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Pa. congressional map heads to court after veto

Plus, five things to watch for in Wolf's final budget address.

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January 27, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

Dear reader,

Dozens of amendments to our state constitution are pending in the legislature that would forever reshape Pennsylvania. That's why we've launched a new, nonpartisan public-service initiative to raise awareness and education about what might be coming to your ballot.

Our 📜 Amendment Tracker allows you to see and search all proposed amendments in one place. And we want to make improvements to the design and add other features, such as email alerts as amendments progress and events in support of public awareness.

To do all of that and more, we need your help. If you value this kind of public-service journalism, please support the Amendment Tracker by making a gift now. We're seeking to raise $10,000 in support of this effort by the end of January. Contribute now.


Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA editor
'Fundamental fairness,' big breaks, secrecy pacts, amendment tracker, legacy speech, elector inquiry, river repercussions, PAC fam, and full autopilot.
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Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a congressional map sent to him by Republican lawmakers, as anticipated, leaving the monumental and seismic task of picking Pennsylvania's next set of district lines to the state courts

In his veto message, Wolf said the map failed "the test of fundamental fairness," Spotlight PA and Votebeat report. Nonpartisan analyses found the GOP-backed map gave the GOP a clear advantage. 

Commonwealth Court will pick the new map from one of these submissions as soon as Sunday. That ruling could then be appealed to the state's Supreme Court. Hanging in the balance: an outcome that could help determine the balance of power in Washington for years to come.

Also this week, Charlotte Keith reports a massive Pennsylvania corporate tax break worth an estimated $280 million annually operates with little accountability and lacks even the most basic data to determine if it's actually working as planned.

That lack of data isn't an unintended consequence but rather the result of an intentional effort by lawmakers to limit the information that is collected about the tax credit program, which funds private and parochial school scholarships. 

Without more data, an independent fiscal watchdog says it's impossible to determine if the program is actually living up to its lofty promises — namely helping low-income students trapped in failing public schools.

And finally, Spotlight PA and The Inquirer report board members with Pennsylvania's embattled $73 billion school pension fund won't be required to sign non-disclosure agreements to hear the findings of an internal investigation into the plan — the move coming amid tension over leaks.

The PSERS fund still wants the board members to sign the secrecy pacts, but is not insisting upon it, a spokesperson said. A previous and controversial email from the board's chair didn't mention an option to refuse.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

"The public deserves a fair map completed in a bipartisan manner; the General Assembly failed to adopt one."

—Gov. Tom Wolf announcing his veto of a GOP-backed rewrite of Pennsylvania's congressional map; state courts will now intervene

» Gov. Tom Wolf will sign fast-tracked legislation that authorizes $225 million to help hospitals stanch the effects of a widespread staffing crisis

» Even as new cases decline, Pennsylvania is averaging more daily COVID-19 deaths than at any point in the past year, The Inquirer reports. 

» LNP reporter Nicole C. Brambila documents her own breakthrough case and observations on the flaws in America's public health response.

» Pennsylvania state prisons have halted all in-person visits through February because of COVID-19, the AP reports.

» Pennsylvania's contact tracers examined 10% of cases between Dec. 10 and Jan. 9, making the state's alert app far less accurate.

» Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a vaccine.
» BACK IN SESSION: Today at 5 p.m. EST, join Spotlight PA and our panel of experts via Zoom as we look back on the 2021 legislative session and discuss what themes are likely to emerge — or persist — in 2022. RSVP for free here. Submit questions in advance to events@spotlightpa.org.
» A complete guide and amendment tracker for proposed changes to Pennsylvania's Constitution

» Pa. primary 2022: What delayed redistricting maps could mean for the May election

» Voters could be flooded with proposed changes to the Pa. Constitution in 2023

» Pa. GOP answered Wolf's pandemic vetoes with constitution changes. The strategy is here to stay.
Wolf will seek to cement his legacy in his final budget address

In less than two weeks, term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf will deliver his eighth and final budget address to a joint session of the legislature. Such speeches are usually a time for governors to lay out their vision for the future, but this one will also be a deep dive into the past. 

Here are five things to know ahead of the Feb. 8 speech. 

