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Influencing how Pa. spends $1B in opioid money

Plus, were PSU budget discussions held privately?

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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.

May 18, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Opioid money, budget boost, election results, department questions, private discussions, press pause, outmigration, water woes, and RGGI study.
Billions of dollars are expected to come to Pennsylvania to help the state respond to the opioid epidemic, but tracking how counties and other local governments plan to spend that money isn’t easy.

Those decisions could have an impact for years to come because once counties start funding programs, it can be hard to eliminate or reduce them later — or switch to another initiative. Here, Spotlight PA and WESA break down what you need to know about the money, the process for deciding how it will be spent, and how you can influence it.

Also this week, Gov. Josh Shapiro is proposing a 266% funding boost to a state program that pays up to half the cost of eligible projects in which municipalities collaborate to deliver services more efficiently.

And finally, we have the unofficial results of Tuesday's judicial primaries. The race for an open seat on Pennsylvania’s highest court will pit Democrats’ chosen candidate, Philadelphia’s Daniel McCaffery, against Republican favorite Carolyn Carluccio of Montgomery County. Read more about the winners advancing to November.

"The great thing about this [program] is the state is encouraging the conversation.”

—John Brenner, of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, on a state program that was created to encourage collaboration across municipal boundaries 

Support Spotlight PA's vital journalism and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
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POLICING VS. TREATMENT: Join us Thursday, May 25 at 6 p.m. ET for a free panel on how Pa. wants to spend a $1B opioid settlement, the policing versus treatment debate, and how Pennsylvania's spending plans compare to other states'. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» Pa. health department faces lawmaker questioning over medical marijuana doctor data

Were PSU budget discussions held privately?

In a February memo to university leaders, Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi wrote that last year university leaders “brought forward a $245 million deficit budget, which the Board of Trustees would not support.”

Yet, a review of agendas and meeting minutes for the full board and its finance committee reveals no record of the board receiving a budget proposal with a $245 million deficit. Bendapudi began as the university’s president in May 2022.

In a statement to Spotlight PA, Penn State wrote: “In spring 2022, university leadership talked with board leadership and shared their progress on the budget that would be presented at the July 2022 board meeting. During those conversations, board leadership suggested that such a large deficit would likely not be supported by the board if presented to them or taken for a vote.”

Months later, the board adopted an operating budget with a $149 million deficit in the university’s general fund.

Pennsylvania’s open meetings law requires that public agencies, including the boards of state-related universities, only deliberate and take official actions in meetings open to the public. Penn State’s trustees have previously faced questions about their interpretation of an exception to the law, specifically that the board’s executive committee held regular private meetings for more than a decade to plan and review agendas.

Penn State’s trustees may have violated the Sunshine Act if a majority of the voting members of the full board or a similar majority of committee members were present for the spring 2022 conversation, in which case a public meeting could have been necessary, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which Spotlight PA is a member.

If a quorum was not present, Melewsky said, a conversation between trustees and university leadership could still run afoul of the spirit of the Sunshine Act, specifically the public’s right to see an agency deliberate its business.

“The vast majority of agency business, like a discussion of a budget, should happen in a public meeting,” she told Spotlight PA.

Shannon Harvey, board secretary and director of the Office of the Board of Trustees, defended the board’s actions in an email to Spotlight PA. 

“The Sunshine Law does not restrict discussions between board leadership, board committee leadership and the university administration,” Harvey wrote. “The board does not take any official action outside of pre-arranged public board meetings at which a quorum is present. We believe that our conferences, executive sessions and public meetings are structured to comply with the law.”

Penn State’s budget deficit — within Penn State’s roughly $3 billion general funds budget and which Bendapudi has characterized as “structural” — led to cuts across the university, an ongoing “strategic hiring freeze,” and likely layoffs. Wyatt Massey, Spotlight PA

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaPRESS PAUSE: Sandy Township is headed to court to seek a formal pause of its consolidation with neighboring DuBois after the latter's city manager was arrested for stealing more than $600,000 in public funds, the Courier Express reports. Township officials are citing "financial uncertainty" in DuBois in the wake of the charges against Herm Suplizio as a reason. Read Spotlight PA's coverage of the theft case.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaNO REVIEW: Donald Leeth, the Monroe County DA candidate who promised to launch a fresh probe of the 2020 fatal police shooting of 19-year-old Christian Hall near Stroudsburg, lost Tuesday's Democratic primary to Mike Mancuso, an assistant DA who first declared the shooting justified. Hall's parents wanted a new investigation in light of video of the shooting published by Spotlight PA

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaWATER WOES: The Pottstown Mercury (paywall) reports a 2016 update to state law has sped the rate of public water and sewer system sales to private companies "from a slow drip into a torrent," often resulting in higher prices. Andrew Place, former vice chair of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said "captive ratepayers" have few options. More privatization-friendly legislation looms.

RGGI STUDY: Pennsylvania would see new revenue, faster greenhouse gas emission cuts, and faster renewable energy adoption under the carbon-capping Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, says a study by UPenn's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy and Resources for the Future, a research nonprofit. GOP lawmakers are contesting entry and Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has yet to commit.

OFF THE JOB: Weeks after he was put on paid leave for unknown reasons, Dauphin County Prison's first internal affairs investigator, Kevin Myers, is no longer in the role, PennLive reports. Officials wouldn't say if Myers was fired or resigned. He was hired in February to bring more integrity and independence to investigations into prison staffers' actions amid a spate of deaths and related scrutiny.

» BRADFORD ERARural Pa.’s death rate outpacing births, study says

» INQUIRERPhilly lawmakers move to ban supervised injection sites

» PENNLIVE: GOP's fresh embrace of mail voting is starting to pay off 

» SENTINELSettlement calls for published election data in 5 counties

» WTAEFederal lawsuit filed against Beaver County Shell cracker plant

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

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