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From fracking boom to broke for one Pa. county

The Investigator

March 11, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Boom to bust, critical gaps, election audit, fancy retreat, relief bill, angry allies, mail delays, failure to vet, housing anxiety, and excessive force.

The natural gas industry looked like a godsend for rural Greene County, bringing in millions of dollars in state-assessed drilling fees, new businesses, new residents, and new hope as the once-thriving coal mining industry has all but vanished there. 

But despite being one of the most heavily fracked counties in the state, Greene is now struggling to balance its budget, and has raised property taxes for the first time in more than a decade, Spotlight PA's Jamie Martines reports. The tale raises questions about the financial lifeline offered — and promised — by Pennsylvania's fossil fuel industry

As drilling activity slows, so will the related economic benefits, and without major changes, officials warn Greene County could go broke by 2023.

Also this week, Martines and Ese Olumhense reported on Pennsylvania's failure to ensure the wholesale collection of race and ethnicity data around COVID-19 testing, confirmed cases, and vaccine administration — key information used to inform potential life-and-death policy decisions.

Without complete data, policymakers lacked a complete picture of where need was the greatest, all while Black Pennsylvanians faced exponentially higher COVID-19 risks with fewer resources.

“This is not only a public relations issue,” a consulting group wrote of Pennsylvania's COVID-19 data gaps, “it is a very real health equity issue.”

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA


"For goodness sake, we’re living in 2021. It’s pitiful."

—Greene County business owner Johnny Humble on the lack of internet access in the rural area of Pennsylvania

» Redistricting in Pennsylvania: Join us at 5 p.m. March 16 for a Capitol Live by Spotlight PA expert panel on redistricting, gerrymandering, and its impact on Pennsylvania communities. RSVP FOR FREE NOW »»


» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and sign up for alerts for your county

» Preguntas frecuentes sobre el frustrante despliegue de vacunas en Pensilvania

» Pa. audit confirms Biden got more votes than Trump, but not much else

» You’re invited! A reader Q&A on redistricting and gerrymandering in Pa.

As pandemic continues, GOP lawmakers prepare for retreat at pricey ‘Bachelor’ resort 

When Republican lawmakers come together for their annual retreats this month and next to talk politics — and maybe some policy — there will be no need to create virtual backgrounds featuring bucolic landscapes to spice up their image. 

Those views will be right outside their conference room window.

Despite the pandemic, Republicans who control both legislative chambers have scheduled the gatherings in person this year at the upscale Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Situated on nearly 2,000 acres in the Laurel Highlands, it is one of the state’s best-known luxury resorts. 

Fans of “The Bachelor” will recognize it as the backdrop of the show’s most recent season.

The legislative retreats, the cost of which lawmakers can cover using campaign funds, come as Pennsylvania continues to operate under a bevy of coronavirus-related restrictions that discourage in-person gatherings. It also comes as the state is slated to receive billions in aid from the federal government to help state and local agencies, as well as residents, navigate the financial burdens brought on by the pandemic.

“It’s not a good look,” said one Republican lawmaker who disagreed with the decision to schedule the retreat at an upscale resort, but who did not want to publicly criticize his legislative leaders for the decision.

Sen. Dave Argall, the Schuylkill County Republican who heads up the Senate GOP campaign arm that helps organize the retreats, said he did not choose the location — that decision is often made by the chamber’s leaders. But he noted that no taxpayer money underwrites it, and said precautions are being taken to ensure attendees follow coronavirus-related safety measures.

“I know we are encouraging members to attend in person,” said Argall, “but I think it can be done safely.” 

Both Republicans and Democrats have for years held such retreats outside the Capitol as a way to discuss, craft, and debate political strategies to help them win elections.

This year, because of the pandemic, Democrats in the Senate said they have no retreat planned and gathered remotely last month to discuss their legislative agenda. In the House, Democratic leaders said they are delaying their retreat until later in the year, in the hopes that much of the state’s population will be vaccinated by then.

But they noted that theirs is usually held in Harrisburg.

Senate Republicans will gather at Nemacolin first, with their two-day retreat scheduled to start on March 25. Republicans in the House received an email late last month urging them not to delay making reservations for their two-day gathering, which starts April 28.

Single rooms, according to a copy of the email obtained by Spotlight PA, run $600 a night.

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

BIG RELIEF: A $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package includes money to further boost pandemic-era unemployment payments, an expanded child tax credit, direct stimulus payments, and around $13 billion for Pennsylvania governments. The lion's share of that is going to Pennsylvania's deficit-strapped state government, but $5.7 billion will go to local governments, many under mounting financial pressure after a year of compounding economic impacts, Spotlight PA reported. 

FRIENDLY FIRE: Some allies are knocking the Wolf administration's vaccine rollout amid concerns about the number of doses going to four populous counties outside Philadelphia, The Inquirer reports. Four members of Congress urged Gov. Tom Wolf to review his plan and “improve upon its weakness,” while one likened finding a dose to a “scavenger hunt.” If the pushback proves anything, it's that Democrats know voters will remember how the state managed the biggest public health crisis in a century.

OUTBREAKS: Midstate postal workers are linking COVID-19 outbreaks at close-quarter processing and distribution plants with delivery delays that have dogged the system since last year. They blame management for failing to properly sanitize work stations, perform contact tracing, or fill vacancies, essentially voiding a leave policy meant to keep workers from getting sick or getting others sick. “The public needs to know: This is why your mail is being delayed,” union president Kim Miller told PennLive.

'GREAT RISK': A COVID-19 vaccine partnership between the city of Philadelphia and a fledgling startup ended in scandal, but not before putting the city "at great risk" in the middle of a pandemic, an investigation by Philadelphia's Office of Inspector General has found. According to WHYY, the report confirms that Philadelphia's Department of Public Health ignored serious red flags before turning over thousands of vaccine doses and $194,000 to the embattled Philly Fighting COVID group.

HIGH ANXIETY: What will the eventual end of federal bans on foreclosures and evictions look like with widespread financial insecurity still facing so many American renters and homeowners? The Post-Gazette says housing counselors are unsure but bracing for the worst, with one expert calling the bans a "shot of Novocain" that's about to wear off. Meanwhile, Spotlight PA found that Pennsylvania’s first effort to help renters pay their bills was doomed from the start

» AP: Candidates file for Pa. Supreme Court opening

» BILLY PENN: Was Philly labor leader's arrest excessive force?

» PHILLY VOICE: FBI was looking for lost Civil War gold in Elk County

» PUBLICSOURCE: Complaints of frigid jail cells dismissed by officials

» TRIBLIVE: Musicians, venues still reeling from pandemic closures

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

FAST MATH (Case No. 83)Can you write down eight eights so that they add up to one thousand?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: They played other people or, in a deceptively simple scenario, played each other and tied.
Congrats to Judy A., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Michele M., Philip C., Jim R., Michael H., Christopher R., Ed N., Alice O., Lynn M., Eileen D., Joseph M., Thomas D., Joseph S., Annette I., Mary B., Beverly M., Jon N., Joel S., James D., George S., Dennis F., Irene T., Albert S., Kenneth J., Beth T., John H., Beryl K., Joseph A., Norman S., Patrick B., Kate M., David I., Heather B., Julie R., Rick S., Geoff M., Lynda G., Roseanne D., Bruce B., and Michael S.
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