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How Pa. hides big-money contracts from taxpayers

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The Investigator

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

February 20, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Two of the state's most powerful special interest groups are battling over your right to sue should you ever be harmed during a medical procedure. A recent independent report many had hoped would end the argument once and for all has instead further muddied the waters, and both sides are claiming victory.

Also this week, Democrats are hopeful they can regain control of the legislature after a wave of resignations and planned retirements, including two big-time GOP fundraisers. Plus, PA Post on the "chaos" that could follow in some Pa. counties if a federal court blocks one voting system.

Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA


"After that, they run like chickens.”

— Rep. Tony DeLuca (D., Allegheny) on seeing some lawmakers retire after 10 years, when they qualify for a cushy pension


How big-money state contracts can remain hidden from taxpayers

Your state government spent upwards of $80 billion last fiscal year. If you want to know more about where your tax dollars went and who received them, that gets a bit tricky.

You can dig into government contracts and their price tags through an online search tool maintained by the state treasurer’s office. But what you might not know is that the database is missing an untold number of contracts.

That's because, while government agencies are required by law to upload contracts worth at least $5,000, the law has no teeth, there's nothing that forces those agencies to comply, and, sometimes, they don't.

In this case, transparency is optional.

We at Spotlight PA encountered the loophole several weeks ago while seeking details about a purchase of nearly $160,000 in guns and related equipment — since relegated to storage — by the state inspector general’s office.

A spokesperson for the office confirmed the purchase and the fact that its employees cannot legally carry the weapons. But the expenditure was nowhere to be found on the treasurer’s office e-Library, where contracts are publicized. That means taxpayers (including at least two state lawmakers) had no idea about the six-figure blunder.

It’s not clear why the contract never made it online, and agencies do not have to tell the treasurer's office when or why they decide not to post one.

After Spotlight PA's story, Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) urged his fellow legislators to force state agencies to follow the disclosure law. He's asking the Senate to add the requirement into his bill codifying an updated version of the treasurer’s transparency portal. The measure unanimously passed the House and is awaiting consideration before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In January, State Treasurer Joe Torsella began sending agencies twice-a-year reminders to upload their contracts to the portal, but scofflaws remain unchecked. And tracking how the government spends tax dollars remains difficult.

Matt McKinney, Spotlight PA

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Challengers file paperwork, state sued over detention center, and more from the week

» It’s almost primary time: At least three women filed paperwork this week to take on embattled state Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) in the spring primary, the Capital-Star reported. Top Democrats called for Leach to resign last year after an independent review found he made inappropriate jokes. 

» A suit to shutter Berks: Activists have sued the state Department of Human Services in an attempt to close a migrant detention center in Berks County, according to the Inquirer. “This lawsuit will help expose the hypocrisy of the governor’s position,” attorney David Bennion said.

» "Food insecurity is their daily reality": The Wolf administration on Wednesday again decried President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to food stamps. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, serves 1.7 million low-income, elderly, and disabled Pennsylvanians. 

» A new record: Small businesses run by minorities, women, and members of other “diverse” communities were awarded 11% “of commonwealth spending on goods, services and construction" in the past fiscal year, according to a state government report.

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg.
Can't-miss reads from this week
» SPOTLIGHT PA: Pa. spending big to reach historically undercounted groups for Census
» SPOTLIGHT PA/INQUIRER: Harrisburg diocese files for bankruptcy after abuse report
» REUTERS: Fire kills 15 children in Haiti orphanage run by Scranton religious group
» INQUIRER: People who don't vote say they dislike candidates, find it pointless
» INQUIRER: How fake lawyers robbed immigrants of their hope of staying in U.S.
» POST-GAZETTE: Allegheny Co. Dems pick candidate with "go Trump!" past
» PENNLIVE: Two men threaten to sue Lt. Gov. Fetterman after being blocked on Twitter
» WESA: Pa. leads country in charging people with death by drug delivery

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Rainy day (Case No. 26): Two men went for a walk one Sunday afternoon in June. About a half hour later, it began to pour. They ran to a nearby shop. The one man's hair was soaked, but the other didn't have any wet hair at all. How could that be?
Stumped? Get a hint. Have a riddle? Send it to us.

Last week's answer: All of the cars turned right.

Congrats to Melinda C. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Jeff W., Dave D., William H., Jonathan H., Ray L., Joseph, Robb H., Dan K., George S., Jeffrey F., James B., Vince P., Claudia M., David J., Drew C., George H., Ted P., Jon N., Mark V., Karen H.T., Don H., Annette I., Susan Y., Jim S., and Stewart G.
» This week's Riddler hint: No need for a barber.
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