as a “Democratic gerrymander” because they “carve[d] up the commonwealth’s cities to spread out Democratic-leaning urban voters into suburban and exurban areas to dilute the votes of Republican-leaning voters.” “The commission cannot unnecessarily split counties or municipalities to artificially increase the number of Democratic-leaning districts, even if the alleged goal of doing so is to achieve a more ‘proportional’ or ‘symmetrical’ seat share relative to the statewide two-party vote share or to negate a natural geographic disadvantage,” his attorneys argued in a brief to the state Supreme Court. Mark Nordenberg, the nonpartisan chair of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, defended the maps against accusations of partisan gerrymandering, saying they properly reflected changes in the state’s makeup. “Most basically, a fair map should be responsive to voters’ preferences,” he wrote in a report to the state Supreme Court. “One party should not have entrenched political power that is so strong as to not reflect the actual votes of the citizens of Pennsylvania.” The state Supreme Court rejected Benninghoff’s challenge, as well as several others, but did not explain its reasoning. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Fringe theory cited in Pa. redistricting case could give legislatures unchecked election power

By Ethan Edward Coston of Spotlight PA and Matt Vasilogambros of Stateline Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. This story is a collaboration with Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy. HARRISBURG — The U.S. Supreme Court this month left open the possibility that it could endorse a fringe conservative legal theory that would give state legislatures unchecked powers over election rules before the 2024 presidential election. Republican officials cited the theory, which asserts that state courts do not have jurisdiction over election policy, in two key cases filed in North Carolina and Pennsylvania over congressional maps selected by their highest courts. Groups in those states — which included voters, Republican state senators and representatives, an election official, and a congressional candidate — petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the respective maps. They argued in federal court filings that the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the sole power to set rules for federal elections. The high court rejected emergency requests to block the maps, allowing the ones chosen by state courts to stay in place for the 2022 midterm elections. But in a dissent to the North Carolina decision, three conservative justices endorsed the theory known as the “independent state legislature doctrine,” while another signaled he wanted to formally consider the question. That means there appears to be enough votes to put the issue — and the possible legitimization of the doctrine — on the court’s 2023 calendar. Legal experts and voting rights advocates warn the independent state legislature doctrine could radically alter election administration across the country, and siphon power away from courts and toward the legislatures that write election law. That would leave partisan politicians, rather than independent administrators, overseeing elections — possibly even overturning results they don’t like. Constitutional scholars have widely panned the theory, arguing that it advances an inaccurate interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and pointing out that it has never been embraced in past rulings. State courts, they contend, have long been able to act as a check on the state legislatures, ensuring lawmakers follow the spirit of the state’s constitution. “The legislature is created by the state constitution, so it must be limited by it,” said Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. “The notion that [lawmakers] are freestanding entities to do anything they want in this context is inconsistent with constitutional democracy.” If U.S. Supreme Court justices were to legitimize the theory in a ruling, the move would transform the way elections are governed, virtually giving state legislatures a blank slate to set voting rules and to draw congressional maps, said Joshua Douglas, professor at the J. David Rosenberg College of Law at the University of Kentucky. “It’s concerning for our concept of representation,” he said. “It means that those who are most self-interested in retaining their positions also have the most power now in dictating the rules of the game.” Power struggles The Pennsylvania lawsuit pits a group of Republicans, including a county commissioner who helps oversee local elections, against Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration. The GOP group is represented by Jonathan F. Mitchell, the lawyer behind a six-week abortion ban in Texas that is enforced by private citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court has so far allowed that law to stay in place. The justices declined to hear the Pennsylvania Republicans’ emergency map petition on technical grounds. The case was assigned to a three-judge federal court panel. At issue is a citizen-submitted congressional map picked by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in February following months of debate and an impasse between the Republican-led legislature and Wolf, who vetoed a GOP-passed proposal because of its partisan bias. Citing the independent state legislature doctrine and population differences among districts, the Pennsylvania plaintiffs filed an emergency application asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reject the map and instead implement at-large elections — which would let all of a state’s voters cast ballots for each seat — for the 2022 midterm elections. Attorneys for the Wolf administration argue that at-large congressional elections are illegal under federal law and that courts are obligated to redraw maps when the state legislatures fail to do so. The lawyers cite a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a similar case in Mississippi, in which the legislature failed to pass a new map and a federal district court adopted one. In 1967, Congress passed a law that banned at-large congressional elections following a series of election changes that included the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The problem with [at-large congressional elections] is that it violates federal law,” said Bertrall Ross, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who studies constitutional law. “I don’t see how that remedy can be adopted.” For that reason, he said, it’s unclear what would happen if the U.S. Supreme Court removed state courts from the redistricting process and a governor and legislature reached an impasse on a map. At the request of the Wolf administration and the citizen group that proposed the map selected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the federal district court recently dismissed much of the suit — including the claims citing the doctrine. The Republican plaintiffs lacked standing, the court found. In North Carolina, the state’s high court earlier this year ruled the congressional map picked by the GOP-led legislature was gerrymandered. A superior court in Raleigh adopted a new map, and the state Supreme Court refused to block it. The North Carolina Republican lawsuit argues that the state court’s actions were unconstitutional and, under the doctrine, only Congress has oversight over state election rules. The group filed an emergency application asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the map. The court rejected that request, but four justices appeared open to considering a formal appeal next year — enough to potentially secure the case’s place on the calendar. Shapiro, of Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Ross argue the two lawsuits are part of a larger attempt by legislatures to strip power from other branches of government. Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers have for years fought to circumvent Wolf’s veto authority, most recently embracing a strategy of amending the state constitution. In 2021, GOP legislators put on the ballot two constitutional amendments that voters approved to limit a governor’s control over emergency declarations. ‘Strategic pieces’ These two lawsuits aren’t the only attempts in recent years to advance the independent state legislature doctrine. In 2020, for example, Pennsylvania Republicans cited it in an unsuccessful challenge to a mail ballot deadline extension granted by the state Supreme Court. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that endorses the doctrine could pave the way for state lawmakers nationwide to enact policies that might disenfranchise an increasingly multiracial voting public. The doctrine could allow state legislatures to draw political maps for partisan gain or pass restrictive voting laws without court intervention, said Gaby Goldstein, co-founder and senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Sister District Action Network, a nonprofit that supports Democratic representation in state legislatures. State legislatures already are attempting to seize more election powers. “These aren’t just messaging bills, to take a public position and rile up the base,” said Goldstein. “These really are strategic pieces of legislation that are gathering steam, support and also, importantly, normalizing this rhetoric.” In Wisconsin, former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, a Republican leading a partisan investigation of the 2020 presidential election, told state legislators that they should take a “hard look” at decertifying President Joe Biden’s victory. His eventual report could give the legislature the impetus to follow through on his suggestion. In Arizona, Republican lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow the legislature to overturn presidential election results. While Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers effectively killed the legislation last month, voting rights advocates worry bills like that could be enacted in the future. Norms around the nonpartisan administration of elections also may be at risk with this doctrine, voting rights activists fear. While state legislatures can make rules around election procedures, state courts have traditionally ensured those laws follow state constitutions. A U.S. Supreme Court that embraces this doctrine might open the door to state legislatures changing Electoral College votes during a presidential election without judicial review, Goldstein said. State boards of election or independent redistricting commissions, she said, might be disbanded since they, instead of legislatures, perform election duties. Efforts such as the North Carolina and Pennsylvania suits are all part of a multifaceted effort to limit voting rights, said Douglas, at the University of Kentucky. Sympathies on the high court At least four U.S. Supreme Court justices have shown they are open to the independent state legislature doctrine. In their dissenting opinion in the North Carolina case earlier this month, conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch said they would have blocked the state’s court-selected map because the state Supreme Court may have violated the U.S. Constitution. “There must be some limit on the authority of state courts to countermand actions taken by state legislatures when they are prescribing rules for the conduct of federal elections,” Alito wrote in the North Carolina dissent. He later added this is “an exceptionally important and recurring question of constitutional law.” Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another conservative on the bench, in a concurring opinion wrote that the arguments surrounding the independent state legislature doctrine are questions worth exploring. These four justices have referred to this doctrine in previous rulings on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2000, Thomas joined a concurring opinion in Bush v. Gore that also referenced the doctrine. During the 2020 presidential election, Gorsuch argued, in a case about Wisconsin’s election rules, against allowing state courts to change election rules because of the coronavirus pandemic. Judges, he wrote, don’t have the power to “improvise with their own election rules.” Unclear still, however, is how conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett would come down on this issue. While Chief Justice John Roberts is a conservative, he has been less open to this doctrine, traditionally acting as a steady hand for the court. Legal scholars are torn about the future of this doctrine. Vikram Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, said he is not sure whether there are five votes on the U.S. Supreme Court to codify it. And while he would prefer to see the doctrine “recede quietly back into the woodwork where it belongs,” he said there is a possibility the high court embraces it one day. “This is not just wrongheaded,” said Amar, who has criticized the theory in his writings. “It really is perverse in that it’s a theory that’s being invoked in the name of states’ rights and federalism and protecting state legislatures, when in fact the true genius of our federal system is that we give power to each state to do what it wants within its state constitution.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

New local taxes for public transit may be on the way for some Pennsylvania counties

By Anthony Hennen Public transportation funding has been a growing concern in some cities, and a proposed bill could give some Pennsylvania counties the authority to levy local taxes to support their transit systems. Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-Chester/Montgomery, introduced HB2366 to grant Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties the ability to levy taxes “​​for transit and transportation systems and transportation infrastructure.” The counties could then levy three types of taxes: a tax on real property transfers, a local income tax, and a local sales tax.  The tax revenue could then be used for grants to local transportation organizations and mass transit agencies, and to fund infrastructure projects such as road and bridge construction (as well as for maintenance and repair costs). The grants could be jointly issued with nearby counties and used as matching funds for infrastructure projects. The funding “provides our more populated counties with additional options to fund transportation projects of local importance,” Hennessey said. Public transit in Pennsylvania is generally better-funded than the rest of the country. PennDOT notes that it ranks 4th in the nation for direct support in funding public transportation. About $1.5 billion goes into the public transportation trust fund (16.5% of PennDOT’s annual funding). At a February Senate Appropriation Committee hearing, Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation Jennie Louwerse noted that the state “is in a good situation with mass transportation.” Extra federal funds for coronavirus relief strengthened budgets. “Transit agencies should not experience a gap in that funding for the next several years,” Louwerse said. However, those funds will decline in the future. Funding from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, too, will disappear. Future funding problems could develop if legislators do not find a way to replace those funds – especially as declining gas tax revenues squeezes PennDOT. Local dedicated funding from sales taxes or income taxes may be a new cause for protest, but taxpayers will have to fund those systems somehow. Local accountability may create wiser governance than state-level funds.

Pa. Supreme Court rejects legal challenges to state’s new legislative maps

By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access. HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s highest court has affirmed the state’s new legislative district maps and rejected final legal challenges to them, clearing the way for their use in the May primary. In a brief order, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday said the maps were “in compliance with the mandates of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the United States Constitution.” The state House and Senate maps were drawn by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, a five-member panel composed of Pennsylvania’s top legislative leaders and an independent chair, and challenged by nine separate parties including lawmakers, former elected officials, and private citizens. The high court on Wednesday also set a final primary calendar for legislative candidates, allowing county election directors and political hopefuls to begin preparing for the election in earnest. Candidates can begin collecting signatures March 18 to appear on the ballot and must be finished by March 28, a compressed timeline. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission released the final state House and Senate maps in early February. While the upper chamber’s map is unlikely to radically alter the composition of its members, the state House map creates several additional seats that could be won by Democrats. Advocates for the map say that’s because it undoes decades of partisan gerrymandering and reflects changes in population that benefitted Democrat-heavy areas. The panel passed the maps in a 4-1 vote, with only House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) voting against them. He later filed one of the legal challenges against the final plan, claiming the state House map infringed upon the Voting Rights Act by disregarding the traditional redistricting criteria outlined in the Pennsylvania Constitution — like ensuring equal population in districts — and considering race as a dominant factor. Benninghoff also claimed the map was drawn to benefit Democrats and ignored Pennsylvania’s political geography, which he said naturally provides greater Republican representation in the General Assembly because Democratic voters are typically concentrated in a small number of areas. “[The final map] subordinates the nonpartisan redistricting criteria for purely partisan purposes in doing so, it creates violence to the constitution,” Benninghoff said before voting against the final plan. “That is the very definition of the term gerrymandering. And frankly, it’s shameful.” The panel’s nonpartisan Chair Mark Nordenberg, ex-chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, strenuously pushed back on Benninghoff’s claims, pointing to the House map’s superior scoring in the traditional criteria as compared to the current one. In a filing to the state Supreme Court, Nordenberg argued the Free and Equal Elections Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees that no voter’s voice is diluted due to partisan affiliation or place of residence. “Rather than arguing that a voter’s vote should not be diluted based on where the voter lives, Leader Benninghoff instead argues that voters who vote for Democratic candidates should have less of a say in the makeup of the General Assembly because those voters have chosen to pack themselves in cities,” he wrote. Nordenberg went on to argue that, while the Voting Rights Act prohibits the use of race as the sole or predominant factor in redistricting, the Free and Equal Elections Clause permits the consideration of race. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), a member of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, said in a statement he was pleased with the ruling “because not only were these maps fair, reasonable, and supported in a bipartisan way, today’s decision means we can proceed with our election calendar and folks can begin preparation to run for office or learn who their potential representatives will be.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Substitute teacher shortage means fewer barriers to hiring teachers

By Anthony Hennen While the pandemic has upset the norm in education, a substitute teacher shortage in Pennsylvania has sparked changes to state law and continues to delay the return of a normal school day. The shortage sometimes means pay spikes for substitutes, cutting into school district budgets. In the long run, shortages may require more tax revenue to cover costs and attract teachers. Some schools have turned to remote days or shut down when they became shorthanded, like they did during a rise in COVID-19 cases, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted. By February, disruptions in Pennsylvania and nationally leveled off, but the supply of substitute teachers remains small. Act 91, signed into law last year, made it easier for retired teachers, former teachers with inactive certificates, and soon-to-be college graduates to serve as substitutes, but those measures aren’t seen as an ultimate solution to shortages. “I realize it’s going to take some time for the provisions to be executed, and we must continue to devise interim solutions to meet what I think is a, really, most urgent need,” Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing with the Department of Education. For its part, the Department of Education has loosened some restrictions and is trying an all-hands-on-deck approach to remove barriers for becoming a teacher. “We need to continue to explore what traditionally was considered the nontraditional routes and elevate them into making them traditional pathways as well,” Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said. “Otherwise we’re not going to make the dent that we need to make.”  Ortega said making no distinction between the traditional path to teaching certification and alternative entry can help districts be more efficient and much more affordable. Working with student-teacher programs and universities to better align standards with what local districts need is another department effort currently ongoing. Nor are substitutes the only workers missing around school districts. “The number of school bus drivers has been steadily declining since about 2018,” Phillips-Hill said. Department of Education Deputy Secretary Sherri Smith noted the numbers are improving, “but we have a ways to go.” Some districts, Smith said, have even paid parents to drive their children to school while the district is short on drivers.

