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Pa. mapmakers eliminate 'prison gerrymandering'

Plus, state officials’ abrupt about-face on WIC program overhaul.


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
August 25, 2021
Major change, WIC shift, gun deaths, IBM suit, Afghan exit, entry level, and the Appalachian Trail's pandemic struggle. It's Wednesday, welcome to PA Post.
JOIN US: We're hosting a free, virtual reader Q&A at noon today on Pennsylvania's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases and what you need to know going into the fall. Learn more and register here.
A major policy shift set to guide this year's redrawing of Pennsylvania's political maps says thousands of people held in state prisons must be counted in their home legislative districts instead of those where they are imprisoned.

Spotlight PA reports the shift, endorsed 3-2 on Tuesday by the commission overseeing the legislative redistricting process, will benefit communities of color that are vastly overrepresented inside state prisons and whose political capital has been diminished by the practice known as "prison gerrymandering." 

While less than 20% of Pennsylvania residents are Black or Hispanic, 56.2% of state prisoners are from one of those groups.

Counting them as residents of political districts where they are incarcerated has boosted the population counts and, in turn, the political power of primarily white, rural territories where more state prisons are located.

THE CONTEXT: The resolution approved by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission on Tuesday was introduced by House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), who said it "makes no sense" to count people in communities where they have no long-term relationships or plans to remain.

Republican members of the commission expressed concerns, wondering why college students are counted where they learn instead of where they're from and whether the vote to change how imprisoned people are tallied was legal or advisable without the involvement of the entire legislature.

The commission's chief counsel, former Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Byer, said his analysis showed no constitutional or legal issues.

Tuesday's vote only applies to state House and state Senate maps and isn't expected to dramatically alter them. It also does not impact federal or county prisons.

"We overhauled an admissions process that had been tweaked at the edges but hadn't undergone significant change in decades. For us, it was a revolution."

—Shawn Abbott, with Temple University's Office of the Provost, on pandemic changes in higher education some hope will be long-lasting
COVID-19 UPDATE: Philadelphia's school board has made vaccines mandatory for all employees. In related news, more people in Pennsylvania got their first shot in August than in July. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).
» CLIMBING COVID: Join us today at noon via Zoom for a free reader Q&A on what we know about Pennsylvania's response to the surge in COVID-19 cases and what you need to know going into the fall. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
A shot of Hyner View State Park overlooking the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. "I'd love to be here when the hang-gliders take off, usually Labor Day weekend, I think," said PA Poster Beth L. Send us your gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
NO CHANGE: The state surprised advocates and lawmakers this year when it announced it would terminate several long-standing providers' contracts to administer WIC, a nutrition program for pregnant and breastfeeding people as well as young children. But Spotlight PA reports the state abandoned the planned overhaul Tuesday with no explanation.

GUN PLIGHT: Seventeen-hundred vases of flowers representing Pennsylvania's annual gun death average have been placed outside Philadelphia's Independence Hall by gun safety advocates. The surrounding city is in the grips of a serious surge in shootings itself, The Inquirer reports, with the mayor rejecting calls for a state of emergency and National Guard intervention as the homicide count ticks up.

TECH DEAL: Pennsylvania has settled a four-year-old lawsuit against IBM for an unemployment system upgrade the tech giant never delivered, per the AP. The lawsuit said IBM was paid $170 million on a 2006 contract that ran four years behind schedule and $60 million over budget. The state has spent more than $100 million updating its unemployment system since, with mixed results.

LAST EXIT: President Joe Biden plans to stick to an Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, leaving days to finish evacuating Americans and allies. In Pennsylvania, Ferzana Ramin of Bethlehem tells the Morning Call six of her family members are stuck in the country, and one was reportedly assaulted by a Taliban militant.

SCHOOL CHOICE: A judge's pick for a new school district receiver has baffled Chester Upland residents and gone against the Pennsylvania Department of Education's wishes, WHYY reports. The judge named Chester's chief financial officer, who has no background in education, to the post; a state challenge of that decision may be looming.
TRAIL HEADS: Can the Appalachian Trail running through Pennsylvania survive its heightened pandemic popularity? That question, posed by the Washington Post, comes as hikers overrun portions of the 2,200-mile route from Georgia to Maine, leaving litter and damage in their wake.

PAPER CASE: Pittsburgh's largest newspaper says its decision to bar a Black journalist from covering Black Lives Matter protests because of a tweet was covered by the First Amendment, but City Paper reports a judge overseeing a related lawsuit disagrees, solidifying precedent for similar legal disputes.

GOGH OFF: Tropical Storm Henri is being blamed for the latest delay of a secretive, immersive, and much-hyped Van Gogh exhibit in Upper Darby. The opening date is now set for next Wednesday. COVID-19 and shipping snafus were the reasons for a delay that upset ticket holders earlier this month

TOO SOON: Pittsburgh wasted no time choosing its official city Christmas tree this year, landing on a 45-foot tall blue spruce donated by a family in the city's Lincoln Place neighborhood. It will be the 106th tree to adorn the portico outside downtown Pittsburgh's City-County Building.

OLD SLANG: "Doplic," "Rutsching," and "spritz" are a few of the linguistic gems included — with brief etymology lessons — in LancasterOnline's very enjoyable list of "10 Pennsylvania Dutch words you didn't know were unique to Lancaster County." Sehn dich schpeeder, aka see you later.
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: Boisterous

Congrats to our daily winners: Barbara F., Becky C., Mike B., Beth T., Judith D., Susan F., Yvette R., Neal W., Michelle T., Chris M., Patricia M., Irene R., Susan N., Susan D., Jessica K., Elaine C., John P., George S., Steve D., Diane P., Wendy A., Don H., Jill A., Tish M., Ana G., Ronnee G., James B., Fred O., Bruce B., Craig E., Johnny C., Richard D., Mary Kay M., Doris T., Doris B., Bill S., Kim C., David W., Dennis M., Carol D., Stanley J., Elizabeth W., Daniel M., Lance L., and Craig W.
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