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Opaque school tax credit gets big budget boost

Plus, how posting video clips can violate state Senate rules.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

July 21, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Tax credit, records guide, Penn State explanation, state Senate rules, law 'rewrite,' staffing crisis, open 'asylum,' map appeal, and bellwether watch.
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Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled legislature have delivered a historic windfall to a popular tax credit program that underwrites scholarships for Pennsylvania students to attend private schools.

That program, as Angela Couloumbus reports, has been singled out for a fundamental lack of transparency and accountability that makes it impossible to determine whether it’s actually improving outcomes for students.

At the same time, bills to remedy its secrecy, or to make it more efficient, have languished in the legislature.

Also this week, Emma Dooling finds that disputes over public records reached a record high last year.

COVID-19 cases, public school funding, and election data are among the most popular topics of public records requests since 2020, said Liz Wagenseller, executive director of the Office of Open Records. Law enforcement information has also been a common interest among requesters.

Dooling has put together a basic guide to requesting public records on law enforcement, with tips on how to write a request and appeal a denial

"We have zero quantitative data to see if it’s effective, and we don’t even get additional accountability in exchange for the largest increase to the program."

—State Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) on a major budget increase for a private school tax credit that lacks basic transparency


» BUDGET BREAKDOWN: Join us Tuesday, July 26 at 6 p.m. on Zoom for a free breakdown of Pa.'s multibillion-dollar budget and how it will impact you. Register for the event here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org.


» Why Spotlight PA waited to publish details about potential sexual extortion of Penn State student athletes

» 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.

Posting a clip of another Pa. senator’s floor speech? That’s against chamber rules.

In late June, as Pennsylvania’s legislature was frantically trying to meet the deadline for enacting a new budget, state Sen. Katie Muth was pulled aside on the floor of the chamber by top aides in her caucus.

The Montgomery County Democrat was told Republican leadership was upset about a post on her official social media accounts. It featured a clip of state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) speaking in support of a ban on transgender athletes — professing he sounded “more like a feminist than the so-called feminists do” — followed by Muth’s rebuttal.

Muth said she was shown a printout of some of the state Senate’s operating rules, and one, in particular, was highlighted in yellow: a directive that senators only post video clips of themselves on the floor. Posting other senators delivering public comments during session is forbidden.

For violating the rule, Muth was told she could face a GOP-led sanction — even a public reprimand.

“I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Muth told Spotlight PA. “It's ludicrous to me that as a member of the Senate, I can't post a clip of a debate on the Senate floor. This is taxpayer-funded government. We have an obligation to let people know what happens legislatively.”

Such is the nature of the legislature’s impactful yet little-known rules. They are often crafted by the party in power and adopted by both chambers at the start of every new two-year legislative session.

The rules spell out everything from how debate should proceed on the floor to what legislators should wear when they are there (“a coat, tie, and trousers or slacks for men, and appropriate dignified dress for women” in the state Senate). In recent years, there has been grumbling (largely by rank and file lawmakers and good government groups) about how constrictive some are — and how they can and do hinder effective government.

In the state Senate, the rules also go into great detail about filming floor action, as well as video and audio broadcasts of the chamber’s session. For instance, the rules state that “to the extent possible, only the presiding officer and the persons actually speaking shall be covered by the video cameras and microphones.”

That is why, for instance, the public never sees panoramic views of the floor — and which senators are in (or out of) their seats at any given moment.

Tucked in that same section on filming is the directive that senators only post video or audio of themselves. It was added to the rules nearly a decade ago, according to chamber officials, although it is not clear what inspired it. 

Legislative leaders have defended the rules as necessary to maintain decorum during official proceedings. Jason Thompson, spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), said his office would not comment on Muth. (A separate floor fight in 2019 between Corman and Muth — one that featured both of them in the same clip — ended up going viral.)

Muth was among the many Democratic senators who voted against the rules in January 2021.

“I think that they limit democracy and severely restrict what the public has access to,” she said. 

A Democratic caucus leader told Muth she would not be punished if she removed the post from her social media accounts, she said. She swapped out the video on her Facebook and Instagram accounts to show only her speaking and deleted a tweet.

Her actions should not, she said, be interpreted as agreeing with the rule.

“It’s a total violation of the constitution,” she said. “Why should I not be able to post a floor debate link? It's public session.” Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

LAW 'REWRITE': The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner's challenge to the state's use-of-force law as his office prepares to try a former police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man. “Doing as the DAO asks ... would essentially criminalize conduct the General Assembly has deemed noncriminal,” one justice wrote.

STAFFING CRISIS: With officials warning that Pennsylvania will need thousands of new teachers by 2025, the Wolf administration has laid out a plan for filling the gaps, Capital-Star reports. The plan aims to increase the number of students enrolled in Pennsylvania's teacher-prep programs, relying on stronger recruiting strategies and expanded apprenticeship programs, too. Here's the full strategy.

OPEN 'ASYLUM': Vice News reporting on the Meadows Psychiatric Center in Centre Hall included interviews with dozens of current and former workers who described a facility "rife with violence directed at both workers and other patients, in poor condition, and providing less than the bare minimum of resources..." One former employee, a mental health technician, likened it to a "21st century asylum."

MAP APPEAL: The fight over Pennsylvania's new legislative maps isn't over. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court last week that argues the state House districts were unconstitutionally drawn using race as a primary factor, via Morning Call. The redistricted map lessens the GOP's advantage and contains "opportunity zones" for candidates of color.

BELLWETHER WATCH: Politico's list of "20 counties that will decide the 2022 midterms" includes two in Pennsylvania. The outlet is paying close attention to Lehigh County in the race to replace Allentown-based Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, and Luzerne County, where the toss-up race for Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright's seat could yield further electoral omens ahead of the 2024 presidential contest.

» AP: Republicans challenge Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law anew 

» BILLY PENN: Pa. law mandates Philly teens be charged as adults

» HUFFPOST: Mastriano seems to be paying Gab for followers

» POST-GAZETTE: Fetterman gives first interview since his stroke

» WHYY: Homosexuality finally removed from Pa. Crimes Code

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

TRAIN TIME (Case No. 156): A mile-long train is moving at sixty miles an hour when it reaches a mile-long tunnel. How long does it take the entire train to pass through?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Plenty / Ample (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Geoff M., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Andrea H., Brian B., Judy A., Jon N., Tish M., Annette I., Alyssa R., David T., Fred H., Michele M., James D., Hagan H., Beth T., Philip C., Laura K., John H., Michelle T., Mary W., Marcia R., John D., Don H., Jody L., Seth Z., Johnny C., Anthony E., and Kevin L.
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