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Lawmakers spent $3M to fight for redistricting maps

Plus, demystifying the Pennsylvania Capitol one question at a time. 

A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

September 8, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Redistricting bills, company money, election news, broadband maps, voter registration, Capitol questions, militia men, Pitt tab, and plastic plan.
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Pennsylvania state lawmakers spent at least $3 million in taxpayer money on outside law firms and experts as they lobbied for their preferred political maps during the recent redistricting cycle, according to invoices obtained by Spotlight PA's Kate Huangpu.

The new districts have the potential to change the balance of power in both Harrisburg and Washington, with one Republican-held congressional seat eliminated and the updated state House map giving Democrats the potential to win back the chamber.

The invoices obtained by Huangpu show that the four legislative caucuses paid “professional experts” $527,980 for their testimony. The hourly rates for the eight experts ranged from $195 to $350 an hour. 

Also this week, Min Xian of the State College bureau has a deep dive into the conflict between the Walker Township Fire Company and the local board of supervisors on how to increase funding for vital public safety services. 

The dispute reflects a larger shift in Pennsylvania, where volunteer fire companies say private donations have decreased and operational costs have climbed.


"To me this is a no-brainer. I don’t understand why this has dragged on."

—John Torres, a Walker Township resident, on a contentious battle between the local volunteer fire company and supervisors for more taxpayer help

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» New maps will help decide where up to $1 billion in federal money goes for Pa. broadband expansion

» Ahead of pivotal 2022 Pa. election, Wolf administration expands access to voter registration forms

» Tell us what 2022 election coverage matters most to you


How Harrisburg Works: Your Pa. Capitol questions, answered

Curious how lawmaking really works? Spotlight PA’s Capitol reporter Stephen Caruso wants to help you understand. Below, he answers reader questions. Submit yours to scaruso@spotlightpa.org.

“What are the rules for per diems?”

There are few restrictions on per diems, as Spotlight PA has previously covered.

When lawmakers travel more than 50 miles from their home on legislative business, they are eligible to receive compensation for their meal and lodging expenses, state House Comptroller Jennifer Benko said. 

They can do so through three methods:

  • Requesting a flat per diem as set by the federal General Services Administration. The exact rates differ depending on location and timing, but the per-day rate in Harrisburg is $181 — $117 for housing and $64 for food.

  • Requesting a flat per diem as set by the IRS, currently $202 in most of Pennsylvania. A lawmaker who stays in Hershey or Philadelphia during certain months may receive more due to a cost-of-living adjustment for those areas. 

  • Submitting receipts for their actual food and lodging expenses, with a cap of $181 per day, as set by the GSA. 

State House lawmakers who want to receive per diems must pick either the GSA or IRA rate and stick with it for an entire year. However, they always retain the option of just submitting receipts. They must also attest that they were in the location on business.

The state Senate operates under largely the same rules, but there is no cap on the total reimbursement if a lawmaker submits receipts.

There are no specific lists of suggested hotels or restaurants for either chamber. Read more about lawmakers’ expenses here.

“What is the difference between the speaker of the house and the majority leader?”

The speaker of the state House is supposed to represent the whole institution, while the majority leader acts for their fellow party members. 

The powers that come with those different roles are distinct.

State House rules charge the speaker, currently Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), with setting the session calendar, picking the chairs of each committee, referring bills to committees, and setting the date for special elections to replace members who’ve left office early. 

The speaker, who is elected by the 203 members of the chamber, is also tasked with preserving “order and decorum” during debates. They call up bills for a vote from a set calendar, give the floor to lawmakers who want to speak, and make sure that the arguments don’t get off track.

The state House majority leader, currently Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), is at the head of a leadership team chosen by members of the party in power. That team is supposed to build the policy agenda, see it turned into legislation, pitch these proposals to the public, and then convince the party’s lawmakers to vote for them, a process known as “whipping.”

The majority leader has the final say on what legislation actually makes it onto the voting calendar, which the speaker needs to run the session. 

As chamber employees are paid by the caucus, not the state, the majority leader also has an important role in deciding patronage, said former House powerbroker Bill DeWeese, a Democrat who previously held both posts.

The combined ability to control the agenda and jobs is “a big deal” and makes the majority leader powerful, he said. 

But “by sheer force of personality, speakers have been able to hold their own, in spite of the structural dynamics to the benefit of the majority leader,” he added.

The speaker is also part of this leadership team, Capitol insiders note, and previous speakers — such as John Perzel (R., Philadelphia) and Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny)— were sometimes known to be a leading voice in internal decisions.

But Mike Straub, Cutler’s spokesperson, said the current speaker tries not to weigh in on the political issues as much.

“We don’t see the speaker's office as giving the final approval on every single bill,” Straub said. “We call up the bills and play umpire from there.”

MILITIA MEN: The Anti-Defamation League says a leaked list of Oath Keeper members includes hundreds of people who are believed to work in U.S. law enforcement, the AP reports. WITF reported last year on Pennsylvania law enforcement officers with ties to the far-right extremist group, the leaders of which have been charged with playing a key role in fomenting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

PITT TAB: The University of Pittsburgh spent $750,000 on lobbying during the period that coincided with a GOP-led effort to cut its annual state budget appropriation over fetal tissue research earlier this year. WESA reports the total is nine times what the university normally spends on lobbying in a quarter. The funds were ultimately allocated, along with a boost from Gov. Tom Wolf's share of relief funding.

PLASTIC PLAN: A Houston startup plans to build a plant to turn waste plastic into new plastic in Point Township, about 60 miles north of Harrisburg. While that sounds like a promising solution to the growing plastic crisis, Inside Climate News reports that similar plants "do little more than make new fossil fuels, and produce a lot of waste, falling short of the promise of a circular economy."

FUNDING SHORTFALL: The billions provided through the federal stimulus program to repair Pennsylvania's roads and bridges won't be enough to make all necessary fixes. The Post-Gazette reports on a new analysis that finds the $1.63 billion directed to repair Pennsylvania's bridges is about $888 million below what is needed.

NO DEAL: Two of Buck County's three commissioners oppose the sale of the county's sewer system to Aqua Pennsylvania, a private corporation, and are hinting they will disband the local water board should a deal move forward, the Courier Times reports. As Spotlight PA previously reported, the legislature is considering a bill that would make such privatization deals easier

» AP: Wolf starts process to pardon lower-level pot convictions

» PENNLIVE: Criminal records kept from the public, but no fix coming

» PUBLICSOURCE: Poor state policy dampens solar growth

» TRIBLIVE: Pa. roads, bridges to get extra $175M

» WETM: Lawrenceville plugs bullet hole in water tank with tree branch

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

HEAVY DUTY (Case No. 163)What do you toss out when you want to use it but take in when you don't want to use it?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: The horse was named Friday. (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Briann M., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Christopher D., Lindsey S., Donna D., Michael H., Roseanne D., Andrea H., George S., Joe S., Michelle T., Robert K., Debra S., Jon N., James D., Ted W., Lois P., Fred H., Newell E., Susan N.-Z., Linda C., Philip C., Steve B., Lynda G., John D., Chris W., Irene T., Annette I., Mary B., Beth T., Tish M., Joel S., Fred O., Steve H., Bruce B., Ken S., Larry L., Bill G., mitchell2ej, Jim W., Johnny C., Jason M., Dom A., and Linda F.
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