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Voting, cocktails, cash: Pa. pols' fall agenda

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

July 1, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Failure to clarify, redistricting rules, veto power, bag bans, legislative lookahead, budget cut, reflex repeal, process secrets, and an FBI treasure hunt.
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Susan Ousterman called every 800-number she could find to help pay for addiction treatment for her son, Tyler Cordeiro

But the Bucks County mother's desperate search ran headfirst into an unexpected barrier: Tyler's medical marijuana card, Ed Mahon reports.

While Pennsylvania approved opioid use disorder as a qualifying medical marijuana condition, it failed to clarify federal guidance that saw people, like Tyler, mistakenly denied financial aid for addiction treatment services they couldn't otherwise afford. 

A few weeks after encountering the barrier, Tyler — who had recently lost Medicaid coverage — walked from his mother's Bensalem home to a nearby gas station, went into the bathroom, and fatally overdosed. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs eventually clarified the rules, nearly a year and a half late, but it’s unclear, even now, if county drug and alcohol offices across the state will make changes to how they fund treatment in response.

Also this week, Pennsylvania lawmakers recessed for the summer without adopting anti-gerrymandering policies experts say are necessary to avoid political maps that unfairly benefit one party over the other, Spotlight PA and Votebeat report.

State legislators will begin drawing new political maps when they return to Harrisburg in September, and fair district advocates say that leaves little, if any, time to adopt meaningful protections first. 

"I would say that if they didn’t do it by now, they’re not going to do it," said Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA.

And finally, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a Republican rewrite of Pennsylvania’s Election Code on Wednesday, making clear his party's opposition to stricter voter ID requirements and setting up a showdown on the issue at the ballot box, where the GOP hopes voters will approve key provisions in veto-proof form.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
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"I wouldn't be surprised if we see a bunch of municipalities moving swiftly to try and get their own policies on the book."

—David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, on a new opening for local-level bans of single-use plastic bags in Pennsylvania

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

» Philadelphia and Pittsburgh move ahead with plastic bag bans as Pennsylvania’s preemption nears its end

5 issues Pa. lawmakers will face this fall

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is headed into a long summer recess after a flurry of legislative activity. But several key issues remain unresolved and will have to wait until lawmakers reconvene in the fall. Here’s a rundown of what to watch. Lindsay Weber, for Spotlight PA

Election reform

Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a Republican-written election reform bill this week, saying it would result in voter suppression. GOP lawmakers countered it would provide extra security measures while also expanding access to the ballot box

Republicans are expected to resurrect the issue upon their return. Jason Thompson, spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), said election reform will be “one of our top priorities” when the legislature reconvenes.

GOP lawmakers also plan to continue pursuing a constitutional amendment to expand voter ID requirements — a measure that would go directly to voters and skip Wolf.

$5B in federal relief dollars

Pennsylvania’s $40 billion budget package directed $2 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds toward human services, highway construction, nursing homes, and higher education.

That leaves $5 billion in relief money for the state to spend. Democrats want to see those funds spent on more financial relief for Pennsylvanians, but Republicans are wary of spending the money too quickly. 

GOP lawmakers said they would rather focus on regulatory waivers. Before lawmakers voted to end Wolf’s pandemic emergency declaration in June, the legislature extended many of the order’s temporary waivers until September. Those waivers relaxed state regulations on telemedicine, out-of-state nurses, and unemployment benefit requirements.

Cocktails to-go

Despite bipartisan support, lawmakers failed to extend a popular pandemic-era provision that allowed bars and restaurants to sell cocktails to-go. 

The House passed a bill in May, with bipartisan support, that would allow their sale permanently. But an amendment from Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) expanded the measure’s scope and lost the support of Democrats. His proposal would have allowed private retailers to compete with state-owned stores by selling canned cocktails.

The House stripped the amendment from the bill and sent it back to the Senate, which failed to act on it before the legislature recessed.

Lobbying reform

Top Republican lawmakers have indicated that lobbying reform will be a priority for them this session. Thompson, Corman’s spokesperson, told Spotlight PA the senator plans to unveil a lobbying reform bill “any day now” to be voted on in the fall.

Cannabis legalization

Pennsylvanians may see debates on cannabis legalization on the House and Senate floor this fall. The issue enjoys some bipartisan support. Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) and Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) introduced a bill in February to legalize adult use.

Wolf has thrown his support behind legalization, too, saying it would bolster “potential economic growth and much-needed restorative justice.” But the measure faces pushback in the GOP-controlled legislature, leaving its fate uncertain.

A full version of this story will appear on SpotlightPA.org.

BUDGET CUT: Gov. Tom Wolf has signed a $40 billion state budget with a $300 million boost in basic education funding, but only after rejecting millions Republicans tried to earmark for future election audits, City & State reports. Republicans said the money was set aside for that purpose and Democrats quickly called foul amid a GOP-led push to litigate Pennsylvania's 2020 election results, yet again.

CRASH COURSE: State Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) has pleaded guilty to driving an unregistered vehicle too fast for conditions following a motorcycle crash that left him seriously injured in March, Capital-Star reports. Regan maintains he wasn't speeding and plans to introduce legislation that would repeal a section of the law he violated, requiring more legwork by police and "a full investigation to determine a driver's alleged speed."

SECRET CHOICES: One of three newly identified candidates passed over by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019 for a seat on one of Pennsylvania's two highest appellate courts is calling the secretive process a "political deal" built on "fake merit," LNP and The Caucus report. The appointment went to a well-connected lawyer for the Republican caucus in Pennsylvania's state Senate, but the other applicants were never identified, until now. 

BAD TO WORSE: Lock Haven University staff worry a planned merger with three other state universities could hasten its demise. This as a survey finds most students are less likely to attend Lock Haven if they have to take some classes online post-merger, as proposed, and faculty fear further enrollment drops could see the university phased out altogether. "A slow death, that's what I fear," one professor told The Inquirer. 

GOLD MARKS: An FBI agent fearful the state of Pennsylvania — or an unnamed legislative staffer — might take and keep a fabled cache of lost Civil War gold applied for a federal warrant to seize the rumored trove first, the AP reports. Newly obtained court records further confirm that federal agents were indeed looking for tons of missing gold at an Elk County site three years ago, a dig the bureau maintains came up empty

» AP: Pa. borough facing shortage, plans to hire 19-year-old police

» CAPITAL-STAR: Top Wolf aide leaving for new gig at tech giant

» CITY PAPER: Pa. Dems join revolt against sky-high delivery app fees

» CNN: Bill Cosby freed from jail after stunning Pa. court ruling

» WAPO: 'Atoning for a painful legacy' at Pa. indigenous boarding school

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.

WORD SEARCH (Case No. 99): Seemingly out of nowhere, my grandmother looked up from her rocking chair and said: As far as I can tell, there is only one anagram of the word trinket. What is it?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: 1, 3, 9, 27
Congrats to Jon N., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Fred O., George S., Philip C., Michael H., Edward F., and Roseanne D.
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