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Pa. lawmakers obscure spending, avoid scrutiny


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
May 12, 2021
The legislature's hidden tab, reopening plan, reform goals, Parnell's bid, cancer cause, Latino representation, and no news is bad news. It's Wednesday.

On March 18, 2019, Pennsylvania lawmakers went to work, passed eight bills — none controversial or particularly groundbreaking — and clocked out after three and a half hours. 

That short workday cost taxpayers $133,219.23 — legislator pay, benefits, and staffing costs not included.

The money, tucked in an array of expense accounts with little transparency, is a sliver of the $203 million total the General Assembly spent from 2017 through 2020 just to feed, house, transport, and provide rental offices and other perks for lawmakers and their staffs, according to a database of nearly 400,000 transactions created by The Caucus and Spotlight PA during a year-long investigation.

THE CONTEXT: Roughly one in 10 of those dollars — $20 million in all over the four years — went into lawmakers' pockets in the form of reimbursements for meals, mileage subsidies, per diems, and other expenses.

That’s on top of salaries that are already among the highest of any legislature in the nation, dinners on the dime of lobbyists and industry groups, and access to campaign war chests.

Records documenting that spending legally belong to the people who ultimately foot the bill: the taxpayers. But citizens who want to see what lawmakers are buying with their money face an array of barriers, delays, and even pushback from lawyers hired by the General Assembly with yet more taxpayer money.

Over the next year, The Caucus and Spotlight PA will examine and make public specific areas of spending by the legislature as part of their ongoing efforts to follow the money and track taxpayer dollars.

WE CAN MAKE HISTORY: We're so close to setting a new monthly record of support for Spotlight PA's hard-hitting and non-partisan investigative journalism. And we've been challenged to cross the finish line strong, with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism offering yet another $5,000 if we hit $25,000.

We can do this together if you make a contribution of any amount now.

In every community across our state, Pennsylvanians are reading our investigative journalism and stepping up with their support to ensure it can continue — and be made available as a free public service to everyone.

During the past few days alone, more than 500 of your friends and neighbors have supported the essential accountability reporting that Spotlight PA produces like no one else. Now is the time to do your part and join the effort.

If you're a fan of PA Post, will you pay it forward and support Spotlight PA's vital journalism today? Contribute now and your gift will be DOUBLED »»

» THANK YOU to the 34 people who contributed to our spring membership drive Tuesday.

"You are responsible for your healthcare. You have to take control of this, so that's my message — is to be vigilant."

—State Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) announcing her breast cancer diagnosis

VACCINE UPDATE: Health providers in Pennsylvania could begin vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds later this week if a CDC panel signs off on the plan as expected today. The move would make some 750,000 Pennsylvania children newly eligible for the shots. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
» BE PREPARED: Everyone — regardless of political affiliation — can vote May 18 on four ballot questions. Here's a breakdown of each one. Plus, WHYY has a great primer on the appellate court judge candidates. We'll have more resources in the days and weeks ahead.
Some Painted Trillium spotted in Allegheny National Forest. Thanks, @jrm_cupprof, for tagging us! Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.
REOPENING DAY: Gov. Tom Wolf's office will loosen COVID-19 occupancy limits on Monday, May 17 and plans to lift them entirely at 12:01 a.m. on Memorial Day, May 31. Twenty-one state lawmakers want him to complete the rollback three days earlier, saying businesses need the full Memorial Day Weekend boost, per The Morning Call. Meanwhile, Philadelphia plans to finish lifting its "safer at home" rules on June 11.

VOTING REFORM: A new report released by state House Republicans outlines the voting rule changes they want in place for next year’s higher-profile elections, The Inquirer reports. The changes follow months of election oversight hearings launched after November's balloting and include signature verification, stricter voter ID, and new mail-in ballot rules — all requiring Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's approval.

RUNNING MAN: Fox News fixture and Trump ally Sean Parnell is seeking the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat in 2022, the AP reports. Parnell, who proved his fundraising mettle in a failed bid against Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb last year, launched his Senate bid in a Pittsburgh-area appearance Tuesday.

TOXIC TRACE: A decommissioned Philadelphia oil refinery is still emitting large amounts of a cancer-causing pollutant, according to a nonprofit watchdog group. WHYY says the group found benzene levels at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery were above federal "action limits" even after a 2019 explosion led to the plant's closure.

LOCAL ELECTIONS: Allentown City Council President Julio Guridy is running to be the first Latino mayor in the majority-Latino city's history. And his quest for the Democratic nomination in next week's primary is getting help from a Reading-based power couple and that city's first-ever Latino councilor, per WITF.

FLIGHT 93: Families of the 40 passengers and crew killed on Flight 93 in Shanksville two decades ago have created an annual award for heroism to help keep the memory of 9/11 from fading further, the AP reports. Nominations for the award can be submitted here.

NO NEWS: IUP is offering a journalism major with no journalism classes, the school's student-run newspaper reports. "It doesn't bother me anymore that I'm losing my job," Dr. Michele Papakie, chairwoman of the school's nearly dissolved journalism and public relations department, told The Penn.

MODERN MONUMENTS: A new public-art exhibition in Philadelphia wants to "transform the way our country's histories are told in public spaces," The Cut reports. What does the future of monuments look like? Less staid marble, more interactive multimedia.

A THOUSAND WORDS: Residents of Appalachia used disposable cameras and writing to document their pandemic experiences as caretakers, frontline workers, and more. The nonprofit media organization The GroundTruth Project compiled the dispatches and pictures into poignant snapshots.

BRIDGE CLUB: A 127-year-old bridge in Mount Carbon will be moved a few miles down Route 61 and rebuilt as a Coal Creek Commerce Center pedestrian connector. PennDOT official Ronald Young told WNEP that "bridge geeks" are gonna geek.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Levitation

Congrats to our daily winners: Becky C., Mary Ellen T., Susan D., Dixie S., Elaine C., Neal W., Kim C., Craig W., David I., Beth T., Don H., Bob R., Myles M., Meg M., George S., Suzanne S., Mary Kay M., Dianne K., Michelle T., Carol D., Elizabeth W., Dennis M., Lex M., Irene R., Patricia R., Joel S., David W., Ron P., and Helen G.
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