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Why party affiliation can be misleading in local elections

Plus, health department faces lawmaker questioning over medical marijuana doctor data.

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 4, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Cross-filed candidates, unpopular tax credit, rebate program, mini-casino block, doctor data, Fairness Act, cow concerns, and on leave.
Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and all monthly gifts will be matched 12 times!
There's a long history of school board and other local candidates in Pennsylvania running simultaneously in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, but as races get more partisan, some lawmakers want to end the option.

Why do candidates cross-file in the first place? To maximize their chances of reaching the general election ballot in November. 

But while education advocates say this system decreases partisanship by allowing primary voters to focus on candidates rather than political affiliations, Kate Huangpu reports that some state lawmakers say those affiliations are important for voters to know, especially in small local elections with limited media coverage.

Also this week, a tax credit and signature selling point in Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first budget is getting a frosty reception from the lawmakers needed to approve it. Stephen Caruso explains why there's pushback against a proposed credit for new police, teachers, and nurses.

In other budget news, Charlotte Keith reports on the ongoing negotiations to update the state's ailing rent and property tax rebate program

And finally, Lilly Riddle for the News Lab at Penn State reports on the 2017 state law that made it way harder to oppose a mini-casino in State College

"When you get a diagnosis of breast cancer — or any kind of cancer, really — you want answers. You don’t want to be turned around, you don’t want to have to fight for things that need to be done."

—State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, a breast cancer survivor who sponsored a bill expanding insurance coverage for screening

Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and all monthly gifts will be matched 12 times!
» An amendment tracker and complete guide to proposed changes in Pennsylvania’s Constitution
» Shapiro signs first bill, expands Pa. health insurance coverage for breast cancer screenings
» How to provide feedback on a plan to lower fighter jet training over Pennsylvania Wilds

Health department faces lawmaker questioning over medical marijuana doctor data

During a recent budget hearing in Harrisburg, a Republican lawmaker questioned how the Department of Health uses data to provide oversight of doctors in Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program, citing ongoing public records disputes involving the agency.

The state’s Office of Open Records has ordered the health department to release the number of approvals by specific doctors if such records exist. But the agency has sued to keep those records secret, arguing for a broader interpretation of the medical marijuana law’s confidentiality rules.

At least three cases that center on the issue are currently pending in Commonwealth Court. Spotlight PA is a defendant in two of them.

State Sen. Greg Rothman (R., Cumberland) referred to those cases as he questioned Debra Bogen, the state’s acting health secretary. He didn’t ask Bogen to comment on releasing the data.

“But I would like to know if your department does do reviews of this information,” Rothman said. “And does the department protect against doctors from providing blanket approvals for medical marijuana use?”

Bogen didn’t directly say how the agency uses the data or clarify whether it routinely reviews the information for patterns or outliers. Instead, she said the department responds to complaints against doctors, and doctors have to attest that they’re following requirements of the law in order to certify patients.

“Looking at the numbers of certifications done by a specific provider is challenging because there are health care providers that, by the nature of their work, would certify more patients than others,” Bogen testified. “And just looking at the numbers alone doesn’t really give us that information.”

Rothman’s questions follow a series of Spotlight PA investigative stories that uncovered serious flaws in the medical marijuana program, including questionable health claims, weak oversight of cannabis companies, and unfair rules for doctors.

Publicly available records obtained by Spotlight PA show the department has cited patient approval numbers in at least one disciplinary case against a doctor. In another disciplinary case against a doctor, an attorney for the health agency argued that “the total number of patients versus his time and ability to certify patients is relevant.” 

In response to questions from Spotlight PA, health department spokesperson Mark O’Neill said it reviews approval data in limited situations, and it “has only used the information as part of enforcement actions that resulted from a patient complaint or compliance investigation.”

Some medical professionals, including medical marijuana supporters, argue the health agency should audit doctor records to ensure compliance and not rely solely on patient complaints to initiate investigations. 

