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Demand, lack of contractors foil home repair program

Plus, Shapiro continues to accept tickets from group that gets state money.

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This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

December 14, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Home repairs, first year, leaky roof, hunter rules, ethics concerns, 2024 vision, election trial, death settlement, Wi-Fi waiver, and open-door policies.

In 2022, state lawmakers agreed to use $125 million in federal pandemic aid to create the Whole-Home Repairs Program, the largest state investment of its kind in years. 

The program offers income-eligible homeowners grants to address problems like leaking roofs, unsafe electrical wiring, and broken furnaces.

As counties have begun taking applications, overwhelming demand has left hundreds of people unable to get help, interviews with more than a dozen program administrators show.

Also this week, Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso and Katie Meyer report on Gov. Josh Shapiro's first year. They found he struggled at times to advance priorities through Harrisburg’s ideologically divided legislature

Finally, Pennsylvania’s budget impasse ended Wednesday after the divided state legislature agreed to send millions of dollars to community colleges and libraries, fund public legal defense, and create a student teacher stipend.


"I am fully confident that we will have a productive and meaningful spring 2024 session, even as we work through some of these scheduling obstacles."

—State House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) on a planned break from voting while repairs are made to the chamber’s ceiling.

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» BOILO BASICS: Join us TODAY from 6-7:15 p.m. on Zoom for a free Q&A and demo on one of Pennsylvania's signature adult beverages, boilo. As a bonus, try your hand at some Pennsylvania wintertime trivia in the last half hour for a chance to win Spotlight PA swag. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
» Pa. introduces new rules for hunters to limit the spread of ‘zombie deer disease.’ Here’s what to know.

Despite ethics concerns, Shapiro continues to accept tickets from group that gets state money

Next year, Gov. Josh Shapiro plans to continue receiving perks like tickets to sporting events using a nonprofit that contracts with the state. 

The nonprofit in question is Team Pennsylvania, a public-private partnership that says it works to improve the commonwealth’s “competitiveness and economic prosperity.” This year it paid for tickets and lodgings for Shapiro, a Democrat, to attend the Super Bowl in Arizona, and funded his tickets to a Philadelphia Phillies playoff game and a Penn State football game. 

One expert told Spotlight PA earlier this year that this could conflict with Shapiro’s gift ban, which bars executive branch employees from accepting goods or services, like tickets, from any “person or entity” that “has financial relations with the Commonwealth.” 

Team PA receives money from the commonwealth. Early this year, for instance, the Shapiro administration awarded the group a $100,000 contract to study hydrogen technology.  

Shapiro’s decision to tap Team PA for tickets isn’t unique. The group has existed since 1997, and has paid for expensive trips and outings for multiple Pennsylvania governors. The Shapiro administration has made clear that it doesn’t oppose that relationship. 

“It’s a really important collaboration,” administration spokesperson Manuel Bonder said, noting Team PA’s long history. “[It’s] certainly one that we expect will continue so that the governor can partake in moments and opportunities to promote Pennsylvania at no cost to taxpayers.” 

Critics argue the relationship is problematic. 

Michael Pollack, who heads the good-government group March on Harrisburg and frequently lobbies for increased transparency in government, including a gift ban, said he thought Shapiro’s decision to accept tickets from Team PA was “truly absurd.”

He added that Shapiro’s behavior isn’t particularly egregious for Harrisburg, which is notorious for its lax rules around gifts and campaign finance. But Pollack said he expected Shapiro to be more cautious, noting that it’s well known that the governor has higher political ambitions. 

Pollack predicted these issues will likely come up again. Legislation that would restrict gifts is perennial in Harrisburg and often gets buried by lawmakers. 

“He should prioritize issues that earn the trust of the people of Pennsylvania,” Pollack said. 

The administration’s use of Team PA for event tickets isn’t the only transparency-related practice that has raised eyebrows. 

Shapiro had his gubernatorial transition team sign unusually strict nondisclosure agreements and declined to publicize the private donors who funded his inaugural festivities — a departure from at least two immediate predecessors. He also decided to keep his daily schedule secret and relaxed former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s (notoriously strict) gift ban. 

Plus, the administration quietly settled a sexual harassment complaint against Mike Vereb, a top staffer and one of Shapiro’s oldest political allies. Spotlight PA learned of the settlement after Vereb’s abrupt resignation in September, and a public records request revealed that it had cost the commonwealth nearly $300,000 and included a confidentiality clause that barred both sides from discussing the allegations. 

Asked about these decisions, from Shapiro’s private schedule to the settlement, Bonder said the issue was being “frankly, somewhat raised in bad faith.”

“We are responsive. We're accessible,” he said. “He does events at a very high pace all across Pennsylvania and answers questions from any media that shows up.”

Ed Rendell, who served as Pennsylvania governor from 2003 to 2011 and has known Shapiro for decades, took a more nuanced view of transparency questions.

The Democrat also sometimes took advantage of the commonwealth’s lax gift laws during his tenure. But while he sees these as “inside baseball” issues that constituents don’t think about much, Rendell said he doesn’t dismiss them. 

Optics on things like gifts are important, he noted, and Shapiro “has got to understand the appearance of it.”

“He’ll learn,” Rendell said. Stephen Caruso and Katie Meyer, Spotlight PA

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Shapiro’s 1st year, Capitol leaks, ‘zombie’ deer, and holiday gift returns
This week's top news story in Pennsylvania2024 VISION: A human resources deputy is the newest election official in Northampton County following an Election Day voting glitch that Politico reports is triggering election administration alarms ahead of 2024. The Morning Call (paywall) reports Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure on Monday appointed Nicole Pietrzak to the $103,000-a-year post following Charles Dertinger's glitch-related resignation.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaELECTION TRIAL: U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) is listed as a potential witness in the Georgia election trial against former President Donald Trump and his co-defendants, the York Daily Record reports. Perry was a part of the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Last summer, the FBI seized his cell phone as part of an investigation.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaDEATH SETTLEMENT: Dauphin County will pay a $4.25 million settlement for a 2021 jail death that stemmed from a person going into cardiac arrest while in a restraint chair, PennLive reports. Ishmail Thompson’s death was ruled a “medical event” after he died, but Thompson told guards he couldn’t breathe after they put a mesh hoodie over him and improperly restrained him in a chair. 

WI-FI WAVER: Officials in GOP-led York County delayed a plan to expand high-speed internet service locally following a private meeting with 5G conspiracy theorists, the York Dispatch (paywall) reports. Chief Clerk Greg Monskie called it an information session, not a public meeting. A Sunshine Act expert said that's not how this works.

OPEN-DOOR POLICIES: The Washington Post (paywall) reports that while Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott weaponizes buses of migrants and major U.S. cities receive them, sometimes controversially, officials in smaller, Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh and Erie see an opportunity after years of population decline and workforce losses.

» APLawmakers reject funding for Penn amid criticism on antisemitism

» CAP-STARLawmakers begin work on an abortion rights amendment

» INQUIRER: With an interim president, what comes next for Penn?

» NYTIMES: Inside the chaotic struggle for power at Penn 

» PUBLIC HERALD: Workers on what it's like to treat fracking wastewater

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