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What to watch as Pa. lawmakers return to Harrisburg

The Investigator

December 24, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Burnt-out election officials, no reform for secrecy law, issues to watch in Harrisburg, a rush for PPE, and a Right-to-Know challenge.
CHALLENGE EXTENDED: Spotlight PA members Jim Friedlich and Melissa Stern have increased their matching gift to $5,000. If we raise that much by Dec. 31, they will DOUBLE it. Put us over the top now!

Even before the pandemic emerged this spring, county election directors warned lawmakers and state officials that huge changes to Pennsylvania’s voting system were too much, too fast. Other states took years to implement statewide no-excuse mail voting. They had a few months.

Then COVID-19 arrived, and millions of people applied to vote by mail. The people tasked with running elections had to deal with verbal attacks from angry voters, confused or suspicious of the process this year.

That's had consequences, election reporters Marie Albiges and Tom Lisi found for Spotlight PA and Votebeat. Since the passage of the 2019 law that made sweeping changes to voting in Pennsylvania, at least 21 election officials have left or will soon leave their posts, according to their analysis.

But election officials' work isn't done. At least 64 counties in Pennsylvania have begun the process of auditing the November election to verify that the original vote tally was correct.

Also this week, reporter Rebecca Moss explained how the CSI Act allows powerful utility companies to keep large swaths of public information confidential without consequence, with little hope of reform. 

A previous Spotlight PA investigation found that the law has at times prevented people who live near the pipelines from getting the safety information they need to draft detailed emergency plans should disaster strike.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"It’s horrible to know that the state did such a poor job of helping people."

— Patty Torres, organizing director at Make the Road Pennsylvania, on the GOP-controlled legislature's failure to fix trouble rent and mortgage relief programs, subsequently leaving $108 million in aid unused 

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for alerts for your county.

» Trump invites GOP senators to White House lunch

» Pa. misses deadline to spend $108M in rent, mortgage relief

» An inmate died of the coronavirus, Pa. corrections never told his family

What we’re watching as lawmakers return to Harrisburg

The Pennsylvania legislature returns in January to start a new, two-year session. Here’s what we’re paying attention to. Angela Couloumbis and Cynthia Fernandez

» After months of forewarning, Pennsylvania struggled for weeks to count millions of mail ballots, largely because state law does not allow for pre-canvassing before the morning of Election Day. Now, as burned-out officials prepare for the May primary, Senate Republicans want to create a bipartisan committee in 2021 to review “the accuracy and security” of the election. Get ready for plenty of debate. 

» After a summer of hearings and protests across the state and even inside the Capitol, the House and Senate advanced a number of police reform measures. But only two bills made it across the finish line, largely to the credit of Black Democrats. Lawmakers from the party say they plan to keep pushing for changes to the state’s use-of-force statute and its arbitration law.

» In 2021, lawmakers will be tasked with drawing new legislative and congressional maps — a process that historically has resulted in gerrymandering, or concentrating one party’s voters into a district or spreading them out unnaturally. But unlike a decade ago, Republicans no longer control the governor’s office or the state Supreme Court — meaning both parties will have to cooperate to complete the task. Still, the process of how maps are drawn will remain largely the same, as the GOP majority has failed to advance changes favored by nonpartisan groups.

» Two women made history in the Pennsylvania legislature in November as their colleagues elected them to lead their caucuses. Sen. Kim Ward and Rep. Joanna McClinton come from opposite sides of the political spectrum but will need to carve out a path toward bipartisan agreements on tough issues.

» It may seem like a long way off, but political parties will begin plotting who is best positioned to run for governor as Tom Wolf’s second and last term comes to a close. Expect to see campaign announcements before the end of 2021.

» HELP US UNLOCK $5K RIGHT NOW: Spotlight PA members Jim Friedlich and Melissa Stern have challenged us to raise $5,000 by Dec. 31. If we do, they will double every gift. Show your support and become a member today. Contributions in any amount will help power our work into 2021.
CLOSING THE GAP: While the coronavirus aid package approved by Congress doesn't provide funding to state and local governments, the Senate Republican in charge of the budget told The Morning Call taxes can still help close an estimated $4 billion revenue gap. Roughly $350 million to $450 million could go to PennDOT, which nearly had to shut down a number of projects earlier this month because of a lack of funding.

INCONSISTENT FREEZE: While staffers in the state Senate got a pay raise this year, their counterparts in the state House did not, according to PennLive. Management and non-unionized employees at the Pennsylvania Treasury Department similarly didn't see a salary bump, though workers in the other row offices — Attorney General and Auditor General — did.

A NATIONAL RUSH: Pennsylvania spent $35 million on plastic face shields earlier this year, as officials rushed to snap up personal protective equipment they could find for sale, the Associated Press reports. The state also spent $16.9 million on sanitizer and $5.6 million on ventilators.

POOR CONNECTION: In order for Tim Westgate to attend weekly Bible study classes over Zoom, he has to drive to a library and find a street light to park under. Such is life in Honesdale, Wayne County, and many other parts of the state where people don't have reliable internet, WLVR and The Pulitzer Center report.

NO RIGHT TO KNOW: The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has filed a lawsuit claiming it should not be covered by the state's Right-to-Know Law, TribLIVE reports. For the past 12 years, the PIAA has been considered a state-affiliated entity covered by the public records statute. But now, after “frivolous” and “obscene" requests, it says that definition is wrong.

» AP: Wolf seeks $145M fund shift to help businesses with pandemic

» DELCO TIMES: Delaware County man's dead mom voted for Trump

» INQUIRER: In rural Pa., COVID-19 deaths are now surging 

» MORNING CALL: Issues faced by LGBTQ pop. increase COVID-19 risk

» POST-GAZETTE: GOP could oppose seating Brewster in Pa. Senate

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA
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