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Panel weakens Pa.'s prison gerrymander rule

Plus, a closer look at Pa.'s fragmented and slow dementia crisis response.

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

September 23, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Rare move, prison maps, crisis response, with interest, mask rule, #MeToo, felony count, training days, short-staffed, liquor limits, and a sidelined senator.
State Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) has been stripped of his committee chairmanship and had his access to the Capitol limited in a rare move by state House leaders from his own party, Angela Couloumbis reports.

A reason wasn't immediately announced. Boyle said he thinks leadership was given "incorrect information" about him over the summer, but he refused to elaborate.

The move is used sparingly by legislative leaders. When it has happened in the past, it's almost always been punitive — to punish a lawmaker who has angered leadership — or because of a personnel issue involving the lawmaker.

Also this week, in a significant shift, the commission leading the redrawing of Pennsylvania's state legislative maps has pared back a policy approved in August and meant to largely eradicate the practice known as prison gerrymandering, Spotlight PA and Votebeat report. 

Under a resolution introduced by Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) and narrowly approved on Tuesday, the rule change will now apply to 3,000 fewer imprisoned people than initially intended, scaling back a change that shifts political power — albeit slightly — away from predominantly white, rural districts.

And finally, Pennsylvania lawmakers know a dementia care crisis is coming, but it's unclear if they'll agree on a response. With billions of dollars in federal stimulus funding now in savings and the Wolf administration pushing new regulations on nursing homes, some say the state's efforts are neither enough nor likely to work.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA
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"This resolution is nothing more than an attempt to leverage the bodies of incarcerated individuals, who are disproportionately Black and Brown."

Khalif Ali, of Common Cause Pennsylvania, on the rolling back of a new redistricting rule meant to end the practice of 'prison gerrymandering'
COVID-19 UPDATES: The FDA has authorized Pfizer booster shots for high-risk people, including those 65 and older, and Pennsylvania officials say thousands of providers are ready to administer them statewide; modelers say the delta surge appears to be peaking nationally, but they remain concerned about Pennsylvania; and COVID-19 is officially the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history. 

» CRISIS OF CARE: Join us Friday, Oct. 8 at noon ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on rising rates of Alzheimer's disease in Pennsylvania, the barriers to care, and the solutions urged by advocates. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org


» COVID-19 INFO: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, or find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine

After five years, unemployment refunds going out to those overcharged by state

Five years after discovering it had overcharged thousands of Pennsylvanians millions of dollars in interest, the state Department of Labor and Industry has started paying them back.

Since the beginning of the month, the agency has mailed refunds totaling just under $1.4 million to nearly 22,000 people. In all, the agency estimates it owes $19.4 million to 109,554 people who were erroneously charged an inflated interest rate between 2006 and 2016.

All were people who had received unemployment benefits for which they did not qualify, and who were required to repay the department for those benefits, plus interest.

The agency first identified the mistake in 2016 but only told the public hours before Spotlight PA was preparing to publish a story about the problem this summer.

As of mid-week, labor and industry officials said that 32,566 people had applied for a refund. The agency had processed and authorized refunds to 21,975 of them.

The majority of those refunds to date have been for less than $1,000, according to data from state Treasurer Stacy Garrity's office, which processes and sends out the checks. Labor and Industry officials, however, have estimated some refunds will be as high as $13,500.

As of the close of business Monday, Garrity's office said it had mailed out $1.37 million in refunds.

For months now, Labor and Industry officials have refused to address why it took them so long to inform the public of the error, despite repeated requests for an explanation.

Department head Jennifer Berrier has said the delay in informing the public was not a "cover-up," but instead reflected the amount of time it took to identify a solution. Former Labor and Industry employees who were tasked with addressing the problem once it was discovered told Spotlight PA they were directed to keep it secret, an assertion officials have denied.

An independent state agency that investigated the matter determined the mistake was the result of "human error" and lack of oversight.

In late August, department officials mailed notices to people impacted by the error and instructed them to apply for a refund either through a newly created website or by calling the agency at 1-888-313-7284 on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA
ON PAUSE: Pennsylvania House Republicans who returned to Harrisburg early to roll back the Wolf administration's school mask mandate didn't, tabling measures that would have repealed the rule or created new exemptions. The Capital-Star reports the effort faced internal divides.

NO MOVEMENT: Three years after sexual harassment and assault cases in the Pennsylvania Capitol were brought to light during the #MeToo movement, LancasterOnline reports inspired reform pushes have gone nowhere, including one to ban using taxpayer money for settlements.

PETTY THEFT: A man is facing seven years in prison for shorting a Perry County convenience store 43 cents on a bottle of Mountain Dew. PennLive reports Joseph Sobolewski was tracked down by police and charged with a felony, renewing questions about Pennsylvania's three-strikes law.

NO DEAL: Allegheny County's Jail Oversight Board has voted to cancel a $300,000 deal with an embattled prison contractor whose military-style trainings and personal background piqued concerns, TribLIVE reports. The warden says the vote bans any training of jail staff, but others disagree

NOT INTERESTED: Pennsylvania is facing a November general election with a shortage of poll workers, WITF reports, linking the dearth partly to false claims of voter fraud during and after the 2020 election. If you're available and interested, you can volunteer to be a poll worker here.

» AP: Pa. liquor stores limit some booze sales, citing supply issues

» CAPITAL-STAR: State Sen. Mastriano outcasted by party, again

» INQUIRER: Grand jury now probing Philly's troubled jail system

» NYT: Why Pa. residents with fracking-tainted water stayed silent

» YDR: Central York school board reverses high-profile book ban
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

GOLDEN AGE (Case No. 111)In 1990, a person is 15 years old. In 1995, that same person is 10 years old. How can this be?

Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: No one is lying. The doctors are Jacob's sisters. (Find last week's clue here.)
Congrats to Ken S. who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Dan H., Sheryl W., Philip C., Michelle T., Frank D., Fred O., Annette I., George S., Susan N., Lynda G., Hagan H., Elisa S., Kevin H., Judy A., Beth T., Joe M., James D., Anthony E., Jyotin S., Alberta V., Alice O., Dennis P., Deborah L., Joel S., Sylvia N., Rebecca D., Karen K., Roseanne D., Norman S., Deborah D., Robert K., Eileen D., Heather B., Mary B., Irene T., Michael H., William D., Karen S., Tim C., Kevin M., Frank C., Beverly M., Seth Z., Jon N., Maureen G., Eileen B., and Michael S.
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