Pa. Supreme Court weighs future of state’s popular mail voting law

By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — The fate of Pennsylvania’s popular vote-by-mail law now lies in the hands of the state’s highest court, which on Tuesday heard competing arguments on whether it violates the state constitution and should be struck down. The law, known as Act 77 and approved overwhelmingly by the GOP-controlled legislature in 2019, ushered in the most sweeping expansion of voting access in Pennsylvania in decades, including the ability to vote by mail without having to provide an excuse. It was challenged last year by a group of Republican lawmakers and elected officials who argue the legislature does not have the power under the state constitution to make such a change. A lower appellate court in January sided with them, ruling that such a change requires an amendment to the state constitution that must be approved by voters. On Tuesday, justices on the seven-member Supreme Court pressed lawyers representing the Wolf administration and Republican challengers for nearly three hours about the law, focusing on the two sections of the state constitution at the heart of the dispute over its legality: one that dictates eligibility requirements for voting, and another that spells out the circumstances for voters to cast an absentee ballot. Several justices on the Democrat-majority court also hinted at what voting rights advocates have argued for months: that the GOP-led lawsuit is little more than an effort to undermine voter confidence and suppress votes, spurred by baseless claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the 2020 election was replete with fraud and stolen from him. “Let’s be candid,” Justice Kevin M. Dougherty, a Democrat, said while questioning the attorney for the GOP lawmakers who brought the suit. “What it really looks like is that maybe some legislators are concerned because the no-excuse balloting — at least recently — shows that maybe one party votes overwhelmingly by mail-in ballot as opposed to another. So maybe this is an attack for supremacy at the ballot. I don’t know.” Several justices, Dougherty among them, also took aim at specific language in the constitution that harks back to a time in history when the focus was on protecting the vote for white men only. That language, the justices said, is now being cited by Republican lawyers to defend their position that the phrasing requires people to vote in person, except in very narrow circumstances. “The best way to be certain that no one but a free white man votes is [to] make the voter show up at the polling place,” said Justice Christine Donohue, a Democrat. “If there is any policy reason for showing up to vote it’s to effectuate the intent to make certain that only ‘the right people’ got to vote.” Lawyers for Republicans — several of whom voted for Act 77 — have argued that Pennsylvania’s Constitution requires voters to appear at polling places on Election Day, unless they qualify for an absentee ballot. No-excuse mail voting is not specified in the constitution, they said. Adding that language would require a constitutional amendment, which calls for the legislature to pass a proposal in two consecutive sessions, and then hold a voter referendum on it. Gregory H. Teufel, an attorney for the GOP lawmakers, said that when the legislature approved Act 77 in the fall of 2019, it disenfranchised “9 million registered Pennsylvania voters” who were “denied the right to vote on whether to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow no-excuse mail-in voting.” He added: “It is not up to the legislature to contradict the will of the people.” Attorneys for the state have countered that to win, lawyers for Republicans must prove that the Pennsylvania Constitution “clearly, palpably, and plainly” prohibits the legislature from authorizing mail-in voting. They argue that there is nothing in the text or structure of the current constitution that prohibits lawmakers from doing so. The constitution states that elections shall occur by ballot “or by such other method as may be prescribed by law” — a clause, the lawyers say, that gives the legislature the authority to make election changes without having to go through the lengthy process of amending the constitution. Several justices Tuesday pushed back on that argument, asking lawyers for the state about two prior court cases that determined that the only constitutional exception to voting in person is voting by absentee ballot. Those cases, they noted, pose a problem to the state’s position. The mail-in voting law remains in place as the justices weigh the question of its constitutionality. It is unclear how quickly the court will rule. At one point during Tuesday’s oral arguments, a lawyer for the state was asked whether keeping Act 77 in place through the May primary would allow the state enough time to sort out the aftermath of whatever decision the justices make. “I don’t think so,” responded Seth Waxman, one of the lawyers representing the state and national Democratic parties. “There are millions and millions of people who would need to be reeducated, millions and millions of dollars that the state would have to spend in reeducating them.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania politicians endorse idea of gas tax holiday

By Anthony Hennen (The Center Square) Gas prices, rising steadily over the last year and jumping dramatically since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, may not lead to a production spike, but the state and federal gas taxes could be paused to make the price shock less painful. Gov. Tom Wolf, along with five other governors, sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to suspend the federal gas tax until the end of the year by passing the Gas Prices Relief Act. The legislation would suspend the gas tax and replace the tax revenue with dollars from the general fund. “At a time when people are directly impacted by rising prices on everyday goods, a federal gas tax holiday is a tool in the toolbox to reduce costs for Americans, and we urge you to give every consideration to this proposed legislation,” the governors wrote. The national average price for gas is $4.25, and even higher in Pennsylvania at $4.39, according to data from AAA. The average price in Pennsylvania one year ago was $3.01. Pennsylvania’s state gas tax is 58.7 cents per gallon, and the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. State legislators are also considering a state gas tax holiday. Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Lemont Furnace, announced that he will introduce legislation to suspend the gas and diesel tax in the Commonwealth until the end of the year. Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, is also introducing legislation that would reduce the state gas tax by 20 cents and use federal funds to make up for the tax revenue shortfall. It would also allow the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to issue a $650 million bond to keep infrastructure projects funded. “Taking this action now will not only provide much-needed economic relief for families for the upcoming months, but it will help us determine how we can best meet our long-term infrastructure needs without relying so heavily on the gas tax in the future,” Corman said. PennDOT could not be reached for comment. But the department has warned legislators before about the gas tax, which produces the most revenue for the state’s road network, shrinking as a revenue generator. If a gas tax holiday gets approved, the Commonwealth will have to find other ways to fund infrastructure.

New report argues it’s time for public-sector union reform in Pennsylvania

By Anthony Hennen A new report from the Commonwealth Foundation argues that Pennsylvania can increase economic growth and give workers more choice and freedom in their life – if the General Assembly reforms its government union like Wisconsin did a decade ago. “Government unions have enormous political power in Pennsylvania, due to a host of special legal privileges granted in state law,” report authors Nathan Benefield and Elizabeth Stelle note. “Government union executives use this power to trap government employees in unions, deny them alternative representation, and lobby against fiscal and educational reforms needed to make Pennsylvania more prosperous.” Benefield and Stelle argue that Pennsylvania should change state law by: Requiring regular recertification elections.  Banning the automatic deduction of dues and PAC contributions from government employees’ paychecks. Empowering government employees to choose whether or not to belong to a union. The report only comments on public sector unions, not private sector unions. “When you strengthen individual worker rights, there’s a lot of other things that come from that,” said Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation. “What’s really interesting about Wisconsin’s model – those changes changed culture…you saw some lasting permanent changes.” When Wisconsin’s Act 10 passed, government workers could stop paying dues to the union and leave – and leave they did. “Between 2011 and 2020, government union membership fell by more than half (from 187,000 to 84,000), and government union density – that is, the percentage of government employees in unions – fell from 50 to 22 percent,” the report noted. While the report doesn’t advocate all of the Wisconsin reforms, such as reforming collective bargaining, the report focuses on expanding choice for workers. “We are not calling for some of the broad-based changes to collective bargaining; we’re looking at more specific worker rights like being able to leave the union whenever you choose, or being able to regularly elect the union that supports you,” Stelle said. Much of Pennsylvania’s labor laws are in state statute, rather than rules written into collective bargaining contracts. Change will require the General Assembly to modify the law, Stelle noted. Doing so would give workers more flexibility, for choosing the union they want to belong to, for leaving a union if they prefer, and for rewards on the job such as merit-based pay. “This is a really good moment for us to take a look at our public-sector labor laws and make sure that they are empowering our individual workers,” Stelle said.

Will the earned income tax credit come to Pennsylvania?

By Anthony Hennen A majority of states offer an earned income tax credit, and a recent bill could add Pennsylvania to the list. The EITC is a subsidy for low-income working families, though childless workers can sometimes benefit from it as well. “​​In general, research shows that the EITC encourages single people and primary earners in married couples to work,” an analysis from the Tax Policy Center noted. It works in three phases: as a worker’s income rises, each dollar is matched with a credit, lowering their marginal tax rate. Then the credit maxes out and plateaus, before more income reduces the credit a worker earns, as Robert Bellafiore of the Tax Foundation explained. Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Scotrun, introduced SB 1082 to create a refundable EITC in Pennsylvania for workers with dependent children that would apply in 2023 with a 10% phase-in and reach 25% by 2031. “For low-income, working families … a Commonwealth Earned Income Tax Credit will provide much needed assistance with affording child care, food, transportation, clothes and other household expenses,” Scavello wrote in a legislative memo. The District of Columbia and 28 states have an EITC on the books, according to the Urban Institute. Most are refundable, which means that low-income families receive a payment from the state if their tax credit is more than their state tax liability. As relatively few low-income families have a low or no state tax liability, the EITC functions as an anti-poverty subsidy. State EITCs tend to be a percentage of the federal EITC and range widely; nearby, Ohio has a 30% nonrefundable EITC and New Jersey has 40% refundable EITC. “If the EITC were treated like earnings, it would have been the single-most effective anti-poverty program for working-age people, lifting about 5.6 million people out of poverty in 2018,” the Tax Policy Center noted. The effectiveness of an EITC comes from being well-targeted to benefit low-income workers, both in rural and urban areas, while encouraging workforce participation.  However, it can be complicated for taxpayers to understand and tax officials to run. Improper payments, mainly due to workers incorrectly claiming children, keeps the error rate high on the federal level. Some earners, too, could face a “marriage penalty” and increase their tax burden compared to staying single. Childless workers also benefit much less than similar workers with children.

A complete guide to Pennsylvania’s redistricting court challenges

By Spotlight PA Staff This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access. HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s new political maps may have been picked, but that doesn’t mean the redistricting process is over. There are pending legal challenges against the congressional and legislative maps, which were redrawn this year to account for population changes identified by the census. Below is a rundown of what you need to know about these lawsuits. If you want to learn more, join Spotlight PA on March 3 at 5 p.m. for a free Q&A. RSVP here. Congressional map Pennsylvania law gives the responsibility to draw the state’s congressional boundaries to the legislature. The governor has the power to approve or reject the map. Gov. Tom Wolf did the latter in January when he vetoed a map sent to him by Republicans. Shortly after that occurred, the state Supreme Court agreed to intervene in an existing case and take over the process. In mid-February, the justices in a 4-3 decision picked a new congressional map from among more than a dozen proposals. But there’s still at least one legal challenge left to play out. A group of Pennsylvanians, including two Republicans running for political office, has brought a challenge in federal court, arguing the Pennsylvania justices had no right to pick a new map. A federal judge in Harrisburg recently denied their request for a temporary restraining order against the map. The petitioners are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider that decision. >> MY MAP: Search now to see your old and new political districts Legislative maps Pennsylvania’s state House and Senate districts are drawn by the five-person Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which is composed of the top General Assembly leaders and an independent chair. The panel voted 4-1 in early February to approve new maps. Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, any person can bring a challenge to either map directly to the state Supreme Court by March 7. As of March 2, four separate parties had done so. One group of Butler County residents — potential legislative candidate Ryan Covert, his mother Darlene J. Covert, and supporter Erik Hulick — are challenging how the state House map divides their home county. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the only member of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to vote against the maps, wants the court to throw them out. He claims the maps were gerrymandered to benefit Democrats and create districts that do not comply with the Voting Rights Act. Another elected official — state Sen. Lisa Boscola (D., Northampton) — is objecting to the way her district in the Lehigh Valley was divided. And Todd Elliott Koger claims he was drawn out of a state House district that includes part of Pittsburgh in order to benefit another candidate who works for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), a member of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. In a statement, Costa called the accusation “offensive and completely inaccurate.” “I would not and did not use my role on the LRC to make a House seat more favorable to a member of my staff,” Costa continued. After March 7, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission will have a few days to respond to the suits. After the briefs are filed, the court can choose whether it wants to consider the challenges. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania universities ask for more funds, talk up keeping tuition low

By Anthony Hennen College costs and student debt remain high, and the Senate Appropriations Committee’s hearing with the leaders of Pennsylvania’s state-related universities was about how the General Assembly can help schools, rather than why its leaders aren’t doing more. While leaders of Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln universities noted more funding from the Legislature would cover more costs, they noted an emphasis on graduating students faster to lower student debt.  “The biggest increment in student debt is a student that goes five years, or then six years,” Penn State President Eric Barron said. “Penn State’s working really hard on the time to degree as an issue.” “We primarily try to help by offering the opportunity for our students’ tuition to be held steady for four years, so it’s an incentive to finish in four years. Any increases that happen only go to the new class coming in,” Lincoln University President Brenda Allen said. “One of the best things we can do for our students is to help them finish efficiently in four years.”  By matching Pell grants and limiting or capping unmet financial need, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher noted that student debt has fallen by 24%. Like the costs of college, student mental health issues were mentioned repeatedly. Leaders noted that COVID-19 made problems worse, and they don’t expect them to go away quickly. “This year we are fully back on campus and really adjusting to some of the isolation … what we do see on the ground is that not being on campus for a year has had some negative impact on students’ social and emotional abilities,” Allen said. “We’ve been having to supply a lot more mental health support for students.” At Penn State, Barron noted they are spending $4 million every year on mental health services. “We need more training in that regard and we need a lot more resources” for mental health, Temple University President Jason Winguard said. By 2019, higher education experts were already warning about the impossibility of identifying and treating students with depression and anxiety. Spending increased 72 percent more on mental health concerns than 2016 to 2018. That spending is likely to keep rising. Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, raised the perceived lack of progress in student and faculty diversity. “What do we have to do to get more Pennsylvania African Americans into your schools?” Hughes asked. “It starts with financial resources,” Winguard said. Barron noted that it’s harder to increase faculty diversity than student diversity. “They are quickly snatched up by other schools,” Barron said.

Pennsylvania parks a major source of revenue – for recreation and natural gas

By Anthony Hennen Pennsylvania’s state parks and game lands boost the state’s economy, livability, and attraction for future generations, top officials from the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources said. Testifying in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Senators focused on the economic potential of state parks and developing natural gas to provide for the Department’s $1.4 billion in infrastructure needs. Royalty payments from oil and gas companies could be a way to cover some of those needs, noted Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport. Yaw brought up that royalties hit a peak of $277 million in 2009-10 and asked what’s stopping the department from raising more revenue in this way. “The bigger question might be ‘where is the industry?’” Secretary of DCNR Cindy Adams Dunn said. “Interestingly, of the leases we currently have, only one-third of them (the land mass) is developed. So the companies can make a decision today to go in and develop 65% more of the leased land today.” Companies already own the mineral rights for land leased to them, but “complicating factors,” Dunn noted, affects the decisions to develop the land. “Aside from any moratorium … that’s the big part of the question.” If demand and prices increase, it could drive royalty payments up. “The point is, you have an asset, you’re sitting on it and we’re not using it. It’s self-help,” Yaw said. “I’m just not sure why we don’t do that” to cover the infrastructure repairs. “Towards your point, with the leaseholders we have, we’ve developed a good relationship, and they would probably say we’re tough, but fair,” Dunn said. “We’ve exercised some flexibility and a lot more activity … we’re gonna blow past the revenue number in this year’s budget.” Pandemic-related changes among the public could also help the department’s budget long-term, Dunn noted. “Reservations have remained higher even this year, which insinuates to us that people bought camping equipment … they’re showing up, they’re coming back, and we’ve just seen a resurgence in the outdoors,” Dunn said. When COVID-19 first hit, about 46 million people flocked to Pennsylvania’s state parks. That has dropped to 42 million last year, but it remains higher than numbers pre-pandemic. The department expects to stay at this higher plateau. Outdoor recreation brings in $12 billion to the Commonwealth’s GDP, Dunn noted.  “We hold an important part of the key to a bright future for Pennsylvania,” Dunn said.

Pennsylvania Legislature plans divestment from Russia

Writen by Anthony Hennen The Pennsylvania General Assembly is preparing to divest the Commonwealth’s connections to the Russian economy in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.  “I will work with my colleagues in the state government to stop supporting anything that helps Russia,” Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, said at a protest outside Philadelphia City Hall on Friday. “I pledge to stand with Ukraine and I will work to make sure that the legislature of Pennsylvania does so as well.” Pennsylvania has the largest population of Ukrainian Americans as a percentage of total population in the country, and is second only to New York in total number. In a press release, Street announced that he will introduce a bill that requires public funds “to divest investments in companies doing business with the Russian Federation.” The legislation will affect the retirement systems for public-school employees, state employees, and municipal workers, as well as the state treasurer. “We must wield our economic power to ensure that Russia faces grave consequences for their flagrant violations of international law and human cooperation,” Street said. The Senate will not reconvene until March 28, but Street said the process to pass the bill would go quickly with broad consensus. “There’s been bipartisan support and there’s been companion legislation introduced by the House Republican leader,” Street said. “Few ideas have triggered as much bipartisan support because, quite frankly, this is a matter of right and wrong.” Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has also directed state stores not to sell Russian products, such as vodka. The Keystone State has been joined by New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Utah as of late Monday afternoon in pulling Russian spirits from state-run store shelves. There hasn’t been talk of bringing Ukrainian refugees to Pennsylvania because most seem to go to neighboring countries like Poland, Slovakia, and Romania. “Certainly if it came to it I would welcome immigrants, refugees from Ukraine like I would many other countries,” Street said. Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Bethlehem, also plans to introduce legislation to encourage municipalities to divest from Russia. The divestment actions in Pennsylvania would follow other states such as Colorado, whose Public Employees’ Retirement Association withdrew more than $7.2 million from funds in Sberbank, a state-owned bank and the largest in Russia.

