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Penn State plans to drop Greek life oversight

Plus, budget negotiations will determine the fate of a rebate program for older Pennsylvanians. 

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.

March 2, 2023 |
Greek life, lawmaker allegation, new rules, benefit cuts, shrinking program, crash reports, polluted in Pa., 'shocking' care, and 'predator in blue.'

Penn State is quietly planning to roll back its oversight of fraternities and sororities, policies the university championed in 2017 following the hazing death of a student.

The university enacted more than a dozen changes to its monitoring and compliance rules for Greek life after 19-year-old Timothy Piazza died at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity on campus. Six years later, Penn State’s new administration appears to be easing those restrictions.

Also this week, a lobbyist for one of Pennsylvania’s most influential unions says state Rep. Mike Zabel (D., Delaware) sexually harassed her, and is calling for him to resign.

Andi Perez, a lobbyist for Service Employees International Union 32BJ, publicly shared her story for the first time in January at a meeting organized by then-state House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), though she did not name Zabel at the time. 

Zabel has yet to respond to the allegation. State House Democratic leadership said in a statement “we are concerned by the allegations we learned today, and take such accusations seriously.”

Perez named Zabel for the first time shortly after the Pennsylvania House passed new rules that will allow the chamber to operate. Taking center stage in the debate were changes to the internal policy governing recourse for victims of sexual harassment, Katie Meyer reports.

And finally, Meyer reports that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians could lose their health insurance and nearly two million could face more food insecurity in the coming months due to two sweeping rollbacks to pandemic-era federal policies.


"I don’t believe any of them were deemed to be temporary. I think they were all deemed to be permanent for the benefit and safety of the students."

—Jim Piazza, Timothy Piazza’s father, on news that Penn State is quietly planning to roll back its oversight of fraternities and sororities

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Budget negotiations will determine fate of shrinking rebate program

An upcoming federal cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security benefits could shake up a state program that helps older and disabled Pennsylvanians pay their rent and property taxes.

Lawmakers have just a few months to pass legislation that would expand the shrinking rebate program.

On the campaign trail, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro promised to support such a measure, but the fate of any proposal depends on coming budget negotiations between the governor and the legislature. 

The issue is not new to Harrisburg. As Spotlight PA has reported, the number of rebates paid out each year has dropped by more than 25% percent over the past decade. The main reason: the state legislature hasn’t updated the income limits for homeowners to qualify since 2006. For renters, the income limits haven’t changed since 1985.

Most people who are eligible for the state rebates also receive Social Security payments, which are adjusted each year to keep up with inflation. The state program doesn’t account for this. As a result, these routine Social Security increases can cause people who’ve been receiving rebates for years to suddenly find that their income is too high to qualify — even though their financial situation hasn’t really changed.

During his campaign, Shapiro proposed expanding the program to cover an additional 275,000 people — an increase of roughly 60% — and increasing the maximum rebate amount to $1,000. The estimated price tag for those changes is $400 million, which Shapiro previously said could be paid for with leftover federal pandemic aid. 

For years, a handful of lawmakers from both parties tried to address the program’s declining numbers, but those bills mostly died in committee. In the current session, legislators have already introduced at least eight bills that would increase the income limits to qualify for the program, or ensure that recipients do not lose out because of Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.   

The problem looms particularly large this year. In response to soaring inflation, the federal government approved a 5.9% increase in Social Security benefits for 2022 — the largest boost in 40 years. Unless the income limits for the state program are updated this year, that extra money will prevent many people who usually receive rebates from qualifying. 

The state Department of Revenue, which administers the program, estimates that roughly 11,000 fewer people would receive rebates this year compared with 2022. 

Virginia Kerr, 66, received a property tax rebate for the first time last year, a modest but welcome financial cushion, she said. This year, she worries that the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment could stop her from qualifying again. “These amounts are really not fair for seniors.” Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaCRASH REPORTS: A Pennsylvania state Senate committee has voted to subpoena the CEO of Norfolk Southern for his testimony on last month's toxic train derailment near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. In other news: CEO Alan Shaw is set to testify before the U.S. Senate next week, where a push is underway to impose new federal safety rules and financial consequences for rail companies.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaPOLLUTED IN PA: The train that crashed in East Palestine was headed to Conway, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Ohio River. Grist looks at the rail disaster against the backdrop of proliferating petrochemical development in the river valley, calling it "the newest incarnation of industrial exploitation for a region that has been plagued by legacy pollution since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution."

This week's third top news story in Pennsylvania'SHOCKING' CARE: Expert reports commissioned for a federal lawsuit over the treatment of mentally ill people at Allegheny County Jail say the facility's care is "shockingly substandard," TribLIVE reports. The reports blame staff shortages, poor training, and the overuse of solitary confinement, which Allegheny County voters banned in 2021, among other factors. Poor care in county jails is a statewide crisis.

'PREDATOR IN BLUE': The Inquirer (paywall) reports longtime Philadelphia homicide detective Philip Nordo sexually assaulted witnesses, misdirected funds, and locked up an unknown number of innocent men. Nordo was sentenced to up to 49 years in prison in December by a judge who said the ex-detective "weaponized his power and influence." Listen to a podcast on Nordo here.

DRIVEN OUT: Officials in Ashtabula, Ohio, are "livid" at Pennsylvania State Police who they say left a disabled homeless man from Erie at a local hospital and drove away. The Star Beacon was told the man has no connection to Ashtabula and that his caretaker, checks, and services are all in Erie. A Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson said they thought they were doing the 52-year-old a favor.

» APWith court win, Pennsylvania schools want plan, down payment

» CITY PAPERPittsburgh police training facility pricier than "Cop City"

» INQUIRER: Shapiro talks first month in office

» MORNING CALL: Bethlehem razed couple's home with little notice

» PENNLIVESerious issues found at central Pa. hospital

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