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Pa. court rules license plate frames allow police stops

Plus, how rural Pa. became an abortion clinic desert.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

August 25, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
In frame, big ruling, abortion desert, limited supply, lobbying view, private security, Krasner subpoena, 2020 concession, and crime gaps.
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Your license plate frame is enough reason for police in Pennsylvania to pull you over and potentially fine you, a state appellate court ruled this week.

Angela Couloumbis reports Superior Court affirmed the right of police officers to stop drivers if any part of their plate is obscured.

That doesn't just mean the unique combination of letters and numbers that make up a person’s license plate, but any lettering — including the visitpa.com URL or, for that matter, the paint around it.

Also this week, Commonwealth Court has ordered the Wolf administration to reveal how many medical marijuana patients have received approval from a doctor to use cannabis for opioid addiction treatment, a significant legal decision brought on by Spotlight PA's push for the information.

Ed Mahon reports the judges on Friday dismissed the department's underlying claims that releasing the data would jeopardize patient confidentially and risk criminal charges for Department of Health employees.  

(Spotlight PA is only seeking aggregate data, not patient details.)

Spotlight PA has reported on the gaps in scientific support for medical marijuana as an addiction aid and misleading claims by purveyors.

And finally, Ashad Hajela traces the roots of a stark lack of in-person abortion clinics in State College and north-central Pennsylvania

The region is an abortion services desert, and state laws that make it hard to financially sustain a clinic in lower-population areas and a series of troubles that closed the region's only provider in 2010 are key reasons.


Thank you to the hundreds of dedicated Spotlight PA members — old and new! — for helping us reach our match goal during our Week of Giving last week.

We deeply appreciate your generosity, which will enable us to continue producing nonpartisan accountability journalism and driving meaningful impact in Pennsylvania. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

If you missed the campaign but still want to support Spotlight PA's vital work, you can make a tax-deductible gift here.

With gratitude,
Christopher Baxter
Editor in Chief, Spotlight PA


"It felt illegal. What other medical thing are you suddenly on your own googling for?"

—Abby Minor of Penns Valley on the difficulty she experienced in seeking an abortion provider in 2013 due to the region's lack of available services


» Wolf looks to tap federal aid to stretch monkeypox vaccine
» Tell us what 2022 election coverage matters most to you
» The best Spotlight PA investigations of 2022 (so far)


New state budget boosts funding for lobbying website, agriculture emergencies, other issues

An initiative to improve the online system that lobbyists use to disclose which organizations have hired them and how they spend money to influence policy got a major boost in this year’s state budget.

A line item listed only as “Lobbying Disclosure” under the Department of State’s general appropriations budget is funded at $714,000 for the fiscal year that started in July — a 150% increase over the previous year. The money is a mix of dollars from the state’s general fund and fees paid by lobbyists, principals, and lobbying firms for licensure.

According to a Department of State spokesperson, the money will fund an IT upgrade to a system that has been criticized as lagging, unintuitive, and often down. 

“The new lobbying disclosure module will give the lobbying community new tools to register and manage lobbying records,” the agency spokesperson said. “Development of the module is in its early stages, but it is the department’s expectation that the user interface and the reporting functions will be more intuitive and user-friendly than the current system.”

A 2019 report commissioned by the state House Government Oversight Committee found that Pennsylvania’s lobbying disclosure laws make it easy to underreport expenditures and difficult to ensure compliance. 

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), then chair of the committee, told Spotlight PA he’s unsure whether the report influenced the spending increase. “I’d like to think [the report] triggered it, but I don’t think the administration gives a crap what the legislature does,” he said.

Justin Fleming — president of the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations (PAGR), a professional association for lobbyists — said the system desperately needs an update. He said lags when updating the website have resulted in inaccurate disciplinary action and delays that required multiple attempts for users to update the organizations or people that they worked with. 