Staffing Pennsylvania prisons remains problematic

By Anthony Hennen | The Center Square (The Center Square) — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections continues to deal with worker shortages as the effects of COVID-19 have changed how prisons in the commonwealth operate. A Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday heard testimony from the heads of the Department of Corrections and Board of Probation & Parole to understand their budget needs and current challenges. Roughly 175 inmates and 12 staff members have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. The department spent roughly $1.45 billion from the federal government’s Coronavirus Relief Fund on supplies, vaccinations, and protective personal equipment — but especially personnel costs, which the department estimated at $1.275 billion. The worker shortage is a problem the department has dealt with much like private employers. “The vacancies are a concern to us,” said Secretary of Corrections George Little. Vaccine mandates wore on the staff, too, he said. Compensation levels may increase to attract workers, if the Office of the Budget approves. “For us, our initial pay — while competitive — is not substantially better than competitors. All you need to do is drive up the I-81 corridor. There’s warehouses offering pay that’s pretty close to starting pay” for correctional officers, Little said. Prison nurses, too, are in short supply. Deputy Secretary for Administration Christopher Oppman noted that, normally, the department would have about 55 nurse vacancies — now, it’s up to 115. They have increased the starting salary to attract nurses, but haven’t reaped the benefits yet, he said. One benefit the department has seen elsewhere, however, is in the recidivism rate dropping. “Let me say, one significant area has been reentry services inside the institution system,” Little said. “We prepare them while the individual is with us.” The Department of Corrections offers soon-to-be-released inmates assistance in finding employment, substance abuse services, and medical assistance (though inmates are not required to use these services). But mental health remains an issue. “Approximately 35% have identifiable issues,” Little said of inmates. “We are the largest provider of services in terms of institutional care in the commonwealth.” Another pandemic-related change has been the department’s use of mobile parole agents to meet parolees. It has improved contact as well as the agents’ knowledge of their caseloads, Little said. Additionally, “the use of video visitation has been phenomenal,” he noted, allowing inmates to have connections with family they previously lacked. Little said, “That kind of normal interaction with family members has been a boon.”

Congressional map picked by Pennsylvania Supreme Court unlikely to dramatically alter partisan balance

By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access. HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has selected a new congressional map that closely resembles the current one, a ruling unlikely to dramatically change the partisan makeup of the state’s delegation. In a 4-3 decision Wednesday, the high court picked a proposal submitted by a group of Pennsylvania voters that fulfills four traditional redistricting criteria and has a slight Republican bias. The state Supreme Court agreed to assume control of the highly consequential process in early February, just weeks after Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a map sent to him by Republicans. The five-page order does not explain the Democrat-controlled court’s reasoning. It notes that Justice Debra Todd, a Democrat, and the court’s two Republicans — Justices Sallie Updyke Mundy and Kevin Brobson — dissented to the selection of the Carter plan. The state Supreme Court also announced Wednesday it will not move the date of the May 17 primary, opting instead to adjust some of the earlier deadlines for candidates. The Pennsylvania legislature must redraw the state’s congressional boundaries every 10 years to account for population changes reported by the census. The governor has the ability to accept or reject the map. The map approved by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011 became a national example of partisan gerrymandering, or when political boundaries are drawn for unfair partisan gain. Despite statewide victories for Democratic candidates, Republicans consistently won 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the map several years later for that reason and — after Wolf and the legislature failed to agree on a replacement — implemented one that is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Because of sluggish population growth between 2010 and 2020, the state lost one of its 18 seats, raising the stakes in what is already an intensely political process. The Republican-controlled legislature in January sent Wolf a map that nonpartisan analysis showed had a strong GOP bias. Wolf vetoed the map for its partisan lean, calling it “highly skewed.” In a statement responding to the ruling, House GOP leaders said their map was the only one that “followed all constitutional guidelines [and] went through a deliberative legislative process.” They also noted that the map “was endorsed by a judicial body,” referencing a report by Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, a Republican. At the state Supreme Court’s request, McCullough put together a document that recommended the legislative Republicans’ map on the basis that it was “functionally tantamount to the voice and will of the People.” “Sadly, candidates and voters must now submit to a unilateral court that sees itself above every person in our commonwealth,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) wrote in the statement. On Wednesday, Wolf called the court’s pick a “fair map that will result in a congressional delegation mirroring the citizenry of Pennsylvania.” The ‘least-change’ approach The map selected by the high court was submitted by a group of voters known as the Carter petitioners, who brought a lawsuit in December asking the state courts to take over the process in anticipation of an impasse between Wolf and Republican lawmakers. They were represented by several law firms, including one founded by Marc Elias, a well-known Democratically-aligned elections lawyer. The Carter petitioners’ plan is very similar to the current congressional map, with nearly 90% of residents staying in the same district. One of their attorneys, Matthew Gordon, told the court last Friday that this approach of “least change” should be valued over other considerations. Jonathan Rodden, a political science professor at Stanford University who drew the map, said in an expert report that his plan produces eight districts “where Democrats are expected to win,” another eight “where Republicans are quite likely to win,” and one district “that is a toss-up with a very slight Democratic lean.” “This level of partisan balance and competitiveness is similar to that of the existing plan, reflective of Pennsylvania’s statewide partisan preferences, and consistent with changes in population as they relate to partisanship,” Rodden wrote. PlanScore, a nonpartisan analysis tool, produced similar findings. Using past election data, it categorized six of the seats as Democratic and six as Republican, with two leaning Democrat and three leaning GOP. Partisan fairness can be measured using several mathematical tools and metrics that are increasingly being embraced by the courts. One of those metrics is called the efficiency gap, which indicates the number of “wasted votes” in each election or the number of votes that don’t contribute to a candidate’s victory. The difference in efficiency between the two parties should be as small as possible to represent an unbiased map. The Carter map, according to PlanScore, has a 1.6% efficiency gap, representing a slight GOP bias. The map approved by the GOP legislature, on the other hand, has a 6.6% efficiency gap favoring Republicans. Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor who helped invent the efficiency gap metric, has said that he would consider a score of 7% or above indicative of gerrymandering. In his report, Rodden said changes to the map largely reflect population shifts seen in the state over the past decade. While rural areas throughout the state lost residents, urban and suburban areas — especially in the southeast — grew. Because of those trends, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller’s 12th District was eliminated and he was drawn into the 15th District with another Republican, incumbent U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

UASD presents comprehensive plan; selects IT Director

Upper Adams School District (UASD) school board approved moving forward with Questeq for district Information Technology (IT) management needs Tuesday. A Director of IT Services is essential to assist with duties the other administrators do not have time for, including recruiting IT specialists, Superintendent Wesley Doll said. Services provided also include product management, infrastructure support, network administration, cybersecurity, instructor support, and crisis response. The board was faced with two impressive IT vendor presentations, as both Questeq and Global Data Consultant (GDC) presented overviews of their services to the school board. Board President Tom Wilson pointed out Questeq’s experience working with education facilities was crucial. Questeq’s focus is primarily on education and Pennsylvania education at that, while GDC tends to cover broader areas including healthcare facilities, Wilson said. “Someone who’s good at aerospace may not be the guy I want to buy a car from,” Wilson said When the worst happens, such as a malware or a hack, you want someone experienced available right away, school board member Ron Ebbert said. The Questeq presentation clearly laid out the services the company would be able to provide the district, according to Wilson. Hiring and retaining IT personnel has been a challenge in the past for the district, due to higher pay elsewhere, Wilson said. Technology is essential district wide as tools for learning and for teachers to deliver content. “This is a 21st century school district and if you don’t have IT, you don’t have a school anymore,” Wilson said. In other business, striving to provide ongoing care for students, administrative officials presented overviews of the UASD district comprehensive plan. An ongoing process, the UASD Comprehensive Plan “Does not sit on a self” but continues to grow and adapt throughout the years to meet the goals of the district,” Doll said. The comprehensive plan lays out a road map of how the district will continually improve and support the mission statement of challenging, inspiring and empowering students, according to Joseph Albin, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Each goal has components and additional targets to be reached by June 2025. The first goal of the comprehensive plan is to target and identify students at risk whether behaviorally emotionally or academically. Another goal is based on increasing two-way communication with district families as well as business and monitoring practices both effective and ineffective, developing relations through these communications. A third goal is focusing on school climate, a broad term focusing on the overall feel of an education environment specifically in regard to safety and discipline. Other aspects of the comprehensive plan detail continuous technology integration and ensuring special education students the same engaging atmosphere and support as general students. The final portion of the comprehensive plan is collaboration and transparency to keep the plan available to the entire district. “It clearly shows a lot of work has been put into this,” Wilson revered. For the first year, the comprehensive plan will now be available on the school district website. The school board will next meet February 15 at 7 p.m.

Pa. GOP answered Wolf’s pandemic vetoes with constitution changes. The strategy is here to stay.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed more than 50 bills as he begins his final year in office, a number that illustrates the institutionalized gridlock between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Wolf’s veto tally grew extensively during the pandemic and will likely expand during his final 13 months in office, as GOP leaders continue to largely bypass his agenda and push items such as mandated voter ID and curbs on the executive’s power. As Wolf has exercised his veto pen, Republican legislators have increasingly turned to constitutional amendments to advance their priorities. The GOP says the change in strategy turns over decision-making to the voters, and critics say it circumvents the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said the governor rejects legislation when it’s not in the best interest of all Pennsylvanians. “The Republican-controlled General Assembly is failing Pennsylvanians by refusing to pass legislation to make voting more accessible, reduce gun violence, and fairly pay and protect our workers,” Rementer told Spotlight PA. “Instead, they have spent the last several months passing terrible bills all while Pennsylvania’s minimum wage remains frozen at $7.25 an hour.” Republicans say their agenda reflects the demands of their constituents and the current economy, and call Wolf’s vetoes an attack on constitutional and civil rights. After Wolf vetoed a bill that would have banned proof-of-vaccination requirements, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) released a statement saying the governor is “running roughshod” over the civil liberties of Pennsylvania residents. Corman’s spokesperson referred questions for this story to Ward’s office, which declined to comment. A spokesperson for House Republicans did not respond to a request for comment. In Wolf’s seven years in office, he has vetoed 54 bills and resolutions. Online records that date to 1975 show that Wolf has surpassed Democrat Bob Casey Sr.’s 50 vetoes between 1987 and 1995, but not Democrat Milton Shapp, who rejected more than 70 bills during his two terms in office. The legislature can overturn a veto with a two-thirds vote, the standard in most states. It has failed to do so during Wolf’s time in office. In 2015, Wolf’s first year as governor, his vetoes were primarily directed at the state budget. The protracted battle lasted until March 2016, when Wolf passively allowed a budget plan to become law. The standoff set the tone for future clashes with lawmakers, but Wolf didn’t experience forceful pushback or attempts to limit his powers until the arrival of COVID-19. In 2020, Wolf signed 140 bills into law, only 27 of which directly addressed problems brought on by the coronavirus. More than a third of Wolf’s vetoes — 19 — were issued that year, a spike that reflects fights over the administration’s public health measures, as well as the economic fallout of the pandemic. As the Wolf administration shut down businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed — measures in line with public health guidance — Republicans with a handful of Democrats passed a number of bills to reopen parts of the economy. Wolf vetoed those measures, as well as bills designating shooting ranges as life-sustaining businesses, allowing local schools to set their own policies on sporting events, and giving counties control over COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Angry over Wolf’s rejections, Republicans went for the nuclear option: a resolution to unilaterally end the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration. When the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature didn’t have that power, Republican lawmakers launched a push for two constitutional amendments to give the majority that ability. Both were successful. In 2022, GOP leaders are queuing up even more proposed changes to the constitution — at times in response to Wolf’s vetoes — including one mandating voter ID and another that would eliminate statewide elections for appellate judges. The uptick in proposed changes belies the lengthy and intensive process of amending the state constitution. First, both the House and Senate must pass the resolution in two separate legislative sessions before it goes to voters. If a majority approves the amendment — and it survives any court challenges — it goes into effect. But unlike overriding a veto, the amendment process requires consent from only a simple majority of lawmakers and voters. Once they are on the ballot, usually in low-turnout elections, these amendments rarely fail. Critics of the tactic argue that amending the constitution to evade a veto undermines the balance of power between the legislature and the governor. Khalif Ali, executive director of the nonpartisan good-government organization Common Cause PA, told Spotlight PA in October that the legislature is attempting to “leech” power from the other branches of government. “They’re using the constitutional amendment to pass legislation they can’t pass through the traditional and appropriate way,” Ali said, calling it unethical. Democrats have criticized the Republican-proposed amendments as an attempt to exclude the minority party from policymaking. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said amendments undermine the executive’s duty to represent the entire state, a job that differs from that of lawmakers, who represent only their constituents. “These efforts are an end-run around our constitution,” Costa said in a statement. “They’re seeking single-party rule in Pennsylvania and that’s not healthy for a democracy.” Republican lawmakers have countered that constitutional amendments ultimately give Pennsylvanians the power to decide policy. “I believe that, at the end of the day, that people always have the right to decide how to be governed,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said in December. One proposed amendment moving through the legislature would alter what happens when lawmakers vote to disapprove a state regulation. At the moment, the governor can veto such resolutions, leaving it to the legislature to gather a two-thirds majority. State Rep. Eric Nelson (R., Westmoreland) in December argued that the bar is too high. “The idea that it takes a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly to stop a regulation or order that the majority would never start in the first place proves how unbalanced the process is in the first place,” Nelson said. Still, Sam Chen, an assistant professor of political science at Northampton Community College and host of the talk show Face the Issues, said Wolf’s vetoes are a sign that checks and balances are working. Because one party does not have enough votes to overturn a veto alone, majority and minority parties are encouraged to work together with the governor to pass bipartisan policy — in theory. Wolf did sign more than 100 bills and resolutions in 2021, including nearly 20 renaming bridges and highways, a COVID-19 relief package, and a recent measure creating an agency dedicated to expanding broadband coverage in the state. But the Republican majorities also advanced bills that had no chance of becoming law in support of popular conservative priorities, such as restricting voting access, curtailing abortion rights, and allowing permitless concealed carry. Lawmakers sometimes pass legislation that they know will be vetoed, but Chen defended this move, saying it’s a way for legislators to respond to voters. “There’s definitely political jockeying for future political aspirations, but also a need to answer to constituents,” he said. Spotlight PA reporter Danielle Ohl contributed to this article. A previous version of this story improperly attributed a quote to Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Voters could be flooded with proposed changes to the Pa. Constitution in 2023

By Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania voters could face at least five ballot questions about changing the state constitution next year after House Republicans added four controversial revisions to a single proposal. Republican lawmakers have increasingly relied on constitutional amendments to pursue policy initiatives that Gov. Tom Wolf would otherwise reject and that most Democrats don’t support. Bundling together several amendments represents an escalation of that tactic, as the combined measures eliminate the need to advance and pass separate proposals. The resulting omnibus bill is packed with initiatives that Republicans hope to send directly to voters all at once as separate ballot questions. “It’s very partisan in nature and really reflects the attempt to advance an agenda that was unsuccessful through typical, ethical democratic means,” said Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a good-government organization. “It’s a process in place for a reason and to go around that erodes democracy.” The original bill, introduced by state Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), seeks to modify the way Pennsylvania elects the lieutenant governor — an idea that has wide bipartisan support. But in December, shortly before breaking for the holidays, GOP state representatives amended the bill to include four new constitutional revisions. Those alterations passed along party lines, before the House passed the entire bill the next day with nearly every Democrat voting against it. Republicans in both the House and Senate have argued the constitutional amendment process ultimately gives voters the ability to set policy. “I believe that at the end of the day that people always have the right to decide how to be governed,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said last year. Democrats, meanwhile, have said the growing reliance on constitutional amendments circumvents established checks and balances. Per the Pennsylvania Constitution, the legislature is able to overturn Wolf’s vetoes with a two-thirds majority, which requires both Republicans and Democrats to be in agreement. “The House Republicans have taken this approach of amending the constitution as a way to govern,” said Nicole Reigelman, a spokesperson for House Democrats. Two of the proposed amendments would send voters ideas Wolf has already rejected and that Democrats and good-government groups have decried as unnecessary or potentially harmful to marginalized groups. One would require “government-issued identification” to vote, and another would require the state auditor general to review elections and voter rolls for accuracy. “[The bill as amended] has very little if nothing to do with any factual issue that we’re facing as a state,” Ali of Common Cause said. Another proposed amendment would give a simple majority in the legislature power to override executive orders and administrative regulations, a reaction to Wolf’s actions during the pandemic as well as his announcement that Pennsylvania would join a coalition of states in regulating carbon emissions. The Pennsylvania Constitution requires both the state House and Senate to pass proposed amendments in two concurrent sessions before they appear on the ballot. Typically, lawmakers introduce proposed changes in separate resolutions, a system that gives each revision its own platform for legislators to debate, amend, and consider. But as a bundle, lawmakers are forced to vote for all or none of them. “From a procedural point of view when you do this — when you throw a lot of amendments into one bill — you don’t have hearings, you don’t have discussion, no one knows they’re coming,” said Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive research group that studies the state’s economy and government. While the timeline for amending the constitution is designed to be slow, Republicans, who control the legislature, have favored the process in recent years to circumvent Wolf and curtail executive power. The Democrat has vetoed more bills during his time in office than any other Pennsylvania governor since Milton Shapp, who served from 1971 to 1979. Last year, voters approved two ballot measures that limit the governor’s power to declare and renew a state of emergency — advanced by Republicans angry over Wolf’s response to the pandemic — as well as another that guarantees equal rights to residents regardless of race. “I would say that anytime that a branch of government circumvents the function of another branch of government, we have some real concerns about the constitutionality and legality of that move,” Ali said. Presenting a measure as a ballot question nearly guarantees it will be approved. Voters have rejected only six of 49 amendments dating back to 1968, the year the current state constitution went into effect. The overwhelming majority were approved in off-year elections, when only a small fraction of eligible voters go to the polls. The amendments curtailing Wolf’s emergency powers were passed during the 2021 primary, when just over 25% of registered voters at the time cast a ballot. The amendment omnibus is back in the state Senate for a vote on the changes. If it passes this year, the amendments would need to pass again in the 2023-24 session before appearing on the ballot as separate questions. Argall said Wolf “refuses to negotiate” with the Republican caucuses, making it necessary to use the constitutional amendment process. The governor “has the worst relationship with the House and the Senate in generations,” he said. While Argall supports the individual measures now tacked onto his bill, he hopes his initial effort to update the lieutenant governor election process won’t fail to pass the legislature because of the other measures now attached to it. Republicans in both chambers are pursuing a number of other amendments to Pennsylvania’s constitution, including one that would end statewide elections for appellate judges in favor of races in districts drawn by the legislature, and another that would give state lawmakers the final say over their own political boundaries in the redistricting process. That bill, sponsored by state Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), was scheduled for a House floor vote this week, just six days after Grove introduced it. But Democrats, mirroring their GOP colleagues’ actions before the holiday break, introduced dozens of amendments seeking changes to the constitution that would provide free college education, raise the minimum wage, eliminate property taxes, and more. The House, controlled by Republicans, adjourned Wednesday without bringing the previously fast-moving bill up for a vote. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania Senate Republicans score court victory in elections investigation

