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Breaking news: Powerful Pa. Republican won't seek reelection

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The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

January 23, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

We're out of the gate with breaking news: House Speaker Mike Turzai says he will not seek reelection. There's already buzz about who might replace him and implications for this year's election as Democrats seek to take control. The announcement caps a week of wild speculation in the Capitol about his future.

Also this week, we've got a report on how internal studies repeatedly warned the Pennsylvania State Police about potential racial bias during vehicle searches, raising new questions about why the agency stopped the research, and whether it's doing enough to train its troopers. Let's dive in...

Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA


"It’s very concerning. But not surprising."

— Chris Burbank, VP of the Center for Policing Equity, on research indicating Pa. troopers were more likely to search black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers


House Speaker Mike Turzai will not seek reelection

House Speaker Mike Turzai, one of the most powerful lawmakers in Pennsylvania and a leading conservative in Harrisburg, said this morning he will not seek reelection, and instead will pursue a job in the private sector.

The announcement, made during a news conference in Turzai's suburban Pittsburgh district office, caps a week of rampant speculation in the Capitol about the prominent Republican's future plans. It also sets the stage for what could be some rather sharp jousting in the contest for the speaker’s gavel.

Turzai, 60, who has served in the House since 2001 and as speaker since 2015, did not say whether he intended to complete his term, which ends later this year. The timing of his departure is critical, because it could trigger a special election in his district, as well as a mid-term election in the legislature for Speaker.

Turzai presided over the House during a time of iron-clad GOP majorities and relished the role of being a staunchly conservative counterbalance to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. He also was a prolific fundraiser, raising millions of dollars to help GOP candidates in legislative races across the state.

Any successor would be expected to do the same. 

Several names are already in the mix: Rep. Stan Saylor, a Republican from York County who runs the powerful House Appropriations Committee; Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), though he only assumed that leadership role last year and has told confidants that he wants to stay where he is for now; and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the majority whip.

If Turzai does not complete the remainder of his term, which ends on Nov. 30, Republicans could rally behind Rep. Marcy Toepel (R., Montgomery), who has already said she is not running for reelection. She could serve as speaker for the remainder of the year and then allow for a fresh fight for the job coinciding with the legislature’s new two-year session, which begins in 2021.

And a side note for those of you keeping track at home: Pennsylvania has never had a female speaker of the House.

Angela Couloumbis and Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg.
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The good, the bad and the ugly about Pa.'s background check law to protect children

Cathleen Palm, a leading advocate for strengthening Pennsylvania's child protection laws, weighs in this week on our report that revealed some organizations are skirting a 2014 law requiring a series of background checks for anyone working with children, including volunteers.
Q: How effective has the requirement been? 
Many more individuals are now undergoing comprehensive background checks than ever before. Data from the state Department of Human Services illustrates that in 2013, approximately 10 percent of the child abuse checks it completed were for a person identified as a volunteer. By 2018, that percentage rose to 31 percent. It is reasonable to assert that Pennsylvania cannot fully know how many employers or persons responsible for approving volunteers are failing to comply with the law and why. If an agency is subject to some state oversight, there can be a check for compliance, but for those outside such oversight, there simply is not a meaningful compliance check-up. And while the law sets forth a criminal offense when an employer or administrator or person responsible for approving volunteers “intentionally fails” to ensure the background checks are done, it would prove difficult for law enforcement to make the case around “intentionally fails."
Q: Did legislators realize the law's limitations at the time it was passed?
In 2012, the Task Force on Child Protection wrote: “We urge that those who monitor implementation of what we recommend recognize that what we call for is a process of improvement rather than a single flash in the pan, followed by a lapse in public attention.” As well-intentioned as lawmakers were, few embraced a commitment to being part of a sustained “process of improvement.” Too many lawmakers cast a vote, issued a press release, dismissed the mismatch in mandates versus the required fiscal resources and moved on to the next issue.   
Q: Should the law be revisited?
It seems premature to say what about the law needs to be reworked until we sort through whether it is the construct of the law or the practical implication of the law — or both — that require improvement. The fact is that obtaining, retaining and safeguarding background check records is a significant responsibility for any organization, even those with designated paid staff. For community-based organizations with small budgets and total reliance on volunteer leadership, navigating and complying with the law is quite intimidating. Any next steps must be attentive to not creating more confusion or furthering a punitive response. 
Q: How important are background checks for ensuring children are safe?
Comprehensive background checks are an important child protection tool and they can effectively identify a person who should not have access to children. Still, there are individuals who have abused a child that can easily pass the required background checks. No background check will ever be a substitute for a parent meaningfully engaging and knowing the adults who have contact with their child. A parent should learn about an organization’s full array of child protection policies and practices, including related to managing children with sexually problematic behaviors.

Can't-miss reads from this week
» WITF: Deaths of people with intellectual disabilities in Pa. went unreported, feds say
» INQUIRER: Get stompin', because spotted lanternfly infestation could cost state millions
» POST-GAZETTE: Pitt to investigate local government algorithms for potential bias
» INQUIRER: Dude, where's my car? No seriously. A Philly towing story like no other.
» AP: Republicans aim to undercut Democratic majority on state Supreme Court
» POST-GAZETTE: What's another $2 million? DEP adds to Sunoco Pipeline's fines

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Dark magic (Case No. 22): On a clear October night, a woman stopped a man walking down a dark street. The woman said that for $10, she would show him how to look into the past. The man was skeptical, but decided to give it a shot. He was surprised to find out she wasn't lying. How could they see into the past?
Stumped? Get a hint. Have a riddle? Send it to us.

Last week's answer: The bartender scared away the man's hiccups.

Congrats to Sarah P., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Dr. Rothman, Melissa C., Jeffrey F., Lou R., and Jon N.
» This week's Riddler hint: Things are looking up.
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