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Unequal policies disenfranchised Pa. voters

Plus, did Shapiro's Super Bowl trip violate his own gift ban?

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.

February 23, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Voter policies, Super Bowl tickets, lost neighborhood event, low pay, state impact, hazardous catgo, requests denied, air quality, and RGGI exit.

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Pennsylvania voters did not have equal opportunities to cast or correct their ballots during the November 2022 election, the latter producing a disparity that disenfranchised hundreds of voters.

That's one of the main findings of a Spotlight PA and Votebeat analysis of election policies across the state. The survey also found wide disparities in the availability of drop boxes. Counties also had different approaches to ballot "curing," or allowing voters to fix fatal defects with their mail ballots. 

Read the full investigation here.

Also this week, Kate Huangpu and Stephen Caruso report that the Shapiro administration insists the governor did not violate his own gift ban when he and top staff went to Arizona for the Super Bowl on the dime of a nonprofit that has received millions of dollars in state money.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and executive branch employees are not allowed to accept tickets to recreational events such as football games. The ban states these employees cannot accept such a gift from any “person or entity” that “has financial relations with the Commonwealth.”


"It is heartbreaking when you are canvassing mail-in votes and you can’t count them when there are so many steps to complete and [the voters] mess up one thing and their vote can’t be counted."

—Chester County Solicitor Colleen Frens on fatal defects like a missing signature that lead counties to throw out otherwise valid mail ballots

A LOST NEIGHBORHOOD: Join us today at 6 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free panel on the history of Harrisburg’s 8th Ward, the residents who once called it home, and the groups making sure it’s remembered. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and all monthly gifts will be matched 12X!
» The Pa. House is coming back with a Democratic majority. Will it finally be able to move forward?

PSU English professors say they are the lowest paid

A group of faculty in Penn State’s Department of English allege that they are not paid a living wage, and that they are the lowest-paid teaching unit at the university.

The group comprises faculty who do not have tenure — a permanent appointment to the school staff — and who are not eligible for it. At Penn State, these non-tenure-line employees are called teaching faculty. 

Salary data collected by faculty in the department, and shared with Spotlight PA, suggest lecturers are annually paid around $35,000, assistant teaching professors earn about $38,500, and associate teaching professors make around $42,500. 

The living wage for a single adult without children in State College is $37,545, according to The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For a single adult with a child, the needed annual income jumps to $70,989.

“What you’re looking at is a university actively hacking its own legs off by exploiting its own workers,” Brendan Prawdzik, an assistant teaching professor, told Spotlight PA. 

Prawdzik, who has Type 1 diabetes, took out a small loan in early 2022 to cover medical expenses, he said. Then, in January, prices of two of his prescriptions totaled about $340, but he said he could only afford one at the time and spread the cost across two paychecks. 

Prawdzik — and four other faculty members interviewed by Spotlight PA — pointed out that nearly all Penn State students are required to take two English courses, which are mostly taught by teaching faculty.

Wyatt DuBois, director of university public relations, said in an email the university has worked for years to “address salary inequities in the department.” 

“The College of the Liberal Arts and the provost are actively working together to find a solution that aligns with the financial goals of the university while addressing concerns about the compensation levels of non-tenure-line faculty in the Department of English,” DuBois said.

As part of the university’s two-phase salary adjustment plan, Penn State raised salaries for English teaching faculty at each rank by $3,000 in January 2022, according to faculty. 

However, Penn State scrapped the second phase, merit-based raises, because of “financial challenges facing the university,” DuBois said.

The English faculty’s claims that the department is the lowest paid at the university, and the salary information they provided, are difficult to verify.

Penn State declined to provide salary ranges, or average salaries, for teaching faculty at the various ranks within the English department. Spotlight PA then shared the salary data faculty provided to offer the university a chance to comment or clarify. The university declined. 

“We have nothing further to add,” DuBois said in an email.

Internal Penn State data shared with Spotlight PA suggest English department teaching faculty salaries are among the lowest in the College of the Liberal Arts. The data, available only to those with a university login, are specific only to the level of a college, not individual departments. Penn State’s special status as a “state-related” university shields it from having to release specific salary data, unlike most other public universities. Wyatt Massey, Spotlight PA

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaSTATE IMPACT: TribLIVE looked into what the Norfolk Southern train derailment could mean for air and water in nearby Pennsylvania amid a rash of misinformation. State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), chair of the chamber's Veterans Affairs and Emergency Prepardeness Committee, will host a hearing in the area today following a fact-check on his Norfolk Southern campaign contribution claim.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaHAZARDOUS CARGO: Despite carrying 20 cars of hazardous material, the Norfolk Southern train that derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border this month was not labeled a "high hazard." The Allegheny Front reports on the federal rule changes that could follow and the safety measures that weren't in place. Pennsylvania officials are also stepping up their criticism of Norfolk Southern's crisis response.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaREQUESTS DENIED: A federal compassionate release law allows terminally ill imprisoned people who pose little or no risk to public safety to be freed early, but Kaiser Health News reports judges rejected more than 80% of requests between 2019 and 2022. Spotlight PA previously reported on Pennsylvania's own broken compassionate release law and its impact on people dying in state-run prisons here.

AIR QUALITY: Shell's massive petrochemical plant in Beaver County has received seven violation notices related to air quality since September, Beaver County Times (paywall) reports. In response, two environmental nonprofit organizations are calling for operations to be temporarily halted there "until the company can demonstrate it can operate in compliance with pollution control laws."

RGGI EXIT: Two GOP state reps. — Jim Struzzi (Indiana) and Dallas Kephart (Clearfield) — are floating a bill that would "eliminate the [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] regulation" and require legislative buy-in for similar proposals in the future. The carbon-capping rule was a cornerstone of ex-Gov. Tom Wolf's climate agenda. His Democratic successor, Josh Shapiro, has been slow to embrace it.

» AP: Pennsylvania House nears vote on child-abuse lawsuit window

» CBS21Harrisburg Diocese $18M settlement plan approved

» FORWARD: Shapiro credits Tree of Life families for death penalty stance

» TIMES OBSERVERBill to preempt gas stove ban introduced

» WESA: Math favors Allegheny County owners over tax collectors

Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and all new monthly gifts will be matched 12X!
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

DATE RANGE (Case No. 189)A person was born in 1975 and died in 1980. Yet they were 76 years old. How could this be possible?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: One, two, three. (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Steve S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: John M., Fred O., James M., James D., Annette I., Susan N.-Z., Michael H., Tish M., Judy A., Ken S., Philip C., William H., Lynda G., Michelle T., Elizabeth W., Roseanne D., Joe S., Lou R., Donna D., Peter S., William R., Addison H., Robert K., Dean S., Beth T., Sherri G., Alberta V., Dennis F., Bruce B., Seth Z., Jay G., Jon N., Mary B., Johnny C.
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