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Docs silenced as medical marijuana firms cash in big

Plus, the obscure state commission that settles disputes between the branches. 

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A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

May 26, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Uneven rules, Mastriano movement, police killings, ballot ruling, obscure commission, bridge issues, wrongly applied, and election contract.
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When Pennsylvania lawmakers legalized medical cannabis in 2016, they struck an unusual deal: Physicians can approve patients for the program but they are banned from advertising that power.

Lawmakers feared advertising would encourage thousands of patients to flood the same doctor’s office solely seeking a medical marijuana card, or motivate physicians to excessively approve patients for profit.

But six years later, that rule and the inconsistent enforcement that followed have given an advantage to largely unregulated certification businesses that stand to rake in millions of dollars each year courting Pennsylvania medical marijuana patients, a Spotlight PA investigation has found. 

Marijuana card companies promote themselves on the airwaves, run newspaper ads, offer discounts on sites like Groupon, and dominate Google searches for medical marijuana doctors, Ed Mahon reports. By contrast, individual physicians working on their own or in small practices can face harsh penalties for taking a similar approach 

Also this week, Stephen Caruso and Ethan Edward Coston have a deep dive into how state Sen. Doug Mastriano — the Republican nominee for governor — built a grassroots movement on election denial, Christianity, and Facebook.

Finally, Christina Baker has the latest on a legislative push that would make it easier for the state attorney general to investigate when police use deadly force. Baker is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, which you can learn more about here.
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"It doesn't excite me."

—Bob Lauric, a Camp Hill resident who typically votes for Republicans, on how he feels about Doug Mastriano's ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection
» How a mail ballot ruling in Pa. could affect 2022 primary election results

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» Spotlight PA wants your help flagging school health hazards

When Wolf and the legislature clash, this obscure state commission steps in

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature have clashed frequently in recent years over the limits of each other’s powers and authority.

They’ve hashed out their differences through dueling press conferences and public statements. Several times, they’ve ended up in court. 

Recently, a highly publicized dispute over climate change trained a spotlight on a little-known state agency with the authority to check executive overreach: the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.

IRRC, as it’s known, has one of the lowest profiles in state government, an obscurity that belies its muscle. Tucked inside offices a few blocks from the Capitol, the commission was created four decades ago by the legislature to provide a powerful check on nearly every state department and agency.

In the 1982 law that established IRRC, lawmakers noted that the executive branch has broad authority to adopt rules and regulations when implementing bills passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. And they wanted to place checks on it.

“The General Assembly finds that it must establish a procedure for oversight and review of regulations … in order to curtail excessive regulation and to require the executive branch to justify its exercise of the authority,” the law states.

That is where IRRC steps in. The commission reviews regulations by all Pennsylvania state agencies — except the legislature, the courts, and two specific state commissions — to ensure that they fall within the scope of that agency’s authority and to ultimately determine whether they are in the public interest. 

A group of five commissioners appointed by the governor and the four legislative leaders makes the final call. Last year, IRRC reviewed 89 regulations, including standards for licensing drug and alcohol recovery homes, and new federal rules for nursing facilities, according to its latest annual report.

Among other criteria, IRCC examines whether a regulation is necessary; whether it protects the public’s health, safety, and welfare; and whether it imposes an undue economic and fiscal impact on the public and private sectors, its website states.

The commission also considers the thorny question of whether the administration’s power in changing rules or writing new ones unduly crosses into the legislature’s realm of responsibility. 

That question continues to hang over a directive by Wolf in 2019 that the Department of Environmental Protection write regulations allowing Pennsylvania to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI is a multistate initiative to cap and reduce power plant emissions, and Wolf has made joining it a key piece of his administration's platform for countering climate change.

Legislative Republicans told the commission that the administration’s move to join RGGI through a regulation change usurped the legislature’s authority. RGGI imposes a carbon tax on energy producers, and GOP lawmakers said the legislature has ultimate authority over approving tax increases. 

Wolf, they said, did not have the power to do so unilaterally.

IRRC last year sided with Wolf in a 3-2 decision, with the three members appointed by Democrats voting for the governor’s position. The matter is now in court. Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

BIG RULING: A federal appeals court ruled recently that undated mail ballots should be counted in Pennsylvania, potentially impacting the outcome of last week's still-too-close-to-call GOP U.S. Senate primary, per the AP. Narrowly trailing, candidate David McCormick welcomed the ruling and sued on Monday to make sure it's applied in his race. The Inquirer reports the decision's opponents are eyeing a U.S. Supreme Court appeal.

BAD BRIDGE: Months before Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed, causing multiple injuries, an inspection found widespread decay on the span — but no alarms were raised. PennDOT released the inspection report last week with images that WTAE says show holes in a bridge column, heavy corrosion, dozens of deteriorated bolts, and a nearly severed cross brace. A federal probe into the cause of the collapse continues. PennDOT and the inspection company declined comment.

RECOUNT ON: It's official: Pennsylvania's Republican U.S. Senate primary is headed for a recount. Acting Secretary of State Leigh M. Chapman made the announcement Wednesday, with candidates David McCormick and Mehmet Oz separated by fewer than 1,000 votes. Politico reports counties must begin their recounts by June 1 and have them completed by June 7. Recount rules are dictated by state law.

CLEAN SLATE: Pennsylvania's "Clean Slate" law is meant to clear the paper trail for people with low-level convictions and no new convictions. But civil rights and free press advocates say the law is being wrongly applied in courts statewide, closing millions of unqualified records off from public view. PennLive reports a coalition is urging Chief Justice Max Baer of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to intervene.

CONTRACT EXTENSION: Republican state lawmakers have extended their contested inquiry into the state's 2020 presidential election. The original contract with the firm chosen to head up the review, including an addendum, was worth $485,115 and expired last week. A six-month contract extension was signed and has no dollar figure attached to it, per the AP. The election review is currently tied up in court.

» AP: House votes against taking up gun bill after Texas killings

» CITY & STATE: Pa., flush with cash, could see surplus go down the drain

» HERALD-MAIL: Democrat told primary was on a different day

» TRIBLIVE: Proposal would give more public access to Pitt, PSU records

» WNEP: Kathleen Kane sent to alcohol treatment for probation violation 

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

MEGA MILLIONS (Case No. 148)What is special about the number 854,917,632?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: House numbers (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to George So., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Jon N., Lynda G., Michael H., Fred O., Donna D., Susan N.-Z., George S., Beth T., Mary B., Joseph M., and Irene T.
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