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Pa. lawmakers cash in on expenses during pandemic

The Investigator

March 18, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Pandemic per diems, vaccine incentives, media bias, questionable ballot questions, information blackout, eviction filings, and U.S. Capitol assault.


What has the pivot to remote work meant for travel-related expense requests coming in from state lawmakers? The short answer is not much. 

Spotlight PA reporter Angela Couloumbis took a look at the records and found the House paid out $955,696.68 in such reimbursements — aka "per diems" — in 2020. At least $668,993 of that came after the coronavirus began to spread in Pennsylvania in March and members were allowed to cast votes remotely. As the pandemic's economic fallout grew, so did scrutiny of this practice.

“All of us have been asked to make sacrifices during this pandemic, and the General Assembly should be no different,” Sen. Tim Kearney (D., Delaware) said when he introduced legislation last summer to temporarily suspend the reimbursements. “It seems like the least we can do."

But the bill went nowhere. See how much your lawmaker banked in flat-rate meal and lodging payments (no receipts required!) during the pandemic.

New today, Spotlight PA's Jamie Martines has the report on U.S. House Republican lawmakers pressing former Health Secretary Rachel Levine on missing nursing home data as her nomination to the Biden administration advances.

Also this week, two Pennsylvania prisons have vaccinated more than 70% of inmates for COVID-19, no small feat for a system that, on average, vaccinates just over a quarter of its population for the flu. 

The reason for the relative success? Spotlight PA's Martines and Joseph Darius Jaafari report the answer may be simple: money.

And finally, I detailed a new report on a growing crop of local media sites in Pennsylvania with ties to both Democratic and Republican groups and few, if any, disclaimers about their partisan motives. The report warns these sites are masquerading as local news and threatening public trust in journalism.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

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"I don’t believe these politicians deserve to be in this building.”

Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) on dimming prospects in the state House to pass emergency relief for survivors of child sexual abuse like himself

» The Fettermans: Join Spotlight PA at 5 p.m. April 6 for a conversation and reader Q&A with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Second Lady Gisele Fetterman on immigration, legal cannabis, racism, and more. RSVP FOR FREE


» 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

» Hopes dim that Pa. lawmakers will push through emergency relief for clergy abuse victims

» 5 things to know about the minimum wage debate in Pa.

» Watch: An expert panel on redistricting, gerrymandering impacts

Ballot questions should be clear, but two written by the Wolf administration don’t pass the test

Amending the Pennsylvania Constitution is a lengthy process that ends at the ballot box, where voters are asked to make consequential decisions based on a few lines of text. 

For both supporters and opponents of these measures, that means each word included — and excluded — from the question on the ballot is critical.

Two proposed constitutional amendments that will be before voters this May have drawn the ire of Republican leaders in the state House and Senate, who called language written by the Wolf administration “prejudicial.”

The proposals would give the General Assembly the power to end a disaster declaration without the governor’s approval and would require the executive to seek lawmakers’ consent to continue a declaration past 21 days. (Much more on that here.)

The Department of State, the head of which is appointed by the governor, summarized the proposals into ballot questions, which will tell voters that the amendments “increase the power of the General Assembly” and “[remove] the existing check and balance.”

“They clearly wrote it in a way for it to fail,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) told reporters in February. 

GOP lawmakers aren’t the only ones who think the language is problematic. 

Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College, recently wrote that these questions need to give voters the “information they need to make an informed decision.” And on that account, he wrote, the Department of State failed. 

The center conducted an experiment in 2016 involving another controversially worded ballot question that showed just how much language matters.

In that case, the GOP-controlled legislature rejected language written by the Department of State that plainly stated that the retirement age for judges would be raised from 70 to 75. Republicans rewrote the language so voters were only asked if they supported a retirement age of 75.

People surveyed by F&M at the time were randomly given three versions of the question: one written by the Wolf administration, one written by Republicans, and another written by pollsters. When shown the pollster and Wolf language, the measure failed. When shown the Republican language, it passed — which is what ultimately happened.

“The most basic rules of question construction are commonsensical: form a question that is easy to understand, uses everyday language, uses words with clear and specific meanings, and is as short as possible,” Yost wrote earlier this month. The Department of State failed to follow those rules as its questions use “loaded terminology” and lack context, he continued.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

BLACKOUT: Allegheny County Jail responded to a reporter's request for information about inmate mental health policies with a raft of almost entirely redacted documents, saying further disclosure could lead to individual or institutional harm. PublicSource explains why that lack of transparency matters, why it's unusual, and how it speaks to a pattern.

NEW DETAILS: The circumstances of Everett Palmer Jr.'s 2018 death at York County Prison seemed unusual, so much so that they drew attention from national media and then-President Donald Trump. But this month's release of a 174-page grand jury report provides the deepest insight yet into what transpired in the weeks, hours, and minutes before he died, the York Daily Record reports.

CAPITOL ARREST: A State College smoothie store owner has been charged with using a chemical spray on U.S. Capitol police during the Jan. 6 insurrection, including an officer who died the next day, WHYY reports. Authorities say Julian Khater discharged an unknown toxic substance — possibly an aerosol bear deterrent — into the face of Brian Sicknick and other officers at the scene

EVICTION CAPITAL: Allegheny County’s eviction hotspot is a sprawling suburban apartment complex where tenants are scrambling as a loophole-heavy federal eviction ban nears its end. The complex makes up just 0.5% of the county’s rental units but nearly 4% of its pandemic-era eviction cases, PublicSource and WESA found.

OPERATING ROOMS: The Pennsylvania House spent nearly $500,000 to transform two unused courtrooms into meeting rooms for legislative committees during a time of widespread austerity measures, and fiscal conservatives feel fine. “Leaving that space unused when we had it would have been wasteful on our part," House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) told PennLive.

» CBS NEWS: Longest–serving juvenile lifer adjusts to world post-release

» CENTER SQUARE: Pandemic highlights flaws in open records law

» MORNING CALL: Big Pa. gun show promoter halts 'ghost gun' sales

» POST-GAZETTE: DEP head raised serious concerns about Shell pipeline

» TRIBLIVE: Pa. will roll back more business restrictions next month

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.

DRINKING PATTERN (Case No. 84): Peter, Helen, and Steve are drinking coffee. Bert, Karen, and Dave are drinking soda. Logically, is Elizabeth drinking coffee or soda?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: 888 + 88 + 8 + 8 + 8 = 1,000
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