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Pa. House power shift could impact election law

Plus, Penn State president's controversial first semester.


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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.

December 15, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Two leaders, affixed agenda, election law wishlist, Bendapudi's first semester, Shapiro & Schultz, fracking unfrozen, masks revisited, and whole homes.

Pennsylvania House Republicans have filed a lawsuit to block three special elections currently slated for Feb. 7, a move that could delay Democrats from assuming a clear-cut majority in the lower chamber.

Stephen Caruso reports the Commonwealth Court suit, filed by House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, could complicate the opening months of Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro's administration.

As that power struggle plays out, Katie Meyer and Caruso note GOP lawmakers, especially in the state House, appear likely to stick to a combative agenda despite a disastrous midterm election.

Republicans inside and outside Pennsylvania government fear the trend could further threaten the party's future in the state.

Meanwhile, building on their midterm gains, Democratic lawmakers and voting advocates are eyeing big changes to election law next year. Carter Walker of Votebeat and Caruso report pre-canvassing, mail ballot date requirements, and voter ID are among the policies being reviewed in preparation for the 2023 legislative session.

And lastly, Ed Mahon, continuing a yearlong investigation of Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program, reports a state board recently scrutinized the health department's oversight of how medical marijuana cards are approved and advertised.

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“It does nothing but create the appearance of impropriety.”

—Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association attorney Melissa Melewsky on a private 2021 meeting where Penn State trustees saw a preview of the university's diversity plan

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» THE EXIT: Join us at 3-3:30 p.m. ET today via Zoom for a free Q&A with Pennsylvania’s 47th governor, Tom Wolf, on his two terms, his legacy, and what comes next for the state. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» Wolf administration seeks to finish off Pa. Senate GOP’s languishing 2020 election inquiry
» Cost of Pennsylvania governor’s race sets new record amid ‘campaign finance arms race’

A look inside Penn State’s first semester with new President Neeli Bendapudi

As Penn State closes its first semester with new President Neeli Bendapudi at the helm, here are three major developments from the fall and what to expect in 2023.

The budget crunch

Just months into her new role, Bendapudi announced Penn State faced unanticipated budget challenges. According to the university, flat funding from the state, increased costs from the COVID-19 pandemic, and inflation helped create a budget deficit of $127 million.

Penn State responded with a “strategic hiring freeze” that will last until at least next summer. The university is also cutting at least 3% “across-the-board” for the current fiscal year as it works to balance its budget by 2025.

Happy Valley makes national news

Penn State made national news twice in October — once for an on-campus event involving a violent hate group, and days later for its decision to cancel the proposed Center for Racial Justice.

The university faced public criticism for hosting two far-right speakers, one of whom was a founder of the Proud Boys. A student group organized the event, which was funded using student fees. University officials denounced the rhetoric and actions of the speakers, but said First Amendment protections prevented them from stopping the event.

Penn State ultimately canceled the event shortly before it was scheduled to begin due to the increased risk of violence. The only arrest made in connection with the event was of a student who reportedly disobeyed police orders during a large protest.

Just days after the protest, Bendapudi announced she would not fund the university’s planned Center for Racial Justice, a key proposal of the prior administration following the 2020 protests against police violence. Bendapudi claimed in private meetings that the university didn’t have the money for the project, as first reported by Spotlight PA. But the president publicly committed to investing “at least as much” money in existing diversity and equity programs as would have gone to the center.

The decision sparked pushback from hundreds of faculty, staff, and students, as well as the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.

Bendapudi is expected to present her plan to address racism and bias in early 2023.

More changes on the horizon

Penn State plans to implement a new budget model this summer that more directly ties unit funding to student enrollment, research spending, and other factors.

The new approach likely means cuts to some programs and boosts for others. Penn State said no unit’s budget can be cut more than 4% over the next two fiscal years. Officials do not expect mass layoffs or the closure of commonwealth campuses.

The university plans to reunite its two law schools in the coming years. Penn State is also lobbying for a nearly 50% increase in its state appropriation, citing higher per-pupil spending at other Pennsylvania universities. — Wyatt Massey, Spotlight PA

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This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaCLERK CRITICS: An ongoing state House power struggle has produced competing claims of majority control in the lower chamber and led state Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and other Republicans to call for the removal of the chamber's chief clerk over last week's preemptive swearing-in of state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia). Cutler took his own early oath of office on Monday.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaRECOUNT RULINGS: Judges in AlleghenyBlairChester, and Cumberland Counties are the latest to reject requests for local 2022 election recounts. Court hearings are pending elsewhere as Pennsylvania officials find themselves delayed in certifying statewide results. The AP reports the recount requests, which have mostly targeted Democratic wins, could foreshadow a 2024 election strategy.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaWHOLE HOMES: Pennsylvania counties and eligible nonprofits can now apply for Pennsylvania's new, $120 million Whole-Home Repairs Program. The program — a budget season win for progressives — will ultimately offer landlords and homeowners repair and upgrade grants of up to $50,000. Capital-Star breaks down what you need to know and why it will take time for the grant money to reach those individuals.

MAGA MIX: Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro ran as the anti-MAGA candidate. That's made one transition team pick stand out among a bevy of Republican power players and lobbyists: That of James Schultz, a former Trump White House lawyer who spurned his Republican Party to endorse Shapiro in August. The Intercept reports Shapiro's team has framed the pick as a big-tent effort to encourage bipartisanship.

TRIPLEDEMIC: This winter's "tripledemic" or "tridemic" of COVID-19, influenza, and RSV has U.S. health officials recommending masks again to reduce the spread of all three. Several Pennsylvania counties had high levels of COVID-19 transmissions on Thursday, while hospital admissions for the flu had tripled statewide since Thanksgiving, with more holiday gatherings on the way.

» AP: Pennsylvania lifts ban on gas production in polluted village

» CBSNEWS: Juul to pay 38$M for targeting Pennsylvania youth

» LNP: Akron Borough Council votes to partially fund Ephrata Library

» WESA: 34th, 35th Pa. House district races attract candidates

» WITF: Chambersburg demands Mastriano pay campaign police bill

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

IN TRAFFIC (Case No. 179)Four cars come to a four-way stop, each coming from a different direction. They can’t decide who got there first, so they all go forward at the same time. All cars go, but none crash into each other. How?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Bottle, coin, shirt. (Find last week's clue here.)
Congrats to Mary B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Philip C., Jeffrey F., Fred O., Annette I., and Joel S.
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