By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has denied a request by legislative Democrats and Attorney General Josh Shapiro to block the release of voters’ information to the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee investigating the 2020 general election and 2021 primary. The Senate committee subpoenaed the Pennsylvania Department of State in September for the personal information of about 9 million Pennsylvania voters as part of a review of the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections, led by Iowa-based firm Envoy Sage. The Department of State, which oversees elections, partially complied with the subpoena but refused to provide voters’ driver’s license numbers and partial Social Security numbers the Senate committee contends is necessary to confirm voters’ identities. In oral arguments last month, attorneys for Senate Republicans pointed to the Department of State sharing the same information with the League of Women Voters in 2012 and past auditor general reviews. Challengers argued the move could put voters’ information at risk of fraud or identity theft. Shapiro and legislative Democrats also argued Envoy Sage has not outlined sufficient security measures to protect the information and cited the company’s lack of election auditing experience. In addition, Democrats argued the state is bound by federal law to protect “critical infrastructure information” on the state’s election systems. A panel of five judges ruled Monday the Department of State did not provide “a clear legal right to quash the subpoena on the theory that it furthers no legitimate legislative purpose.” The judges also found, however, “there is a substantial factual question surrounding the federal protection requirements and the capability of the Senate Committee’s contracted vendor, Envoy Sage, LLC, to protect the infrastructure information.” The court ultimately denied both a motion to squash the subpoena and a motion for summary relief to release the information. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, commended the court for upholding the Senate committee’s authority to issue a subpoena for the voter information. “Today’s ruling upholds the General Assembly’s clear legal and constitutional authority to provide oversight of our election system,” Corman said. “… The Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee is conducting this review in a way that is transparent, fair and legally sound, and I am thankful this ruling completely validates our thoughtful approach to this deeply contentious issue. “We have always intended to take every step necessary to protect the personal information of voters. Our resolve to protect this data has never wavered, and we look forward to proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can safeguard this information effectively.” Shapiro, meanwhile, is touting the court’s reluctance to immediately release the voter information, and vowed to continue to fight against its release. “In today’s decision, the court recognized that there are serious questions concerning the ability of the Senate Republicans’ third-party vendor, Envoy Sage, to safeguard the private personal information of nine million Pennsylvania voters,” Shapiro wrote on Twitter. “The court also rejected Senate Republicans’ attempt to get immediate access to this private personal information,” he wrote. “As a result, my office’s fight to defend against the attempts by Republicans in Harrisburg to seize this private data – and to protect every Pennsylvanian’s constructional right to privacy – will continue.”

Mastriano seeks to bolster Pennsylvania parents’ rights

By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor (The Center Square) – Adams County State Sen. Doug Mastriano introduced Senate Bill 996 this week to explicitly define parental rights as fundamental rights, a move designed to protect decisions on education, health care, mental health and other issues. “The liberty of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, care and welfare of the parent’s child is a fundamental right,” according to the legislation, dubbed the Parental Rights Protection Act. “Neither a commonwealth agency nor a non-commonwealth agency may infringe upon the right … without demonstrating that the law or ordinance is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means.” Mastriano contends the bill’s aim is to prevent courts from ruling parents’ rights as “ordinary,” which gives the government more leeway in overriding their authority. “This statute is needed now more than ever as the constant eroding of parental rights over the past two years,” Mastriano said. “We saw instances where parents were labeled as domestic terrorists simply for advocating for what they felt was best for their child. “We saw schools shuttered and parents left without in-person learning alternatives,” he said. “SB 996 will provide parents the legal protection they need when overreaching bureaucrats attempt to overrule their voice. When it comes to raising children, parents are better than the government.” The bill comes as parents in Pennsylvania and other states are confronting local school districts over a variety of issues, including critical race theory, graphic sexual books, sex education curriculum and school mask mandates. National School Boards Association President Viola Garcia sent a letter to President Joe Biden in September, claiming “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat” from upset parents and imploring the president to deploy federal law enforcement agencies to address what Garcia referred to as “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” “NSBA specifically solicits the expertise and resources of the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service, and its National Threat Assessment Center regarding the level of risk to public schoolchildren, educators, board members, and facilities/campuses,” Garcia wrote. “We also request the assistance of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to intervene against threatening letters and cyberbullying attacks that have been transmitted to students, school board members, district administrators, and other educators.” Gov. Tom Wolf recently vetoed legislation that would have required schools to post a basic outline of curriculum online, a measure intended to give parents a better look at what their children are learning in school. Mastriano contends SB 996 “will also codify a parent’s right to access and review all school records related to their child, a right to review all instructional materials used throughout the school year, and the right to opt out their child from certain curriculum that the parent finds to be objectionable or harmful,” he wrote in a legislative memo. SB 996 was assigned to the Senate State Government Committee when it was introduced on Monday. Featured Image Attribution: Majorbuxton, Mastriano Douglas (cropped), CC BY-SA 4.0

How to weigh in on Pennsylvania’s next legislative maps

By Spotlight PA Staff This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access. HARRISBURG — A Pennsylvania redistricting panel wants to hear from the public about its proposed state House and Senate maps. The maps were created by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, a five-person panel composed of the top leaders from the General Assembly and an independent chair. The public can provide feedback online or at meetings this month. The panel then has 30 days to consider the comments before voting on a final map, which could be challenged in court. The state’s congressional map is created and approved in a separate process. Here’s how you can get involved: Attend or watch a meeting The Legislative Reapportionment Commission will hold four meetings the week of Jan. 3 to accept feedback on the maps, both in person and virtually. Additional meetings will be held on Jan. 14 and 15. Thursday, Jan. 6 from 3–5 p.m.: Speaker signups are closed for this meeting. North Office Building, Hearing Room 1 in Harrisburg | Livestream Thursday, Jan. 6 from 6–8 p.m.: Speaker signups are closed for this meeting. North Office Building, Hearing Room 1 in Harrisburg | Livestream Friday, Jan. 7 from 9–11 a.m.: Speaker signups are closed for this meeting. North Office Building, Hearing Room 1 in Harrisburg | Livestream Friday, Jan. 7 from 1–3 p.m.: As of Monday at noon, the panel was still accepting in-person and virtual speaker signups here. North Office Building, Hearing Room 1 in Harrisburg | Livestream Submit comments The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is accepting testimony through its website. Comments are posted publicly. Learn more Spotlight PA is hosting a free, virtual event on Thursday, Jan. 6 at noon to break down the maps, how they could shift political power, and their potential impact on Pennsylvanians. The news organization has also launched an online tool that allows Pennsylvanians to compare their current and proposed districts. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results. Featured Image Caption: The maps were created by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, a five-person panel composed of the top legislative leaders from both the House and Senate and an independent chair. [Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA]

Pennsylvania’s highways rank near bottom of U.S.

By Victor Skinner (The Center Square) Pennsylvania’s highway system is among the worst in the nation, ranking 39th out of 50 states in the Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report. The annual report examines the cost-effectiveness and condition of each state’s highway system using 13 categories: total disbursements per mile, capital and bridge disbursements per mile, maintenance disbursements per mile, administrative disbursements per mile, rural interstate pavement condition, urban interstate pavement condition, urbanized area congestion, structurally deficient bridges, overall fatality rate, rural fatality rate and urban fatality rate. The Keystone State received its lowest rankings for structurally deficient bridges and urbanized congestion, which ranked 46th and 45th, respectively. Pennsylvania was one of only five states that reported more than 15% of bridges to be structurally deficient, a figure that’s 1.5 times higher than New York and three times higher than Ohio. The 35.53 peak hours Pennsylvanians spend in congestion is more than six times higher than the 5.68 hours for Ohio drivers, though significantly better than the 53.60 hours New Yorkers spend stuck in traffic. “The state … could improve its 45th place ranking in congestion by building variably priced managed toll lanes in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, an area in which the state is lagging behind peer states,” the report read. The Pennsylvania interstate system also received low marks for urban interstate pavement condition, ranked 43rd, and administrative disbursements per mile, ranked 37th. “Pennsylvania spends $102,329 per mile of state-controlled road. Pennsylvania is 35th in total spending per mile and 24th in capital and bridge costs per mile,” according to the report. “To improve in the rankings, Pennsylvania needs to reduce its percentage of structurally deficient bridges and its urbanized area congestion,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the report and senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation. “Given the poor condition of its bridges and its mediocre pavement condition, the state might consider reprioritizing its spending to focus more on roadway and bridge maintenance. “While it may be challenging for Pennsylvania to have low costs and roadways and bridges in good condition, the state needs to prioritize bringing its infrastructure to a state of good repair.” Pennsylvania, which operates the country’s fifth-largest highway system, received the best rankings for its rural fatality rate, which came in 10th, and overall fatality rate, ranked 22nd. Compared with other states in the Mid-Atlantic region, Pennsylvania’s 39th-place finish was just above Maryland in 38th, as well as Delaware’s 44th place, New York’s 46th place and New Jersey’s worst-in-the-nation ranking. The state’s western neighbors, Ohio and West Virginia, fared much better, ranking 24th and 30th, respectively. Pennsylvania previously ranked 35th in 2016 and 39th in 2018 and 2019. Nationally, North Dakota received the best marks overall this year, followed by Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina in the top five.

Wolf signs legislation to reduce elderly prescription drug costs and expand broadband infrastructure

By Victor Skinner (The Center Square) Gov. Tom Wolf signed nine bills into law this week, including legislation to reduce prescription drug costs for the elderly, expand broadband infrastructure, and allow virtual public meetings and instruction. Wolf signed House bills 291, 1255, 1260, 1837, and 2071, as well as Senate bills 208, 772, 729 and 869. House Bill 291 deals with eligibility for PACENET, Pennsylvania’s prescription assistance program for older adults. The bill ensure those eligible for the program at the end of the year remain eligible if the maximum income limit is exceeded due solely to a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment. House Bill 1260 increases the annual income eligibility for PACENET from a maximum of $27,500 for one person to $33,500, and from $35,500 for a married couple to $41,500. The bill also added language to modernize the program and clarify “a claimant enrolled in a (prescription drug plan) shall not be required to pay a monthly premium for any month the claimant is not dispensed a prescription drug.” “Together, these bills will ensure that older adults in Pennsylvania continue to have access to crucial savings through PACENET, a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of older adults who need assistance with paying for their prescription medications,” according to a Wolf news release. House Bill 2071 establishes a new Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority to expand internet access across the state with the help of $100 million in federal aid. The bipartisan legislation ensures the federal money is used for “the broadband rollout in a coordinated and strategic way to support the construction of new towers, lines and broadband equipment and other uses in line with federal law and guidance,” Wolf said. Several rural lawmakers applauded Wolf’s support for the measure, which includes provisions for the authority to dissolve after a decade or once the federal funds are exhausted. “I’m confident this law is going to be a game-changer for our farmers, business owners, teachers, students, doctors, patients and all of us who have been hampered by slow or no internet service,” Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Wellsboro, said. “I believe the funding and coordination facilitated by this law will finally get broadband service to the ‘last mile.’” House Bill 1255 provides for a five-year statute of limitations to recover damages against real estate appraisers when there is no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation, and allows for longer in the case of fraud or intentional misrepresentation. House Bill 1837 streamlines the compromise and release agreement process in the Workers’ Compensation Act. Senate Bill 208 deals with the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code regarding subdivision and land development, allowing the prerequisite of improvements or guarantees for final plat approval. The bill, supported by the Pennsylvania Municipal League, essentially clarified bonding requirements for property improvements. Senate Bill 772 amends the Insurance Company Law of 1921 to update the commonwealth’s annuity laws. The measure reduces the minimum nonforfeiture rate for individual deferred annuities and adopts a consumer best interest standard for annuity recommendations. Senate Bill 729 allows for virtual instruction for certain components of nurse aide training programs governed by the Nurse Aide Resident Abuse Prevention Training Act. Senate Bill 869 amends state law to allow licensing boards and commissions to conduct virtual public meetings.

Low pay is causing a staffing crisis for disability care. Advocates say PA’s plan to raise wages isn’t enough.

