|A weekly newsletter by |
|Ruling implications, Democratic sweep, rule asks, special event, courtside 'political meeting,' speaker shift, war machine, rail risks, and new hires.|
A long-awaited ruling on how Pennsylvania funds its public schools could have a seismic impact on state finances in the coming years as policymakers face a multibillion-dollar funding disparity.
In an order filed Tuesday, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, a Republican, said students in poorer school districts with low property values and incomes were being deprived of the same resources and opportunities extended to children in wealthier ones.
Jubelirer’s ruling does not lay out an exact remedy, though policymakers, attorneys in the case, and education experts agree that money will be a major part of the solution.
Meeting this obligation will be an early challenge for Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and for the state legislature, Stephen Caruso reports.
Also this week, Democratic state House candidates won three special elections in Allegheny County, securing the party's one-vote majority in the chamber.
The state House has been out of session for more than a month amid a stalemate over the operating rules. Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) recessed the chamber and embarked on a listening tour to hear what Pennsylvanians want to see change.
Members of the public frequently criticized previous versions of the rules that have given the majority party outsized power to kill legislation that has bipartisan support, Caruso and Kate Huangpu report.
"I think it takes the minimum amount of courage to do our job to say why you voted against something."
—Jordi Comas, a Lewisburg Borough Council member, speaking in support of a rules changes that would force state lawmakers to vote on bills with bipartisan backing
|» HOW SPECIAL ELECTIONS WORK: Join us tonight from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel on the results of the Feb. 7 special elections, how they work, and why they matter. This event is the first in our “How Harrisburg Works” series. Register here and submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.|
Shapiro sat courtside at a Sixers game with a donor. His campaign called it a ‘political meeting.’
A sellout crowd of 20,033 packed the Wells Fargo Center Jan. 4, 2023, to see the Philadelphia 76ers face the Indiana Pacers.
Playing without star forward Joel Embiid, James Harden dropped 26 points and led the team to a dramatic overtime victory.
Watching the game courtside from tipoff to final buzzer was then Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, sitting next to a longtime campaign donor and co-chair of his inaugural committee.
Shapiro’s attendance raised an unexpected question: When is a gift to a public official not a gift?
Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for Shapiro’s transition who now works for the administration, told Spotlight PA the outing was a “political meeting.” He didn’t expand on that or say who paid for the tickets, which conservatively cost $3,000 a pop.
But Bonder did say related expenses will be reported as an in-kind campaign contribution, which under state law is a donation of goods or services rather than money. Commonly seen in-kind contributions range from office supplies to advertisements to food for a fundraiser.
Political veterans and campaign finance experts called the classification unusual. Free tickets to sports games, galas, and other events are more often than not disclosed on annual statements of financial interest, which public officials and others are required to file annually.
Those forms require a public official to describe the gift, and disclose details about who gave it and how much it was worth. Politicians have to disclose the amount of an in-kind contribution on a campaign finance report, but the description of what goods or services it bought usually lacks specifics.
The tickets put on full display the muddy interplay of Pennsylvania’s lax campaign finance and government ethics laws, which are largely self-policed and enable top donors to access lawmakers.
“Our elected officials are supposed to be public servants, but when we see them spending time in luxury settings with rich campaign donors, it destroys trust between voters and what is supposed to be a government of, by, and for the people,” Michael Pollack, executive director of the good-government group March on Harrisburg, told Spotlight PA.
Shapiro’s companion that evening was Philadelphia lawyer Darren Check, two sources told Spotlight PA. Check did not reply to a request for comment.
For Shapiro’s gubernatorial run, Check donated nearly $70,000 between May 2021 and December 2022. Of that, $34,000 were in-kind contributions, all reported simply as “travel” on Shapiro’s campaign finance reports.
Check’s law firm, Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check, made an additional $43,000 in in-kind contributions for travel.
Two campaign operatives from both major parties called the choice to call the tickets a campaign contribution unusual. A third campaign operative was less surprised but added that the confusion was warranted.
The operatives spoke on condition of anonymity to give professional opinions candidly.
“Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws are pretty phenomenal” for fundraising because of how loose they are, a Republican operative said. “It’s more or less the wild west.”
Some who spoke to Spotlight PA questioned why the tickets weren’t considered a gift. Elected officials are allowed to accept essentially anything valuable from anyone, as long as they report it on an annual ethics filing.
Shapiro has disclosed sports tickets in those filings in three separate instances, two of them for the Sixers ($870 in 2014 and $2,319 in 2016). Sports tickets happen to be the only things he’s reported since 2011.
But because Check does not have business before state government that the governor can influence, the tickets weren’t a gift, argued Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia attorney who often works for Democratic candidates, including Shapiro.
Neither Check or his firm is registered to lobby, according to state records, nor are they clients of a lobbying firm seeking to influence state government behavior. The firm also does not have any contracts with the state, according to a public database.
Ultimately, oversight over what’s a campaign contribution and what’s a gift is largely absent. The Department of State said it uses a “complaint-driven policy” and doesn’t proactively look at in-kind donations.
In an email, Bonder said that Shapiro “has consistently put people before the powerful and always operated under the highest standards of ethical public service as he meets people where they are and promotes all that is great about Pennsylvania.”
But to Pollack of March on Harrisburg, the meeting showed how those with money can readily get facetime with politicians.
"We don’t want public officials who trap themselves in echo chambers of the rich,” he said. —Stephen Caruso, Spotlight PA
|SPEAKER SHIFT: Democrats won control of the state House on Tuesday, and Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) now says he would consider stepping down from the role and plans to "reassess" things after lawmakers pass a delayed abuse amendment, possibly in the coming weeks, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. Rozzi rose to the rostrum in a GOP-engineered deal and was not his party's first choice. |
WAR MACHINE: Grid explains how an army ammunition plant in Scranton has become a primary producer of the weapon that may prove most decisive in Ukraine's fight against Russia, the 155-mm artillery shell: "It's likely that many of the shells that are exploding and shattering into deadly shards of steel on the battlefields of Donetsk and Kherson were trucked off the factory floor in Scranton."
RAIL RISKS: As worry mounts over the environmental and public health implications of a volatile and toxic train derailment in Ohio, less than 600 feet from the Pennsylvania state line, a caucus of industry unions says the whole mess could have been avoided. The group blames outdated regulation and something called precision scheduled railroading, or, as they put it, "positive shareholder reaction."
NEW HIRES: Billing it as an effort to address transparency and accountability issues at its troubled prison, Dauphin County has hired former Lancaster police chief John Bey as its new director of criminal justice and Kevin Myers to review staff conduct. But PennLive reporter Joshua Vaughn says both hires may have violated the Sunshine Act, a discouraging start for a "new era of transparency."
SUGGESTED ITEMS: Optional mail-ballot secrecy envelopes, standardized drop boxes, and clarified mail-ballot instructions are among a state agency's recommendations for eliminating voter confusion and minimizing election lawsuits, WITF reports. The report by the Joint State Government Commission, a bipartisan legislative research agency, comes amid a GOP reckoning on mail voting itself.
» ABC27: House GOP has spent more than $1 million to remove Krasner
» AP: Resuming Medicaid case checks confronts 3.6M in Pennsylvania
» CAPITAL-STAR: Officials work to gauge demand for fentanyl test strips
» PUBLICSOURCE: McKeesport residents crave clarity about their water
» WESA: Democrats look to crack down on ‘worker misclassification’
Send your answers to email@example.com
.IN THE WATER (Case No. 187):
You can see me in water, but I never get wet. What am I?
Last week's answer:
Letter. (Find last week's clue here
Congrats to Jody L.
, who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Lynda G., Gerry F., Fred O., Peter S., Michael H., Elizabeth W., Annette I., Joe S., Tish M., Hugh M., Don L., Michelle T., Kathy H., Vanessa J., Thomas S., James D., Beth T. (double winner, left off last week's list), Dean S., Mary B., Philip C., Sherri G., Ken H., and Johnny C.