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Why the judges you elect this November matter

Plus, an interview with the head of Shapiro's secretive RGGI group.

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.

October 12, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Court tool, RGGI report, rural stories, election event, climate answers, unaccounted for, capital cases, downward trend, and child care cliff.


Elections for seats on Pennsylvania's highest courts tend to lack the urgency of other races, as those courts seem to operate far from our everyday lives.

But judges in these positions hold an immense amount of power, and make decisions that profoundly impact some of the most pressing and hot-button issues of our time.

That’s why Spotlight PA has launched a new voter tool ahead of this November’s judicial contests to illustrate how the courts in recent years have affected the policies you care about most.

Also this week, a working group convened by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro agrees that a cap-and-trade policy would help Pennsylvania achieve its climate goals — but much like the governor himself, it isn't sure exactly what to do next. 

Keep reading to learn more about the RGGI memo and the secretive group that put it together. 

And finally, Spotlight PA State College's Marley Parish has two dispatches from rural Pennsylvania: One examines the hardships of a borough that's finally getting needed attention from Harrisburg; the other examines what this year's state budget means for shrinking rural communities


"We've hoped somebody would come here to try to do something."

—Rodney Preslovich, chair of the Snow Shoe Township Board of Supervisors, on new attention from Harrisburg that's helping the struggling borough

At Spotlight PA, we put voters front and center in our nonpartisan election coverage. Get all the information you need to make an informed vote this November by visiting our Election Center website

» Complete guide to who is on the ballot, when to vote, and more

» Complete guide to the candidates for Pennsylvania Supreme Court

» Complete guide to the candidates for Commonwealth, Superior Courts

» What to know about the judicial retention questions on Pa. ballots

» Una guía de los candidatos a la Corte Suprema del estado

» Una guía de los candidatos a la Commonwealth y las Cortes Superiores

» SPECIAL OFFER: Support Spotlight PA's nonpartisan election reporting and for a limited time, all new monthly donations will be matched at their full-year value — that's 12x your gift.
» ELECTION 101: Join Spotlight PA’s government reporters Kate Huangpu and Stephen Caruso TONIGHT from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a free panel on Pa.’s 2023 judicial candidates. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» Penn State’s new top lawyer will also lead ethics office temporarily, creating potential conflict of interest

A Q&A with the head of Shapiro’s secretive RGGI working group

A working group formed by Gov. Josh Shapiro has released its long-awaited recommendations on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, though it failed to reach a consensus on the best way forward. 

Shapiro has been noncommittal about continuing with the program — a multistate effort to fight climate change that his Democratic predecessor entered into — and asked a working group to examine its merits. The group found that cap and trade is an “optimal” way to achieve Pennsylvania’s climate goals, but couldn’t agree to endorse RGGI specifically. 

The group's deliberations were opaque. Its meetings were closed to the public, and the names of all of the members weren’t released until the memo was published. 

Jackson Morris, who works on clean energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-chaired the group. He spoke to Spotlight PA's Kate Huangpu about the deliberations, the secrecy involved, and what's next for climate policy in Pennsylvania.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Spotlight PA: The work group concluded that a cap-and-invest program is the “optimal approach” to meeting Pennsylvania’s climate goals, but didn’t recommend joining RGGI. The memo included some alternatives, like some kind of collaboration with all the states that use the grid overseen by PJM

How did you approach these discussions? What was on the table?

Morris: The driver of the whole conversation that the group undertook was always linked back to the charge that was provided to us from Gov. Shapiro. And that charge was to discuss and deliberate how RGGI could potentially be implemented in a manner that passed his three-part test, which was to meaningfully reduce emissions, create good family-sustaining jobs, and to provide affordable power. That really was kind of the North Star that guided the entire process.

We never got in-depth into a conversation about an explicit policy framework that would have delivered or could deliver comparable reductions in carbon emissions from the power sector [to RGGI] while also creating jobs and investing in Pennsylvania's economy.

There's other policies that are important to look into. There's obviously a ton of federal tax breaks right now to drive down the cost of renewable energy. There are tons of programs to do really important things like capping orphan wells.

All of those are really important programs, but incentives alone don't give you the certainty that the climate science says we need to get the emissions reductions we need and meet the targets. There's limits to how far you can get with incentives.

Do you feel the level of secrecy aided discussions?

