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Pa. GOP’s messy election audit shakeup, explained

Plus, GOP leaders reject Wolf's call for a school mask mandate.

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August 26, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Audit grab, prison count, mask rule, no revamp, forensic exam, extraordinary power, slow relief, professor protest, gun violence, and a climate strategy.
THE URGENCY OF NOW: With so much at stake in Harrisburg and across Pennsylvania, Spotlight PA's investigative journalism is vital to holding the powerful to account. But we need your support now.
The fractious Republican-led audit of Pennsylvania's 2020 election has a new driver following a messy shakeup that touched off an intraparty war of words. 

Spotlight PA and The Inquirer have a closer look at the man now in the driver's seat, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), who long avoided the MAGA-fueled fray but is now committing to the Trump-aligned audit, raising questions about his motives.

This after Corman stripped state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), the previous face of the audit push, of his staff and committee power late last week.

Keep reading for more on the precedent — and often punitive politics — behind the "power move."

Also this week, Sarah Anne Hughes reports thousands of people in Pennsylvania state prisons will be counted in their home legislative districts instead of those where they are imprisoned in a major shift for political mapmaking

The change will benefit communities of color that are vastly overrepresented inside state prisons and whose political capital has been impacted by "prison gerrymandering." 

While unlikely to dramatically alter the political landscape, the new policy will shift tens of thousands of people out of less populous, rural districts that house state prisons. And that will change population counts set to guide the mapmaking process and, in turn, state politics for the next 10 years. 

And finally, Gov. Tom Wolf called on the GOP-led legislature to return to the Capitol immediately to make masks mandatory in schools statewide — a call Republican leaders rejected early Thursday.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
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"What I see no material basis for is continued wandering through the entrails of the 2020 presidential election."

—Mark Lindeman, of Verified Voting, on the GOP push for a new election audit in Pennsylvania that is all but certain not to change the outcome

COVID-19 UPDATES: Pittsburgh Public Schools and its teachers union are working on a vaccine mandate deal; a Pittsburgh-area school district has been ordered to require masks by a federal judge; data show U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations are higher this August than last August; and Pennsylvania vaccinations were higher this month.
» FUNDAMENTAL FLAWS: Join us Thursday, Sept. 9 at noon ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on addiction treatment oversight issues in Pennsylvania and how the state can keep people safe as they pursue recovery. 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

» Wolf admin unexpectedly pulls the plug on controversial revamp of Pa. safety net program

» What we know about the renewed push for a 'forensic audit' of Pennsylvania’s 2020 election

The extraordinary powers of Pa.'s legislative leaders

It's a throwback to the hardball politics of the Capitol's past: a powerful legislative leader stripping one of his colleagues of staff, committee assignments — and, ultimately, status.

The ongoing story of the explosive yet still mysterious feud between Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) over how to conduct a forensic audit of last year's election in Pennsylvania has been making headlines nationally since it burst into public view last week.

But underlying that story is a lesser-known one about far-reaching powers that come with being in one of the top legislative leadership posts in Pennsylvania. 

At the start of every session, legislators in the Democratic and Republican caucuses in both chambers gather behind closed doors to elect a slate of leaders. In doing so, rank-and-file lawmakers hand them the reins to the millions of dollars that the legislature gets to spend every year — and all the perks that flow from there. 

If a lawmaker wants to hire someone to staff their Capitol office, they have to get the blessing of their caucus leaders. If they want a specific committee assignment, more money to operate their district offices, or to work with an outside spokesperson, consultant, or lawyer? They have to run it up the ladder.

And though any representative or senator can author legislation, it's the leaders who ultimately decide which legislative committees to assign bills to and whether to bring them up for a floor vote.

"The legislature is a feudal system," said Eric Epstein, co-founder of the nonpartisan good-government group Rock the Capital. "Caucus leaders are powerful despots who lord over the rank-and-file like serfs on the manor."

Epstein joked, "Most legislators can't go to the bathroom without permission."

In the Senate Republican caucus, where Corman holds the top leadership post, staffers who work in the Capitol — including those assigned to individual legislators — officially work for the caucus, and can be yanked and reassigned at the top leader's whim.

That is what happened last week when Corman took away Mastriano's staff. Corman also removed Mastriano from his chairmanship of the legislative committee that was pursuing the forensic audit. Corman gave few details about his decision, saying only that Mastriano was "more concerned with grandstanding," and had failed to get the job done.

Though Mastriano and his supporters cried foul — countering that it was Corman who had tried to obstruct the audit work at every turn — he ultimately had little recourse. 

It was a power move that hasn't been seen in more than 15 years. According to interviews with current and former legislators and staffers, those types of actions were far more common in the 1980s and 1990s — and were almost always perceived as punitive. 

One of the last times it happened was in 2005, during a politically volatile time in the Capitol. The legislature had just approved a controversial legislative pay raise in the middle of the night. 

In the politically tumultuous days that followed, the House's then-Democratic leader, Bill DeWeese, removed 15 members from committee leadership posts who had voted against the pay raise — a move widely viewed at the time as punishment for not falling in line with leadership. 

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA
RENT RELIEF: About 89% of available rental assistance funds have not been distributed in the U.S., The New York Times reports, with just $1.7 billion out of $46.5 billion spent so far. It's a similar story in Pennsylvania, where only 20% of rent relief funding had been distributed at the end of June as tenants coped with long backlogs, via Spotlight PA.

PSU PROBLEM: Penn State's lack of a vaccine mandate for students and staff, even after FDA approval, has led to several faculty resignations, per Inside Higher Ed, and "Zoom-in" faculty protests on the first days of class. Daily Collegian reports professors refusing to teach in person are taking classes online, with administrators threatening disciplinary action.

GUN SLIDE: The U.S. murder rate is up during the pandemic, fed by cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. In Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette reports on a "dangerous backslide" seen during the pandemic and after recent gun violence drops. In Philadelphia, The Inquirer found "deep fissures" between city leaders in charge of the official response

ALLY BOARD: Climate activists have their sights set on Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission as they look to stack the board with sympathetic new members. StateImpact reports activists have met with Gov. Tom Wolf and put a call out for candidates, but they also know they face long odds in overhauling the influential utility and energy industry regulator.

OVERTIME: Gov. Tom Wolf let Republican lawmakers kill a plan to expand overtime pay protections to 190,000 salary earners in Pennsylvania in exchange for the GOP-led legislature agreeing to boost funding for the state's poorest schools in this year's budget. WESA wondered why more workers weren't angry and found many didn't even know.

» CAPITAL-STAR: Opioid declaration expires with Gov. Wolf sidelined

» KDKA-TV: Pittsburgh schools supt. faces ethics fines, sanctions 

» PHILLY MAG: Pandemic bared higher ed flaws, that may be good news

» WAPO: Philly's deadly '93 heat wave holds lessons for climate future

» WESA: Welfare reform is failing Pa.'s poor families, 25 years later
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.

NOT SCHUYLKILL (Case No. 107)Which word in the dictionary is always spelled incorrectly?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: The Roman numeral for four "IV" is half of the word five when written as FIVE. (Find last week's clue here.)
Congrats to Scott G., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: George S., Edward F., Donna D., Kevin H., Beth T., Jeffrey F., Carol T., Fred O., Annette I., Lou R., Anthony E., Joe S., Mary B., and Phil C.
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