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Budget problems loom despite big state surplus

Plus, lawmakers are mad about uneven election rules they can fix.

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.

March 14, 2024 | spotlightpa.org
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Facing scrutiny from state lawmakers, the Pennsylvania Game Commission said it will not renew a controversial contract it signed late last year with a politically connected lobbying firm.

Spotlight PA revealed the existence of the agency’s contract with Allegheny Strategy Partners, a lobbying firm run by former state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, in February.

Also this week, Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso and Kate Huangpu go deep on Pennsylvania's structural deficit and explain why — even when the state is flush with surplus cash — it looms large.  

Finally, county and municipal leaders want the state to invest money to help them prepare for digital security threats facing critical infrastructure.

Introducing Spotlight PA’s “All Sun, No Shade” beach towel! This towel is now available to celebrate Sunshine Week, a time when we mark the importance of government transparency. These are selling fast, so make sure to place your order ASAP! 
EDUCATION EMPOWERMENT: Join us TODAY from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a roundtable discussion with Pennsylvania reporters on transparency in education, and how you can hold school officials accountable. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org

» Philadelphia voting commission shakeup creates bad optics during big election year

» A complete guide to the primary candidates for auditor general

» What to know about Shapiro’s proposed $10.3M agriculture innovation program

» Pennsylvania treasurer candidates spar over unclaimed property issue

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GOP lawmakers are mad about Pa.’s uneven election rules. They have the power to fix them.

A handful of GOP lawmakers criticized Pennsylvania’s unequal election policies during a recent budget hearing, with many blaming Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt for not pushing counties to adopt the same rules on mail ballots and drop boxes.

“The state constitution demands uniformity. The counties in this state are administering elections differently. That is a fact,” said state Rep. John Lawrence (R., Chester). “And you, the chief election administrator in this state, have endorsed that, by saying, ‘Counties know best.’”

But these inconsistencies predate Schmidt and are caused by gaps in state law that the legislature can remedy. 

Pennsylvania’s Election Code is silent on many aspects of mail voting. It does not specify whether counties can notify voters about issues with their mail ballots or set up drop boxes to accept ballots. As a result, some counties offer these services while others don’t.

As Spotlight PA and Votebeat previously found, that inconsistency disenfranchises voters based on where they live

County election officials and good-government advocates have asked lawmakers to clarify the state’s mail voting law since the 2020 election, but Democrats and Republicans have failed to agree on legislation.  

In the absence of legislative action, over a dozen lawsuits have targeted gray areas of the law. While some of these cases have been definitive, others — like ones from the state Supreme Court on whether counties can set up drop boxes or allow voters to cure ballots — left it up to local officials to make the final decision. 

Schmidt told state House lawmakers that counties must abide by the Election Code and court decisions.

“It is not a Wild West where everybody gets to do whatever they want,” Schmidt said. “They’re operating within the confines of that law, and within the confines of the law there is flexibility.”

State Rep. Clint Owlett (R., Tioga) questioned whether the Pennsylvania Department of State does enough to ensure the counties behave uniformly. 

“We can’t have 67 different interpretations,” he said. 

The Pennsylvania Department of State can release guidance and directives that help counties understand election laws and navigate different administrative issues, but it cannot dictate to counties how to run their elections, Schmidt told lawmakers.

Owlett told Spotlight PA that he recognizes it isn’t in the secretary’s power to change election policy, but he would like to see the administration voice greater concern about the impacts of disparate election practices, especially with a major presidential race upcoming. 

“Why is this not a priority of the governor to create uniform elections?” Owlett said.

Owlett added that the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill in 2021 that would have clarified some of these policies, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, for its proposed expansion of voter ID requirements.

With a presidential contest months away, many county election directors say it’s too late to enact any major changes to the process this year. 

“We're in the middle of an election cycle, and the last thing [we need], especially given the number of questions that came up in the last presidential cycle, is to create a scenario where elections directors or counties are having to figure out how to implement new laws,” said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. Kate Huangpu, Spotlight PA

🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of Great PA News Quiz: Trump’s TikTok flip-flop, 2024 pollbooks, watchdog election, and the State Police motif
» AP: Shapiro announces plan to fight climate change

» AXIOS: Prison population rises in Pennsylvania 

» BLOOMBERG: Rite Aid advisers rake in millions through bankruptcy

» DETROIT FREE PRESSPa. company sued for selling ghost gun

» INQUIRER: Teacher who got breast cancer sues district over asbestos

» PATCH: See how Pa.'s congressional delegation voted on TikTok ban

» PENNLIVE: Dauphin County cut power to men in jail’s ‘hole’ for 2 weeks

» WGAL: Lancaster's 'Welcoming City' ordinance criticized by GOP

» WHYY: Climate activists want PECO to buy more renewable energy 

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

PIZZA PARTY (Case No. 247): A pizza place has an offer where you can swap five empty pizza boxes for a free pizza. Joe has collected 25 pizza boxes. How many free pizzas can he get in total?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Darkness or fog. Find last week's clue here.

Congrats to Joe D., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Rebecca D., Annette I., Sue N., Karen K., Phil C., Karen W., Ken S., Roseanne D., Lynda G., Joe S., Ted W., Mary O., Mary B., Peter S., Harriet Z., Alan B., Bill B., Beth T., Trish B., Victoria K., Robert K., Dan E., Fred O., Cosette J., Delmer B., Sandy M., Seth Z., Ben M., and Patricia C.
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