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Fewer get tax forgiveness due to lawmaker inaction

Plus, why a Spotlight PA reporter's open records requests became paper airplanes.

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 26, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Tax forgiveness, Election Code, Medicaid issues, hydrogen hubs, health survey, settlement amount, mixed bag, paper planes, upping pressure, and key issue.


Thousands of low-income Pennsylvanians are missing out on a signature state tax benefit because the legislature hasn't updated the income thresholds to qualify in nearly two decades.

According to Spotlight PA's Charlotte Keith, the state’s tax forgiveness provision reduces, or, in most cases, eliminates the personal income tax owed by roughly one in five Pennsylvania tax filers.

But because of inflation, the number of people receiving that forgiveness has steeply fallen over the past 20 years. 

Also this week, a review of the Election Code by Spotlight PA and Votebeat found sections that conflict with one another, provisions that don’t address key legal precedents, and old language that doesn’t reflect how elections are run in 2023

Finally, Spotlight PA's Katie Meyer reports on the issues Pennsylvania is facing as it reassesses health care coverage for thousands of adults and children. 


"We've been pretty disappointed with the lack of transparency so far."

—Pete Budden of the Natural Resources Defense Council on the secrecy that has surrounded the selection of two hydrogen hubs that will be partly located in Pennsylvania

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

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» 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.
» VOTER READY: Join us Thursday, Nov. 2 from 6-7 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on voting rights in Pennsylvania, important dates and deadlines, and answers to your remaining Election Day questions. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.

» RESULTS REVIEW: Join us, the New Pennsylvania Project, and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts on Thursday, Nov. 16 from 6-7 p.m. for a Q&A on the election results. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
» Officials celebrate Pa.’s two hydrogen hubs but many details remain shrouded in secrecy

» Major health survey links fracking in Pa., US to cancers, birth defects, other health harms

» Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office agrees to pay $295K to settle sexual harassment allegation against top aide

» Pa. tax credits result in ‘mixed bag’ for job creation

Attendees at Philly Story Fest turned open records requests into paper airplanes as part of the art installation Clear Black Box at the Bok building. (Photography by Colibri Workshop)
Attendees at Philly Story Fest turned open records requests into paper airplanes as part of the art installation Clear Black Box at the Bok building. (Photography by Colibri Workshop)

Why my open records requests got turned into paper airplanes in Philly

In 17 years of reporting, I never thought my public records requests would be turned into a literal work of art.

The exhibit was part of Philly Story Fest, an event that brought journalists and community members together earlier this month for art, music, and live storytelling. 

Shortly before the event, organizers from Back Pocket Media reached out to Spotlight PA to collaborate on an installation — one they called Clear Black Box.

To help, I provided copies of dozens of open records requests I sent as part of Spotlight PA’s coverage of the state’s medical marijuana program. Back Pocket Media added a big pile of dirt and a black mailbox.

People who showed up to the event at the Bok building in South Philadelphia turned each of my open records requests into a paper airplane and tried to fly them into the mailbox. 

“The idea is that, yes, there is a process to get information from the government,” Tay Glass, a senior producer at Back Pocket Media, told me afterward. “But it’s not necessarily as transparent as it should be. In fact, in many cases, it’s pretty opaque.”

Based on the pictures, the paper airplane success rate was pretty low. Recent Facebook posts from Back Pocket Media put the number of airplanes that made it inside the mailbox at three.

I can relate.

Paper airplanes are tough. One weekend a few years ago, I had some success teaching my kids how to create ones that could reliably fly several feet — but only after following some very specific instructions we found on YouTube.

Public record fights are tough too. Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law contains numerous exceptions that limit public access, and obtaining documents through the federal Freedom of Information Act can take months or even years.

Still, at Spotlight PA, we’ve had successes, using public records to investigate problems involving local pension systems, debates over how to spend the state’s opioid windall, and more. We’ve offered resources for others seeking records. And with the assistance of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, we won a victory in Commonwealth Court that created new legal precedent for people seeking information about the state’s medical marijuana program.

Put another way, more than a few of our airplanes have reached the mailbox.

In Philadelphia, Clear Black Box playfully captured that type of work, which often occurs behind the scenes.

Yaasmeen Piper, Spotlight PA’s events coordinator, appreciated seeing one airplane builder pore through each request and scrutinize the details. Another builder made the most pristine model airplane she had ever seen. He brought the meticulousness and attention to detail you often need when using public record laws. When one plane landed inside the mailbox, she heard the crowd cheer.

“It was really cool to show a little bit of what it’s like to be a journalist in a very fun and interactive way,” Piper told me. Ed Mahon, Spotlight PA

🏆 HARD QUESTIONS: Did you stay on top of Pennsylvania news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Unforgiven taxes, Biden billion, House speaker, and tech tort
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaUPPING PRESSURE: With $642 million in state funding still stuck in limbo, the leaders of Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple Universities have sent a letter to legislative leaders urging a release of the funds as the surrounding political stalemate stretches well into the fall semester, PennLive reports. The letter says the holdup is having an impact and that further delay will inevitably require "more difficult decisions."

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaKEY ISSUE: Pennsylvania's Supreme Court election on Nov. 7 is being looked to as a test of whether the overturning of Roe v. Wade is motivating voters like it did in the midterms almost one year ago. HuffPost reports abortion is the leading line of attack in the campaign between Democrat Daniel McCaffery and Republican Carolyn Carluccio, drawing big interest and money on both sides of the issue.

This week's third top news story in Pennsylvania2024 SIGNALS: The AP is looking to local contests in the Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Allegheny County this November for omens ahead of next year's balloting. Among the focal points: the strength of progressives and how voters feel about crime, a subject that has nationalized Allegheny County's district attorney contest between a progressive Democrat and a Democrat running as a Republican.

COST OF LIVING: Lehigh Valley mobile home tenants are questioning where their money is going as their rents increase but they see no improvements under billionaire corporate owners. The Morning Call (paywall) documents the blight, water outages, and eroding streets plaguing residents at Wolf Mobile Home Community in North Whitehall Township. Industry observers say it's part of a larger pattern.

DATA SEARCH: Washington County Prothonotary Laura Hough used a background check tool to secretly vet local and state Republican officials hundreds of times during her first two years of access, according to the Observer-Reporter. Hough, a Republican, claimed the searches for criminal history, voter registration, gun permits, and more were legitimate. Some of those targeted have privacy concerns.

» APTurnover has plagued local election offices since 2020

» INQUIRER: Judge reinstates charges against ex-Philly police officer

» PENNLIVE: Pa. approves first dog license fee hike in 27 years

» STATEIMPACT: Pennsylvanians could save on energy bills this winter 

» WESA: Allegheny County to consider ban on single-use plastic bags

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

RUN IT BACK (Case No. 223)A man runs away from home, turns left three times, and ends up back at home facing a man in a mask. Who is wearing the mask?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Short Long. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Leann T., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Lynda G., Phil C., James D., Joe S., Laurence M., Dennis F., Kirby T., Jeff F., Paul R., Frederick H., Trish B., Steve N., Lois P., Annette I., Rolando S., Karen K., Sonya M., Harriet Z., Vanessa J., Bill G., Ken S., Sherri G., Ted W., Kevin M., Thomas S., Beth T., John H., Jay G., Seth Z., Norman S., Johnny C., Gail M., and Dan E.
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