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Critics warn of backroom Pa. redistricting deals

Plus, your last-minute guide to Tuesday’s election.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

October 28, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Blurred lines, in secret, recovery homes, stock buy, drug exposure, diverted funds, dropped calls, militia men, wage hike, and the RGGI divide.
Pennsylvania's monumental redistricting process is underway, and while lawmakers vowed openness and transparency, fair district advocates are concerned the promises won't be kept.

Spotlight PA and Votebeat examined the mechanics of political mapmaking in Pennsylvania and found lots of room for backroom dealings that escape oversight and could create manipulated maps that favor one party.

"We know there's lots of behind-the-scenes conversations, and we have no information about any of that,” said Carol Kuniholm of Fair Districts PA.

Also this week, Pennsylvania's largest pension fund is keeping communications about a lingering scandal private with help from public records laws.

Public School Employees' Retirement System officials say their exchanges are exempt from disclosure rules and an arbiter agreed. But Spotlight PA and The Inquirer found others condemning the secrecy.

And finally, new rules aimed at protecting people from exploitation inside Pennsylvania's drug and alcohol recovery homes are on track to becoming a reality — unless industry and lawmaker doubts sink the plan, per Ed Mahon.

An independent state commission recently signed off on a voluntary licensing system that would make recovery homes subject to inspections and new requirements, upping nonexistent state oversight — at least in theory.

Wolf administration officials say the move will save lives. Critics say the voluntary rules are too burdensome and costly to work.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

"If nobody's signing up, then nobody's working towards these standards, then we're pretty much in the same universe we're in right now."

—State Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) sharing skepticism of Pennsylvania's plan to regulate drug and alcohol recovery homes for the first time ever
COVID-19 UPDATES: The FDA has greenlit Pfizer's vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, setting it up for final approval by the CDC as soon as next week; booster shot eligibility has greatly expanded; U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R., Bellefonte) was hospitalized with a breakthrough COVID-19 infection; just a tenth of Philadelphia police have reported their vaccine status; and an Allegheny County police union's vaccine mandate challenge contains "false and gross" distortions, experts say.
» COVID-19 INFO: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

» Spotlight PA wins two national investigative journalism awards

Your last-minute guide to Pa.'s 2021 general election

Tuesday, Nov. 2 is Election Day in Pennsylvania — and there's a lot on the ballot.

Races for mayor in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, district attorney in Philadelphia, county council in Delco, and borough council in State College are just a few of the local contests that voters will decide.

There also are noteworthy school board races with culture war and labor strife implications, and high-stakes statewide contests for key judiciary posts higher up the ballot. More on both in a moment.

First, the basics:

  • Confirm you’re registered to vote here. If you haven’t already registered, it’s too late.

  • Learn about your mail ballot return options here. If you’re mailing your ballot, don’t delay, and check the postage before sending it off. The ballot must arrive at a county election office by 8 p.m. Election Day. Consider hand-delivering it instead. It is too late to request a mail ballot.

  • Find your polling place here. Polls are open for in-person voting from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

  • Take a photo ID to vote in person only if you’re at a polling place for the first time.

  • Read Spotlight PA’s handy guide to polling places, voting by mail, and more here.

Before voting, pull up your sample ballot to get a preview of the candidates and questions you’ll be asked to weigh in on. 

Spotlight PA compiled a guide for vetting candidates — and their donors — that focuses on the school board contests that are drawing inordinate amounts of attention and money amid fights over school mask rules and teachings on ethnicity and race.

In short, a good deal of candidate research can be performed via the internet. Donor research for local races, however, might require physically traveling to your local seat of government.

Thanks to state-level campaign finance rules, the legwork is easier — relatively speaking — for vetting statewide candidates, such as those vying for an opening on Pennsylvania’s incredibly influential Supreme Court.

The two-way race between Democrat Maria McLaughlin and Republican Kevin Brobson has attracted millions of dollars in donations. Read Spotlight PA’s list of the candidates’ top donors

The outcome of that race won't change the high court’s balance of power, but the new justice will have a say in what cases the court accepts. They’ll also cast their vote in closely watched proceedings — some potentially overlapping with donor interests.

Voters statewide — regardless of party affiliation — will also be naming judges to two other powerful appellate courts: Commonwealth and Superior.

Spotlight PA took a look at the candidates for all three judiciary contests. Deborah Gross, president of the advocacy organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, calls the races some of the most important imaginable. 

Gross said decisions handed down by these courts affect everyday Pennsylvanians “probably more so than a legislator,” adding, “The judges in these positions really rule on every aspect of a person’s or business’ life.”

Not convinced? Watch Spotlight PA’s panel on why these elections matter.

Happy voting.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

ETHICS INQUIRY: There is "substantial reason to believe" that the wife of U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Butler) used insider information gained through his congressional position to make a well-timed and profitable stock purchase, an ethics watchdog has concluded. Subpoenas have been recommended for both Kelly and his wife, per the Associated Press.

DATA GAP: Substance-exposed births coming from Pennsylvania into West Virginia have jumped in recent years, the Post-Gazette reports. West Virginia tracks such information in real-time, while Pennsylvania does not. Planned legislation would change that. State Sen. Lisa Boscola (D., Bethlehem) said "Reporting should not be up for debate." 

FUNDING FINDS: Pennsylvania is one of 14 states that directly fund the antiabortion movement, sometimes with money diverted from cash assistance for people in poverty, The Inquirer reports. The state has allocated tens of millions of dollars to a Harrisburg nonprofit that funnels money into crisis pregnancy centers with antiabortion agendas.

LOST CALLS: A lawsuit alleges two people died in a fire because a Lehigh County 911 dispatcher did not understand their pleas for help in Spanish and hung up. The lawsuit, filed by former employees, includes a host of "explosive allegations" that the county firmly denies, per the Morning Call. Allentown's Latino community calls it a "boiling point."

OATH KEEPERS: A former Pittsburgh GOP council district chairman and a city police officer who used his government email to join an anti-government militia are both mentioned in recent coverage of the far-right Oath Keepers' mainstream gains. A Rolling Stone piece says the officer vowed to recruit for the group in his role as a firearms instructor.

» AP: Gov. Wolf ties minimum wage hike to state incentives

» CAPITAL-STAR: Shapiro breaks with Wolf on key climate strategy

» MORNING CALL: 300 testify against 'Kids for Cash' judges at civil trial

» USA TODAY: Lawmaker eyes 'duty to assist' bill after SEPTA rape

» WNEP: Scranton teachers plan strike amid years-old stalemate
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

SEASON GREETING (Case No. 116): Samantha was born on Dec. 25 but her birthday is always in the summer. How? 

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: The time could be written as 01:01:01 and the date as 01/01/01. (Find last week's clue here.)

Congrats to George F., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Ryan S., Beth T., Joe S., Lou R., Lynda G., Annette I., Ken J., George S., Philip C., Karen K., George S., Jyotin S., Irene T., Mercedes Y., Joseph M., Fred O., David T., Jeff B., Eileen D., Jon N., Dennis P., and Mary B.
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