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Aging, ailing inmates have few ways out of prison

Plus, the primary race few Pa. voters are paying attention to.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

March 31, 2022 | spotlightpa.org

Broken system, new lawsuit, expense transparency, greater control, obscure race, Penn scandal, constable trouble, solar issues, and raised wages.
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Pennsylvania state prisons house more than 2,000 people who are over 55 and serving life in prison, where lack of access to health care and atypical living conditions age them at a faster rate than those on the outside.

Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA reports that there are few ways for people getting older behind bars to get out unless their death is imminent.

In budget hearings over the past month, lawmakers from both parties noted the high cost — both human and financial — of keeping older and sick people in prison. Still, current legislative efforts to fix the law and create a more robust parole system for the aging and ailing have moved slowly, and the path ahead is unclear.

Also this week, the parents of a Chinese American teenager fatally shot by Pennsylvania State Police filed a federal lawsuit accusing troopers and the local district attorney of trying to “thwart public oversight." Christian Hall was killed in December 2020 with his hands in the air, Spotlight PA and NBC News previously reported. 

And finally, a long-awaited transparency bill that would make legislative expenses accessible online for easy public viewing unanimously cleared a key state House panel.

The legislative push to post expenses online came after an investigative series last year by The Caucus and Spotlight PA documented how the Pennsylvania General Assembly spent hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars with little or no transparency.
"We need to be moving in the opposite direction."

—Carol Kuniholm, director of Fair Districts PA, on Republican efforts to gain more control over redistricting
» Pa. Republicans eye greater control over redistricting in response to new political maps

» Pa. election 2022: Tell Spotlight PA what coverage matters to you

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 race for governor: What we know so far

» Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race: What we know so far
The primary race few Pa. voters are paying attention to

By now, most voters have likely heard about the congested, double-digit field of contenders jockeying in this year’s primary race for the chance to snag the state’s top job of governor. 

But there is another crowded primary contest unfolding with far less fanfare: that of lieutenant governor. In all, there are 12 people running to become Pennsylvania’s second-in-command — two more than in the governor’s race.

That uneven math is the result of Pennsylvania’s quirky rules for electing top executives. The state is among a minority that elects its governors and lieutenant governors separately in the primary, but then as a single ticket in the general election. 

That election method has produced some odd pairings over the years, most recently in Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term, during which his icy relationship with then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, driven in part by how different they were in both style and personality, became one of the worst-kept secrets in the Capitol.

On paper, as it stands now, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately during the primary election. 

Off the books, however, candidates often align early on and campaign together even in the months before the primary. That has been the case for this year’s May 17 primary race with Attorney General Josh Shapiro and state Rep. Austin Davis of Allegheny County on the Democratic end; and state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County and Teddy Daniels on the Republican side of the election ballot.

But it’s all unofficial.

One lawmaker has tried for years to change that. State Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill) introduced legislation back in 2017 to change the way voters select the lieutenant governor. His proposal would allow Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial nominees to choose a running mate, similar to how the president of the United States selects one. 

His measure, Argall said at the time, was inspired by the strained relationship between Wolf and Stack.

Such a change would require a change to the state constitution, which takes time and effort. A proposed amendment must be approved by the legislature in two consecutive two-year sessions and the language must be identical both times. Then, voters have the final say, deciding via a ballot question.

Argall’s bill passed for the first time in the 2019-2020 session. It appeared to be on track to be approved in the current two-year session — setting the stage for it to appear on the ballot this year — but the proposal has been laden with additional proposed election-related changes, clouding its future path.

What remains constant for the moment are the duties of the office. The lieutenant governor’s job is often described as one of the best in the Capitol because it carries with it the clout of the executive — and pays $178,940 annually — without the work or pressures of being governor.

The lieutenant governorship has some prescribed duties, including presiding over the 50-member state Senate and chairing the state Board of Pardons. 

But beyond that, lieutenant governors are only as powerful as governors choose to make them. A governor could delegate important research or advocacy work to their lieutenant Wolf, for instance, tasked Lt. Gov. John Fetterman at the start of his second term with completing a report on attitudes toward legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana.

Or they could ignore them completely. —Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA
CRASH COURSE: Mackenzie Fierceton was a rising star at the University of Pennsylvania and a Rhodes Scholar who reached the Ivy League from the child welfare system. But the New Yorker reports that when questions about her background and claims of abuse surfaced, the school turned on her — outraging staff and arresting her ascent.

LOW VISIBILITY: Manuel Rodriguez of New York pleaded guilty to lying about his address to get elected constable in Pennsylvania and told a court he'd never hold elected office again. Then he ran and won in a different county two years later. It's a case The Morning Call says showcases glaring flaws in oversight of the law enforcement role.

FLARE UPS: Demand for renewable energy is outpacing supply and solar companies are looking to rural Pennsylvania for room to grow the latter. That's feeding tension among farmers and officials in places like Lawrence County, the Post-Gazette reports. And while solar's footprint is still relatively small in Pennsylvania, it's only expected to grow.

WAGE DEBATE: Pennsylvania's tipped employees will soon need to collect $130 a month in tips — a fourfold increase — before employers can cut their base rate to less than $7.25-an-hour. WHYY reports some restaurant workers say the change won't make much difference. One labor advocate called it "totally meaningless."

ISSUE ALIGNMENT: The GOP candidates for governor are in sync on issues like abortion restrictions, school choice, energy production, and a ban on transgender women playing on women's high school and collegiate sports teams. A bill proposing such a ban passed out of committee this week in a party-line vote. Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed a veto.

» AP: Workers charged with hate crimes and horrific care-home abuse

» ROLLING STONE: Documents sketch Pa. LG hopeful's checkered past

» STATEIMPACT: Lawmakers push bills to quickly expand Pa. fracking

» THE INQUIRER: How Philly birthed a problematic style of TV news

» TRIBLIVE: Applications for college financial aid continue to decline

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

DUCK DUCK (Case No. 140)There are two ducks in front of a duck, two ducks behind a duck and a duck in the middle. How many ducks are there?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Since you can only take one at a time: Take the goat across and come back. Take the wolf across and bring back the goat. Take the cabbage across and bring the goat over last. (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Lynda G. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Philip C., George S., Matt P., James D., Annette I., Lindsey S., Bruce B., Leo M., Mary B., Fred O., Steve N., Kyle C., Robert K., Jyotin S., Dennis F., and Johnny C.
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