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Showdowns loom as Pa. congressional map advances

Plus, House GOP bets on constitutional amendments to avoid Wolf.

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January 13, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

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—Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA editor-in-chief
Redistricting blitz, hidden tabs, political representation, veto workarounds, militia men, eviction wave, fracking foes, and PSERS dysfunction.
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The Pennsylvania House on Wednesday advanced a new congressional map that nonpartisan analysts say has a clear Republican advantage, but its fate remains unclear as a court-mandated deadline looms.

Spotlight PA and Votebeat report the map, which will help determine the balance of power in Washington for years to come, passed with support from all but two of the chamber's Republicans and none of its Democrats.

It still needs to go to the state Senate for consideration. It would also need Gov. Tom Wolf's approval, which might be a longshot, given that Wolf has already said the map falls short on basic measures of partisan fairness. 

If Wolf and the legislature are unable to agree on a final plan by Jan. 30, Commonwealth Court is set to intervene under an ongoing lawsuit.

Also this week, upset that a separate redistricting process has produced a state House map that is more favorable to Democrats than the last, Republicans want to sideline the bipartisan redistricting panel that made it.

Spotlight PA and Votebeat report the proposal is the latest in a series of constitutional amendments being pushed by Pennsylvania Republicans as a way to take issues directly to the public, circumventing the veto power of the governor's office. (Keep reading for more on how that process works.)

This particular amendment would eliminate the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission and give lawmakers the ultimate power over how their districts are drawn. Critics are calling the move a "power grab." 

And finally, Spotlight PA and The Caucus report that state legislative leaders spend millions in taxpayer dollars each year to hire private law firms but often hide the details of the work from the public, flouting a court ruling.

In one instance, GOP legislative leaders hired the chair of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania — also one of the state's top election lawyers — to represent them in unspecified legal matters for $575 an hour, quickly racking up a $36,000 legal bill. But what he did for that money remains a mystery.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

"I don't believe that Gov. Wolf is going to end up signing. I think that the partisan bias is too clearly in favor of the Republicans."

—Adam Podowitz-Thomas of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project on the congressional map proposal approved by the state House this week
» Allegheny County's 911 center is facing a "critical staffing" situation as hiring issues meet a wave of pandemic-related absences, per PublicSource.

» Gov. Tom Wolf says vaccinations are the best COVID-19 mitigation tool and that he has no plans for new statewide restrictions, per the AP.

» At-home test costs will be covered by private health insurers starting on Saturday. The Inquirer explains how it will work

» Allegheny County residents can now report positive at-home tests here. WHYY reports Philadelphia is planning no such data collection.

» Fearing COVID-19 in deer will mutate and circle back to humans, Pennsylvania scientists are studying the issue, per NorthcentralPa.com.

» Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a vaccine.
» Proposed Pennsylvania legislative maps don’t do enough to increase Hispanic representation, residents say

» Pa. redistricting maps: Search now to see your old and new legislative districts

» How you can weigh in on Pennsylvania's next legislative maps

Voters could be asked to weigh in on a flood of changes to Pennsylvania's Constitution

Pennsylvania voters could be flooded with questions about changing the state constitution after House Republicans took a single proposal and tacked on four additional — and far more controversial — revisions. 

The resulting omnibus bill is packed with initiatives that Republicans hope to send directly to voters in order to avoid the possibility of a governor’s veto. The proposed amendments would give a simple majority in the legislature power to override executive orders and administrative regulations; would require “government-issued identification” to vote; and would require the auditor general to review elections and voter rolls for accuracy.

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires both the House and Senate to pass proposed amendments in two concurrent sessions before they appear on the ballot.

Typically, lawmakers introduce proposed changes in separate resolutions, a system that gives each revision its own platform for legislators to debate, amend, and consider its merits. But as a bundle, lawmakers are forced to vote for all or none of them.

“From a procedural point of view when you do this — when you throw a lot of amendments into one bill — you don’t have hearings, you don't have discussion, no one knows they’re coming,” said Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive research group that studies the state’s economy and government.

