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Pulling back the curtain on Pa. lawmaker spending

The Investigator

May 27, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Vaccine gaps, waste details, 'systemic failures,' power moves, hidden tab, anonymous audit, Capitol questions, PSERS purge, and boom boxes.
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The Wolf administration has reversed course and made public how many vaccine doses have been wasted by providers and why, months after denying Spotlight PA’s public records request for the same information.

Jamie Martines reports the waste data show just 0.18% of more than 10 million doses given to hospitals, pharmacies, and other providers through May 21 were not used. Of the 18,644 discarded doses, providers reported spoilage as the cause in more than 37% of cases.

The release comes two months after the state Department of Health denied Spotlight PA’s public records request for the information, citing a 1955 law the administration has used throughout the pandemic to obscure the finer details of its response.

Also this week, Martines reports on a significant equity gap that persists six months into Pennsylvania's vaccine rollout, reflecting racial disparities seen throughout the pandemic here

About 73% of people who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the state outside of Philadelphia are white, while 4% are Black and 4% are Hispanic. 

Advocates say they're left playing catch-up as they work to overcome a lack of targeted resources and outreach. 

And finally, Angela Couloumbis details a new report on the Department of State blunder that derailed a statewide referendum on giving more legal recourse to survivors of child sexual abuse. 

The Office of State Inspector General investigation found no evidence of "intentional malfeasance" but does cite "internal systemic failures" by the Wolf administration that it says contributed to the error.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

"It was so horrifying to me and everyone at the Department of State that a grave error — at the department — added to the pain of any victim of abuse."

—Veronica Degraffenreid, acting secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of State, on a new report into their clergy abuse ballot question blunder 

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine

» Newly empowered, Pa. GOP lawmakers move to end parts of Wolf’s coronavirus disaster order

What our year-long investigation revealed about how lawmakers spend your tax dollars
In 2019, The Caucus and Spotlight PA began filing requests for every legislative expense lawmakers covered with taxpayer money — salaries and benefits not included.

The purpose? To find out how one of the largest and most expensive full-time legislatures in the country spends tax money on itself. Here are five takeaways from a year spent pulling back the curtain. Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

Millions of dollars expensed annually 

The General Assembly spent $203 million from 2017 through 2020 just to feed, house, transport, and provide rental offices and other perks for lawmakers and their staffers.

About $20 million of that went into lawmakers' pockets in the form of reimbursements for meals, mileage subsidies, per diems, and other expenses.

Read more: Inside the year-long fight to figure out how the Pa. legislature spends taxpayer money on itself

Documents are hard to come by (and harder to parse)

Citizens who want to see what lawmakers are buying with their money face an array of barriers and even pushback from lawyers hired with, you guessed it, taxpayer money. 

When the records finally do arrive, they're in PDF files that can run more than 1,000 pages, some of which aren't text-searchable. Redactions are also routine.

Read more: Taxpayers foot huge bill to run Pa.'s full-time legislature, but are blocked from many details

Transparency in name only 

While several leaders said they would "consider" requiring the legislature's expenses to be posted online by individual members, only one — Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) — said he will champion the change. Meanwhile, Corman’s own voluntary online expense reports are more than six years out of date. 

Read more: Some Pa. lawmakers tout expense transparency. Their websites tell a different story.

And the biggest spender is ...

Rep. Chris Sainato (D., Lawrence) collected about $235,000 in per diems and reimbursement for other expenses over the four years examined. That works out to about $59,000 a year, $5,000 more than the median annual household income in the county he represents.

Read more: See the Pa. lawmakers who spent the most on food, lodging, mileage and more

Vague disclosures hide details

For example, a House Democratic Caucus expense to reimburse a staffer had no description in the reports originally provided, and in a separate request had the memo, "To enable access to work email while away from office."

A follow-up request yielded a Royal Caribbean cruise receipt for a "zoom surf + stream voyage package," otherwise known on their website as "the fastest internet at sea."

Read more: Lawmakers report receiving fewer gifts during pandemic as push for ban continues
MYSTERY AUDIT: The company that was conducting a privately funded recount of Arizona ballots from last year's presidential election ran an equally mysterious audit of rural Fulton County, Pennsylvania's election results first, the Arizona Mirror reports. The Fulton County audit is tied to state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) and the "Stop the Steal" movement.

OFFICIAL INQUIRY: Thirty-five GOP defectors in the U.S. House, one from Pennsylvania, backed a 9/11-style commission to probe the Jan. 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol. The proposal is due for a U.S. Senate vote today. Elsewhere, new video casts doubt on Mastriano's claims about his movements around the Capitol that day, via WHYY.  
STEP DOWN: The powerful American Federation of Teachers union wants every Public School Employees Retirement System board member appointed before January 2021 to resign, according to PennLive. The union says scandals swirling around the $64 billion pension fund have jeopardized the financial security of its 36,000 state members.

'ANTI-INDOCTRINATION': Husband-and-wife school board candidates who attended the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the U.S. Capitol attack and who believe the 2020 election was stolen have advanced to November's general election, LancasterOnline reports. The couple is running for Elizabethtown school board on an "anti-indoctrination" platform.

BIG BOX: A surge in Lehigh Valley warehouse development has the attention of The New York Times, which says the e-commerce-fueled building boom is sparking residential concerns. The paper says proximity to New York City is a key reason for the trend. Critics say the development threatens historic graveyards and is moving farther into the countryside.

» AP: Bills to restrict abortion, expand gun rights start in Pa. House

» THE GUARDIAN: Santorum fired by CNN over Native American remarks

» INQUIRER: Wolf pardons ex-doctor who grew marijuana for dying wife

» PENNLIVE: Wolf rejects calls to lift COVID-19 rules before Memorial Day

» POST-GAZETTE: Pa. police reform, one year after George Floyd's death

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.

AGE-OLD (Case No. 94)Asked how old she was, Suzie said, "In two years I will be twice as old as I was five years ago." How old is she now?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: The sentence is unusual because it contains every letter in the alphabet. 
Congrats to Heather B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Michele M., Michael H., Fred O., George S., Lynda G., William D., Ed F., Philip C., Jon N., Annette I., Deborah L., Lou R., Joe S., Mary B., Jyotin S., Michael S., Lucy B., and Kenneth J.
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