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GOP headwinds face Wolf's $44B final budget ask

Plus, fiscal watchdog wades into roiling school funding debate.

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February 10, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

Last ask, 2022 vision, big news, map guides, school money, uncounted deaths, DOJ pivot, racist recruits, off the books, and a conflict complaint.
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In his eighth and final budget address on Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf outlined a $44 billion spending plan with no income or sales tax hikes, a nearly $2 billion boost for public schools and higher education, a hike in the minimum wage, and new investments in infrastructure and public health.

But Danielle Ohl and Angela Couloumbis report the plan faces pushback from GOP leaders. That's because the governor's pitch relies on spending billions in remaining federal coronavirus aid, money Republicans in control of the legislature want squirreled away to address future needs. 

There are months of negotiations ahead. 

Also this week, the Commonwealth Court judge tasked with recommending Pennsylvania's next congressional map to the state's Supreme Court chose the option Gov. Wolf vetoed as a partisan gerrymander last month.

Spotlight PA and Votebeat report the high court is not bound to follow Judge Patricia McCullough's recommendation and is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the pivotal redistricting case on Feb. 18.

The state Supreme Court will decide Pennsylvania's new U.S. House map after Gov. Wolf and lawmakers failed to reach a deal with time dwindling before the May 17 primary and related candidate deadlines. The petition-gathering needed to get candidates on the ballot is currently on hold.

And finally, Pennsylvania officially adopted new state legislative maps when a bipartisan redistricting panel approved updated state House and state Senate boundaries in a 4-to-1 vote, Spotlight PA and Votebeat report.

Republicans retain an advantage, but the maps are closer to even splits than the versions they replace and could boost Democrats and substantially alter the balance of power in Harrisburg for years to come

Anyone has 30 days to challenge either map in court, and Republicans unhappy with the state House map, in particular, may do so. 

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
"These are days of opportunity for our commonwealth. That's because, at long last, our fiscal house is in order. … We are no longer digging out of a hole."

—Term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf unveiling his final state budget plan in an address before a joint session of the state legislature on Tuesday
» BALLOT BATTLE: Join us Thursday, Feb. 17 at 5 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's mail voting law, the ruling striking it down, and what's next. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» A "small number" of Hershey Company employees who did not follow the chocolatier's COVID-19 vaccine mandate or obtain an exemption have been "separated" from the company, per ABC27. 

» The Post-Gazette profiles high school seniors for whom Friday, March 13, 2020, the day Pennsylvania schools were ordered to shut down over COVID-19, was the last "normal" day of their student careers

» Roughly 5,000 blank COVID-19 vaccination cards were stolen from an employee-only storage room at a Philadelphia hospital earlier this month. Authorities say there were no signs of forced entry, per 6ABC.

» St. Luke's University Health Network will no longer offer free public health advice to the Southern Lehigh School District amid a spat over conflicting COVID-19 guidance, Lehigh Valley Live reports.

» A bill shielding doctors who prescribe unproven COVID-19 treatments from disciplinary action by Pennsylvania's licensing board has advanced out of a state House committee, per PennLive.

» Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a vaccine.
» Spotlight PA launching first-ever regional bureau based in State College

» Pa. election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you

» See how the final Pa. state Senate map scores in every key area

» See how the final Pa. state House map scores in every key area

» Pa. redistricting maps: See your old and new legislative districts

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 race for governor: What we know so far

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far
Budget report provokes (another) spat over education funding in Pennsylvania

With a single sentence tucked 15 pages into an otherwise dry budget report on the state Department of Education, an independent fiscal watchdog waded into a roiling and deeply politicized debate about the links between school funding and student performance.

In a section of the report analyzing the relationship between Pennsylvania’s spending on public schools and students’ standardized test performances over the course of a single year, the state’s Independent Fiscal Office concluded: “the data suggests there is little or no correlation.” 

The question of what this actually means — and whether the finding should be allowed to stand — has sparked tensions within the board that holds hearings on such reports and usually approves them promptly.  

Instead, a bipartisan majority of board members voted on Jan. 26 to table the report after state Rep. Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery), the chair, raised concerns about its assertions and methods. 

In a letter to the fiscal office, Bradford said the report included data errors and went too far in its claim about the relationship between state spending and test scores — a subject he said requires complex statistical analysis that goes beyond the scope of the fiscal office’s responsibilities. 

Academic research has found a clear connection between government spending and school performance, according to a 2016 review of scholarly papers that Bradford cited. 

