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What's holding up Pa.'s state budget?

Plus, meet Spotlight PA's first regional reporting team.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

June 30, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Forever chemicals, budget deadline, nursing homes, police event, clean rolls, new team, child support, ballot test, ethics check, and general terms.
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People who live near Penn State University’s airport want to know why it took environmental officials so long to test their wells for a class of synthetic chemicals known as PFAs. 

As Adam Smeltz reports for Spotlight PA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection waited more than two years to test some residential wells — used for bathing, cooking, and drinking — after finding nearby contamination. Residents of Benner Township, Centre County, are worried about what the delay means for their health.

The story is the first from Spotlight PA's new State College bureau. Keep scrolling to learn more about the team.

Also this week, it's budget deadline time — minus a finished budget.

Under state law, Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature need to complete the spending plan for the next fiscal year by June 30. According to Spotlight PA Capitol reporter Stephen Caruso, that's not going to happen. 

A number of issues are being negotiated, including how much additional funding to provide to nursing homes.

As PLCA intern Jaxon White reports, Wolf wants to appropriate $91.25 million to increase the amount of money skilled nursing homes receive for residents on Medicaid. While advocates and lobbyists welcome the investment, they say it's not enough. 

And Caruso has the latest on how fetal tissue research at the University of Pittsburgh is at the center of a fight over funding Pennsylvania's state-related universities

A completed budget could happen as soon as next week. Check spotlightpa.org for the latest.

"It’s also bone, pancreas, brain. You name it — there is growing evidence."

—Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, on how PFAS chemicals affect the body.

» LAW & LOOPHOLE: Join us Thursday, July 7 at 6 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on the limitations of the state's police misconduct database and a discussion on other police accountability efforts. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

» Conflicting reports, gaps in data obscure true number of Pa. law enforcement agencies

» How Pennsylvania keeps its voter rolls clean and updated

Meet Spotlight's first regional news team

The middle of the Keystone State doesn't lack much in the way of natural beauty, charming towns, and fascinating people. This region is home to the darkest skies east of the Mississippi; tons of hiking trails and scenic views; and Penn State University, one of the largest and most influential employers in the commonwealth.

But what it does lack is sufficient independent investigative and public-service journalism — which is why Spotlight PA has been working for more than a year on a historic effort to rebuild and reinvigorate local news in north-central Pennsylvania.

This summer, we are launching our first regional news bureau — based in State College and reporting on northern and central Pennsylvania. 

When we set out to build the bureau, we knew our communities needed more reporters on the ground. After all, independent, nonpartisan journalism is essential to the health of our region and the strength of our democracy. So we brought together a team with a mix of local experience and outside perspective, varying skill sets, and, most importantly, a commitment to high-quality public-service journalism.

Our team of four journalists will have the time, resources, and mandate to dig deep into the issues of the region. 

Rural affairs reporter Ashad Hajela joins the bureau thanks to Spotlight PA’s first-ever partnership with Report for America (RFA). Ashad covers everyday issues that affect the communities of rural north-central Pennsylvania — including agriculture, climate change, housing, health care, utilities, criminal justice, and education.

Wyatt Massey, an investigative reporter focused on Penn State, previously worked in the Bible Belt as the religion reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press through RFA. Wyatt plans to focus on Penn State's influence on the region and how the university operates internally. 

Local accountability reporter Min Xian has covered state and local government, changing communities, and rural issues in central and northern Pennsylvania for the past five years as a reporter with WPSU. For the bureau, Min is focused on issues like how our tax dollars are spent and how our towns are run.

And I’m Sarah Rafacz, bureau editor and a native of Centre County. I’ve worked in local news in State College for the past seven years, most recently as the editor of State College Magazine. 

We recognize the important responsibility we have as journalists to shine a light on the issues our region faces and to cover those issues with care and determination through a lens of equity.

Whether you live on a farm or in a village, in a college town or a city, you are entitled to reliable information about your community. Everyone should see their lives, triumphs, and challenges reflected in the news. And everyone deserves to be served by a trustworthy watchdog unafraid to expose wrongdoing by people and institutions with influence. —Sarah Rafacz, State College Editor

CHILD SUPPORT: Katie Labus was addicted to drugs when she found out she was pregnant in 2018. A doctor connected her with treatment and a program that offers free support services to 1,300 first-time mothers in Pennsylvania each year. But Transforming Health reports funding for that program is currently at risk, leading advocates like Labus, now mother to a healthy son, to sound the alarm.

BALLOT TEST: A judge in Williamsport will decide whether to force officials to turn over voter-by-voter records for the 2020 election to a Lebanon-based company with links to Arizona's partisan recount, the AP reports. Lycoming County initially denied the firm's request, saying it amounted to asking for the contents of ballot boxes and voting machines, information that the state election code declares off-limits.

ETHICS CHECK: GOP nominee for governor Doug Mastriano used $10,000 in campaign donations to pay for a lawyer to represent him before congressional J6 investigators. HuffPost reports the spending likely doesn't violate campaign finance laws but does raise ethical questions. In 2021, Mastriano used state Senate campaign funds to send supporters to the "Stop the Steal" rally that later fed the riot. 

GENERAL TERMS: Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro has taken heat from his own party over ongoing efforts to boost the profile of his GOP rival, Doug Mastriano, in hopes that Mastriano's far-right record will turn off voters. It's a strategy that's being picked up by Democrats in other states, and one a longtime strategist called "dangerous," per the CBC, given what voters consider too toxic is very much in flux.

HOME VISIT: The chair of the Allegheny County Republican Party, Sam DeMarco, was interviewed by federal agents at his home on Thursday, part of a probe into former President Trump's attempt to use alternate electors from swing states to overturn the election, the Post-Gazette reports. A hedge in Pennsylvania's alternate electors document may offer participants legal protection, the paper adds.

» AP: Bills limiting LGBTQ instruction, trans athletes pass Senate

» INQUIRER: 1 million voters have switched to the GOP over the last year

» PENNLIVE: Pa. House GOP tanks background checks bill

» POST-GAZETTE: Shale well impact fees rise as natural gas prices surge

» WHYY: Survey shows 20,000 illegal evictions each year in Philly

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

START MAKING SENSE (Case No. 153): Please explain this sentence: We eat what we can, and we can what we can't.
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Your father. (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Pete S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Michael H., Susan N.-Z., Rebecca D., Joe S., Elizabeth W., George S., Lois P., Judy A., Tish M., James D., Philip C., Anthony E., Anna C., Lynda G., Michelle T., kmppress, Karen K., Sherri S., Steve N., Dennis F., Beth T., Mary B., Catherine J., Fred O., Popi R., Johnny C., Carla Sue B., and Seth Z.
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