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Shapiro won't say who paid for inaugural festivities

Plus, tax caps are hurting municipalities across Pennsylvania that lack home rule charters. 

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.

January 19, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Sworn in, cabinet list, transition NDAs, special elections, amendment explainer, no changes, 'forever' limits, Medicaid deadline, no deal, and a change of tune.

Democrat Josh Shapiro has been sworn in as Pennsylvania's 48th governor, pledging to deliver on promises of growing the economy, decreasing gun violence, ending the opioid epidemic, and bolstering trust in democracy.

Spotlight PA has a dispatch from his inaugural ceremony, as well as a complete list of who Shapiro has nominated to fill his cabinet

Before Shapiro officially became governor, Kate Huangpu and Angela Couloumbis reported on the nondisclosure agreements he required his transition staff to sign. They also found that Shapiro had yet to disclose which private donors paid for his swearing-in festivities, including a lavish bash featuring Wiz Khalifa

Finally, Commonwealth Court has ruled that special elections for seats vacated by Democrats should be held on Feb. 7. The outcome of those races will likely determine which party holds the majority in the state House, which is currently at a standstill because of an ongoing power struggle.


"The machines don’t get tired, get distracted."

—Lycoming County elections director Forrest Lehman on human error that occurred during a recent hand recount of 2020 results 

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» BROKEN BOROUGHS: Join us Thursday, Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. EST on Zoom for a free panel on Pennsylvania’s local governments, and how their oversight — or lack thereof — impacts residents and governance. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» How a constitutional amendment gets on the ballot in Pennsylvania
» No significant changes found in hand recount of 2020 presidential election in Pa.’s Lycoming County

Tax caps leave many Pa. municipalities with few ways to raise revenue

Bradford, a small city situated just a few miles south of the New York state line in McKean County, no longer has 24-hour police coverage.

It has deferred necessary maintenance and projects, and laid off employees in several departments — including fire, police, and streets — to cut costs, City Manager Chris Lucco told Spotlight PA.

“We’re in need of infrastructure repairs for sidewalks,” Lucco said. “We need updates to municipal facilities. Our fire station was built in the ‘30s, I believe — not in good condition."

Bradford has been forced to make these choices because it’s running out of options to raise the revenue necessary to fund public services. It’s far from alone. 

Municipalities across Pennsylvania that lack home rule charters are unable to increase a variety of taxes beyond limits set by a state law from the 1960s, according to a recent report from the Pennsylvania Economy League, a good-government group. Those include the earned income tax and a per capita tax on residents.

Without that flexibility, these municipalities have come to rely heavily on property taxes.

“Pennsylvania’s local government tax laws mostly focus on raising tax revenue from residents, businesses, and properties located only within a municipality’s borders to support services,” the league’s report states. “It is easy in Pennsylvania for the wealthy to avoid higher local government taxation by living in less dense suburbs and exurbs with less costly services.”

Bradford is what Lucco calls a “core community.” People who live in surrounding communities in northern McKean County rely on Bradford for essentials like the hospital, schools, and emergency care, and often commute to work there. 

The city provides services to between 15,000 and 20,000 people, but only about 7,700 of them are residents, Lucco said. Despite that disparity, the burden of funding those services falls heavily on people who actually live in Bradford.

Property taxes account for about 70% of Bradford’s general fund revenue, according to the report. 

The city could continue to raise them. Property taxes haven’t been reassessed in McKean for 25 years, and upping them would increase revenue. 

But Bradford residents already pay higher property taxes than people in nearby communities with higher housing values. That’s especially burdensome in a city where 30% of the population is in poverty — more than twice the poverty rate in McKean County and Pennsylvania as a whole, according to census data. 

“It still forces everything on the back of the property owner,” Lucco said of reassessing property taxes. 

Bradford has raised needed revenue by sharing the cost of some services with neighboring municipalities, and it sells timber from its water authority’s watershed. Occasional one-time fixes have helped, Lucco said, like when the city sold its stormwater system to Bradford’s sanitary authority that is governed separately. But Lucco said a long-term fix is needed.

The report recommends modernizing Pennsylvania’s current tax system by eliminating or raising tax rate caps, implementing taxes for nonresidents around core communities, and giving municipalities the power to levy new taxes like one on alcoholic drinks. —Ashad Hajela, rural affairs reporter and Report for America corps member

This week's top news story in Pennsylvania'FOREVER' LIMITS: Pennsylvania has set new limits on two types of the toxic "forever chemicals" known as PFAS. There are thousands of varieties and no enforceable federal limits in place. Per StateImpact: All drinking water facilities in Pennsylvania, along with bottled water plants, and school and health care facilities will have to test for the contaminants now, report findings, and treat water if necessary.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaMEDICAID DEADLINE: A pandemic-era rule that automatically kept most people enrolled in Medicaid will end in April, and thousands across Pennsylvania could be affected, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. State officials say no one will lose Medicaid without a chance to reapply, but advocates worry that the addresses on file with the state may be outdated and that notifications will go unreceived.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaNO DEAL: Four Schuylkill County employees who sued Commissioner George F. Halcovage Jr. over alleged sexual misconduct have declined a $850,000 settlement offer in part because it could have limited their ability to publicly discuss the underlying claims, WFMZ reports. Halcovage has refused to resign. State lawmakers began weighing his impeachment last year but that work was put on hold

CHANGE OF TUNE: State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), who spent years vilifying mail voting, is changing his stance after his sizable loss in November's governor's race. In a piece for the right-wing Epoch Times, Mastriano writes that Republicans "have no choice but to embrace this method of voting." Other Pennsylvania Republicans are reaching a similar conclusion after bruising midterm losses.

TAX TRACKS: Pennsylvania is the only major natural gas-producing state without a tax on the fuel's extraction. PoliticoPro (paywall) reports that new Gov. Josh Shapiro hasn't weighed in on the issue, but he has cast himself as a pro-business and anti-tax Democrat. Pittsburgh Business Times (paywall) has a Manufacturers & Business Association rep saying: "I think he might want to stay away from it."

» AL DÍA: Shapiro doesn't want private prisons in Pennsylvania

» APPa. Senate advances bill to drop school religious garb ban

» POLITICO: GOP paying $100K to figure out what went wrong in Pa. 

» WESAWith protections expired, foreclosures are climbing 

» WITF: Mastriano misses Senate vote, skips Josh Shapiro’s inauguration

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GAME OF CLUES (Case No. 184): I can be cracked. I can be made. I can be told. I can be played. What am I?
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