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Is a Trump tax break helping Pa.? We hit the road to find out.

The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
October 17, 2019 | spotlightpa.org

A bit of something for everyone this week, from an analysis of how a Trump tax break is playing out across Pa., to the decision by the state's largest community college to end on-campus mental health counseling — and a lot more. Plus, meet our reporter who's covering the state's professional licensing boards.


“Students will suffer in silence and their mental health concerns could worsen to a crisis point."

— Annelle Primm, a licensed psychiatrist and senior medical director of The Steve Fund, a nonprofit focused on mental health for college students of color, on Harrisburg Area Community College ending on-campus mental health counseling

Long drives, spreadsheets and shoe leather: How we followed the money on a Trump tax break

By Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

Before I began at Spotlight PA in July, a new federal tax incentive program was already being hotly debated. Created as part of the 2017 Republican tax overhaul, it offers wealthy investors generous tax breaks if they put capital gains — profits from selling stock or other investments – into areas in need of redevelopment. Those areas were deemed "opportunity zones."

Supporters said it would be a boon for the richest and the poorest; skeptics said it wouldn’t move the needle in the places that needed help the most. Curious to find out how things were going in Pennsylvania, I asked my editor: How many of these places that have opportunity zones should I reach out to? I thought the answer would be 10, or maybe 15. He said, "Why not call them all?"

That's the power of a newsroom like Spotlight PA and investigative reporters with the time, resources and mandate to dig deeper and get to the bottom of a story rather than just parrot the "he said, she said."

And so began a complicated, color-coded spreadsheet and a crash course in state geography (and pronunciation of community names). I eventually spoke with more than 30 economic development officials and local leaders across the state, as well as investors, developers, local residents and business owners in places chosen as opportunity zones.

Their responses were as diverse as the state, but there was a common thread: After the initial hype around the program, many local officials were struggling to see how it would help their communities.

“To think we’re going to get a great deal of investment – or any at all – is a challenge,” said Linda Nitch, who is overseeing efforts in New Castle to market its four opportunity zones to investors. “I don’t see this as a big shot in the arm."

I then went a step further, beyond studies and experts, to travel the state and talk to people who love their towns and desperately want them to prosper.

“I do think about the fact that more and more businesses are moving out and none are coming back in,” said Jeffrey Miller, who co-owns a flower shop in New Castle. Despite the challenges, he said, people stay “because they have history here and they do love the city and would like to see it come back.”

» We're going the extra mile to bring you reporting you can't get anywhere else. But we can't do it without your support. If you value this work and want more stories like this, please become a Founding Donor today.

Meet our team
Sara Simon
Investigative Reporter

What she covers: PennDOT, Turnpike Commission, judiciary, inspector general, professional licensing boards

Pennsylvania’s professional licensing boards oversee more than 1 million workers, and for good reason. We should be able to trust our doctors and pharmacists, our crane operators and car dealers. The obvious question is whether the boards are stopping bad actors.

But Spotlight PA is about reporting more than the obvious.

Who’s responsible for conducting misconduct reviews? Are they done in a timely manner, and are penalties issued fairly? At what point do regulations create an undue burden? Does strict oversight ever backfire, causing harm for consumers? These are the kinds of questions I’m asking.

I cover a lot more of the state government, too, including PennDOT and the Turnpike Commission, inspector general’s office and judicial system.

I worked in technology before joining Spotlight PA, so I’m particularly interested in automation on our highways and algorithms in our courts. As an engineer, I know there’s human judgment in every line of code. I also know that building and deploying software almost never goes as planned.

If you have a tip about consumers, cars or courts, I’m eager to hear from you.

- Sara

» Email Sara at ssimon@spotlightpa.org, call her at 717-743-4956 or send a secure tip at spotlightpa.org/tips.
Only the best


Pa.’s largest community college eliminates campus mental health counseling for 17K students

Experts raised alarm about the change, calling it short-sighted and risky amid growing demand for services.


Pennsylvania school districts consider sending unpaid school lunch debts to collection agencies

School districts say state law leaves them with few options as debts reach tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

» Will lucrative Trump tax break turn the tide in Erie? A local take from PA Post
» Wall Street wins as Pennsylvania public schools bet against interest rates
» Philly aims to curb racial disparities. So why are police stops of black drivers increasing?
» How Pa. farmers are fighting to survive amid Trump's trade war
» Ballot question to give crime victims more rights prompts lawsuit from ACLU
» Philly doesn't know how much its glitchy payroll system overpaid thousands of workers
» Pa. AG drops probe related to Tree of Life shooter's favored social media site

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.
Cup of coffee (Case No. 6): A woman ordered a cup of coffee at a diner. Five minutes later, she complained about a bug and asked for another cup. The waiter took it away and brought a cup back. But the woman knew it was the same cup of coffee. How did she know?
Stumped? Get a hint.

Last week's answer: The man would not have knocked on his own door. Congrats to Oscar A-L who cracked the case and will receive some Spotlight PA swag. Other subscribers who answered correctly: Andrea V., Jon N., Dennis M., George S., Karen T., Robert T., Ted P., Koert W., Bailey W., David S., Barry A., David M., Nate C. and Bob S.
» This week's Riddler hint: Stir it up
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