In February, an editorial from TribLIVE urged the health department to release approval data. It argued that the information could provide important context for medical marijuana approvals and help reveal “if the process is deliberative or if just paying for certification is an all-access pass beyond the program’s velvet rope.”

There were more than 1,800 approved practitioners in the medical marijuana program as of late March, and more than 425,000 active certifications for patients. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

» How Spotlight PA will cover Pa.'s 2023 primary election

» How to request, fill out, and return your mail ballot

» How to vote, find your polling place, understand mail ballots

» A guide to vetting candidates for school board, judge, and more

» A guide to the Commonwealth, Superior Court candidates

» A guide to the Pa. Supreme Court candidates

» High court candidates with party backing show fundraising edge

» Register to vote in the May 16 primary here; deadline May 1

» Request your mail ballot for the May 16 primary; deadline May 9

Support Spotlight PA's public-service election and voting coverage now.
» Los candidatos a la Corte de la Commonwealth y Cortes Superiores

» Guía completa de los candidatos a la Corte Suprema del Estado

» Una guía completa para el día de las elecciones primarias de Pa.

» Una guía básica para investigar a los candidatos a la junta escolar

» Todo lo que necesitas saber para votar por correo

Apoye ahora la cobertura electoral de servicio público de Spotlight PA.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaFAIRNESS ACT: The Pennsylvania House has passed a bill that would ban discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in employment, housing, and all other public accommodations in a 102-98 vote. It now goes to the GOP-controlled state Senate. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro will sign the bill if it reaches him, saying last week: "I am urging leaders in the House and the Senate to get it to my desk as fast as possible.” 

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaCOW CONCERNS: Veterinarians are worried that Gov. Shapiro's scheduling of the animal tranquilizer xylazine amid a rash of human overdoses linked to the drug will have unintended consequences for animals. The Inquirer (paywall) reports xylazine is the only sedative that works on cattle, and veterinarians worry the rule will make manufacturing and distributing the drug too costly here.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaON LEAVE: PennLive (paywall) reports Dauphin County Prison's new internal affairs investigator has been placed on paid leave, and it's unclear why. Kevin Myers was hired in February to bring more integrity and independence to investigations into staff members' actions at the prison amid a spate of deaths and related scrutiny. County officials aren't saying why Myers is on leave or when he might return.

'I'LL BE BACK': A former GOP Allegheny County Council candidate is accused of threatening people with a gun at a Plum Borough Republican Committee meeting last week. Allegheny County GOP Committee Chair Sam DeMarco said Eric Casteel was upset about the vote for a new vice chair. According to witnesses, Casteel said "I'll be back," left the building, retrieved a gun, and aimed it at others. No one was injured.

SCHOOL WARS: The Bucks County Courier Times reports that two years after a wave of right-wing parental rights activists won school board seats across Pennsylvania, more candidates with similar leanings are running in this year's school board contests to shore up board majorities and policymaking power. Spotlight PA reported on the semi-related push to end cross-party primary runs.

» APPennsylvania Senate votes to ban safe injection sites

» CAP-STAR: Bipartisan support for GOP gun safety bill amendments 

» KDKALarry Scirotto nominated to be Pittsburgh Bureau of Police chief

» STATKaiser Permanente to acquire Geisinger in blockbuster deal

» TRIBLIVETree of Life massacre suspect can face death penalty

Support Spotlight PA's independent, nonpartisan journalism and all monthly gifts will be matched 12 times!
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

TAILOR SWIFT (Case No. 198)What's bought by the yard and worn by the foot?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: One. (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Terry E., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Karen K., Jon N., Michael H., Peter S., Frederick H., Frances H. A., Missy D., Judy A., Lynda G., Beth T., Donna D., Irene T., Ken S., Fred O., Joe S., Dana D., Terry E., Jeffrey F., Alberta V., Mary B., Roseanne D., Heather B., Sharon M., Joe M., Lois P., Kirby D., Don H., Tish M., and Johnny C.
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