And in 2015, a state education funding commission chaired by two Republican lawmakers noted that “inequities latent in the system” — such as some districts having more students who live in poverty, or who are English language learners — also explain why some districts have similar outcomes while spending different amounts.

The Independent Fiscal Office does not make policy recommendations, but it does try to highlight trends or outcomes that are important to lawmakers, said Matthew Knittel, the agency’s director.

In this case, the fiscal office compared one year of data on per student spending for school districts with the share of students reaching proficiency on state standardized tests, finding “little or no correlation” between them. 

Knittel insisted this is not the same as saying — or even implying — that state spending has no impact on student outcomes. “Our job is just to present the data and make observations,” he added. 

Asked why the report only examined data for the 2018-19 school year, the most recent available after standardized tests were canceled due to COVID-19, Knittel said it was already 63 pages long and the analysis of spending versus student proficiency “wasn’t meant to be a deep dive.” The report did note that school districts with a smaller share of low-income students tend to perform better on standardized tests.

While Republicans control most legislative committees, the Performance-Based Budget Board is made up of the appropriations chairs of the four caucuses and the budget secretary, giving Democrats a majority.

State Rep. Torren Ecker (R., Adams), who serves as House Republicans’ designee on the board, was the only member to vote against tabling the fiscal office’s report, saying, “I don’t believe we have the ability to go back and say, ‘Well, we don’t like these facts.’” He later accused Democrats of “trying to hide what the IFO found,” although the report is still available online. 

In a statement, House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said the lack of a correlation between state spending and student proficiency is “a position I have stated many times and that is currently being argued in state court.” 

Cutler is a defendant in an ongoing landmark trial over Pennsylvania’s funding of its public schools in which the plaintiffs, including six school districts, are very much asserting a connection between dollars and educational outcomes.

Last week, Cutler’s attorney entered the fiscal office’s report into evidence and asked a witness to read the contested finding in court, but ultimately withdrew both, saying he wanted to avoid a line of questioning that would broach privileged legislative conversations.

Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

A longer version of this story will appear at spotlightpa.org.

UNDER-REPORTED: Despite laws requiring such disclosures, PennLive found less than half of all deaths in Pennsylvania county jails in 2020 were reported to the federal government and a significant number were not reported to the state. Advocates say if someone's life is shortened by incarceration, the public needs to know.

HARM REDUCTION: Days after the U.S. Department of Justice signaled a newfound openness to supervised injection sites, the nonprofit behind a stalled plan to open one in Philadelphia says it's having productive conversations with the agency. A current GOP gubernatorial candidate, Bill McSwain, sued to stop the plan on behalf of Trump's DOJ.

HATE GROUP: The Patriot Front white supremacist group is recruiting across Pennsylvania, with leaked data showing two active networks and at least 13 members here, more than every state but Texas, LNP reports. The group's propaganda efforts include a vandalized mural in Boyertown, seen here in before and after photos.

IN LIMBO: Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection is suing a state agency for refusing to publish a regulation that would make Gov. Wolf's landmark carbon fee for power plants official, per Reuters. The suit argues the Legislative Reference Bureau is wrong to heed a last-ditch legislative effort to block the fee.

LEGAL ISSUES: A district attorney's handling of two killings involving a State Police trooper with an exceptional history of lethal force has prompted an NAACP complaint to the state's disciplinary board, per WITF. Among the issues raised: Lebanon County DA Pier Hess Graf's marriage to a corporal who's stationed with the trooper in question.

» BILLY PENN: Meet the nominees for Philly's new police oversight board

» CITY PAPER: Pa. health officials issue massive medical marijuana recall

» POLITICO: Pa. GOP won't endorse in crowded political contests

» THE INQUIRER: Penn suicide trial examines school's responsibility

» WHYY: Contested Pa. detention center reopens, now women-only
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.

MORE MATH (Case No. 133)How many times can you subtract 10 from 100?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Five apples (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to Rebecca D., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Philip C., Karen K., Hagan H., Joan C., Michael H., Susan N.-Z., Connie K., Lou R., Alice O., Thomas D., James D., William D., Annette I., Robert K., Judy A., miller4343, Joseph M., Adrian S., Lindsey S., Dennis F., Alberta V., Irene T., Geoffrey M., Donna D., Elizabeth W., Joe S., Dennis P., Barbara M., Eileen B., Lynda G., Robert S., Maria Z., Alan S., John H., George S., Ken S., Sandra Irene W., Ann E., Tish M., Don H., Norman S., Mark C., Doris T., Beth T., and Johnny C.
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