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How this budget impasse compares to past ones

We spoke to seven Capitol insiders who’ve participated in high-level budget talks to learn how the current stalemate fits into this tradition.

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.

July 20, 2023 |
Penn State reforms, impasse history, dark money, one-vote advantage, broadband billions, municipal plans, blanket reason, and fine print.
Penn State was lauded as a national leader for misconduct-focused reforms made in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but Spotlight PA and the Centre Daily Times found the supporting system quickly unraveled. 

According to a yearlong investigation by the outlets, the internal accountability apparatus Penn State constructed has repeatedly failed those it was intended to protect. The system is marred by its own decentralized structure, long delays, a familiar lack of transparency around key findings and patterns, and hostile workplace accusations against a chief ethics officer.

Read more about how the outlets reported the investigation

Also this week, Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso and Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association intern DaniRae Renno report on the history of state budget impasses. They spoke to seven Capitol insiders who’ve participated in high-level budget talks to learn how the current stalemate fits into this tradition.

Finally, Katie Meyer reports on a new dark money group that is pressuring lawmakers to back private school vouchers amid the current budget impasse.

"In my experience, there would be days of very productive conversations, and then there would be days where everybody would go back to their corners and not talk."

—Mary Isenhour, Gov. Tom Wolf's former chief of staff, on how budget negotiations sometimes work between legislative leaders

» How Harrisburg Works: Higher bar, guns in the Capitol, and why the Pa. legislature is full-time
» A Pa. House Democrat is resigning amid the budget impasse, costing the caucus its one-vote advantage
» What’s next as Pa. prepares to spend $1.2B on broadband
» How Local Government Works: How does municipal planning work in your community?

Court finds legislature cannot use blanket reason to redact legal bill details

Nearly two years ago, Spotlight PA and its partner newsroom, The Caucus, asked Pennsylvania’s legislature for details about how much money lawmakers spend on private lawyers — and why they were hired.

Both chambers turned over hundreds of pages of financial records, but in many instances, they wholly blacked out the reason for hiring those attorneys, leaving the public in the dark about why they were spending taxpayer dollars. 

An appellate court ruling this week could help shake loose some of that secret information.

The rulings stem from long-running court challenges by Spotlight PA and The Caucus to redactions the legislature made to legal bills and other documents it turned over in response to a public records request in late 2021. The news organizations sought contracts, invoices, and other financial documents from the chambers related to legal work performed by all outside law firms and private lawyers that year.

Legislative leaders in both chambers provided the records, but in multiple instances redacted one of the most important details: the reason for hiring the private lawyers in the first place. They argued the blacked-out information, if revealed, would jeopardize legal strategy or violate attorney-client privilege, which among other things shields private communications between attorneys and the people they represent.

The news organizations appealed. 

Unlike the executive branch, the state House and Senate do not have to make their case to the state’s Office of Open Records, an independent agency that is typically the first stop in deciding public records disputes. Instead, the two chambers designate appeals officers from within their own ranks — a practice criticized by good-government activists as effectively allowing lawmakers to act as their own judges. 

The state Senate’s appeals officer, for instance, has sided with the chamber — or dismissed a third-party appeal as moot or premature  —  in every single public records dispute over the past decade, according to its website.

In the dispute over the legal bills, the legislature’s appeals officers decided the redactions were appropriate. The news organizations, represented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, then sued in Commonwealth Court. 

In decisions released this week, Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia A. McCullough agreed the legislature cannot use attorney-client privilege — or the reasoning that the unredacted material would reveal private work product — to “categorically” redact the subject matter of its legal engagements. Instead, she said, the General Assembly bears the burden of providing evidence of those privileges on a case-by-case basis. 

The state House, McCullough concluded, had met that burden; the state Senate had not. As a result, McCullough directed the state Senate’s appeals officer to conduct what is called an “in-camera review” — or a private review — of the underlying records to make that determination on a case-by-case basis.

Paula Knudsen Burke, the RCFP attorney who represented the news organizations, called McCullough’s decisions “a win for access,” as they reaffirm that the legislature must produce evidence in every instance it seeks to shield information about why it is hiring private lawyers.

Lawyers for the state Senate, which can appeal to Pennsylvania’s highest court, would not comment on the ruling.

Terry Mutchler, a former head of the Office of Open Records who specializes in public records, said the case shows why the legislature should amend Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know Law to require both chambers, like the executive branch, to answer to the independent agency when disputes arise.

“They should be the fact finders,” she said of the Office of Open Records. “Because otherwise, you have the public thinking that the fox is watching the henhouse.” Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

🏆 HIGH SCORE: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Another Jan. 6 conviction and the end of legacy admissions.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaAG TAKEOVER: Warren County District Attorney Rob Greene says Warren County Prison staff might be charged with criminal negligence following Michael Burham's escape from the facility, and he's asking the state attorney general’s office to take over the inquiry. Among the factors behind his request, per the AP: Greene said he considers many jail staff in the small county his friends, and he’s on the prison board.

  This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaRAIL REFORMS: Lawmakers say this week's train derailment in Montgomery County underscores the need for rail safety legislation like that introduced after February's derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, per City & State. One such bill passed the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House in June but is contending with enforceability questions and resistance from the industry and its allies.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaFINE PRINT: Bloomberg reports college athletes signing name, image, and likeness (or NIL) deals are being exploited by questionable offers, disreputable agents, and outright scams. Former Penn State athletic integrity officer Robert Boland said students often lack adequate legal representation when signing the deals. Spotlight PA explained how NIL deals work at Penn State and who is (and isn't) policing them.

TOXIC GRID: An expansive network of telecom cables covered in lead still crisscrosses states like Pennsylvania. The Wall Street Journal reports more than 2,000 lead-covered cables left behind by companies like AT&T and Verizon litter the American landscape — hundreds in source water protection areas or near schools.

BOILING HOT: Climate control remains a problem at Dauphin County Prison, with freezing cells and signs of hypothermia reported in the winter and sweltering cells drawing scrutiny now. PennLive (paywall) reports officials are blaming staffing shortages for frequent lockdowns that keep imprisoned people in cells without air-conditioning or windows for up to 23 hours a day as temperatures soar.

» APPa. woman who used bullhorn to direct Capitol rioters convicted

» CAP-STAR: 30K Pa. borrowers will get relief under Biden debt plan

» READING EAGLE: New details released on chocolate factory blast

» PENNLIVE: Agencies fear funding crunch if impasse continues

» TRIBLIVE: Relatives no longer have edge at Carnegie Mellon, Pitt

Send your answers to

HEAD HUNT (Case No. 209)What loses its head in the morning and gets it back at night?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Your photo. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Harriet Z., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Susan N.-Z., Michelle T., Don H., Norman S., Elizabeth B., Jeffrey F., Mary B., Fred O., Jon N., Thomas L., Robert K., Beth T., Tish M., Karen K., Jay G., Lynda G., Elizabeth W., and Sue L.
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