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BREAKING: Pa. GOP proposes major election overhaul

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

June 10, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Emergency ending, student debt, PSERS revolt, data breach, budget blitz, double time, anti-poverty, flag wars, audit story, family hoax, and BLM case.
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We'll start with the breaking news that Pennsylvania Republicans have just unveiled major changes they want to make to the election process, including stricter voter ID and in-person early voting.

Also today, the Pennsylvania Senate voted to immediately end Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus disaster declaration using a new power granted to the legislature by primary voters.

The culmination of a pandemic-inspired push by Republicans to rein in the governor's emergency authority, Sarah Anne Hughes reports GOP lawmakers say they're simply carrying out the will of voters who approved new checks and balances over disaster declarations by a narrow margin in May.

Democrats are challenging the legality of ending the order before the election results are certified. Meanwhile, the resolution is headed for a final vote in the state House, where lawmakers gave it preliminary approval in a party-line vote Tuesday.

Also this week, with more than $17 billion in assets, the Milton Hershey School is richer than Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh combined, spending big to educate and house some 2,100 low-income and at-risk children.

But those investments come with serious caveats, leaving some students behind and others mired in debt, Spotlight PAThe Inquirer, and ProPublica found.

Between 2006 and 2015, about half of the Hershey students who enrolled in college or another educational program graduated within six years.

Those who don't are left to repay loans the Hershey school would otherwise pay off for them. Others lose out on the "strings-attached" scholarships for running afoul of the school's exacting standards.

In other news, Spotlight PA and The Inquirer report on a revolt led by a dissident group of trustees for Pennsylvania’s largest pension fund.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that members of the PSERS (or Public School Employees' Retirement System) board are seeking majority support to fire the retirement plan's chief executive and top investment officer, as the fund grapples with an FBI investigation and management mistakes.

State Sen. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery), a relatively new board member, said she signed on to the ouster letter, days after suing the agency for improperly keeping her in the dark about the fund's policies. This is unfolding fast, and you can keep up with all of our coverage here.

And finally, after a data breach jeopardized the private information of 72,000 people contacted during COVID-19 contact tracing calls, Spotlight PA's Jamie Martines reports personal information is still available online, more than a month after the company responsible said it had been secured.

Health department spokesperson Barry Ciccocioppo said the department was unaware the additional link was active and is investigating.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
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"They absolutely shouldn't have done this right now with the amount of people that are claiming still. They should have just waited."

—Donna Pfitzenmeyer Swangler, moderator of a Pennsylvania unemployment support Facebook group, on this week's glitchy rollout of the state's new unemployment computer system
» CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING: Join Spotlight PA for a live interview and reader Q&A with Sen. David Argall at 1 p.m. June 18. RSVP for FREE »

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

» Jobless in Pa. livid over new unemployment system errors as Wolf administration declares victory

» Wolf sticks by $1 billion plan to close Pa.’s education gap, minus his proposed tax increase

» Facing FBI probe, PSERS backtracks on disclosure that staffers were on both sides of real estate dealings

» With $10,000,000,000 to spend, advocates press Wolf, Pa. lawmakers to prioritize poor people

» Activists target top Republican in Pa. Senate as they push for gift ban

Flag wars rage at Pa. Capitol in competing acts of lawmaker protest

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman commemorated the start of Pride Month last week by once again flying an LGBTQ flag outside his Capitol office in defiance of a 2020 ban. And once again, the flag was promptly removed.

Fetterman was technically breaking the law — a fact that disturbs members of Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ community. 

“The flag symbolizes us as a community, and when you remove these flags, you are essentially saying that we as a community should remain invisible, remain forgotten, remain tossed aside and cast out,” Philadelphia trans activist Kendall Stephens said. 

The fate of these flags was also a concern to prominent LGBTQ blogger Sue Kerr, who told Spotlight PA it would be “deeply disturbing if Pride flags are destroyed.”

The flags are in the custody of the state agency tasked with removing them from Fetterman’s office — although their exact condition is unclear. 

“We take the flags down and retain them in our possession,” Department of General Services spokesperson Troy Thompson said. “We’re not burning them or doing anything like that to them.” Thompson declined to elaborate.