“It is something that we have talked about in PAGR for years. We certainly welcome the resources being allocated,” said Fleming. “Everybody’s time is wasted if the system isn’t working”

A Spotlight PA analysis found that 15 line items received a more than 100% boost in this year’s budget. Other programs included:

  • “Agricultural preparedness and response,” + 1033.3%: This line item got a major increase — from $3 million to $34 million — so the state can respond to animal diseases, invasive pests, and other emergencies that affect the state’s agriculture industry. Around $8 million has already been used to target spotted lanternflies.
  • The University of Pennsylvania — Center for Infectious Disease,” +541%: The additional $1.6 million in funding was allocated as the result of the bird flu outbreak last year and its effect on the poultry industry. A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture also cited the threat of African swine fever.
  • “Ready to Succeed Scholarships,” 331.3%: This program is intended to aid low-income students in secondary academic institutions and is administered by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. It awards up to $2,000 to full-time students to cover tuition, books, and other living expenses. The agency requested $16.4 million but received nearly $24 million.
—Kate Huangpu with Stephen Caruso, Spotlight PA

A full version of this story will appear on spotlightpa.org.
GUARD DETAIL: GOP nominee for governor Doug Mastriano's security detail includes at least one person with ties to a far-right militia and several with ties to a church where advancing biblical principles in government is a stated goal, LNP (paywall) reports. Meanwhile, The New York Times (paywall) reports the Republican establishment is quietly rallying around the campaign after failed attempts to stop it.

NO COMPLY: Progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office will not comply with a subpoena issued by state lawmakers looking for grounds to impeach him by laying blame for the city's gun violence crisis at his feet, the Capital-Star reports. The Republican lawmakers leading the push say they're undeterred.

'NOT FACTUAL': State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), the House GOP's point person for election legislation, acknowledged this week that there weren't more votes than voters in Pennsylvania in 2020, per WITF — a disproven claim spread by election deniers. "That was not factual," Grove, who also objected to Pennsylvania's 2020 results, said. 

NO DATA: The Marshall Project found 0% of Pennsylvania police departments submitted crime stats to the FBI's data collection program for 2021. Forty-eight states and Washington, D.C. had higher rates of reporting. Among the potential consequences: a harder time fact-checking claims about national crime trends made by politicians.

IN THE AIR: Pennsylvania has until Dec. 16 to write new emission rules for oil and gas operations in order to qualify for $500 million in federal highway funding, Capital & Main reports. But an attempt to win over critics of the change in Harrisburg by splitting the proposal along industry lines didn't work. Environmentalists say it also defeats the purpose.

» AP: Three counties ordered to count May's undated mail ballots

» LNP: Court throws lavish, taxpayer-funded birthday bash

» PENNLIVE: Dems weaponize U.S. Rep. Perry's 2020 meddling

» TRIBLIVE: PSP investigating fatal, off-duty crash involving trooper

» WHYY: GOP guv nominee Mastriano may have a suburbs problem

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

WATER WALKER (Case No. 161): A group of people is fishing in the middle of a lake. A man walks out to them, but no one seems surprised. Why? 
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: The man was born on Feb. 29. (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Hagan H., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Marisa B., Jon N., Ted W., Kathy M., Donna D., Michelle T., James D., Judy A., Karen K., Barbara W., Jeff W., Rebecca D., William H., George S., Dan W., Ed M., Steve B., Fred H., Roseanne D., Carol T., Jeffrey F., Tom B., Peter S., Michael H., Annette I., Lindsey S., Fred O., Marcia R., Beth T., Robert K., Irene T., Gerry W., Bill G., Kenneth J., Don L., Connie K., Bruce B., Tish M., Mary S., Geoff M., Lynda G., Mary B., John H., Jay G., Cris F., Ed N., Karen and Ken S., Eddy Z., Robert K., Lucy B., Don H., Ken M., Deborah L., Sherri S., Ken S., Kimberly D., Philip C., Alberta V., Dennis F., Adrian S., George S., Seth Z., Johnny C., Joe S., and Linda F.
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