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Pa. lawmakers gut proposed redistricting rules

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

June 24, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Election audit, redistricting rules, biggest spender, voting reform, numbers story, SCOTUS rulings, Medicaid lawsuits, broken system, and narrow sights.  
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Despite two audits and assurances from every level of government that the 2020 election was free of widespread fraud, a key Pennsylvania state senator is backing an audit of the November presidential contest similar to Arizona’s partisan and highly controversial ballot review.

Spotlight PA and Votebeat report state Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) does not see the "damage in doing it one more time to try to answer the concerns that people have," that endorsement coming four days after former President Donald Trump called Argall out publicly for dragging his feet.  

But such an audit, particularly if advanced by just one political party, will be sure to attract criticism and come with critical questions, including how much it would cost, who would pay for it, and why it would be any more trustworthy than the widely accepted audits already completed.

Also this week, Spotlight PA and Votebeat report a key state Senate committee has agreed to put guardrails on how Pennsylvania lawmakers draw U.S. congressional maps, while stripping out proposed limits on how state lawmakers' own districts are drawn.

Experts say the bill, softened by an Argall-introduced amendment, would still be an improvement over the way the state's congressional maps are drawn now, but the amendment weakens transparency and accountability provisions ahead of what is sure to be a contested redesign of Pennsylvania's U.S. House districts.

And finally, state Rep. Chris Sainato's taxpayer-funded spending stands out, even by Pennsylvania's standards. 

The Lawrence County Democrat has spent or been reimbursed personally for more than $1.8 million in mileage, meals, lodging, travel, and office-related costs — including nearly $640,000 in per diems legislators can claim without receipts — since taking office in 1994. Adjusted for inflation, the total amounts to more than $2.2 million.

All of that was charged to taxpayers, according to an analysis of expense records by The Caucus and Spotlight PA as part of their ongoing investigation, The Hidden Tab

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
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"The lawmakers behind this bill are the same ones who asked Congress to throw out PA votes and whose lies directly contributed to the Jan. 6 insurrection." 

—Gov. Tom Wolf on a GOP-led election reform bill that passed the state House on Tuesday despite Democratic opposition and Wolf's veto pledge

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

» As Pa. House advances doomed election overhaul, Senate GOP charts different course to voter ID, other changes

The Milton Hershey School: By the numbers 

Spotlight PA and the Philadelphia Inquirer, in partnership with ProPublica, spent months investigating a venerable Pennsylvania institution, the Milton Hershey School. Reporters interviewed experts in education and nonprofit finances, as well as dozens of former students, to understand more about how the state's richest charity spends its money. Here's what our investigation found, by the numbers. —Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

» With $17.4 billion in assets, the Milton Hershey School is the wealthiest K-12 school in the U.S., endowed with the profits of the Fortune 500-ranked Hershey candy company. Its mission: to educate low-income and at-risk children, at no cost, at a residential school in central Pennsylvania. 

» Although the school spends lavishly on its 2,100 students — roughly $90,000 a year on each — it faces an unusual dilemma for a charity: too much money. Over the past 20 years, the school has almost doubled the number of students it serves. Over the same period, though, its assets have nearly quadrupled in value, from $4.5 billion to more than $17 billion

» One obstacle to spending more is a provision in the school's founding deed, signed in 1909 by chocolate tycoon Milton S. Hershey and his wife, Catherine, which says the school can spend only the income earned by its endowment, not the endowment itself. But critics point out that the deed can be, and has been, changed. And almost every year since its founding, the school has not spent all the available income. By 2020, more than $1 billion in unspent income had piled up. Under a recent court agreement, $350 million of that will now be spent on a new initiative to build six preschools across the state; most of it will be reclassified as a rainy day fund.

» When we asked former students what drew them to the school, many cited the chance to earn a generous college scholarship, currently up to $95,000. But that money comes with strings attached that leave some students mired in debt. Before they can use it, students are first required to borrow $2,500 in subsidized federal loans — debt the school will repay, but only if they complete a degree. School officials said they believe the loans increase students' commitment to their education. 

» But 11 higher-education experts told Spotlight PA, the Inquirer, and ProPublica that this policy is unusual and risky. Borrowers who don't complete a degree are the most likely to default, even though their loan balances are smaller. 

» Dayshawn Carroll experienced this first hand. He graduated from MHS in 2011 – the first year the school required students to take out loans. Carroll dropped out of community college after one semester and defaulted on the loan, ruining his credit score. He said he didn't fully understand the responsibility he was taking on when he signed for the loan — or that the consequences of failing to pay it back would dog him for years. He still owes $950

Read more coverage from this investigative series in our archives.
HIGH COURT: The U.S. Supreme Court decided two Pennsylvania cases in the past week, each with national implications. The high court ruled against Philadelphia's decision to stop working with a Catholic social services group that refused to certify same-sex couples as foster parents and in favor of a Mahanoy City teen who argued her free speech rights were violated when her school punished her for online profanity, per NPR.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: "Serious racial disparities pervade Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system" and change is urgently needed, according to a new report from a bipartisan state task force. The AP reports a 16-month review found Pennsylvania locks up far too many first-time and low-level youth offenders, despite research showing it doesn't work as intended.

PARTIAL RECALL: State Republicans amended a Democrat-led bill that would have given voters across Pennsylvania the power to recall elected officials and changed it to apply only to the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia. Democrats called the move a cravenly political one, while a key Republican said the measure still has to clear multiple hurdles.

YEAR IN REVIEW: The end of Pennsylvania's pandemic-inspired rules is days away, with the last-remaining mitigation effort, a mask mandate for unvaccinated people, set to expire on June 28. WESA has a look back at 15 months of case data, overlaid with mitigation benchmarks to determine what worked, what didn't, and "where we're headed next."

BIDDING WAR: For the third time since 2015, Pennsylvania is working to replace Medicaid contracts worth billions. But each time losing bidders have filed suit against the state over the way it picks winners. The Inquirer says the pushback proves that for insurers, "government-paid health insurance [...] is a feast worth fighting over."

» AP: Families say Pa. nursing homes are protecting elders 'to death'

» EATER: White Pa. bar owner sues over minority-focused COVID-19 relief

» LNP: Feds cite Pa. farmer's 'historic willingness' to flout food laws

» PENNLIVE: Local Pa. police one step closer to winning radar rights

» SMITHSONIAN: Child remains unearthed at Pa. boarding school site

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.

NEW BALANCE (Case No. 98)A man split a 40-pound lead bar into four pieces in a way that allows him to weigh any number of pounds from one to forty using a balance scale, like this. What are the weights of the pieces? (Note: For some weights, the lead pieces will appear on both sides of the scale.)
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Our ages never come down, unfortunately 
Congrats to Michelle T., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Philip C., Judy A., Michael H., George S., Burnetta S., William D., Catherine J., Kathy M., Lynda G., Roseanne D., Don H., Karen K., Geoff M., Rick D., Beth T. (double winner, erroneously left off last week's list), Mark C., Mary B., Robert K., James D., Elizabeth W., Dennis F., Johnny C., Jon N.
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