By Colin Deppen of Spotlight PA and Juliette Rihl for PublicSource Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. Before the pandemic, Lisa Stagon and her son Chris had their care routine figured out. Chris, who is 26 and has down syndrome, worked part-time at an Eat’n Park in Westmoreland County, received monthly job training, and spent 46 hours a week with a direct support professional while his mother was at work. But their structure began to crumble during the pandemic when Chris was laid off and Stagon, fearing Chris could contract COVID-19 through a caregiver, suspended his services. Suddenly Chris was home all day, without any support. “I was working 50 hours a week and trying to care for him at the same time,” Stagon, 62, said. “It was a lot.” The breaking point came when Stagon was called back to the office last year after working remotely. She tried to find someone to help Chris with everyday tasks like shaving, cooking, and taking his medications. But agencies across the region were turning families away. There simply wasn’t anyone to do the job. In July 2020, she made a difficult decision. “I left the workforce in the pandemic to be a full-time caretaker for him,” she said. “Because it was just — it was too hard.” Pennsylvania is facing a dire shortage of direct support professionals who help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities bathe, get dressed, eat, exercise, socialize, and perform many other fundamental tasks. Putting an exact number on the shortfall is difficult, as employment data on these workers is lumped together with health-care aides generally, but the industry was already experiencing double-digit vacancy and turnover rates nationally before COVID-19 arrived. The shortage has left thousands of people without essential services and their families without desperately needed help. Many providers and families blame the staffing crisis on skimpy government funding. The state’s reimbursement rates for support services, they said, are too low to pay a living wage to professional caregivers, making hiring and retaining workers nearly impossible. In some cases, families waited years to receive funding from the state for those services only to find there is no one to provide them. As of September, there were over 12,000 people with an intellectual disability in need of financial help on a state waitlist for funding, according to Brandon Cwalina, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, The wait for those who sign up is an average of over two years, and patient advocates say there are likely many more families who need services but aren’t on the waitlist. “Now we have families who … finally got the funding for the services they need, and we can’t provide them with those services because we can’t recruit and retain staff,” said Nancy Murray, senior vice president of Achieva, a disability services provider in Southwestern Pennsylvania. “In my career, I never thought we’d get to this point.” Before the pandemic, there was already an urgent national shortage of professional caregivers, largely due to low pay and a rapidly aging population that outpaces the growth of the direct care workforce. Now, service providers and families say the problem has worsened. “We used to call this a crisis,” Murray said. “Now we’re beginning to see the whole system just crumble and start to collapse.” One Pittsburgh mom said she has been looking for three years for a caregiver for her son, who lives with autism. In Westmoreland County, a family hasn’t been able to find services for their daughter, who requires 24/7 care, since the program she went to every day shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. Two studies from 2019 and 2021 conducted by groups representing providers found the average hourly rate for support professionals in Pennsylvania to be around $13 or $14. That’s in line with the national average, according to PHI, a national research and advocacy organization for direct care workers. And with businesses fighting to attract workers amid a national labor shortage, the organizations that employ support professionals simply can’t compete. “They can go and make more money at Lowe’s or almost anywhere,” said Karen Jacobsen, executive director of Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, a disability services provider in the Pittsburgh region. “Walmart, Olive Garden, you name it.” Patrick DeMico of The Provider Alliance in Westmoreland County describes a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma, linking low staffing levels to low pay, and the low pay to the low reimbursement rates offered by the state’s Medicaid program, a primary funder of such services. “The state is essentially the sole source of funding for providers, so unless there is sufficient funding in the rates, they cannot afford to pay competitive wages to [direct support professionals],” DeMico said. “The vast majority of spending by providers is for DSP compensation.” As part of a $1.2 billion plan to address the industry’s concerns, the state said it will increase the reimbursement rate to a level that would allow providers to pay $15 an hour on average. Providers were quick to critique that part of the plan as too small to truly turn the tide. Additionally, they say further rate hikes will be needed to sustain any positive impacts on staffing levels, and that would require consensus in future state budget cycles, something providers are wary of counting on from Harrisburg. “Unless they act … this is a 10-alarm fire. People’s lives are at risk,” said Gary Blumenthal of InVision Human Services, a nonprofit service provider for people with intellectual disabilities. In the meantime, families are left without help. Though she is compensated for her work as Chris’ caregiver through the same state program that helps families pay for professional services, Stagon said leaving her job meant a loss of pay that significantly impacted the family’s budget. While Chris is back at work part-time, Stagon still provides care for him. More than anything, Stagon is concerned about getting older. “I worry every single day, if something happens to me,” she said, “what’s going to happen to him?” ‘Severe shortage’ Lately, 90-hour workweeks have become the norm for Lauren Zak. The direct support professional for Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh usually cares for four people. But because the organization is so short-staffed, Zak said she’s been bouncing between clients and can see up to 10 different people in a month, sometimes with very little notice. “People are leaving, trying to find jobs they can live off of,” Zak said. The workforce shortage has loomed for years. A 2013 report from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services predicted the demand for direct service workers in the United States would increase by nearly half between 2010 and 2020, due to an increase in the aging population and a growing preference for home-based care. That — paired with low average wages, a lack of training, and other recruitment challenges — would result in “a severe shortage of employees,” the report predicted. And that was before the pandemic. Now, the shortage is so severe that three out of four providers are turning potential clients away, and more than half of providers are discontinuing programs and services, according to the American Network of Community Options and Resources, a trade association for providers. Jacobsen, the executive director of Emmaus, said the organization is so short-staffed she’s been stepping in to cover shifts herself. “And I’m not alone,” she said. “There are many, many, many CEOs filling shifts right now.” A partial fix Pennsylvania’s response is backed by $1.2 billion in enhanced Medicaid funding made available through the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID-19 stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. A spending strategy outlined by Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services includes hundreds of millions of dollars to certify more caretakers, help bankroll new hires, get respite care to waitlisted families, and more. But almost all of it is in temporary or one-time payments. The item providers say would have the greatest long-term potential, a hike of Medicaid reimbursement rates, is significantly smaller than expected. While providers had lobbied for rates high enough to push their average hourly wage to $18 or $19, an amount they say is necessary to begin attracting workers and compete with state-run centers serving people with disabilities, the department’s plan would only raise it a dollar or two — in this case, to roughly $15 an hour. “I am profoundly disappointed in the Wolf administration’s wholly inadequate response to the absolute crisis that is harming the most vulnerable in our state,” Blumenthal said of the rate hike. In an email to PublicSource and Spotlight PA, the Department of Human Services called the proposed hike an “unprecedented opportunity,” noting rates are set in accordance with state code and that this update was initiated a year ahead of schedule. The department added that it cannot provide abnormally high rate hikes for one program without first “considering the impact that would have on the entire system.” The rate increase is the first in four years and is in the final stages of review. It’s expected to take effect in January or February, and will cost $400 million in state and federal funding annually. The industry says continued rate increases will be necessary to rebuild and sustain the workforce going forward, but it remains to be seen whether state lawmakers will agree when it comes time for future budget negotiations. The outlook is also uncertain for billions in targeted aid included in Biden’s imperiled Build Back Better plan, which was approved by the U.S. House but remains stalled in the U.S. Senate. The office of Gov. Tom Wolf, who is serving his final term, said it hopes to see investments continue under future gubernatorial administrations and the legislature. Leaders of Pennsylvania’s Republican majority declined to comment. Democratic lawmakers have tussled with Republicans over the latter party’s decision to shelve billions in federal COVID-19 relief money — funds the Democrats argue are needed to shore up social, health-care, and economic safety nets at a time of historic demand. Wolf ultimately approved the savings plan by signing the state’s 2021-22 budget into law. With that money in a rainy day fund, Democrats say there is a moral imperative before them. “It’s not enough to put a sign in the yard that says, ‘Health Care Heroes Work Here.’ We show people how we value them by what we do for their pocketbooks,” said state Sen. Maria Collett (D., Montgomery), a former long-term care nurse and minority chair of the state Senate’s Aging & Youth Committee. Family members of people with intellectual disabilities hope state leaders and lawmakers will realize how vital these services are — and prioritize them accordingly. “Why do we have to fight so hard for everything our child needs and receives? It’s always a fight,” said Stagon. “They’re needy individuals of the state, and they’re not being taken care of.” This story is a collaboration between Spotlight PA and PublicSource. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Gov. Wolf signs legislation to address the state’s substitute teacher crisis

By Victor Skinner, The Center Square House Bill 412, sponsored by Rep. Barb Gleim, R-Cumberland, is designed to help alleviate the statewide shortage of substitute teachers by giving schools flexibility to fill positions with retired, inactive or student teachers. “The declining number of teacher certificates issued in Pennsylvania, plus the strain of bringing back students who have been out of physical classrooms for 18 months, has exacerbated the substitute crisis throughout the state,” Gleim said. “Schools have not been able to find enough substitutes to cover a day of classes for some time now and it continues to get worse.” Gleim’s legislation, backed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and signed Friday by Wolf, expands the ability of teachers with a state-issued, day-to-day substitute permit to serve in more than one assignment for up to 20 days, or longer under certain circumstances. They were restricted previously to one assignment. The bill also allows those with inactive teacher certifications to be employed as a substitute for up to 180 days per school year, rather than the previous 90-day limit. Retired teachers, eligible college students and recent graduates also now eligible to fill teacher vacancies on an emergency or short-term basis. Individuals over 25 years old with at least 60 college credits or three years of experience as a paraprofessional with classroom management training also can serve as “classroom monitors” to deliver preplanned assignments. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned how critical in-classroom education is for our K-12 students,” Wolf said. “I am proud to sign this legislation which allows schools the short-term flexibility to ensure children can safely learn in-person where we know is best for them and their futures. I look forward to continuing to work with members of the General Assembly to address these key issues longer term.” The new rules are limited to the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. PSEA President Rich Askey told Berks Community TV the changes will go a long way to help the union’s stressed out members and commended lawmakers from both parties for working together to help. “For months, PSEA members have been stressed to the breaking point because of the shortage of substitute teachers,” Askey said. “Without enough substitutes, some students are missing lessons, learning in packed classrooms, or even gathering in cafeterias. PSEA members’ top priority is ensuring that all students receive the best possible education. This bill will help students, educators, and support professionals do that essential work. “PSEA is proud to have worked with lawmakers in both parties who clearly understand that the substitute teacher shortage is a crisis state government can help solve,” he said. “Working together, we all collaborated on a strong bill that will begin to address this crisis.” Askey said broadening the pool of eligible substitutes is one critical component to fixing the problem, but increasing pay for substitute teachers is another. “PSEA urges school districts across Pennsylvania to apply for American Rescue Plan funds that can be used to increase daily pay for substitutes,” Askey said. “By expanding the pool of substitutes and paying them what they deserve for a hard day’s work, we can address this crisis before it takes any further toll on student learning and the already heavy workload of our educators and support professionals.”

Everything you need to know to stay COVID-safe during a second pandemic winter

Jamie Martines of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are rising, and hospital officials say Pennsylvania could be on course for another difficult winter as unvaccinated patients fill up hospital beds across the state. “We’re bracing for a worse Christmas than last year because people aren’t staying home this year,” said Gerald Maloney, chief medical officer for hospital services at the Geisinger Health System, a provider that serves central and eastern Pennsylvania. Coronavirus Coverage VIRUS TRACKER FULL COVERAGE PANDEMIC TIPS Without masks and physical distancing rules, which were in regular use last year before the availability of vaccines — and which helped curb other respiratory illnesses — the coronavirus is likely to spread easily in spaces that gather people close together and lack good ventilation. On top of those concerns, Maloney said, Geisinger is also seeing a rise in flu cases compared to last year. “Last year we talked about the possibility of what we were calling a ‘twindemic,’ where there may be another covid pandemic and a flu epidemic combined, so that’s a real possibility this year,” he said. As holidays get underway, here’s what you need to know about Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 status: Cases and hospitalizations are still increasing COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania have increased throughout the fall as the weather has cooled and people have started spending more time indoors. At the same time, the highly contagious delta variant — which emerged earlier this year — has driven a rise in infections. Delta is still the main source of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from early December, though some cases of the omicron variant have been detected since it was first reported in Philadelphia earlier this month. Coronavirus vaccines are helping to mitigate the rise in infections, said John Goldman, an infectious disease specialist with UPMC. While providers are seeing some breakthrough cases, vaccines are helping to keep most vaccinated people out of the hospital. Statewide data released by the health department Tuesday show that in the month leading up to Dec. 6, about 23% of COVID-19 hospitalizations were among fully vaccinated people. Unlike last year, when vaccines were not available, the state’s oldest and most vulnerable residents are not the ones filling up hospital beds. Instead, younger, unvaccinated people ages 45 to 60 make up the bulk of COVID-19 patients. In many cases, the only underlying health issue these younger patients have is being overweight, said Goldman. At UPMC, about 95% of patients in intensive care units are unvaccinated. At Geisinger facilities, about 88% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, Maloney said. The steady upticks in cases and accompanying hospitalizations have strained hospitals across the state for weeks. The surge affects all patients, not just people with COVID-19, hospital officials say. “People with heart attacks, strokes, people who get severely ill for non-COVID reasons, traumas,” Maloney said. “People are back out on the roads, and they’re back out climbing up ladders and things like that. There’s collateral damage to all those people created by the fact that the health care system is clogged with COVID patients.” Geisinger facilities have cut back on surgical procedures and reduced transfer requests from the smaller, rural hospitals that typically rely on the larger health system for help handling severely ill patients. “We can’t do a heart surgery on a patient if we don’t have an ICU bed to put them in after a surgery,” he said. Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday requested staffing support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for the state’s health care facilities. Citing statewide staffing shortages, Wolf asked FEMA to supply both clinical and non-clinical staffing support to hospitals and nursing homes, as well as ambulance services. He also asked FEMA to supply one million rapid at-home COVID-19 tests. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said more details about how residents can access the at-home tests will be available once FEMA confirms the request. How to stay safe for the holidays Medical leaders at health systems across the state send the same message: If you’re planning to gather for the holidays, get vaccinated. “The first thing you should do is get vaccinated,” said Goldman. “If you’re vaccinated, you should be boosted.” Anyone who has completed an initial vaccination series is considered fully vaccinated, he said. But getting a third shot provides higher levels of protection, he added. Everyone 16 and older is eligible for a booster shot. Guidelines for choosing a booster shot are available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. You do not have to return to the same location where you received your first or second shots for your booster. Search for locations offering COVID-19 vaccines near you on the CDC’s website at vaccines.gov. If you are traveling, the site also can be used to find vaccines nationwide. The CDC now recommends choosing the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a change outlined in guidance released Thursday. The advisory comes months after Pennsylvania and other states paused distribution of the J&J vaccine due to reports of rare, but serious, blood clots. Those incidents remain rare, but more cases have occurred since the spring. Given that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are now widely available, the CDC panel that reviews vaccine safety and efficacy decided that they are the better option. The J&J vaccine will still be available to anyone who wants it, or who is unable to receive the Pfizer or Moderna shots due to medical conditions. Next, consider taking a rapid test before heading to the airport or a holiday party, especially if you are meeting with people who are not vaccinated. The best time to take a test is the morning of the gathering, Goldman said. “Given the amount of disease activity in our area, I would be wary of having unvaccinated people come to the family dinner,” Goldman said. “If you have elderly parents or elderly grandparents, you have to think long and hard.” Finally, if you’re not feeling well — even if it just seems like a mild cold or allergies — the safest thing to do is stay home, even if you’re vaccinated, Goldman said. Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole on Wednesday asked residents to consider skipping group gatherings.”As health commissioner and someone who cares deeply about the people who will get sick and miss out on work, on school, will get sicker, will end up in our hospitals, and those who will die, I have to say it: Please do not get together with other households for Christmas, or if you do, keep those gatherings small,” Bettigole said during a news briefing. “We’re now entering what could be the most dangerous time since last winter,” she said. Official mandates and mitigation efforts vary Wolf said in multiple interviews Tuesday that he is not considering any new statewide COVID-19 mitigation measures. “The vaccine is our strategy,” he told KDKA Radio on Tuesday. “But local municipalities I think ought to be free to do what they want.” Wolf noted that hospitals are inundated throughout Pennsylvania and especially in the northeastern part of the state, and municipalities are responding based on local conditions. In Philadelphia, proof of complete vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test will be required for anyone dining out starting Jan. 3, the city health department announced Monday. After a two-week grace period, beginning Jan.17 restaurants will only accept proof of vaccination for admission. The mandate applies to all indoor restaurant spaces, including bars, sports venues, movie theaters, and casinos that allow food or drinks on the floor. The Allegheny County Health Department, which includes Pittsburgh, is not considering a similar mandate, a county spokesperson said Monday.Spokespeople for Bucks, Chester, Erie, and Montgomery counties – which all operate county health departments – confirmed Wednesday that they also are not planning additional mitigation measures on top of those that are currently in place. A state health department order requiring masks in all schools and child care centers originally scheduled to stay in place through mid-January was struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Dec. 9. The high court upheld a Commonwealth Court ruling that previously decided that the health secretary did not have the authority to issue the order. The ruling quickly went into effect. Starting this past Monday, school officials have been allowed to decide whether they will continue to require masks in school buildings. Wolf told WESA that the ruling did not motivate Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam’s resignation, which was announced Monday. Beam had served in the role since last January, when she took over for pediatrician Rachel Levine, who left the post after she was appointed to a role in the Biden administration. Beam will be replaced at the end of December by Keara Klinepeter, who currently serves as the executive deputy secretary at the state health department. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania revises Confederate markers, recasts forces as “enemy” soldiers

