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Pa. lawmakers can return pay raises — but few do

Plus, meet our new Penn State investigative reporter.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

August 18, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Lawmaker raises, open primaries, Penn State reporter, frack study, final months, state stop, new policy, FBI breach, and kids for cash.
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Fiscal responsibility is an axiom in Harrisburg, but nearly none of Pennsylvania’s 253 state lawmakers seem to mind when their own salaries swell spending.

State House and Senate lawmakers receive an annual cost-of-living adjustment to their salaries under a 1995 law meant to shield them from political blowback for voting for their own pay increases.

They can return the increase to the state treasurer, but records obtained by Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso show very few do. Since 2008 — the first year for which records are available — 176 lawmakers have paid back almost $578,000, according to the State Treasurer’s office.

Our friends at The Caucus/LNP have more on the annual COLA, which may push the base lawmaker salary over $100,000 next year. 

Also this week, Kate Huangpu has a dispatch from a state House Government Committee meeting where lawmakers weighed a proposal to open Pennsylvania's primaries to unaffiliated voters. Supporters of changing the system pointed to the increasing number of independent voters in the state

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"To my mind, the right to vote … is more important than party preferences.”

—David Thornburgh, chair of Ballot PA, on why he supports opening Pennsylvania's primary elections to independent voters


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Meet Spotlight PA’s new Penn State reporter

Hey, folks. I’m Wyatt Massey, your new reporter covering The Pennsylvania State University from Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau.

My work will focus on accountability and investigative journalism for one of the most powerful institutions in central Pennsylvania. Penn State has an annual budget of nearly $8 billion. Tens of thousands of students call a Penn State campus home, and thousands more work there.

Yet because of a special carve-out in the state’s open records law, Penn State is among four Pennsylvania universities largely exempt from traditional forms of transparency required of other organizations receiving taxpayer funds.

I’m committed to understanding what is happening behind closed doors at Penn State and the ways in which the university is influencing the region — or being influenced by outside forces. I’ll provide thorough reporting and ask the university tough questions. If those questions are ignored or go unanswered, Spotlight PA will tell you.

Telling these stories requires building trust among a wide array of sources connected to the university. Please reach out if you have ideas or tips, or would like to discuss Penn State. I recently wrote about some ways in which you can securely share information (such as documents, emails, or other records) with me. We promise confidentiality if you share documents with us, and it’s up to you to decide how much you share and how often we’re in touch.

My background in journalism includes reporting on sensitive topics and largely private communities. I investigated religious organizations in the South as a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and have also reported for newspapers and magazines in Baltimore, New York City, and Léogâne, Haiti. 

I grew up on a family farm in rural Wisconsin in a part of America’s Dairyland known as the “driftless” region, where the glaciers didn’t plow through tens of thousands of years ago and flatten our high hills. As a kid, I showed chickens at the county fair and drove tractors long before I had a driver’s license.

To be honest, I’ve really only worked in two industries in my life: farming and journalism. Moving to Pennsylvania gives me an opportunity to return to my more rural Midwest roots.

When I’m not working, you can find me in the woods with my dog, McKinley, reading a book, or watching live music.

You can reach me on Twitter, by email at wmassey@spotlightpa.org, or by calling 445-236-0562.

FRACK STUDY: Researchers looking at 400 cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in a sample of about 2,500 Pennsylvania children concluded that kids living near fracking wells at birth are up to three times more likely to develop the disease, The Guardian reports. The Yale School of Public Health study found risks were highest for those living within 6,500 feet of a well. Pennsylvania only requires 500 feet minimum distance between fracking wells and homes.

FINAL MONTHS: Bradford Gamble, 65, had two choices: stay in Pennsylvania prison, where he'd been sent for a murder committed at the age of 19, and receive treatment for his cancer, or leave prison and go home to die. Spotlight PA's Danielle Ohl, who wrote about Gamble for series on the state's broken "compassionate release" law, learned he died on Sunday, five months after his release.

STATE STOP: Gov. Tom Wolf has signed an executive order to protect Pennsylvanians from conversion therapy by making sure state resources aren't used to support it, per ABC27. Conversion therapy is a widely discredited practice that aims to change a person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Some municipalities have adopted outright bans. Wolf said his executive order, signed on Tuesday, is the best he can do right now without legislation.

NEW POLICY: WHYY reports a new restriction on school materials containing "sexualized content" was adopted by the Central Bucks School District last week. The move follows months of protest there over similar controls deemed censorship by some parents and educators. Sharon Ward of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania says the rule "effectively bans human development and sex education."

FBI BREACH: The gunman who tried to breach an FBI office in Cincinnati last week — after calling for an "all-out war" over the FBI's raid on Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate — is a native of Perry County, Pennsylvania, named Ricky W. Shiffer, the Washington Post reports, via Capital-Star. Shiffer, 42, was shot and killed by police after the FBI office attack. "If you don't hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the FBI," he posted to Truth Social minutes after the attempt.

» AP: "Kids-for-cash" judges ordered to pay more than $200M

» INQUIRER: Do real voters care about crudités?

» NBC NEWS: QAnon supporter now faces Jan. 6 charges

» POST-GAZETTE: Questions remain about Harrisburg subpoenas

» WESA: Mastriano dials back military imagery on social media

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

FOREVER 25 (Case No. 160)A man dies of old age after just 25 birthdays. How can that be?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: 33.3 cups. (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Jay G., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., George S., William H., Joe S., Beth T., Ted W., Dennis F., and George So.
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