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Critics call $40B Pa. budget ‘wasted opportunity’


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
June 28, 2021
It's a deal, mask shift, Libre's Law, student athletes, tech antitrust, abuse of power, and a new twist in the hunt for Pa.'s missing Civil War gold. It's Monday.
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The Pennsylvania legislature on Friday finalized a $40 billion budget package that sends more money to the state's poorest school districts and includes no new taxes. Gov. Tom Wolf says he'll sign it this week.

Reactions have largely focused on what isn't included, with Democrats calling the spending plan too prudent and a waste of a rare financial opportunity, Spotlight PA reports.  

That's because the budget squirrels away $5 billion in federal coronavirus relief money and puts another $2.5 billion into a rainy day fund, something Republicans lobbied for. 

"It tackles the most immediate challenges facing our schools, nursing homes, infrastructure, and struggling families while saving funds to provide a financial safety net for the future," Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) explained.

Across the aisle, state Sen. Nikil Saval (D., Philadelphia) said the GOP's emphasis on future planning ignores the present-tense needs of Pennsylvanians still struggling after a punishing pandemic, adding, "This rainy day is happening right now." 

THE CONTEXT: The final budget plan increases basic education funding by $300 million. It also allocates $279 million for transportation infrastructure and another $280 million to nursing homes and similar facilities.

"This budget will help our state move forward and rebuild a strong, equitable economy that works for Pennsylvanians," Wolf said in a statement. 

Democratic lawmakers were less enthused, saying the budget fails to address widespread needs and mutes the public benefits of a $10 billion infusion from federal aid payments and unexpectedly high state tax collections.

There was a silver lining for Democrats, though, namely the $30 million being set aside for violence prevention grants and that $300 million basic education funding boost — $100 million of which will be shared by the 100 poorest school districts in the state. 

But advocates say other struggling schools could have benefitted from more spending, while Republicans insist frugality now will help prevent — or at least cushion — financial trouble later.
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"We fight to get crumbs in my district, and now [the city is] going to have 15,000 more people?" 

—Pittsburgh City Councilmember Theresa Kail-Smith on merging Wilkinsburg with neighboring Pittsburgh, an idea with critics on both sides of the border

VACCINE UPDATE: The Biden administration's vaccine push is now focused on the "moveable middle," meaning some 55 million unvaccinated adults seen as persuadable, many under 30. The approach emphasizes mobile clinics and familiar settings over mass vaccination sites. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).
A hooded warbler, as seen by @johnmcculloughphotography. Thanks for sharing, John! The internet tells me this bird is migratory and winters in Central America and the West Indies. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
PA UNMASKED: Pennsylvania's mask mandate lifted at midnight, ending a coronavirus mitigation measure in place for more than a year. Privately owned businesses, organizations, health-care providers, and other entities can still require them for employees, guests, and customers, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said, per ABC27. Public transportation will require masks through September under federal rules.

CRUELTY CASES: Libre's Law was supposed to give more teeth to Pennsylvania's animal cruelty laws. Four years later, LancasterOnline says it appears to be working. In Lancaster County alone, the number of animal cruelty offenses has skyrocketed — going from just 16 in 2017 to more than 290 already this year. Over 20,000 cruelty offenses were filed statewide between the law's 2017 adoption and 2019.

SPORTS TALK: Pennsylvania college athletes would be able to receive compensation for their name, image, and likeness under legislation tied to the state budget, per PennLive. Six other states have similar bills pending. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed expanded educational benefits for student athletes and signaled support for compensation tied to an athlete's name and image.

TECH GIANTS: U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D., Pa.) is helping to lead a congressional antitrust effort targeting Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. The Inquirer reports the bill caps a 16-month investigation that found the digital economy is controlled by just a few firms. "The time has come to do something about it," Scanlon said.

OFFICIAL MISCONDUCT: Brian Buglio, West Hazleton's former police chief, has pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation after threatening charges against a borough resident who criticized him and his department on Facebook. Prosecutors want up to six months in prison for Buglio, who had to resign as part of the plea deal, per WNEP.
GO FOR THE GOLD: An FBI agent fearful the state of Pennsylvania — or an unnamed legislative staffer — might take and keep a fabled cache of lost Civil War gold applied for a federal warrant to seize the rumored trove first, the AP reports. Newly obtained court records further confirm that federal agents were looking for tons of missing gold at an Elk County site three years ago. The FBI says the dig came up empty, but not everyone believes them

HELP WANTED: Kennett Square is the mushroom capital of the world, and it's facing its worst-ever labor shortage. More harvesters are opting for jobs in landscaping, construction, or at e-commerce warehouses. Bloomberg calls it another economic symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there's also this: New pickers can make as little as $8 an hour.

TREE PEOPLE: Police escorted two people from a Dickson City Home Depot because they performed "a séance" for the dead trees in the lumber aisle. "Some people at the store started picking up that something was happening that was not necessarily normal," one officer told Philly Voice. 

HEY JOE: Trader Joe's is coming to Camp Hill. PennLive reports the California chain with "a cult-like following" plans to open an outpost early next year at the Lower Allen Commons, a 14-acre complex under construction at the former Bon Ton. Cue the snide clapping from Lehigh Valley.

100 YEARS: A belated happy 100th anniversary to Pennsylvania's own Utz. The Hanover-based snack brand has grown into the third-largest in the U.S. It celebrated by getting recognized on the steps of the state Capitol, per ABC27. I celebrated by downing one of those plastic barrels full of party mix. 
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.

Friday's answer: Draconian

Congrats to our weekly winner: Doris T.

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Irene R., Michelle T., David I., Beth T., Mike B., Susan D., Bruce T., Don H., Barbara F., Brandie K., Heidi B., Elaine C., Neal W., Steve D., Theodore W., Suzanne S., Marty M., William P., Craig E., Jackie S., David W., George S., James B., Dennis M., Barbara A., Elizabeth W., Karen W., Bob R., and Joel S.
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