By Colin Deppen of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. After removing a trio of Confederate historical markers an hour west of Gettysburg, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has replaced two with significant revisions that view Confederate milestones through a more critical lens. The McConnellsburg, Fulton County, markers and plaques commemorate the first deaths of Confederate soldiers in Pennsylvania and the site of the Southern army’s last encampment here. The state removed them in September of 2020, capping a review initiated by the state historical commission and Gov. Tom Wolf’s office following deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., three years prior. Two of the items have been revised to position the Union army more centrally in the historical narrative and to depict the Confederates as a destructive invading force. The items were reinstalled in May, said Howard Pollman of the commission, which oversees the state’s historical marker program. The third item — a bronze plaque dedicated by a neo-Confederate group before the commission gained oversight — will not be replaced. “The administration recognizes that some markers may contain outdated cultural references that must be addressed,” Wolf’s office explained in an email to Spotlight PA, adding, “These decisions are not made lightly or hastily.” The McConnellsburg changes are as follows: A plaque commemorating the final Confederate encampment in Pennsylvania will no longer be displayed by the state, having been “accessioned into PHMC’s collection for interpretive purposes.” The plaque was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a neo-Confederate group widely known for venerating the Southern army and whitewashing Civil War history. A historical marker with similar text and the same subject has been updated to include mention of the Union “routing” that followed for “the last Confederates to camp on Pennsylvania soil.” A historical marker commemorating the first Confederate deaths in Pennsylvania has been edited to emphasize Confederate raids and property thefts. It also now mentions the Confederate Army’s “invasion of Pennsylvania” and describes the Confederates as “enemy” soldiers. A prior version mentioned only a neutral-sounding “skirmish.” The marker’s title has been changed from “Confederate Dead” to “Gettysburg Campaign.” (A six-foot-tall roadside monument to the Confederate dead — erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy nearby — is not property of the state historical commission and was not part of the commission’s review, Pollman said.) Source: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the commission took down a United Daughters of the Confederacy-backed plaque it inherited, the removal coming roughly 90 years after the piece was first erected. The plaque recognized a 19th-century penitentiary that housed the city’s “only Confederate prisoners of war.” The Incline reported the plaque was placed by the united daughters in 1931 and later surrounded by the National Aviary. It spent its final years in a cage with a bald eagle, a symbol of the United States since 1787 and one adopted by Union troops. Pollman said the Aviary asked that the plaque be removed “due to continual public inquiries expressing concern.” The state historical commission plans to relocate it to a nearby park with updated text. Some critics questioned the sensitivity around what is at face value a neutral historical acknowledgement, but Kirk Savage, a University of Pittsburgh art history professor and expert on Confederate monuments, told The Incline: “If the UDC is behind it, they thought of it as honorific.” The commission review of the state’s aging historical markers and plaques overlapped with a roiling national debate about the need for careful framing of Civil War and Confederate history. In an open letter published earlier this year, state Rep. Parke Wentling (R., Crawford), a commission appointee, said revisions and removals of state historical markers, such as those in McConnellsburg and Pittsburgh, were being “driven by woke cancel culture,” adding: “Not all history needs to be celebrated, but it needs to be remembered.” Wentling continued: “The problem dates back to 2018 when PHMC began an effort to instill Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA) efforts into the internal operations of the commission, which bled over into a revisionist historical review of markers through the ideological DEIA lens, rather than one dedicated merely to historical significance.” Wentling’s office referred back to the letter when reached for additional comment by Spotlight PA. In 2017, weeks after the planned removal of a towering monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee touched off the deadly far-right rally in Charlottesville, Va., the Public Opinion newspaper in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, talked to area residents and found little to no clamor over the markers or the Confederate monument in Fulton County. Three years later, the commission’s announced review prompted an impassioned July 2020 town hall with local residents and lawmakers. “We’re working very hard to make sure that these monuments are staying right where they’re supposed to stay and that’s right here,” Republican state Sen. Judy Ward, whose district includes McConnellsburg, told the crowd. State Rep. Jesse Topper (R., Bedford) was also in attendance, and offered similar assurances. Reached by Spotlight PA, Topper called the state’s review of historical markers a solution in search of a problem. Topper said he appreciated that local input was involved in the process but added he was disappointed in the end result. “I just get concerned when bureaucracies step in and decide that they’re going to be the ultimate determinant of what is and what is not acceptable in terms of presenting history,” he explained by phone. Topper said he doesn’t take issue with the accuracy of the marker updates but rather that the updates are happening at all. Ward’s office declined comment. A search of Pennsylvania’s historical marker database shows dozens of markers with references to the Confederacy. According to Pollman, none of the others are being considered for retirement or replacement at this time. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Lack of telehealth law in Pennsylvania a major headache for patients who need it most

Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Cheryl Gibson was in pain as she drove. Eight months earlier, Gibson had begun an at-home breathing treatment for her emphysema when the mild headache she’d felt at the base of her skull exploded into debilitating pain. Her arm went numb, causing her to drop the nebulizer tube she’d been holding. Gibson was sure she had suffered a stroke, but months of subsequent tests and scans have failed to identify the cause of the unpredictable pain she now experiences multiple times a week. Without a way to know when an attack is coming, and with preexisting conditions that limit her mobility and increase her risk of getting seriously sick from COVID-19, Gibson relies on telehealth appointments to see her neurologist and other doctors. But when she was referred to a pain management specialist, the office told her she’d have to come in person. Gibson drove 45 minutes one way from her home in Schuylkill Haven to the office in Tamaqua while monitoring a dull headache she hoped wouldn’t grow worse. Her appointment that day lasted five minutes and did not include a physical evaluation. “I’m not a big baby about stuff,” Gibson said. “But this is debilitating. I can’t function, I can’t do anything, and I can’t get behind the wheel of a car and drive because I don’t feel safe.” The number of Pennsylvanians who have come to rely on phone and video appointments surged after the pandemic made in-person visits potentially dangerous. And many health-care providers and insurance companies quickly embraced telehealth as a necessary way of getting patients needed care. But the state is one of only seven that does not have any law requiring private insurers to reimburse for telehealth, resulting in a patchwork system of care. Access to telehealth depends on someone’s insurance company or their specific insurance plan. Even if a patient has coverage, in some cases medical providers don’t provide telehealth because they have to determine eligibility for each of their patients, an onerous process resulting in uneven care. All of that leaves Pennsylvania patients — especially those who need remote care the most, such as people in rural areas — confused, frustrated, and, at times, without services they need. “Pennsylvania is definitely a little bit of an anomaly in that,” said Kathy Hsu Wibberly, director of the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center. “And strangely enough, there are so many states that have moved to creating laws and Pennsylvania has struggled.” For the last five years, Sen. Elder Vogel (R., Beaver) has been trying to pass legislation that would allow the state to oversee health providers practicing remote medicine and explicitly require insurers to reimburse for it. But each year, the measure has failed. In 2016, it never came out of committee. In 2018, it passed the Senate but died in the House. Last year, the bill passed both chambers, but Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed it after Rep. Kathy Rapp (R., Warren), who chairs the House Health Committee, amended it to prohibit providers from prescribing abortion-inducing medicine via telehealth. Because there is no law mandating telemedicine in Pennsylvania, there’s nothing barring providers from practicing it, but insurers are not required to cover it. In other states, laws provide parity between in-person and remote health-care services. Instead, insurance companies decide what kinds of telehealth appointments are covered based on their own policies and the agreements they may work out with health-care networks or individual doctors. The process can be onerous for health-care providers that aren’t part of a broader network, Wibberly said, because each patient’s coverage may be different. “What happens now in Pennsylvania is a patient will call the office and ask if they can have a telehealth visit and a provider will say no because they don’t want to have to go through all the checks on this particular insurer, and sometimes it’s not even the insurer, it’s plan by plan.” This can result in providers declining telehealth services even when a patient’s insurance covers them. Gibson, who receives coverage through a private insurer under the Medicare program, recently called the company to set up a telehealth appointment after she felt a cold coming on. “Being that I have the beginning of COPD, I need to nip that as soon as it happens,” she said. The first doctor she connected with over the phone refused to treat her. “They told me they can’t talk to me about anything like that, that’s not what telehealth is for,” she said. A second doctor wouldn’t prescribe her medicine over the phone. The next day, a call with a third doctor finally resulted in a prescription. No guarantees While a vital tool, telehealth has its limitations, according to patient advocates, especially for people with disabilities or those who lack access to technology. “Telehealth in many ways has been helpful in getting additional attention on medical needs, but it’s not a catchall, it’s not a panacea,” said Patrick Keenan, the director of consumer protections and policy for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network. Still, patients and providers across Pennsylvania have come to rely on telehealth to access care they otherwise wouldn’t be able to — despite the lack of clear regulation. Maria and Peter Welsh, a couple from Allentown, tried driving their son Robert two hours to his specialist appointments after he suffered a traumatic brain injury while driving home for Thanksgiving last year. But Robert’s injury made the changing light and the movement of the car intolerable, and the pandemic made leaving the house risky for Peter and Maria, who are in their 80s. Robert now sees his doctor every few weeks via video call. “It’s a big thing for people in our situation,” Peter Welsh said. Jerry Webb, a Williamsport resident, said his son, nephew, and brother all relied on telehealth during the pandemic, when offices were closed and they couldn’t get care for their intellectual disabilities. Even as offices have reopened, Webb helps his family members call their doctors to do wellness checks. And in Warfordsburg, Caitlyn Morrell sets up video visits with her patients, who have few options for health care in rural Fulton County. Morrell, a traveling nurse-practitioner, uses the initial calls to triage her patients’ needs, she said. “Then I can decide what supplies I need to bring, what swabs I need to have,” she said. “It just kind of gives me an idea or ballpark so I’m not bringing the whole office to them.” Right now, most insurers are paying for telehealth, said Sam Marshall, president of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, a lobby for the industry. Insurers have worked with hospitals and health networks to develop their own standards on how to provide telehealth to patients, and Vogel’s legislation would codify those standards, Marshall said. “I can say that as a general rule of thumb, telemedicine isn’t going away,” he said. “We have not been brought kicking and screaming to the world of telemedicine. It’s something we as insurers have been promoting ourselves.” But without regulations, there’s no guarantee to care, experts said. “The challenge with it is the payment for the services,” said Lisa Davis, director for the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health at Pennsylvania State University. “There has been a tug between the providers — the hospitals and the clinics and the payers — in terms of what is considered to be telehealth and how it will be paid.” The Pennsylvania Department of State implemented a temporary policy at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that explicitly allows licensed health-care providers to practice telemedicine, but that waiver expires in March. Vogel’s bill passed the Senate in October. Legislators referred it to the House Insurance Committee rather than the Health Committee, which Rapp chairs, “a good sign,” Vogel said. There is talk in the Senate about drafting a separate piece of legislation to address the abortion issues that tanked his bill last year, he said. Rep. Tina Pickett (R., Bradford), who chairs the House Insurance Committee, said legislators are still consulting with stakeholders regarding the legislation and a committee vote hasn’t been scheduled. Rapp, who amended the bill last year to prohibit abortion care, didn’t respond to a question asking whether she plans to pursue the same amendment this session. “These drugs have no place in my legislation,” Vogel said. “My bill is setting up guidelines, what providers provide, and what insurance companies pay for. I think that’s what’s going to finally happen.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE … If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Vaunted Pennsylvania Society weekend loses luster among politicos

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — For years, Pennsylvania Society has been the marquee event for the state’s politicians and the well-heeled special interests that want something from them: a long weekend in New York City featuring back-to-back swanky fundraisers, black-tie soirees, and after-hours parties. Good-government groups have criticized the event as the epitome of garish largesse at best — and everything that’s wrong with politics at worst. But anyone who is anyone (or wanted to be someone) in state political circles wouldn’t dare miss the annual pilgrimage every December for three days of backslapping, power-brokering, and, far less frequently, policy-making. But this year, Pennsylvania Society (scheduled for this weekend) is expected to look and feel far different, organizers, attendees, and others say. Attendance will be down, and long-standing events such as receptions thrown by law firms and business groups have been merged or canceled outright. One reason for this year’s scaled-down version, organizers say, is the pandemic, which has curbed interest in travel and crowded indoor gatherings. COVID-19 concerns are why Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, isn’t attending, a spokesperson told PennLive. Several Republican candidates for the executive office, however, will make the journey, including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and former U.S. Rep Lou Barletta. Another reason for lower attendance is the shift in the event’s main location in recent years, from the storied ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria to the far more sober party rooms of the Midtown Hilton. Since the Waldorf closed for multi-year renovations, attendees have openly grumbled that Pennsylvania Society has lost its allure. A larger, more existential question looms over the venue change and pandemic adjustments, though: Is Pennsylvania Society an anachronism? Edward J. Sheehan Jr., its president, doesn’t think so. In an interview, he said unity underpins the society’s work and mission. “We seek diversity and inclusion,” said Sheehan, who also is president and CEO of Concurrent Technologies Corporation, an applied scientific research and development organization based in Johnstown. “One way to do that is to bring people together to talk … and exchange ideas.” Pennsylvania Society dates back to 1899, according to the organization’s website. That year, Pennsylvanian James Barr Ferree, living in New York City at the time, invited 55 other transplants to dine at the Waldorf-Astoria. His goal: to unite Pennsylvanians “at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state.” They met for dinner every year at the same time and place, and were initially known as The Pennsylvania Society of New York. The gathering grew over the years and saw big names join in, including Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In modern times, that dinner, while technically the centerpiece of the weekend, has been overtaken by invitation-only fundraisers, receptions, and other events that have sprung up around it, turning the gathering into a whirlwind, three-day schmooze fest — and earning the derision of good-government activists. Eric Epstein, cofounder of the nonpartisan good-government group Rock the Capital, called the event a “glorified pay-to-play winter carnival.” “We need less self-interest and more common good, and we need to focus on Pennsylvania problems and not New York parties,” said Epstein. “We need to put the Society on ice, and thaw out democracy.” Sheehan disagrees. He said that the New York dinner is one of the biggest fundraisers for the society, and that its proceeds allow the group and its partners to award college scholarships to Pennsylvania high schoolers. Sheehan also noted that the society annually honors exceptional service by a Pennsylvania resident with its Gold Medal award. This year, Philadelphia surgeon Ala Stanford is the recipient. That spirit of inclusion, he said, defines the society’s mission and event. “The dinner is really the heart of the weekend,” he said. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania Latinos work to turn huge population gains into political muscle, but still face barriers

By Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA This article is part of a yearlong reporting project focused on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It is made possible by the support of Spotlight PA members and Votebeat, a project focused on election integrity and voting access. LEHIGH VALLEY — Over the past five years, Victor Martinez has noticed more and more Hispanic-run businesses crop up on the route he drives to work. Martinez owns La Mega, a Spanish radio station located right outside of downtown Allentown. During his commute from his Macungie home, he’s seen new restaurants, hair salons, and bodegas. One restaurant located five minutes from his station, La Bicicleta, opened only two years ago and its Venezuelan arepas are now among his mainstays. The business boom reflects the rapid growth of Pennsylvania’s Latino population, which surpassed 1 million people according to the latest census — a 43% increase from a decade ago. The problem, Martinez said, is that growth in population has yet to translate into a rise in power and influence at all levels of government, in particular the state legislature. “As soon as the census came out, leaders in the Hispanic community, in Allentown and Reading, started calling each other and talking to each other on [how] we need to make sure we involve ourselves in every district conversation,” Martinez said. “Now we have it on paper. Now we can go and express to governments that our community needs and deserves to have representation.” To that end, Martinez has become one of the most vocal Latino advocates during this year’s redistricting process — a legally required redrawing of the state’s legislative districts based on the decennial census data. Far more than a bureaucratic exercise, redistricting can have enormous implications for which groups have the most voting influence in a given area, and which party — Democrats or Republicans — have the advantage come Election Day. There are more than 3 million people of color living in Pennsylvania, and these communities have powered the state’s population growth. Their gains more than offset the continued contraction of the white population, which fell by half a million during the past decade. In total, a quarter of the state’s residents now identify as non-white. Yet just 10% of the General Assembly’s 253 members identify as people of color. In 2015, that number was 9%. That’s why advocates like Martinez are increasingly getting involved. They see redistricting as an opportunity for political maps and voting power to more equitably represent the growth of certain communities. Martinez said he’s hopeful new lines could create at least two more legislative districts that could elect a Latino representative. “There’s zero in the Senate,” he said, “and there are only four Latinos in the House of Representatives.” Legal barriers To Martinez and other people of color, equitable representation is proven by a legislative assembly that is reflective of the demographics of the state. But demographic majorities, even in areas with minority enclaves, can be difficult to represent on maps due to communities being scattered or geographic barriers such as rivers or highways. The law can also create hurdles. Neither the Pennsylvania Constitution nor the U.S. Constitution explicitly requires that legislative districts demographically represent their constituents. The state constitution lists only three requirements: compactness, contiguity, and minimizing municipality splits. Federal regulations regarding redistricting are outlined by the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Citing the Equal Protection Clause, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to use race as a predominant factor when drawing district lines. Separately, the Voting Rights Act prohibits vote dilution of minority communities, meaning consolidating or dispersing a minority community with the effect of reducing its voting power. But proving dilution is a tall order under the law. These protections can complicate efforts to create new districts and challenge current ones. “Unfortunately, the only tool in the federal toolkit that we have is the Voting Rights Act to protect marginalized communities,” Fulvia Vargas-De León, an attorney with legal advocacy group LatinoJustice, said. “Pennsylvania, like many other states, does not have clear guidelines, aside from contiguity and compactness, in terms of how they draw districts.” To address that difficulty, some mapmakers — such as the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, a panel of the top House and Senate leaders and an independent chair handling the General Assembly maps — have turned to “communities of interest” as an alternative. These are geographical areas where residents have common political goals. But the commission’s commitment to this principle is not legally binding, and because outlining such communities requires public input and feedback, advocates worry that there will not be enough participation throughout the process to produce fully representative maps. For Will Gonzalez — executive director of Ceiba, a coalition of Philadelphia Latino organizations — bringing such communities of interest to the attention of legislators is essential. For example, he said, Northeast Philly’s concentration of Latinos and Latino institutions, from nonprofits and churches to schools and businesses, must be kept together despite them not comprising a majority. “In those places that do not rise to that level of 50% plus one, [we] must make sure that they don’t get cut and divided,” Gonzalez said. “We want to be able to have communities of interest, who share in meeting the challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities that might present themselves to their communities through a unified representation in their legislature. “That’s why being part of the process in the beginning is really, really important.” ‘Divided in so many ways’ Preserving communities of interest is a common criterion across the country, and is used by more than half the states. The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has been accepting testimony from citizens outlining communities of interest on its website and at hearings it has hosted. Martinez has testified at three of those hearings, using Allentown — where 52% of residents are Hispanic or Latino — as his case in point. Lehigh County currently contains seven state House districts, only one of which is a majority-minority district. That area, District 22, encompasses most of Allentown and is currently represented by Peter Schweyer, a Democrat who has held the seat since 2015. Martinez believes the three districts that divide Allentown unfairly split up the Latino population, and he hopes his involvement might improve them. “We get divided in so many ways that we have no shot of representing ourselves,” Martinez said. “There is an opportunity to have someone that can represent us, that looks like us, that understands us, our culture, our community. And for me, that’s important because it means we’re in the room.” Schweyer pushed back against the idea that a district shape alone can ensure representation. “Communities of color as a redistricting principle is something that I strongly support,” he said. “I believe in representation. But at the same time, there’s no guarantee. We can’t just assume that just because we draw a [majority-minority] district — African American, Latino, what have you — that you’re going to guarantee somebody from that community is going to get elected.” In Schweyer’s district, Hispanics account for 56% of the population, while communities of color make up over 75% of the district overall. But some advocates argue that minority residents would be better served by districts in which they don’t make up more than 50% of the population If Schweyer’s district were broken into two, for example, that could create more opportunities for Hispanic voters to sway elections. This approach could also benefit communities that are not geographically concentrated enough to constitute a majority. Vargas-De León suggested that this approach might be more equitable, but the legality of such an approach is subject to debate. A critical mass Martinez’s participation in the redistricting process comes amid greater awareness of how consequential the process can be for communities. But to truly affect mapmaking and define communities of interest, Pennsylvanians must participate en masse in the process, something advocates doubt will happen for a host of reasons, from apathy to outright roadblocks. While the redistricting commission has solicited testimony from more than 50 citizen witnesses and opened an online portal to accept comments, the ability to give testimony is still limited by language barriers and time, among other constraints. Because of those hurdles, Vargas De-León has doubts that such a critical mass will step up. “Historically, redistricting is one of the ways that we have affected the voting power of marginalized communities,” Vargas De-León said. “It’s one of the silent tactics of sorts, I would say, because it’s not obvious when it’s done. But it’s part of the toolbox to keep these communities disenfranchised.” In Lehigh County, advocates for Latino residents say disengagement with the political process stymies representation. Diana Robinson of Make the Road Pennsylvania, an organization dedicated to organizing working-class Latino voters, said the system works against them. Commission hearings that lacked translation, as well as Spanish instructions to voters in Berks County that had the wrong mail ballot return date, are typical examples of carelessness, Robinson said. “It goes beyond just ensuring there’s Latinx representation, but also having representatives and the ability to elect representatives that also share our values,” Robinson said. Martinez remains hopeful his testimony will be reflected in the initial drafts of maps. Although the Pennsylvania Constitution sets a Jan. 12 deadline, lawmakers have expressed a desire to expedite the process and release initial maps within the next few weeks. “If it was easy, anybody could do it,” Martinez said, referring to the commission. “That’s what they signed up for. So, we have to make sure we hold them accountable.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania’s child care and staffing crisis, by the numbers

By Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — As a roughly $2 trillion social spending plan moves through Congress, transformational change could be on the horizon for child care in Pennsylvania and across the country. But now, an industry pivotal to the state’s economic recovery is facing severe staffing shortages. Providers are struggling to attract and retain workers because of low wages, Spotlight PA recently reported, and the situation has ripple effects for the state’s economy, as parents shuffle their work schedules to deal with shorter hours and face tough decisions about how to care for their children without losing a paycheck. Here are the figures that stand out, and what they show:   Closures About 6,800 licensed child care providers were operating in Pennsylvania as of late November. 1,000-plus licensed child care providers closed from March 2020 through October 2021, according to data from Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services. 796 licensed child care providers opened during the same time period. What it means: Advocates for child care providers say many more providers would have closed if not for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief. Still, the recovery is uneven. Some parts of the state lost more providers than others, and some types of programs — small ones, based in private homes — saw a larger net loss than larger child care centers. Staffing shortages 6.1 million people were employed in nonfarm jobs in Pennsylvania in October 2019, according to jobs data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 5.8 million people were employed in nonfarm jobs in Pennsylvania in October 2021, according to preliminary jobs data. That’s a 5% decrease over two years. 48,100 people were employed in Pennsylvania child care jobs in October 2019, before the pandemic. 44,000 people were employed in child care jobs in October 2021, according to preliminary jobs data. That’s an 8.5% decrease over two years. What it means: Child care providers say they can’t hire enough employees to meet the current demand, and they’ve had to close classrooms, reduce hours, and serve fewer children. A survey released in September of more than 1,100 child care providers in Pennsylvania found there were nearly 26,000 children on waiting lists. More than 34,000 additional children could be served if providers were fully staffed. High costs, low wages Pennsylvania’s median household income is $61,744, according to census data. $12,308 was the average annual price of sending an infant to a Pennsylvania child care center full-time in 2019, according to a survey by an advocacy group. $10,158 was the average annual price of sending a 4-year-old to a Pennsylvania child care center full-time in 2019, per the same analysis. $7,716 is the typical in-state tuition for most undergraduate students in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. That doesn’t include fees, housing plans, and other costs. $18.99 was the median hourly wage for all Pennsylvania occupations in 2019, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. $13.96 was the median hourly wage for Pennsylvania preschool teachers in 2019, according to the same group. $10.69 was the median hourly wage for Pennsylvania child care workers in 2019. What it means: Child care providers operate on thin margins, which makes it difficult for them to raise wages and ease staffing shortages. At the same time, costs for parents are high. And even though low-income families are eligible for government subsidies, that assistance doesn’t cover the cost of care, child care advocates say. That perpetuates a broken business model.   Federal help Roughly $525 million in federal relief was earmarked for the Pennsylvania child care industry under legislation that passed in 2020. The American Rescue Plan Act, which passed in March under President Joe Biden, sets aside $1.2 billion more. Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, recently approved by the U.S. House, comes with a roughly $2 trillion price tag that, among other commitments, promises to lower child care costs for families and raise wages for workers. What it means: Previous federal assistance helped programs stay in business as they dealt with shutdown orders, drops in enrollment, and new cleaning and safety requirements. Child care advocates expect providers will use some of the latest relief money to offer higher pay or better benefits for workers. But recruiting challenges could remain, and providers fear the money is only a temporary fix. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

A staffing crisis at Pa. child care centers is upending family routines and slowing the economic recovery

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Baby giggles and occasional cries are supposed to spill from the infant room at The Willow School, where lyrics from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” line the wall. But the mattresses propped up in cribs here haven’t nestled any little heads in some time. Before the coronavirus pandemic, this room was a daytime home to eight children and required the highest number of workers — one for every four sets of squishy little cheeks — to ensure diapers were changed, naps were taken, and everyone stayed safe. The room never really earned a profit, but it got kids in the door, said Kym Ramsey, CEO of the school. Families often stuck with her Montgomery County center, which she founded in 2012, and as the infants grew older, they moved into bigger rooms that required fewer workers. But 20 months since the first reported coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania, Ramsey still hasn’t reopened the infant room, along with a few others. She’s reduced hours, opening later in the morning and closing earlier in the evening, and can care for fewer children. Her enrollment was 55 children earlier this month — down from about 110 before the pandemic. “We have a waiting list, but no staff,” Ramsey said. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money helped keep many of Pennsylvania’s 6,800 child care programs in Pennsylvania afloat as they dealt with stay-at-home orders, reduced enrollment, and increased cleaning and safety costs. And with a roughly $2 trillion social spending plan moving through Congress, transformational change could be on the horizon. But right now, an industry pivotal to Pennsylvania’s economic recovery is facing severe staffing shortages, in part because stimulus money is not seen as a sustainable source to support higher wages. In a survey released in September of 1,100-plus Pennsylvania programs, more than half reported having to close at least one classroom. Roughly 26,000 children were on waiting lists. There were 7,100 fewer workers in child care services in the state in August 2021 compared to two years earlier — a decrease of 15%. A few thousand more workers entered child care jobs in September and October, but the industry is still recovering more slowly than the rest of Pennsylvania. The inability to attract and retain workers has serious ripple effects that reach far beyond the classroom, as parents shuffle their work schedules to deal with shorter hours and face tough decisions about how to care for their children without losing a paycheck. If they have to call out of work, that can affect business productivity and contribute to the supply-chain squeeze. “There’s always that question of what’s going to happen next?” said Erika Peterkin, a 37-year-old mother whose family pays almost $1,000 a month for child care in Bucks County. Last school year, Peterkin and her husband, a truck driver, had to piece together gaps in child care coverage, relying on multiple people to bring their kids to and from school and child care programs. Earlier this year, Peterkin found out her daughter’s child care center would open at 7 a.m. — a half-hour later than before and the same time her shift starts as a secretary for an emergency room. She was able to qualify for federal protections that allowed her to reduce her hours while keeping her job safe. Now, on workdays, Peterkin drops her 6-year-old son off at his before-school program, which opens at 6:30 a.m. Then she drives to her daughter’s center and waits for the doors to open. She arrives at work by 7:30 a.m. — and hopes the center doesn’t reach out with any unexpected news about a coronavirus case. “Every time the school calls, you’re just like ready to freak out,” Peterkin said. One major reason child care providers are short-staffed: low pay. Preschool teachers in Pennsylvania earned a median wage of less than $14 an hour in 2019, while the median wage for child care workers was even lower — less than $11 an hour. That’s in part because most child care providers operate on razor-thin margins. A center owner in Allegheny County, who wants to reopen a preschool program, told Spotlight PA she pays herself about $12 an hour. A center director in Erie County said low wages meant some employees had to rely on public assistance benefits. A center owner in Westmoreland County said Burger King hired her 16-year-old son recently at $13 an hour — about $3 more than what she would be able to offer some new hires. In Warren County, 38-year-old Brandilyn Lyon considered returning to child care work this month after losing a job teaching English as a second language online. But the low pay kept her away. “It’s very emotionally taxing,” Lyon said of child care work. “It was not worth it to me to put myself through that for $12 an hour.” A broken business model Child care had a broken business model before the pandemic. Costs can rival mortgage or rent payments, forcing some parents to decide whether it’s worth it to spend their days away from their kids, only for much of their paycheck to go toward child care. Lower-income families are helped by government assistance, but that often doesn’t cover the true cost of providing care, putting the pinch on providers, said Jen DeBell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Education of Young Children. The coronavirus pandemic made things harder. Stay-at-home orders forced many businesses to close, and child care centers saw enrollments decline. Providers also had increased safety and cleaning costs. In legislation passed last year, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg approved spending about $525 million in federal money to support child care in Pennsylvania, according to Start Strong PA, a child care advocacy campaign. The goal was to stabilize the industry, so parents could return to work. And by some measures, it worked. Overall, Pennsylvania had about 280 fewer licensed child care providers in October 2021 than at the start of the pandemic, state data shows. And industry leaders think that the number would have been much higher without help. Licensed child care centers — programs that can serve a large number of children, like Ramsey’s in Montgomery County — fared better than other types, especially small providers that operate out of their homes. Those smaller providers often serve outer suburbs and rural areas, offer nontraditional hours, and are settings where some families feel more comfortable taking infants and young toddlers, said Tracey Campanini, deputy secretary of the state’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning. Campanini said it’s not clear whether those providers closed because of challenges in the industry or if they had specific concerns about bringing children into their homes because of the coronavirus. Among the programs that are open, staffing shortages prevent them from serving as many students as they could before the pandemic. “Child care providers are really willing to ramp back up and enroll families that are seeking care, but they are having a difficult time recruiting,” Campanini said. In a survey of 1,163 Pennsylvania child care programs across the state, 92% of respondents reported staffing shortages and 51% of respondents reported closing at least one classroom. The survey was conducted from late August to early September by members of Start Strong PA, a campaign that includes DeBell’s group. “Every program we talk to is seeing an impact regarding the staffing problem,” DeBell said. On a recent night, parents arrived at Kidsville Junction Childcare & Preschool in southern York County to pick up kids. Inside the center, located a few miles from the Maryland border, classrooms have train-themed names like Precious Cargo, Little Whistles, and Little Engines. Lauren Dell, a 25-year-old dental assistant and single mother, said she struggled to find child care before sending her twin girls to Kidsville Junction’s Stewartstown location several months ago. A lot of places, she said, weren’t accepting more kids. “It was a very difficult time, and very expensive, because I was sending them somewhere very overpriced,” Dell said. “Now, things are starting to seem a lot better.” Earlier this fall, federal stimulus money allowed Kidsville Junction to expand its hours. It returned back to the 6:30 p.m. closing time it had before the pandemic began. “That means everything to me,” said 32-year-old Dakota James, who works for an auto parts distributor. “It’s phenomenal for me because it’s a full day.” Other parents said they appreciated the extra hours, whether it meant they could work more at their own jobs, have extra time to run an errand, or no longer have to worry about arriving late for pickup. But the center’s owner, Shirl Quinan, said recruiting workers is a constant struggle. “And keeping them happy has been also hard because it’s so much work now with the extra cleaning and the extra everything,” Quinan said. “Parents are extra stressed. Staff is also stressed.” A few months ago, Quinan lost two employees to convenience stores: one to Rutter’s, another to Royal Farms. She’s adjusted. Two years ago, the standard starting rate for someone without a college degree was $10 an hour at Kidsville Junction. Now, it’s $15 an hour. She also raised what she charges per child by about $7 a week, and she worries she may have to increase fees again after the federal stimulus money ends. “That’s the scary part,” Quinan said. A promising proposal This fall, the Wolf administration announced how it plans to spend most of the $1.2 billion that the American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March under President Joe Biden, provides for child care in the state. About $352 million will support Child Care Works — a subsidy program that helps low-income families pay child care fees — by increasing rates to providers, reducing copayments for families, and incentivizing nontraditional hours. Those changes go into effect in January. The Wolf administration is using a larger pot of money, $655 million, to provide one-time grants for child care providers. Providers could use the money for sign-on bonuses and pay increases, but they have other options, including rent or mortgage payments, insurance, equipment and supplies, and mental health services for children and staff. Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, said she’s spoken with some program leaders who are interested in using the money for workers. But she said some worry about how they’ll afford raises in the long-term, and even raises have their limits. “Even if we bring wages up to $15 an hour — I mean, everybody’s at $15 an hour now,” Barber said. At The Willow School in Montgomery County, Ramsey said federal assistance allowed her to raise pay for employees in November, and she’s planning to offer a 401(k) match of 3% in January. She hopes it makes the workers feel appreciated. “It’s better than nothing, right? So I think it will help,” Ramsey said. “But if it will keep them and retain them, I can’t promise you that.” There’s something even more transformative on the horizon. Biden’s roughly $2 trillion social spending and climate proposal — known as Build Back Better — promises universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and offers subsidies aimed at ensuring most working families don’t spend more than 7% of their income on child care. It also promises to raise wages. The U.S. House passed the package in November. The plan’s fate is uncertain, but top Democrats in the Senate want to get it over the finish line by Christmas. “It would be enormous,” said DeBell. “For those of us who have been doing this for a long time, this is what we’ve all been waiting for.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

What you need to know about the killing of Christian Hall, 19, by Pennsylvania State Police