Fetterman began his displays of Pride and pro-cannabis flags soon after taking office. 

His Republican critics responded by tucking a ban on most flags into a larger budget bill passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, Fetterman’s 2018 running mate.

The flag wars don’t end there. 

Troy Thompson said pro-Second Amendment and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags pictured inside the Capitol this week, near a permitted Pride flag display in the East Wing Rotunda, were also removed by DGS. 

But unlike Fetterman’s Pride flags, these were returned to the lawmaker who placed them, via the Chief Clerk’s Office. 

Thompson said the clerk’s office reached out to facilitate the flags’ return.

The office declined comment when reached by Spotlight PA and declined to name the lawmaker involved. But state Rep. David Rowe (R., Snyder) took credit for the display on Facebook earlier in the week, writing, “Wolf and Fetterman have been decorating the Capitol for months with flags to fit their agenda. I figured I’d follow their example and decorate the East Wing with flags to fit my agenda...and my agenda is FREEDOM!”

Thompson said a different state rule prohibits unpermitted displays in portions of the building’s interior, which prompted the removal of Rowe’s flags.

Asked why those flags were returned to the lawmaker who placed them but Fetterman’s weren’t, Thompson said Fetterman’s flags could be returned, but he hasn’t reached out. 

A longer version of this story will appear on spotlightpa.org.
TRACE AUDIT: The playbook for Arizona's controversial election audit was written in Pennsylvania, where the Washington Post confirms a preceding and similarly secretive recount effort pushed by state lawmakers with ties to former President Trump. Some of those same lawmakers traveled to Arizona to cheer on the contested recount and call for the same here. The Capital-Star reports it's unclear who paid their way.

LIFE AND DEATH: A state prison guard from Clearfield County named Kyle Dixon died from COVID-19 in January. But even as the virus ripped through the family, killing Kyle, hospitalizing his sister, and sickening seven others, the pull of COVID-19 conspiracy theories remained just as strong, WITF reports, even inside the hospital. "They’re back to posting their same stuff," Kyle's sister said of the family. "It's a hoax — that sort of stuff."

TAINTED WATER: A statewide search found toxic chemicals known as PFAs in a third of water sources tested, the Associated Press reports. Two sites had levels above the federal health advisory benchmark, which isn't currently enforceable, prompting efforts to create a standard that is. PFAs are used in nonstick cookware, carpets, firefighting foam, and fast-food wrappers and have been linked to cancer and other health issues.

CHARGES DROPPED: A local judge has dropped the most serious charges against a Bedford County man authorities say shot at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched past his home en route to Washington, D.C., striking one in the face. WJAC says some of the protesters testified Wednesday that Terry Myers used racial epithets against them, but none could say who fired what shots in the dark of night

POLICE PLAYBACK: It is exceedingly difficult to obtain body camera footage from Pennsylvania police, and that's by design, say critics of the state's applicable law. "Requests [for footage] must be submitted via personal delivery or certified mail — Well, that's silly, right? And why is there a 60-day time limit there? That seems arbitrary," a prosecutor told WHYY.

» AP: Pa. lawmakers return with big agenda, bigger differences

» NEW YORKER: How private equity helped bring down a Philly institution

» PHILLY MAG: What if commuters never return to Center City?

» TRIBLIVE: Black attorney to DA: apologize, resign, or recuse yourself

» YDR: Pa. insurrection defendant's violent history cited by prosecutors

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.

WATER WEIGHT (Case No. 96)You have a 5 gallon container and a 3 gallon container. How do you measure out 4 gallons?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Nine plus five equals two, as in the hours on a clock.
Congrats to Mary S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Michael H., Linda C., Philip C., George S., Marvin S., Elizabeth W., Annette I., Mary B., Joseph M., Donald D., Dennis S., Fred O., James D., Edward F., Robert K., Norman S., Michael S., Jyotin S., Gerry W., Eva S., Roseanne D., Joel S., Lynda G., Jon N., Dennis P., and Daniel D. (missed on last week's list).
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