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The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
September 19, 2019 | spotlightpa.org
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The long and short
» The Pa. legislature is big, expensive and doing less and less actual lawmaking
» Meet Angela Couloumbis, an investigative reporter covering criminal justice
» A roundup of the most important journalism across the state — without all the noise
» See the winners from last week's Riddler and try to solve our new puzzle
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“Lazy and dishonest."

— Tweet from House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican from Allegheny County, not a fan of our analysis showing lawmakers are introducing and passing fewer bills

5 takeaways from our analysis of the productivity of the Pa. legislature — and why it matters to you

Our tax dollars fund the largest full-time legislature in the U.S. and our lawmakers are among the highest paid. So why are they doing less lawmaking?

Data shows Pa. lawmakers are introducing and passing fewer laws, instead spending more time on largely ceremonial resolutions such as Hot Dog Day. (Courtesy of PennLive/The Patriot-News)

What was the central question?

We call them state lawmakers because writing and passing laws is their most fundamental duty, and it's also a great power that can affect the lives of everyone across the state. Given that responsibility, we wanted to know: In a time of greater political polarization, are they getting as much done?

How did we try to answer it?

We compared the number of bills and resolutions introduced and passed each session, going as far back as we could (about four decades). We scraped the state legislative website and then compared those numbers with the official record. It's not a perfect measure, but there's no perfect way to measure legislative activity. Experts agreed this was one of the best ways.

What did we find?

The number of bills introduced has fallen from its peak in the 1990s, and the number of bills passed has steadily declined since the 1970s. In contrast, the number of resolutions — largely ceremonial and noncontroversial measures — has more than quadrupled since the '70s. This comes as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have become more polarized and less willing to compromise.

Why does that matter?

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time state legislature in the country, and our lawmakers are among the best-paid, with starting salaries at about $88,000. Plus, they receive other benefits and perks. So it's a fair question to ask whether taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck.

What was the reaction?

Some readers questioned the size of the legislature:

"The size of the legislature is surely a problem. More people to influence and/or compromise is much harder. Too many very local interests vs. statewide views. So to me, that's the most important first step — reduce the number of districts and representatives."

Others suggested the public needed to get more involved:

"People who are concerned about lack of legislative productivity should be contacting legislators about what they wish to see done."

Lawmakers were split. Republicans, who control the legislature, complained that it didn't capture all of the work they accomplish. House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) called it “lazy & dishonest” on Twitter.

Rep. Tom Caltagirone (D., Berks), a 43-year veteran of the House, said the story was well done and that he hoped it would encourage everyone in Harrisburg to put their partisanship aside to get more work done.

Only time will tell.

— Jonathan Lai

» Stories like this analysis of the legislature take a lot of time and resources to produce. If you value in-depth journalism, become a Founding Donor today.
Meet our team
Meet our investigative reporters and find out what they're doing to ensure your tax dollars are well spent and your government is serving the people.
Angela Couloumbis
Investigative Reporter

What she covers: Attorney General’s Office, State Police, Capitol Police, corrections, national guard/military and veteran affairs

Law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania have vast powers. Simply put, they can take away your liberty and your livelihood.

Yet the people who are tasked with upholding the law can be overlooked. They, too, have rules they must follow, and society does not function well without a fair, impartial and responsive criminal justice system.

In my years as a reporter inside and outside the State Capitol, I’ve written about both sides of the equation: the law enforcers who go to work every day to do a dangerous and difficult job, and the people who have been caught in their cross-hairs, rightly or wrongly. In 2014, I was part of a two-person team that, for eight months, knocked on doors and tracked down people who would talk to us to reveal how the then-attorney general secretly shut down an investigation into lawmakers accepting envelopes stuffed with cash in return for official favors. The story set off a cascade of scandals that ended with the state attorney general being convicted of abusing her office and later going to jail.

If you are in law enforcement or corrections, or if you have been caught up in the criminal justice system, what’s going wrong? Which policies are broken? Who are the bad actors? Please reach out to me. I want to tell your stories.

— Angela

» Email Angela at acouloumbis@spotlightpa.org or call her at 717-787-5934. For more secure ways to send tips to our team, visit spotlightpa.org/tips.
Only the best
We're cutting through the news each week to give you a premium collection of the most important journalism from across Pennsylvania.

State Sen. Mike Folmer resigns after being charged with possession of child pornography.

Folmer allegedly told law enforcement officers that he had been dealing with personal problems.


When small businesses need a little cash but end up with a mountain of high-interest debt

Short-term "merchant lenders" say they help fill the gap, but some customers complain their rates are predatory.

» Smoke alarms were not part of Pa. daycare inspections. Then a fire killed 5 children.
» The hot topics lawmakers will debate this fall (But what will actually get done?)
» "Pots of meat" and why Philly structure fires doubled and response times worsened
» Civil forfeiture in Pa. totals $15M in 2018 despite ongoing criticism
» State finally tested air outside Erie Coke plant and found concerning levels of benzene
» Meet the Pa. families caught up in the national crackdown on undocumented immigrants
» Pregnancy-related deaths in Pa. likely far higher than past reporting shows
» The FBI is investigating the Harrisburg school district, sources say
» Speaking of Harrisburg, it's sending a whole lot of sewage into the Chesapeake Bay

Our weekly puzzle from The Investigator. Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org for a chance to receive a shout-out here and some cool Spotlight PA swag.
Fishy evidence (Case No. 2): A detective investigating a murder scene presented the evidence to her boss. The detective said she found a size 8.5 shoe with bloody fingerprints in the top-left drawer of the master bedroom dresser, a bloody knife between the third and fourth pages of a newspaper on the kitchen table and a stained t-shirt, size small, in the kitchen garbage. The boss looked at the detective and said, "You're sure about the details of all of this evidence?" The detective said yes, positive. The boss immediately suspected the detective was lying.


Stumped? Get a hint.

Last week's answer: The poison was in the ice. Congrats to Ashleigh G. and Robert T., who cracked the case and were chosen to receive cool swag. Shout outs for other correct answers from Alan K., Jim W., Sharon E., David M., Deborah D., Karen W., Andrew C., Richard K., Gloria H., Ted P., Robert B. and Jon N.

Stay tuned next week for those who answered correctly as well as our winner.
We depend on you
Our investigative newsroom is funded by nonprofit foundations and people like you who value hard-hitting, nonpartisan journalism that cuts through the noise and gets to the truth. This work takes enormous time and resources to produce. We know you value this work and we ask for your support so we can continue to provide the journalism you deserve. Make a tax-deductible contribution right now and show your support for our team of reporters.

Together, we can hold the powerful to account.
» This week's Riddler hint: It's all in the numbers.
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