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. The parents of a 19-year-old Chinese American shot and killed by Pennsylvania State Police last December are calling for a new investigation into his death. The request comes amid the release of new footage, obtained by Spotlight PA and NBC News from the family’s lawyers, that shows Christian Hall was shot with his hands in the air while holding a realistic pellet gun. Here’s a summary of what you need to know about the case: Who was Christian Hall? Christian Hall was adopted from China as a baby by Fe Hall, who is Filipino, and Gareth Hall, who is Black and Latino. Christian told his parents he wanted to find his birth mother. “We always made sure that he understood, ‘We love you. Your mother loved you too. You’re not a throwaway child,’” Fe Hall said. “He would always say, ‘Mom, I just want to know what she looks like. It’s not that I love you less, it’s not that I don’t love you. … I just want to know.’” The Halls said that as a child Christian was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, which made it difficult to connect with his parents and interact with others. Still, he was close to his extended family and identified with Black and Latino cultures, his parents said. At the age of 10, he accidentally started a fire in an empty room in a nursing home near his parents’ house. He was placed in a juvenile detention facility for four years for the incident. After getting out he violated probation several times by running away from home, and spent much of his life until the age of 18 in juvenile detention facilities for the violations. By December 2020 he had a steady job at a local grocery store and was working to pay back $14,000 in restitution he owed the state for starting the fire. He also had an on-again, off-again girlfriend. What happened on the day he died? Hall called 911 about a “possible suicider” on an overpass near Stroudsburg in northeastern Pennsylvania. When State Police arrived, they found Hall on the ledge. Troopers tried to persuade him to get down, then saw he had a gun — later determined to be a realistic pellet gun — and backed away. They continued to try to persuade Hall to leave the gun on the bridge and walk to them. After about 90 minutes, with both ends of the overpass blocked off, Hall started shuffling toward troopers with the gun in his hand. Troopers continued to tell Hall to put the gun down from behind their vehicles, and one fired shots at Hall, missing him, as he was standing roughly 70 feet away. Video shows Hall raised his hands after the shots were fired, first to his sides, then above his head. He held the gun in one hand. “If he doesn’t drop it, just take him,” a voice can be heard saying on the video. Hall’s hands stayed above his head as two troopers fired several more shots. Hall was struck, clutched his stomach, and fell to the ground. He was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead. Who investigated the shooting, and what did they find? The shooting was first investigated by Pennsylvania State Police troopers from outside the local barracks. They turned their findings over to Monroe County District Attorney E. David Christine Jr., who ruled that troopers’ lives were in danger and therefore the shooting was justified. Michael Mancuso, an assistant district attorney, called Hall’s death a “classic suicide by cop scenario” at a news conference in March. Mancuso said that Hall was an imminent threat from the time he put his hand on the gun. Two accounts by State Police claim Hall pointed the gun at troopers, a potential justification for the shooting. But the video does not appear to show that. The accounts by State Police and the DA’s office are inconsistent. The State Police’s initial press release and one of several accounts in the district attorney’s written report state that Hall pointed the gun at troopers before shots were fired. A trooper said he watched Hall “bless himself, point to his head and then pull the gun from his waistband and point it in the direction of the Troopers.” A corporal then fired the first three shots, which appeared to miss Hall, according to that account. Another section of the report and a video released by the DA examining the shooting make no mention of Hall pointing directly at troopers or raising the gun before the first shots were fired. After the initial shots, Hall “raises the gun outward toward his side and then upwards by bending his elbow at a ninety-degree angle,” that section of the report states. Why are his parents calling for a new investigation? Fe and Gareth Hall believe the Monroe County DA’s ruling was biased and that a new, independent investigation should be conducted. They say that investigators peppered them with questions in the days just following the shooting when they were still in shock. After that, they said, they didn’t hear from authorities but would have answered questions. “I was waiting,” Gareth Hall said. “Not a call.” They also point to Mancuso’s statements about Hall at the press conference, referencing his history in juvenile detention and repeating an unproven allegation that he used the pellet gun to rob people. Finally, they say, the local district attorney works with the local State Police to make cases. They question how an investigation of people you work closely with can be unbiased. Hall’s parents believe the district attorney wanted to protect the troopers involved. There was an incentive, they said, to paint their family as uncooperative and Hall as a criminal. “The DA doesn’t have accountability to anybody,” Fe Hall said. Who else could investigate the shooting? Will they? In Pennsylvania, elected district attorneys are tasked with deciding whether or not to criminally charge police officers who kill people. The attorney general, currently Democrat Josh Shapiro, can review the case if the local DA believes there is a “real or apparent” conflict of interest. It’s nearly impossible for the AG’s office to get involved on its own. That leaves the federal government to investigate. The Hall family lawyers, Ben Crump and Devon M. Jacob, have sent letters to the attorney general, FBI, and the U.S. Justice Department asking for a new, independent investigation. Shapiro’s office acknowledged it had received the letter but said it did not have the power to intervene. The FBI and Justice Department also acknowledged receipt of the letters. The agencies declined to say anything else. WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

2 top executives quit giant Pa. pension fund amid FBI, SEC probes

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters. HARRISBURG — Following months of controversy and amid an ongoing federal investigation, Pennsylvania’s biggest pension fund on Thursday announced that its top two executives were leaving their jobs. With no explanation and after a meeting closed to the public and media, the PSERS board said that executive director Glen Grell, 64, and investment chief James H. Grossman Jr., 54, were both retiring. The agency said Grell would step down at the end of the year and be given a consulting role with the $73 billion fund. The board said little about that or about Grossman’s future during its meeting Thursday morning. Grossman, paid $485,000 yearly, has been the highest-paid employee in state government, paid for more than twice the governor. Their departures from PSERS come as a scandal that has simmered around the agency for eight months has gathered significant momentum. Two weeks ago, an outside law firm hired to scrutinize the fund said it had all but completed its probe and that the results would be damaging to some on the fund staff. The firm did not name anyone that would face criticism. The pair’s tenure was marred by the fund’s admission in March that it had mistakenly adopted a false and inflated figure for investment performance, a declaration that immediately triggered a continuing federal criminal probe as well as a companion inquiry by U.S. financial regulators. The 15-member volunteer board adopted a new, lower figure for fund profits in April, an embarrassing reversal that, in turn, forced it to hike payments into the pension plan by more than 100,000 working teachers and other school staff. This was driven by a state law that said teachers should share the pain when the plan’s performance falls short. The debacle of the botched calculation was accompanied by a growing schism on the board in which dissidents, including Pennsylvania’s current and former treasurers, castigated the investment strategy pursued by Grell and Grossman. The critics said the strategy was too expensive, too illiquid, too opaque — and too unprofitable. They complained that PSERS had far too much money invested in high-fee hedge funds and venture-capital projects, and other “alternative” financial instruments not sold on the stock market. The fund rebounded last fiscal year along with the world economy, posting a record return of 25%, a massive jump from the previous year’s nearly flat return of 1.1%. Still, the plan performance trailed more than a dozen other public funds and was well beneath the S&P 500 stock index’s climb of 38%. In June, the dissident bloc on the board tried and failed in an initial effort to oust Grell and Grossman, mustering six votes to fire them, two short of a majority. In a sign of the pair’s waning influence, though, the full board consistently rejected the executives’ investment strategies in subsequent votes. Grell, a lawyer, was named executive director of the pension plan in 2015. Before that, he served for 10 years as a Republican in the state House, representing a district in Cumberland County, south of Harrisburg. His annual pay at PSERS was $227,000. Grossman, who has an accounting degree from Elizabethtown College, has worked for the pension plan for nearly a quarter-century and became the investment chief in 2013. He oversaw a highly paid team of 50 investment advisors, including two deputies each paid $399,000 yearly. Board critics also challenged and eventually reined in spending on luxurious travel by Grossman’s staff, which flew the globe to check on fund investments. In an article in April, The Inquirer highlighted a series of ultra-expensive airfares and hotel stays by the staff. The trips were booked by vendors who did business with the fund. PSERS — Public School Employees’ Retirement System — is among the top 25 public pension funds in the nation. Every year, it sends out $6 billion in retirement checks to 250,000 former school employees. In the last fiscal year, it was supported by $5 billion payments from taxpayers, $1.1 billion from school workers, and $12 billion in investment profits. Despite that infusion of money, the plan has a $40 billion deficit. Retirees have not seen a benefit increase in nine years. In response to a wave of federal subpoenas, PSERS has spent heavily to hire outside lawyers and financial advisers, with fees exceeding $2.4 million and climbing. The board hired two law firms to represent itself and the agency in dealings with the federal prosecutors — the FBI and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — as well as other firms to personally represent Grossman and seven other fund staffers. The SEC, which joined the probe in September, has told the fund that it is looking into whether any staffers accepted gifts from vendors that did business with the system. The agency hired Womble Bond Dickinson, a big law firm with offices in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, to conduct a parallel investigation into the matters under FBI and SEC scrutiny. As the controversy moved toward its climax, the board has been hung up on just how much to reveal to the public. After maintaining silence about the math error for months and rebuffing requests from The Inquirer for information under the state’s Right-to-Know Law, the board has most recently had to deal with complaints from staff that any report would hurt their reputations. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has three appointees on the board, came down on the side of disclosure. “Making investigation results public would increase transparency and reassure the retirees and current members,” Wolf said in a statement Wednesday. Ever since news of the federal investigations broke, PSERS has said virtually nothing about them. Its board has held virtually all discussions over the scandal behind closed doors and has fought requests for documents from The Inquirer filed under the state Right-to-Know Law — and even a lawsuit from a board member saying she was unfairly shut out of information. The subpoenas, copies of which were obtained by The Inquirer and Spotlight PA, demanded testimony and documents both about the recanted calculation and, in a seemingly unrelated issue, about the fund’s purchase for several million dollars of a series of industrial buildings and parking lots nears its headquarters in the state Capitol. In June, the fund admitted that Grossman and other members of his investment team had been listed on financial documents as being paid by both the pension plan and the firm managing the Harrisburg real estate. The plan said that was another error and the forms would be amended. As for the botched calculation, the board adopted an inflated figure in December last year that was just narrowly higher than the figure it needed to clear to spare teachers a hike in their pension payments. It later adopted a new figure that was just under the limit. While the board has not explained how the error occurred, an outside consulting firm seemed to take the blame for it in internal documents obtained by The Inquirer and Spotlight PA. The consultant said an employee had made a clerical error. That said, the bad number was adopted after dissident board members, notably then-State Treasurer Joe Torsella, raised concerns that Grell was using unaudited figures, in a break from typical procedure, to generate the numbers for investment returns. At the time, board leaders brushed aside Torsella’s warnings. “We went back and double-checked the numbers,” said board chairman Chris Santa Maria, a history teacher and former union leader in the Lower Merion schools. He added: “The information is now reliable and defendable.” “We did our due diligence,” Grossman said. “We covered it. I’m not worried about it.” WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundationsand readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Pennsylvania lawmakers consider dumping twice-a-year time changes

(By Victor Skinner – The Center Square) – Pennsylvania state Rep. Russ Diamond says it’s time to “stop the madness of changing clocks twice a year” and permanently place the Keystone State on Eastern Standard Time. Lawmakers in the General Assembly’s State Government Committee discussed his plan to ditch Daylight Savings Time in a hearing last week. “The general consensus among Pennsylvanians is they’re tired of changing clocks,” Diamond, R-Lebanon, told his colleagues on the committee. Diamond’s bill, House Bill 846, would simply delete reference to Daylight Savings Time from statute that establishes the uniform standard of time for the commonwealth. The bill takes the opposite approach of House Bill 335, introduced this spring by Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, R-Lehigh, which aims to put the state on permanent Daylight Savings Time. HB 335 would require congressional approval, while HB 846 does not. Diamond pointed to research that shows increased incidents of automobile accidents, workplace injuries, strokes, suicides and other issues associated with changing times, as well as potential economic losses, as justification for the change. “A 2016 study of 300 U.S. metropolitan areas based on evidence from peer-reviewed academic journals by Chmura Economics & Analytics found that $434 million in annual economic losses are realized in those metro areas due to DST,” Diamond wrote in a legislative memo accompanying the bill. “Every Pennsylvania metro area included in the study indicated a negative economic impact from DST. A 2008 report by the Independent Institute estimated that the annual U.S. ‘opportunity cost’ of changing clocks could be as high as $1.7 billion.” Diamond argued the reasons behind Daylight Savings Time, launched during World War I to save energy, no longer apply. “Energy savings from changing clocks has historically been negligible at best. Due to the proliferation of air conditioning, energy usage during DST may actually increase. The phase-out of incandescent bulbs further minimizes energy differentials,” the memo read. “Office buildings, manufacturing facilities, retail stores, and other workplaces remain climate controlled and/or illuminated by energy efficient lighting both day and night. There is no national crisis that changing clocks helps to alleviate.” “It’s time to stop the madness of changing clocks twice a year,” Diamond told the State Government committee. Mackenzie said he believes shifting to permanent Daylight Savings Time is the best approach, but acknowledged that change would require approval from Congress and “HB 846 is preferential to the current process.” Maureen Madden, a Democrat from Tobyhanna, also supported the bill. “Daylight Savings Time isn’t fooling anybody,” she said. “There are 33 states currently [reviewing legislation] to end Daylight Savings Time, just introduced in 2021. “Let’s just end this, it’s annoying,” Madden said. Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, cited concerns about time conflicts and issues with transportation if Pennsylvania’s time didn’t align with other states. “I really believe we should leave this up to Congress,” he said. “This would make a nightmare for airports, trucking.” Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, echoed similar concerns. “I’m a strong believer this is a federal issue,” he said. “The chaos for commerce would be considerable.” Diamond noted that flight times run on a standardized Zulu time, while truckers typically schedule based on the company’s home time zone. The House State Government Committee advanced HB 846 on a vote of 15 to 9, with Nelson the only opposing Republican and Madden and Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, joining in support.

Pennsylvania gun bills facing certain veto

(By Christen Smith – The Center Square) – Republican Pennsylvania senators approved two gun bills this week that Gov. Tom Wolf already has promised to veto. Senate Bill 448 adds to an existing preemption statute by prohibiting municipalities, of which more than 2,500 exist in Pennsylvania, from enacting firearm ordinances that contradict state law. Senate Bill 565, meanwhile, would legalize permitless concealed carry.  “The Pennsylvania Constitution is unequivocally clear – the rights of the citizens to bear arms shall not be questioned,” said Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Clearfield, who sponsored SB 448. “No municipalities can enact an ordinance infringing on that right.” Langerholc said local officials have adopted firearm ordinances in recent years that “brazenly” contradict the state’s preemption law. Individual residents, however, often lack the time and resources to challenge these regulations. “Don’t get mired in all of these ancillary issues,” Langerholc said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “This isn’t about further gun restriction or allowing individuals to carry, what have you. This is about what the existing law and why municipalities, townships, counties can’t seem to follow that law. That should give all of us cause for concern.” All but one Democrat voted against the measures and lambasted the majority party for dismissing local control and turning a blind eye to the 1,600 gun-related deaths that occur in Pennsylvania every year. Wolf, in a statement issued hours before the chamber voted, called the bills “dangerous” and warned of dismantling the state’s “system for responsible gun ownership.” “We need to stop this nonsense – we should question why we would want anyone who hasn’t undergone a background check to carry a concealed weapon,” Wolf said. “We should question politicians who turn a blind eye to the fact that states without concealed carry permits have an 11% higher rate of homicide than those with discretion.” Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, said the bills don’t change existing rules that require background checks for handgun purchases. They also pointed to FBI data that purports a link between gun ownership and higher rates of community safety. “No criminal has ever said, ‘I want to go commit assault and murder – but I have to wait for my license to carry to come in,’ ” said Sen. Cris Dush, R-Wellsboro, who sponsored SB 565. “But every day, honest Pennsylvanians who want to carry a gun simply to come home safe at night are forced to wait for their permit so they can carry legally.” Twenty-one other states allow permitless carry, including Pennsylvania’s neighbor West Virginia. It is unlikely the Keystone State will join the ranks so long as Wolf remains in office. His term expires in 2022.  “Pennsylvanians deserve safety,” Wolf said. “Republicans are dealing them peril with this irresponsible bill.” The bills now head to the House for consideration.

WellSpan Health and Johns Hopkins Medicine announce new oncology collaboration across South Central Pennsylvania

 WellSpan Health and Johns Hopkins Medicine today announced plans to fight cancer together in South Central Pennsylvania. The comprehensive collaboration will combine the expertise of WellSpan cancer physicians and programs with the innovative clinical, research and educational capabilities of Johns Hopkins Medicine.  WellSpan patients across South Central Pennsylvania who have cancer will benefit from a collaborative approach between the two organizations through shared treatment protocols, improved genomics capabilities, research projects and access to Johns Hopkins Medicine’s expanded network of subspecialty physicians. All of these services will broaden the options close to home for life-saving care of patients with complex cancers.   “Fighting cancer requires a trusted partner, and at WellSpan Health, we are expanding on our collaboration with Johns Hopkins Medicine to deliver the very best for our patients,” says Roxanna Gapstur, Ph.D., R.N., president & chief executive officer, WellSpan Health. “Our combined teams of physicians, faculty and research scientists will work closely with patients to offer the latest treatments and leading-edge therapeutic options within a state-of-the-art program for our friends and neighbors in South Central Pennsylvania.” WellSpan Health and the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center have had a long-standing clinical and research collaboration since 2017, with a designated comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute.   “This relationship represents our shared approach to bringing the best care to patients in the South Central Pennsylvania region, and we are so proud to expand the collaboration to include clinical trials, peer-to-peer consultations and educational opportunities,” says Kevin W. Sowers, M.S.N., R.N., F.A.A.N., president of the Johns Hopkins Health System and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine. WellSpan’s cancer experts see nearly 4,000 new patients annually across all their cancer centers, including the newly expanded WellSpan York Cancer Center, which opened this past summer. The collaboration agreement with Johns Hopkins Medicine will extend to and benefit all of WellSpan’s cancer centers, including the WellSpan Adams Cancer Center, the WellSpan Ephrata Cancer Center, the WellSpan Sechler Family Cancer Center and WellSpan cancer care locations in Franklin County. To learn more about the collaboration between WellSpan Health and Johns Hopkins Medicine, visit WellSpan.org/cancer. About WellSpan Health WellSpan Health is an integrated health system that serves the communities of central