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The key judicial races on Pa. primary ballots

Plus, Pa. legislature continues to ignore campaign finance, lobbying reform. 

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 30, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Election guides, court ruling, voting event, campaign finance, tax bills, status challenge, open hearing, special picks, and more with less.

You’ve probably heard the term “off-year election.”

It refers to one that takes place in years that don’t feature a midterm or presidential election. These elections regularly see low voter turnout and less media coverage, sending the message that they aren’t as important as ones with high-profile races on the ballot.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Editors Christopher Baxter and Sarah Anne Hughes this week explained how Spotlight PA will cover the 2023 primary, which features highly important judicial and municipal contests. We also published another candidate guide, this one to the races for Commonwealth and Superior Courts

You can find all of our voting coverage, key dates, and more on our relaunched Election Center page

Also this week, Carter Walker of Votebeat reports that a Commonwealth Court judge has declined to weigh in on the question of ballot curing — saying her court wasn't the right venue for the lawsuit. County election directors fear this could lead to more local lawsuits.


"Now no matter what a county does, someone will sue you."

—Forrest Lehman, elections director in Lycoming County, on a Commonwealth Court ruling he fears will lead to more local lawsuits


UNEQUAL ELECTIONS: Join us and a panel of election experts TODAY from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free discussion on unequal voting policies in the state, how they impact voters, and possible solutions. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

» How Local Government Works: A basic guide to requesting public records in Pa.

Campaign finance, lobbying reform still gets little attention in Pa. legislature

As lawmakers gathered in Harrisburg this week for another round of budget hearings, both legislative chambers got the chance to question top officials from Pennsylvania’s Department of State.

The department is best known for its oversight of elections. But it also plays a key role in an area long neglected by the legislature: the role of money and lobbying in politics and policy-making. 

Both are large, time-consuming undertakings for the department, which has a proposed budget of $35.2 million. Annual budget hearings have long been a forum for lawmakers to put administration officials on the spot about what they believe are the most pressing and important issues of the day.

But during the five hours that legislators questioned Department of State officials, they inquired about the agency’s work on campaign finance and lobbying just twice.

For those who follow the Capitol closely, it came as little surprise.

Republican legislative leaders have not substantively discussed improving Pennsylvania’s campaign finance and lobbying disclosure rules for more than a decade, despite calls by good-government advocates and others for changes.

As part of its work, the Department of State releases campaign finance reports for statewide, legislative, and some judicial candidates, as well as political committees registered in Pennsylvania. It also tracks registration forms for lobbyists, and posts on its website what lobbyists report spending every quarter on influencing policy. The agency also has some powers to enforce those disclosures, although advocates think they are too limited.

When it comes to money in politics, Pennsylvania has some of the laxest laws in the country. It places no caps on how much money people can donate to politicians and their political committees. During the 2022 election, five-figure, and even six-figure donations, routinely poured into the coffers of Democrat Josh Shapiro’s campaign, helping to make the contest the state’s most expensive governor’s race on record.

State law also contains no explicit ban on using campaign funds for personal use, which over the years has allowed elected officials to tap campaign cash to pay for lavish dinners, trips, sporting tickets, and other perks.

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) has repeatedly introduced a bill that would place monetary limits on campaign donations, ban candidates from using donor dollars for personal benefit, and require more transparency on how candidates spend their money.

He’s introduced it in every legislative session for the past 12 years. And in every one of those sessions, the bill was referred to a committee but never brought up for a vote by the Republican chair. 

Why the inaction?

“I think the General Assembly likes the status quo,” Costa said in an interview this week.

“But folks have to recognize that we have individuals with enormous wealth that are working in this space to effect significant policy change, and investing literally millions of dollars in races — even state Senate races — to build a coalition of folks who support their cause,” said Costa. “Regular folks can't participate in the same way.”

The state’s current lobbying disclosure law improved upon what existed before the legislature rewrote it in 2006. But it lags laws in other states. 

Lobbyists here have to disclose their clients, as well as how much they spend on lobbying — but they don’t have to reveal who they spend the money on, or for what purpose. If a lobbyist treated a lawmaker to dinner on the eve of a key vote on an issue important to a client, the public would never know.

Several lobbying firms in Pennsylvania moonlight as political consultants, effectively allowing them to elect officials that they can then lobby on behalf of clients.

Last legislative session, the General Assembly’s top two Republicans supported the toughest proposed reforms to the lobbying law since it was enacted. Among other changes, one proposal would have banned the practice of lobbying firms also operating political consulting arms. 

Despite the high-profile support, the proposals did not receive a floor vote. 

Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for Pennsylvania House Republicans, said his caucus intends to once again advance proposals to toughen lobbying laws, among other government accountability efforts. 

Less clear is whether the outcome will be any different. Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaTAX BILLS: Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro wants a three-year tax credit of up to $2,500 a year to address Pennsylvania's share of a nationwide shortage of cops, nurses, and teachers. But the AP reports the size of a tax credit depends on how much a newly certified officer, nurse, or teacher pays in state income tax, and many of them likely pay well below $2,500, meaning they wouldn't reap the full benefits.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaSTATUS CHALLENGE: Mayor Ed Gainey will challenge the tax-exempt status of 26 Pittsburgh properties. Six are owned by the $26 billion UPMC, PublicSource reports, and carry $400,000 in annual property taxes if their exemptions are revoked. The state Supreme Court has set five standards nonprofits must meet to qualify for property tax exemptions, and a recent ruling has put nonprofits on high alert.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaOPEN HEARING: A U.S. House panel held a hearing Tuesday on the ballot paper shortage that shuttered polls across Luzerne County during November's crucial midterm, Capital-Star reports. Witnesses did not include local election officials who opted out. U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D., Pa.) called the hearing GOP "grandstanding" and said the county's Republican DA is already on the case.

SPECIAL PICKS: Delaware County Democrats have picked Heather Boyd as their candidate to replace former Democratic state Rep. Mike Zabel, who resigned after multiple people accused him of sexual harassment. Boyd is a former teacher and political staffer. She'll face Republican Katie Ford, an Army veteran and special education therapist, in a special election for the Democrat-favoring seat.

MORE WITH LESS: Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection has lost 700 staffers due to budget cuts since the early 2000s. Gov. Josh Shapiro's budget plan includes a 9% hike in funding for the agency, but Acting Secretary Richard Negrin isn't asking the legislature to restore those jobs. StateImpact reports he's looking to streamline processes and upgrade tech to do more with less.

» APDeadly chocolate factory blast highlights combustion risks

» CNN: Fetterman to return to Senate week of April 17 

» LNPWhat happens when no one runs in a municipal election?

» TRIBLIVE: How 'swatting' hoax threats cause chaos and panic

» WESA: Advocates say Pa. drug checking must advance

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

UNTOUCHABLE (Case No. 194)What gets broken without being held?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Racecar. (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Matt C., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Fred O., Frederick H., Michael H., Pam A., Jon N., Tish M., Susan N.-Z., Kirby D., Michael E., Fran B., Beth T., Robert K., Donna D., Don H., Carolyn R., Trish B., Seth Z., and Alberta V.
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