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Opioid payments to counties show wide disparities

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

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 19, 2023 |
Anti-fraud laws, opioid money, quiet settlement, election events, budget stalemate, tax credits, hub impacts, major donation attack ads, and voter stats.


Several public pension systems in Pennsylvania continued to do business with a man accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of violating anti-fraud laws

The SEC alleged William Vescio caused clients to invest in a class of mutual fund shares with higher fees, most of which he received, instead of a lower-cost option. Spotlight PA's Ed Mahon reports that he settled and did not admit or deny the commission’s finding, though he was required to make payments to "harmed investors."

Records obtained by Mahon show employee retirement funds for Somerset, Tioga, and Wyoming Counties all received payments.

Also this week, Mahon and WESA's Kate Giammarise report on which Pennsylvania counties are receiving the most money per resident to help them respond to the opioid epidemic. The review found wide disparities.

Finally, Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office quietly entered into a settlement agreement to resolve allegations of sexual harassment against one of his most trusted senior aides weeks before the staffer resigned.


"The process is broken."

—Clara Township Supervisor Steven Mehl on Pennsylvania's process for considering and approving injection well applications

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» What’s on the table as Pa. lawmakers attempt to end the budget stalemate
» This rural township wants to make it easier for other places in Pa. to fight injection wells

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

Pennsylvania gives out hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits each year to create jobs and encourage companies to invest here, but only some of those programs are working as intended, according to five years of research by an independent legislative agency.

Of the 20 tax credit programs that the Independent Fiscal Office evaluated:

  • Seven yielded results, meaning they accomplished their legislative intent.

  • Four did not meet that standard; lawmakers have since addressed the flaws identified in two of those.

  • Five were created recently and don’t yet have a clear track record.

  • The remaining four lacked enough data for a definitive assessment.

“It’s definitely a mixed bag,” said Matthew Knittel, director of the IFO. State law required the fiscal office to review the state’s tax credit programs over a five-year period and make recommendations for improvement. 

Despite questions the reviews have raised about the effectiveness of some programs, the amount Pennsylvania gives out in tax credits keeps growing as lawmakers expand existing programs and create new ones. In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the state awarded $477 million in tax credits, fiscal office documents show. Over the next five fiscal years, that amount grew by more than 40%. 

State tax credit programs target a range of industries, from manufacturing to film production to high-tech start-ups. Other programs aim to spur waterfront development, environmental cleanup, and job creation in rural areas. Companies typically have to meet job creation or investment thresholds to qualify for the tax benefits. 

But the true economic impact of a tax credit program, Knittel said, hinges on a question that is difficult to answer. If a company that receives state tax credits opens a new facility in Pennsylvania, were the tax credits the deciding factor? Or did the tax breaks reward the company for something it would have done anyway? 

“That’s very hard to pin down,” Knittel said. 

Several programs, the fiscal office concluded, likely fell into the latter category. A tax credit for breweries worth roughly $2 million annually is likely not generous enough to influence companies’ decisions to invest or expand in Pennsylvania.

The fiscal office found a lack of data makes it challenging to analyze the impact of other programs. 

One of the largest credits, which funds scholarships for students at private schools, suffers from a basic lack of accountability, the fiscal office found. The review noted that the impact of the tax credits depends on how many students use the money to switch from public to private schools. State law, however, prohibits the collection of that data. Republican lawmakers successfully pushed for a massive increase to the program last year — without adopting any of the fiscal office’s recommendations to improve transparency. 

Pennsylvania’s tax credit programs are also being scrutinized as part of an overhaul of the state’s approach to economic development recently announced by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro. Charlotte Keith, 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: Big election, pro-Israel donors, opioid billions, and a year on strike.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaHUB IMPACTS: A new hydrogen hub announced by President Joe Biden last week could create 20,000 union jobs in the Philadelphia area in coming years, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said Tuesday. From The Inquirer (paywall): Hydrogen produced in the hub is expected to power 1,400 SEPTA buses and 300 Philadelphia garbage trucks in coming years. It could also make its way into the local energy supply chain.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaMAJOR DONATION: A political action committee controlled by U.S. Senate candidate David McCormick donated $50,000 to the Pennsylvania Republican Party just weeks before it endorsed him. The PAC’s leader told PennLive the donation was “absolutely not” connected to the endorsement, which McCormick’s campaign said was unanimous and “unprecedented.”

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaATTACK ADS: Dark money has entered the race for Lancaster County commissioner, a likely first, LNP (paywall) reports. The George Soros-linked Open Democracy PAC is behind a mailer that attacks the records of incumbent GOP commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino on voter access, among other things. Both have crusaded against mail voting. D’Agostino attended a 2020 election denier's event.

VOTER STATS: State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) says Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro's contested automatic voter enrollment policy at DMVs statewide has yielded 14,903 new registered voters in a matter of weeks — 3,194 Democrats, 4,052 independents, and 7,657 Republicans. Votebeat and Spotlight PA reported on Republican pushback against the policy change and the legal threats amassing around it

ON PROBATION: When restitution is a condition of probation, failing to pay can be considered a violation and lead to probation being extended. PublicSource reports how one Allegheny County man was able to avoid an extension under a 2022 state court ruling that found an outstanding restitution balance does not necessarily amount to a violation. But advocates say Allegheny County doesn’t always follow the precedent.

» APProposals would end Pennsylvania’s closed primary system

» INQUIRER: Lehigh Valley man tried to help Trump overturn election

» PENNLIVE: Lawmakers chip away at overdue budget items

» TRIBLIVE: Court weighs Pittsburgh tax on pro athletes

» WTAJ: SNAP benefits to increase for Pa. residents 

Send your answers to

OPPOSITES ATTRACT (Case No. 222): From Will Shortz's 75 Mind Bogglers Puzzlemaster Deck book: Change one letter in each of the following words to the same new letter to get a pair of opposites: SHIRT LUNG.
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Doormat, floor. (Find last week's clue here.) 

Congrats to Gay T., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Lynda G., Karen K., Norman S., Kirby T., Pam A., Beth T., Annette I., Mary W., Ada M., Bruce B., and Dennis F.
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