I fully recognize the concerns about transparency that had been raised by various folks over the course of the working group process. And those are valid concerns and I totally understand where people are coming from. First of all, that wasn't the decision of Mike [Dunleavy, co-chair of the working group] or myself. It was the governor and his team who structured it that way. 

But I was able to experience firsthand that the nature of the conversation was entirely different because it was behind closed doors. I don't think there's any way we would have reached the level of consensus, albeit imperfect consensus, that we did if these had been public meetings where people felt like they needed to, kind of, perform for the public or for different interests.

I can't say for sure what would have happened, but I can say what did happen. And what did happen is the tenor of these conversations were completely different than the tenor of the conversations that have been happening in the hallways of Harrisburg for years, and for far too long. 

Pennsylvania’s been a member of RGGI since 2019, but has yet to participate in the coalition’s carbon credit auctions due to lawsuits making their way through the Commonwealth and Supreme Courts.

What was the attitude toward those pending cases while writing the memo?

We intentionally structured the conversations in the working group to not delve into legal issues and the litigation around the RGGI regulation, because it wouldn't be productive and it's kind of irrelevant because it's already being litigated. 

We've definitely worked to not get hung up on those questions because the working group shouldn't really impact the litigation one way or the other. It really wasn't the role of the charge of the group.

What do you think is the likeliest path forward for Pennsylvania on energy?

As you mentioned already, it really is going to come down to the courts. And I don't want to begin to read tea leaves about litigation. 

But what I would say is that in a world where the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania were to uphold the RGGI regulation, I do firmly believe that at that point, the tenor of the conversation and the nature of that conversation from all stakeholders is going to shift significantly. 

I, personally, am hoping we can get to that point in the conversation. There's going to be revenue. And there's going to be really important priorities and input from a bunch of different diverse stakeholders that are going to need to be incorporated in the decisions that the state makes on how to invest that revenue. 

Read more about the working group and the future of RGGI here.

🏆 SEVEN QUESTIONS: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest Great PA News Quiz: Shapiro's climate quandary, election FAQs, and Stoneman Willie's name.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaUNACCOUNTED FOR: Researchers looking into the downstream impacts of fracking waste in landfills found another problem. The teams from Pitt and Duquesne University say 800,000 tons of hazardous waste from Pennsylvania oil and gas operations is unaccounted for. Experts told Environmental Health News that poor record-keeping, industry self-reporting, and strapped regulators made it possible.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaCAPITAL CASES: Washington County has 2% of Pennsylvania's population and 22% of its open death penalty cases, according to this TribLIVE editorial. The article followed publication of a Bolts magazine report on Republican District Attorney Jason Walsh, whose brief tenure has coincided with a remarkably high number of capital cases now at the center of his run for a full term in office this November.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaDOWNWARD TREND: Overall enrollment in Pennsylvania’s state university system declined again this fall, continuing a decade-long trend. The system has lost more than 30% of its students since 2010, The Inquirer (paywall) reports, but system Chancellor Daniel Greenstein predicted the downswing will bottom out this year or next.

‘CHILD CARE CLIFF’: The federal government gave child care centers nationwide billions of dollars during the pandemic to prop up the industry, but that infusion ended last month, and providers in Pennsylvania warn core problems in the industry remain unaddressed. WPSU reports low pay and staff retention are among the leading causes of the strain.

FEDERAL PROBE: R.M. Palmer Co. is responsible for the deaths of seven people who died in an explosion at a West Reading chocolate plant, a Department of Labor investigation has found. The Reading Eagle reports that the probe found the company did not evacuate the facility even after learning of a suspected gas leak. The candymaker is pushing back on the claim as "inflammatory, callous, and irresponsible."

» AP: State subsidies won’t make Pa. universities more affordable

» CITY & STATE: GOP rep. wants to limit late-night committee votes

» PENNLIVE: HACC faculty push for contract despite arrest of union reps 

» REUTERS: Hydrogen hubs located in Pa. will get federal grants

» TRIBLIVE: Pittsburgh businesses, shoppers prepare for plastic bag ban 
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

WHAT AM I? (Case No. 221): I can be stood on but cannot stand on top of anything else. I can be in the entrance and the exit. You will probably never find me in high places. What am I?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Cutlery, dishes, or pans. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Jessie S., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Anthony W., Annette I., Joe S., James D., Fred O., Lynda G., Kirby T., Peter S., Norman S., Mary B., Robert K., Jay G., and Bill B.
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