Legacy will be as prominent as finances

This is Wolf's chance to sell the public on his tenure in office. Expect to hear about his administration’s focus on increasing funding for public education, expanding Medicaid access, ushering in changes to voting policy, and his administration's COVID-19 response. 

Also expect the GOP to rebut this narrative by countering that the Wolf administration overstepped its boundaries and attempted to usurp the powers of the legislature in imposing coronavirus restrictions. 

The state's finances are OK — for now

A decade ago, the legislature created the nonpartisan Independent Fiscal Office and tasked it with fairly and accurately assessing the state's financial health.

In a report late last year on the state's budget outlook, the IFO projected a "substantial surplus" in this fiscal year's budget — "but operating deficits for future years."

That means negotiations between Wolf and the legislature in the 2022-23 fiscal year could be calmer, but the next administration can expect a financial headache. By the 2023-24 fiscal year, Pennsylvania could be staring at a nearly $2 billion deficit, the report states.

Federal relief dollars are a curse and a blessing

Federal money from the pandemic relief bill President Joe Biden signed last March is keeping the state's finances afloat, and Republicans hope to use some $5 billion in cash reserves to keep the state's finances balanced through the 2023-24 fiscal year. 

Democrats, however, have called for spending the money now on what they see as more pressing matters for the state to address, setting the stage for potential clashes with GOP lawmakers who want to continue squirreling some of the money away to ease future deficits.

Education funding remains a Wolf fixture

Wolf has proposed funding increases for public schools every year of his tenure. The GOP-controlled legislature has largely obliged, albeit not to the extent that the governor had hoped.

But Wolf has been insistent that all education dollars — and not just the amount in annual increases — should be funneled through the state's Fair Funding formula to help poor and underfunded schools in urban and rural districts. 

Yet he doesn't have complete buy-in from GOP lawmakers; and it is unlikely the formula will be implemented in an election year, when public officials often shy away from making radical changes. 

The pandemic looms large

Wolf's legacy will in large part be judged by his handling of the pandemic. Expect the Democratic governor to focus on his administration's investments in health care — including an additional $225 million that is being fast-tracked through the legislature this week for hospitals struggling with staffing shortages — rather than the myriad fights he had with legislative Republicans over his administration's restrictions in the first year of the pandemic. 

Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

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

FAKE ELECTORS: Federal prosecutors will investigate Republicans who sent fake Trump electors to Congress in an attempt to redirect electoral votes that actually belonged to now-President Joe Biden, The Guardian reports. This included electors from Pennsylvania, where careful wording of the certificates could spare them prosecution.

TOXIC TRAIL: High levels of a toxic chemical in a water source relied on by millions of people can be traced back to Pennsylvania, where industrial waste containing the likely carcinogen was processed by a Lehigh Valley treatment plant and discharged into connected waterways, per Politico. Lax government rules also played a role.

FAMILY FEES: Former state treasurer Barbara Hafer hasn't held office since 2005 and can't hold it again here following a 2017 federal conviction. But The Caucus reports Hafer's political action committee is still very active, collecting millions from investments and raising red flags over $500,000 in consulting fees paid to Hafer's daughter

FULL AUTO: A bill that would allow self-driving cars to be tested on Pennsylvania roads without emergency drivers is opposed by the City of Pittsburgh, where autonomous vehicle testing has been happening for years. It's also opposed by a CMU professor who helped write national safety standards and who has serious problems with this proposal.

BILL BLOCKS: Most state House lawmakers support a bill regulating how many patients a single nurse can care for at a time, a move meant to ensure better care. But as Capital-Star reports, majority support matters less in this instance than that of powerful committee chairs who decide "what bills see a vote and which wither and die without action." 

» AP: Scranton sheds distressed city label after three decades

» POST-GAZETTE: Smaller firms sidelined in Pa. legal pot market

» THE INQUIRER: Philadelphia joins $1B opioid deal it fought to stop

» WHYY: Three police officers fired after fatal shooting of 8-year-old

» WITF: Chambersburg first town to repeal anti-discrimination rule
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.

DUELING DIGITS (Case No. 131): 16, 06, 68, 88, ?, 98. What is the "?"

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The poison was in the ice. Alternative solution: Jane didn't merely "fall ill" from the poison, she died. (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to James M., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: George S., Kevin H., Ryan S., Mary B., and Robert K.
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