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Election officials worried about misinfo in 2024

Plus, what the Pa. legislature has planned for 2024.

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.

January 4, 2024 | spotlightpa.org
Election concerns, slow start, funding issues, fracking legacy, 2024 plans, hard water, jail watch, new laws, closing the door, and fake address.

The 2024 presidential election is just over 300 days away and Pennsylvania election officials are worried that the commonwealth is unprepared for a wave of misinformation that may rival the last one.

The people who run elections in counties across Pennsylvania say the commonwealth must prepare to be at the center of national scrutiny, Spotlight PA reports.

Also this week, the state House is on an extended post-holiday hiatus because of a leaky roof. That means only bills that have already passed the lower chamber have a chance of making it to Gov. Josh Shapiro for the next few weeks. 

Finally, public funding for Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities has not kept pace with inflation, according to a Spotlight PA analysis.

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"We’re constantly putting out fires, dealing with issues, and overseeing the process of canvassing."

—Tonia Fernandez, Erie County’s election director, on the need for additional time for counties to process mail ballots before Election Day


» Fracking remains key issue for former Pa. environmental protection secretary

» Pa. medical marijuana cards and anxiety: What the research says

What the Pa. legislature has planned for 2024

In the new year, Pennsylvania lawmakers plan to put a lot of their energy into changing permitting processes, getting a long-sought constitutional amendment over the finish line, and figuring out how to overhaul the commonwealth’s education funding system. 

The business of lawmaking won’t resume right away when Harrisburg’s customary holiday break winds down. State House Democratic leaders say a leak above their chamber will keep them out of the building — and out of session — until the spring

But leaders in both chambers say they don’t plan to be idle during that time. 

Looming over the entire body is a nearly year-old court ruling that declared Pennsylvania’s education funding system to be unconstitutionally inequitable and ordered lawmakers to correct it. For months, a bipartisan commission has been holding hearings on the issue, and state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) says that work will continue during the recess in 2024. 

The commission plans to release a report based on its hearings in early January. After that, Bradford said, the Democratic-controlled state House and GOP-controlled state Senate have a lot of hard work ahead to figure out a consensus plan. 

The commonwealth “made a down payment” in the just-passed state budget, he said, “but there's clearly decades of underfunding and inadequacy, and then the ripple effects of that … so we've got to really talk about what those equity issues look like and how to affirmatively address them.”

Bradford said his caucus’ priorities also include continuing to vocally push several bills Democrats already passed — particularly ones that would raise the commonwealth’s $7.25 minimum wage, broaden protections for LGBTQ people, and require universal background checks for gun purchases. 

He said it is “embarrassing” that the legislature is still weighing these issues. 

The state Senate hasn’t acted on any of these bills — Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) said the Democrats’ minimum wage number, for one, was “unreasonable.”

The caucuses also split last session on a long-delayed constitutional amendment that would open a window for people to sue over sexual abuse they suffered as children. State House Democrats passed it, but state Senate Republicans countered that they would move the measure only if it were bundled with provisions to expand voter ID and make it easier for the legislature to reject executive branch regulations. Bradford said the effort continues to be a priority for his caucus. 

A spokesperson for the state Senate said its leaders are primarily concerned with pushing bills in one area next year: permitting and regulatory reform. 

Spokesperson Kate Flessner listed bills that the chamber has passed but which haven’t gotten state House consideration, including one that would require agencies to make public more information about the status of permits, one that would require legislative approval of more regulations, and one that would create a new automatic review process for many regulations. 

These measures, Flessner said, are intended to cut “government red tape to help grow family sustaining jobs.”

Lawmakers will return to Harrisburg in January for a constitutionally required meeting on the first Tuesday of the year, and will also convene in the Capitol rotunda — instead of in the state House chamber, to avoid construction — on the first Tuesday in February for the governor’s state of the state address. 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: 2024 anxiety, minimum wage wave, 14th Amendment, and state lawmakers get a raise
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaHARD WATER: An Iranian-linked cyberattack on Aliquippa's water authority is raising federal alarms. But years of congressional inaction, steep costs, and scarce experts have some utilities unsure that they can muster the necessary defenses, via the AP.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaJAIL WATCH: Pastor and activist Justin Douglas' November election win gave Democrats control of Dauphin County for the first time in 100 years. Bolts reports he's setting his sights on the county's troubled jail, where more than 18 people have died since 2019.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaNEW LAWS: WTAE lists the state laws taking effect in 2024. They include increased penalties for so-called porch pirates, lower fitness requirements for new police, limits on solitary confinement for pregnant and postpartum people in prisons, and more.

CLOSING THE DOOR: A spokesperson for Josh Shapiro now tells LNP (paywall) that the Democrat returned a $2,450 dog door purchased with taxpayer money for the Governor’s Residence. “They wanted a basic dog door," the spokesperson said of Shapiro and his wife, Lori.

FAKE ADDRESS: At least 25 construction companies have used a Castor Avenue address in Northeast Philadelphia as their headquarters, despite never having been located there. The companies have racked up lawsuits alleging destroyed or damaged homes, OSHA reports of workers being harmed or killed, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. But they've largely avoided accountability "by changing their names and moving on," an Inquirer (paywall) investigation found.

» ABC27Lawsuit seeks to remove Scott Perry from Pennsylvania ballot

» APShapiro faces calls for billions for schools, a presidential election

» INQUIRER: Philly Mayor Parker declares public safety emergency

» PENNLIVE: Pa. tackles teacher shortage by offering up to $15k stipends

» WESA: Innamorato becomes Allegheny County's first woman leader

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

BEAR TRACKS (Case No. 237): You are inside of a square, glass room with all south facing walls. You see a bear outside. What color is the bear?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: A firecracker. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Jessamyn B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Don L., Steve N., William H., Norman S., Phil C., James D., Ed N., Rebecca D., Jeff W., Judith A., Geoffrey M., Lynda G., Joe S., Michael H., Fred O., Harriet Z., Cassandra N., Kevin M., John H., Irene T., Alan B., Beth T., Tom S., Johnny C., Andrea H., Tina N.-R., and Ken S.
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