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Lawmakers’ hidden spending will soon be revealed

Plus, how Pa. is reaching vaccine holdouts.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

August 12, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Spending strides, hard look, vaccine holdouts, rent relief, cannabis shroud, COVID briefing, 'unnecessary chaos,' crypto power, and a legal technicality.
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The Pennsylvania Senate will soon post online how lawmakers and their staff spend millions of taxpayer dollars on travel, meals, per diems, and other expenses.

The change, meant to make for easier and faster public viewing, is set to take effect next month and follows a series of stories by Spotlight PA and The Caucus about the lack of transparency and access to many of the legislature's spending records. (Read the series here.) 

The state House is said to be considering a similar move.

It's unclear, however, if the newly published Senate records will appear in an easily searchable, user-friendly database or in a different format that's more difficult to parse. 

In related news, the criminal case against a former state lawmaker has again highlighted Pennsylvania's lax rules for reimbursing electeds with taxpayer and donor money.

Former state Rep. Margo Davidson (D., Delaware) was charged in July with stealing from taxpayers and misusing campaign funds. She has since resigned.

Now, Spotlight PA and The Caucus report, the case against her is prompting scrutiny of the state's reimbursement system and giving new fodder to critics who say it's ripe for abuse. 

And finally, Jamie Martines reports Pennsylvania officials, health systems, and community groups are turning to text messages, house calls, and even county fairs to speed up the vaccination program and motivate holdouts.

Battling waves of misinformation and skepticism at a critical juncture, some also urge depoliticizing the vaccine by using teachers, coaches, or faith leaders as pro-vaccine messengers.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
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"The average award in the state is about $6,000 per household. So really significant financial assistance that can help people get back on their feet." 

—Meg Snead, acting secretary of Pa.'s Department of Human Services, during a Spotlight PA panel on pandemic-era rent relief available in the state
» CLIMBING COVID: Join us Wednesday, Aug. 25 at noon via Zoom for a free Q&A on what we know about rising COVID-19 cases and the state's vaccine distribution efforts. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

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

» What renters in Pa. need to know about available relief, the new eviction ban

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far

How many people in Pa. use cannabis for opioid addiction? The Wolf administration won't say.

In 2018, the Wolf administration endorsed cannabis as a treatment for opioid use disorder, despite an absence of research and concerns from experts that it could give patients false hope — or actively harm them. A recent Spotlight PA story set out to measure the impact of that decision, three years later. 

The early reporting included what seemed like a simple request to the Department of Health: How many of the state's roughly 550,000 registered cannabis patients were approved to use it to treat their opioid use disorder?

But the agency's press office refused to give Spotlight PA the aggregate number, saying in an email that under the state's medical marijuana law, "We cannot share specifics regarding patient use." The department also denied a request for the information made under the state's Right-to-Know Law. 

While the state has guarded details about its medical marijuana program before, the rejections were surprising, especially given a previous disclosure of similar data.

In August 2019, the director of the department's Office of Medical Marijuana, John J. Collins, told members of the state's Medical Marijuana Advisory Board that about 3,000 patients had been certified because of anxiety in the month after the state added it as a qualifying condition.

When asked about the apparent discrepancy, department spokesperson Maggi Barton did not explain or justify why the medical marijuana law allowed Collins to release that information, but the department couldn't release aggregate data for opioid use disorder. 

Instead, she said by email, "if a board member requests this information to be used to inform a decision it is prudent for the director to respond appropriately when requested by a board member."  

In rejecting Spotlight PA's request, the department's open records officer, Lisa Keefer, wrote that all "information obtained by the department relating to patients, caregivers, and other applicants shall be confidential and not subject to public disclosure."

After Spotlight PA appealed the denial, attorneys for the department said an employee could face a third-degree misdemeanor charge for "unlawful disclosure of this information."

The department also cited confidentiality concerns when it rejected a request from CNHI reporter John Finnerty for records detailing the number of medical marijuana patients in each of the state's 67 counties.

Finnerty appealed, and the state's Office of Open Records on July 15 ruled against the department. "Finding the requested aggregated data to be confidential would lead to an absurd result," the office's chief counsel, Kyle Applegate, wrote in the decision.

Spotlight PA expects a ruling on its appeal next month. 

Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

A longer version of this article will appear on spotlightpa.org.
COVID COUNT: Most Pennsylvania counties are now seeing "substantial" or "high" COVID-19 transmission rates, 25,000 state employees will have to get vaccinated or face regular testing, Philadelphia is requiring masks again, and schools statewide are considering the same — sometimes amid pushback — as the Wolf administration declines to step in.

CHAOS TIMES: "Unnecessary chaos" is how Tioga County officials describe a GOP-led, Trump-aligned push to audit the county's recent elections and those of two other counties. In a terse letter to the audit's ringleader, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), commissioners say Tioga County has "nothing to hide, and Mr. Mastriano knows it."

POWER PLANS: Cryptocurrency mining is incredibly power intensive, and Pennsylvania power plants are rushing to meet demand, finding they can make more money supplying electricity to Bitcoin-style operations than selling it to the grid, the Post-Gazette reports. All that power generation is fueling environmental worries and commercial opportunism.

MAIL VOTES: The GOP-backed expansion of Pennsylvania's mail voting law in 2019 is factoring into next year's Republican primary for Pennsylvania governor, with past support being wielded like a cudgel. The Capital-Star says it's unclear if the tactic will work, but support for no-excuse mail voting among Pennsylvania's Republican electorate is low.

CLEARED: A bizarre case involving a former Philadelphia detective, who prosecutors say threatened a 16-year-old while nude in the bedroom of the child's mother before pulling a gun, came to an equally unusual ending last week. The Inquirer reports a controversial judge cleared ex-Det. Robert Redanauer of all charges on a perplexing legal technicality.

» BILLY PENN: Ex-MOVE members call the group a 'cult,' claim abuse

» MORNING CALL: What would Pa. gain from the $1T infrastructure bill?

» NYT: Pa. hard hit by 'kindergarten exodus,' falling pandemic enrollments

» TRIBLIVE: Controversial York County Prison contractor headed west

» WHYY: DOJ charges former SEPTA workers in embezzlement scheme
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.

DOUBLE TIME (Case No. 105)What four-letter word can be written forward, backward, or upside down, and can still be read from left to right?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: The man was looking at his own son. (Find last week's clue here.)
Congrats to Brian P., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Michael H., Beth T., George S., Edward F., Jodi A., Michelle T., and Johnny C.
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