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Group will review opioid payments in secret

Plus, Treasury candidates clash over unclaimed property.

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 7, 2024 | spotlightpa.org
Opioid payments, election battles, e-pollbooks 101, eminent domain, ballot order, treasurer race, voting data, body cameras, and solitary confinement.

Counties will soon have to report how they spent millions of dollars they received from the first rounds of opioid settlement payments in Pennsylvania.

But members of a trust that oversees county spending are preparing to first review the information in secret, despite a court order requiring the trust to follow the state's Sunshine Act.

The planned private meetings are the latest way that the trust board is distancing its operations from public oversight and input, Spotlight PA and WESA report.

Also this week, a Biden-Trump rematch is taking shape, and experts are predicting another wave of high-stakes, election-related court battles in Pennsylvania.

Finally, here's what you need to know about electronic pollbooks, which are gaining popularity across the state despite cybersecurity concerns

We’re giving you a special preview of our “All Sun, No Shade” beach towel! This towel is available for a special pre-sale to celebrate Sunshine Week, a time when we mark the importance of government transparency. Sunshine Week begins March 10, so make sure to place your preorder ASAP!

Proceeds benefit Spotlight PA’s nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism that gets results for Pennsylvania.
BLACK WALL STREET: Join us TODAY from 6-7 p.m. ET on Zoom for a free panel on the history of Harrisburg’s Black Wall Street, and the people and businesses hoping to preserve its legacy. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.

» Pa. pays property owners for land lost to eminent domain, but farmers want more for their loss

» Ballot order is critical for candidates. In Pa., it’s determined by luck.

» How to judge the effectiveness of your local government in Pennsylvania

Treasury candidates clash over unclaimed property

An obscure policy issue is getting new attention in this year’s race for Pennsylvania treasurer as Democratic state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro of Erie seeks to draw a contrast with Republican incumbent Stacy Garrity.

Bizzarro is attacking Garrity’s track record on the issue she says is one of her top priorities as state treasurer: reuniting Pennsylvanians with their misplaced money.  

Pennsylvania holds more than $4.5 billion in unclaimed property — money from inactive bank accounts, uncashed checks, and unused gift cards that, by law, must be turned over to the state. The original owners, however, never lose their right to file a claim with the state Treasury to get their money back. 

Since taking office in 2021, Garrity has overseen a major upgrade, begun under her predecessor, to process claims more quickly through automatic data-matching. Last year, two-thirds of claims were paid through this fast-track system. 

Garrity says these efforts have paid off: In the 2023 fiscal year, the state Treasury returned almost $274 million, a record. 

Bizzarro says this figure is “deliberately misleading” because it doesn’t reflect the new unclaimed property Pennsylvania receives each year. As a percentage of the money taken in, the amount returned looks less impressive, Bizzarro argues, working out to a return rate in 2021 and 2022 of 43%, slightly lower than the state’s 10-year average. 

The current system for returning unclaimed property puts the burden on the roughly one in 10 Pennsylvanians who are owed money. One major obstacle to giving back all that property is that state law requires owners to file a claim with the Treasury before they can be paid. Many, however, likely do not realize they are owed money in the first place. 

Garrity’s efforts to address this have been stymied by state House Democrats, including Bizzarro. 

Last year, she proposed legislation that would allow the state Treasury to proactively return some unclaimed property without requiring owners to file a claim. The change would have applied only to property worth less than $5,000 that belongs to a single owner who is still alive; for more complex or higher-value cases, people would still have to file claims. Roughly a dozen other states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, have similar laws. 

The bill passed the state Senate unanimously last June. But in the state House, Democrats used their one-vote majority to slash the amount of money that could be automatically returned from $5,000 to $100. Bizzarro voted in support of the amendment.

In a statement, Bizzarro called Garrity’s proposal “a minimal effort that did not go anywhere near far enough.” He has proposed legislation that would require unclaimed property worth up to $10,000 to be automatically returned to businesses and nonprofits, as well as individuals, whose contact information the state treasury can verify.

“If he wanted to make it higher, why did he vote to cut it?” Garrity said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.” Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of Great PA News Quiz: Gov’t land grabs, Trump ruling, derailed trains, and election games
» AP: Court says electronic voting data is not subject to release

» CAP-STAR: State Police to expedite body camera rollout

» ERIE TIMES-NEWSFederal suit halts 15 years of solitary confinement

» INQUIRER: Blight law paves the way for a 'predatory' industry

» NY TIMES: Pa. plans task force to combat election disruptions 

» PENNLIVE: State Police yet to determine lost data’s impact on cases

» PUBLICSOURCE: PGH-based EQT’s expansion set 4 families reeling 

» TRIBLIVE: Strict law would curb any payout to Fern Hollow victims

» WFMZ: 7 arrested during protest at defense manufacturer

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