While the timeline for amending the constitution is designed to be slow, Republicans, who control the legislature, have favored it in recent years to circumvent Gov. Tom Wolf and curtail executive power. The Democrat has vetoed more bills during his time in office than any other Pennsylvania governor since Milton Shapp, who served from 1971 to 1979.

According to state Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), Wolf “has the worst relationship with the House and the Senate in generations. He refuses to negotiate with us.”

The original bill, which Argall introduced, seeks to modify the way Pennsylvania elects the lieutenant governor. Currently, candidates for lieutenant governor run separately from those vying to be governor during the primary. Under Argall’s proposal, a political party’s nominee for governor would pick their running mate, mirroring the way it’s done in presidential elections.

Argall told Spotlight PA that while he supports the individual measures now tacked onto his bill, he hopes his initial effort to update the lieutenant governor election process won’t fail because of the riders now attached.

A spokesperson for the House Republicans did not respond to request for comment.

Presenting a measure as a ballot question nearly guarantees it will be approved. Voters have rejected only six of 49 amendments dating back to 1968, the year the state constitution underwent a major overhaul. The overwhelming majority were approved in off-year elections, periods when a small fraction of eligible voters goes to the polls.

The amendment omnibus is back in the Senate for a vote on the changes. If it passes this year, the new amendments would need to pass again in the 2023-24 session before appearing on the ballot as separate questions.

Danielle Ohl, Spotlight PA

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

MILITIA MEETING: Two participants at a mysterious 2021 gathering of militia groups in Lancaster County, days before the U.S. Capitol siege, told LNP the gathering wasn't solely about the 2020 election. Others say it offered siege participants a chance to coordinate ahead of armed efforts to disrupt Congress' certification of President Joe Biden's victory

EVICTION RISE: There wasn't a "tidal wave" of eviction filings after a federal moratorium ended, but rental assistance options are narrowing and PublicSource reports a slower-moving crisis is unfolding. In Philadelphia, meanwhile, The Inquirer reports eviction court is packed as omicron rages and the city runs out of rent relief money.

FRACK CHECK: rare denial of a fracking permit by a local Pennsylvania government, this one in West Deer Township, was made possible by residents' armchair research and a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling, the Post-Gazette reports. Even a township supervisor who works in the oil and gas industry wound up siding with opponents.

RIVAL BIDS: State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) is officially running for governor. The Trump ally and conspiracy purveyor will launch his bid with a marathon rally on Saturday, per WITF. State Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre) is also running and looking for Trump World bonafides of his own via former Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway.

INSIDE REPORT: Pennsylvania's largest pension fund paid $400,000 for a report that, while avoiding the subjects of an ongoing criminal probe, found an entity "torn by internal divisions, consumed by relatively trivial matters, and frozen on key decisions," The Inquirer explains. It's the latest look at Public School Employees' Retirement System dysfunction.

» AP: Court won't block entire Pa. election review subpoena

» AXIOS: UPenn sued for colluding to hold down student financial aid

» CAPITAL-STAR: Wolf vetoes GOP-led carbon fee block, as expected

» NBC10: Philly affordable housing plan actually sped up gentrification

» TRIBLIVE: Pa. dentist charged with killing wife on African hunting trip
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.

SPLIT TAKES (Case No. 129)A grandmother left half her money to her granddaughter and half that amount to her grandson. She left a sixth to her brother, and the rest, $1,000, to a shelter. How much did she leave altogether?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Eva was the third child. (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to Cris F., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: George S., Michael H., Karen K., Michele M., Kimberly J., Victoria C., Ruth M., George S., James D., Susan N.-Z., Dennis F., Joe S., Barbara M., Philip C., Marisa B., Rebecca D., Kevin M., Edward F., Joel S., Joseph H., Ken S., Mary B., William D., Erin G., Don H., Joan C., Judy A., Jyo S., Mary Kay M., Jodi A., Bruce B., Skip B., Brian P., Johnny C., Carol T., Lynda G., Lindsey S., and Roseanne D.
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