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Remote voting rule likely to survive controversy

Plus, communities want more info on proposed hydrogen hubs.

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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 23, 2024 | spotlightpa.org

The federal government and private developers are collecting public feedback on two hydrogen hubs that will be partly located in Pennsylvania as part of a multibillion-dollar Biden administration effort to cut carbon pollution and fight climate change.

But despite promises of clean energy and good jobs, people who live in affected communities and environmental advocates fear they won’t be able to provide meaningful input because officials have so far released little information. Spotlight PA interviews with a dozen stakeholders and a review of feedback from public meetings overwhelmingly show concern, rather than enthusiasm. 

Also this week, the Department of Corrections wants more than $300 million in next year’s budget despite a declining population of incarcerated people and the recent closure of two facilities.

Finally, Gov. Josh Shapiro is poised to sign a bill that requires Pennsylvania State Police and many other law enforcement agencies to collect data on drivers pulled over during traffic stops. But the bill also exempts those data from the state’s Right-to-Know Law — a concern to public information advocates.

Spotlight PA will soon launch a new weekly newsletter focused on caregiving and caregivers across Pennsylvania. Every Tuesday, "How We Care" will feature original reporting and perspectives on how we care for one another at all stages of life, the huge economic and policy questions ahead, and how it's affecting the lives of millions of people across the state. You can sign up for How We Care here.

» Pa. state government refuses to pay local stormwater fees. This bill would force it to.

» Prisoner won compassionate release, but in critical condition after delay

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How Harrisburg Works: Pandemic-era remote voting sticks around despite controversy

In April, a firestorm erupted in Harrisburg after Philadelphia police issued an arrest warrant for a sitting state House lawmaker.

Less than a week later, authorities revoked the warrant and revealed that it was based on flawed information. But in those intervening days, Republican leaders loudly and publicly objected to their Democratic counterparts casting votes on the member’s behalf while he was absent.

Chamber rules banned the practice until 2020, when the pandemic forced a shift. And despite the recent drama, it shows no signs of going away. 

Under the state constitution, bills can only pass a legislative chamber if they are supported by a majority of lawmakers elected to office. The method those lawmakers use to vote is up to each chamber and its rules.

The state Senate has historically allowed lawmakers to cast votes even when they are absent on official business. The system allowed one senator to cast votes from a Taiwan trade mission last November, according to PennLive.

State House rules, on the other hand, have historically allowed lawmakers to vote only if they are present on the floor. The pandemic changed that. 

In March 2020, the then-GOP-controlled lower chamber unanimously adopted a rule that allowed for virtual voting, also known as voting by designation. It enabled lawmakers to approve a budget that fall with a near-empty chamber due to concerns over a COVID-19 outbreak in the Capitol.

A version of the rule has remained in place since.

Under the rule, state House lawmakers have the option to file a form with the chamber’s clerk allowing them to vote “by designation.” That empowers each caucus’ whip, or the leadership member charged with party discipline, to vote on behalf of the member on any question. The designation remains in effect unless a lawmaker requests to revoke it.

As of May 21, every state House lawmaker had filed the form, and none had requested it be revoked, clerk Brooke Wheeler told Spotlight PA.

That includes state Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia). In February, police said they were investigating an incident at a Montgomery County bar involving Boyle. Democratic leadership then restricted his access to the Capitol but continued to vote on his behalf. 

In mid-April, Philadelphia police said a warrant had been issued for Boyle’s arrest for an alleged violation of a protection from abuse order. Republicans were apoplectic about the implications of Democratic leaders continuing to vote on his behalf, raging on the floor and in subsequent news conferences. 

Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) argued that with Boyle’s location uncertain, bills that passed by only one vote could be subject to legal challenges and that Democrats had made a “results-oriented decision,” not a procedurally sound one. 

The level of communication between Boyle and Democratic leadership during this period is unclear. But amid the dispute, leadership noted that Boyle hadn’t revoked his remote voting designation. 

Shortly before the April primary, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office said the warrant had been revoked because the order had been expunged in 2022. Boyle’s security privileges were recently reestablished, and he’s returned to Harrisburg to serve out his final term (he lost his primary election in April).  

In total, the state House held 18 days of voting sessions during Boyle’s absence. By designation, Boyle voted on 3D-printed firearm restrictions, stricter campaign finance reporting rules, and increased regulation of minors’ social media use.

Republicans say their remote voting concerns continue. A Democratic spokesperson told Spotlight PA that the caucus would be “happy to consider all proposals” to change the chamber’s rules but made no commitments. Stephen Caruso, Spotlight PA

🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of the Great PA News Quiz: A new state slogan, northern exposure, budget-breakers, and the NFL Draft

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IN A WORD (Case No. 257)I come with a sigh; in Spanish I fly. What am I? 
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