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What's inside Pa.'s $45.2 billion budget

Plus, why the feds are suing Pa. courts over opioid addiction medicine.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

July 14, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Completed budget, stimulus money, important amendments, transparency test, five takeaways, tax credit, election deal, DOJ challenge, and executive action.
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Pennsylvania has a new $45.2 billion budget that boosts education funding by more than $1 billion, creates a new child care tax credit, and banks money for a rainy day. 

The deal was finalized a week after the June 30 deadline, with Gov. Tom Wolf touting his continued commitment to education funding and GOP leaders praising an expansion of a private school tax credit program. 

Wolf and lawmakers also agreed on a plan to spend more than $2 billion in remaining pandemic stimulus money on housing, conservation, and child care programs.

While completing the budget, Republican leaders in the state Senate called a vote on a package of proposed constitutional amendments and amended it to add one that asserts the state’s charter does not protect abortion access. Voters could be asked as early as the spring to weigh in on these five significant amendments.

Finally, Spotlight PA's State College bureau requested employee salary data from Centre County and its 35 municipalities. Now they need your help figuring out what to focus on in the data.

"And the legislation, by not having an enforcement mechanism, makes it a little too easy for certain chiefs to decide that the balance of incentives weighs against participating."

—Penn State Dickinson Law professor Raff Donelson on the law that created a police hiring database in Pennsylvania.


» 5 takeaways from our event on Pennsylvania’s flawed police hiring database

» Pennsylvania has a new child care tax credit. Here’s what you need to know.

» Pa. lawmakers agreed to a big election funding deal — with strings attached

Why DOJ is suing Pa. courts over opioid addiction medicine

A fight between the U.S. Department of Justice and leaders of Pennsylvania’s court system is playing out in federal court — and the outcome could have major implications for people who experience opioid addiction and face criminal charges.

The federal agency sued the Pennsylvania court system in February, alleging that it discriminated against people with opioid use disorder by banning or limiting the use of medication prescribed to treat their disability. Attorneys for the state court system are trying to convince a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Here’s what you need to know about the case. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

What are medications for opioid use disorder?

Three drugs — methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone — are approved by the federal government to treat opioid use disorder. All three are effective and save lives, according to a 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 

For people with opioid use disorder, buprenorphine and methadone can reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings without causing a euphoric high, according to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency. The medications allow patients to “function normally, attend school or work, and participate in other forms of treatment,” the report says.

The third drug, naltrexone, works to block the euphoric effects of opioid drugs, and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has found there is "no abuse and diversion potential with naltrexone.”

What does the Department of Justice allege?

The lawsuit focuses on people who are under a judge’s supervision. In Jefferson County, a woman under court supervision faced the choice of quitting her prescribed medication or having her probation revoked and going to jail, the lawsuit alleges. The policy banning the use of her medication caused her and another woman “significant harm,” according to the lawsuit.

Leaders of a Northumberland County treatment program that serves as an alternative to incarceration pressured a woman to try to quit her prescribed medication in order to participate, delaying her progress in the program and causing her “significant emotional distress and severe side effects,” Department of Justice attorneys wrote. 

The lawsuit identified six other counties that it said had problematic policies for treatment court programs.

What’s the Pennsylvania court system’s argument?

“There is no question that — particularly in the judicial system of a large state such as Pennsylvania — some mistakes will be made in the sixty judicial districts,” attorneys for the state court system wrote in a court filing.

But they argued that the Department of Justice has failed to provide evidence of a systemic, statewide problem. Attorneys said that statewide court leaders already remind county courts that they must follow federal requirements and provide ample support to help courts satisfy their obligations. And they say the statewide system should not be held accountable for the supervision that judges provide at the local level. 

What’s the Department of Justice’s argument?

The statewide system has the “Power and Responsibility” to ensure county courts do not adopt blanket administrative policies that discriminate, Department of Justice attorneys wrote. They argued that local courts are part of the statewide system, not separate legal entities, and that the statewide court system’s disability discrimination policies are “generic” and “insufficient.”

What’s next?

The judge hearing the case has yet to rule on the court system’s motion to dismiss as of July 13.

EXECUTIVE ACTION: Gov. Tom Wolf has signed an executive order that says people from other states may come to Pennsylvania for an abortion without fear of being arrested or detained at the request of their home state, where tougher laws may be in effect post-Roe v. Wade. Capital-Star reports the executive order extends similar protections to those who help facilitate travel or assist with the procedure.

COUNTIES SUED: Pennsylvania's top election officials have filed suit against three counties for refusing to tally undated mail ballots cast in the May 17 primary, CNN reports. The legal action taken against Berks, Fayette, and Lancaster Counties comes after a federal court ruled that undated mail ballots should be counted in Pennsylvania — a decision the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block but could revisit.

RELIGIOUS RIGHT: GOP nominee for governor and current state Sen. Doug Mastriano is central to a New York Times piece about the right-wing political candidates who are promoting Christian power in America and "mixing religious fervor with conspiracy theories." Mastriano has called the separation of church and state a "myth" and believes divine intervention will deliver a win for him in November

VETO POWER: Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed legislation that would ban transgender girls and women in Pennsylvania from playing on school sports teams that correspond to their gender, Spotlight PA reports. Wolf also vetoed a bill that would have loosened rules around poll watchers, something critics warned could lead to a weaponizing of the role and intimidation at the polls, via ABC27.

ETHICS COMPLAINTS: A legal advocacy group that seeks professional consequences for lawyers who abetted former President Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election filed complaints to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court against seven in-state attorneys and three out-of-state ones, The Inquirer reports. The group, The 65 Project, alleges the lawyers knowingly used their law licenses to undermine public faith in elections.

» AP: Wolf, nursing homes come to agreement to boost staff

» CAP-STAR: The bills Wolf approved and vetoed during budget season

» LNP: School board approves trans sports ban 

» PENNLIVE: GOP players form pro-Shapiro PAC to buck Mastriano

» PENNLIVE: Pa. shuts down phone app that warns of exposure to COVID

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

OPEN LETTERS (Case No. 155): Place the same three letters in the same order in each blank to make two words that are synonyms. What are they? 
____NTY  /  AM____
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Last week's answer: Chicago (Find last week's clue here)
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