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Facebook CEO's election grants inspire partisan action

Plus, court blocks key element of Wolf's climate change plan.


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April 6, 2022
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Election support, the gatekeepers, personal finances, immigration hawks, and Thaddeus Stevens arrives in Gettysburg. It's Wednesday.
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Donations from a Mark Zuckerberg-backed nonprofit that helped counties in Pennsylvania weather a historically complicated and costly election in 2020 would be barred under two GOP-led bills, HB 2044 and SB 982.

The bills, subjects of a Senate State Government Committee hearing held in Harrisburg on Tuesday, wouldn't just stop at the Zuckerberg-backed nonprofit, known as the Center for Tech and Civic Life, or CTCL; they would ban local election officials from seeking any third-party financial support.

State Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne), the prime sponsor of SB 982, called it a necessary tool for curbing partisan influences and protecting elections, adding, "If we do not close the door, these contributions will escalate from every direction. ... Government should pay for elections." 

But election officials said the government doesn't pay enough, leaving them to seek out extracurricular funding to perform linchpin democratic duties.

"Philadelphia's use of the CTCL grant financed the necessary operations of the department when no government appropriating authority stepped up," Seth Bluestein, a Philadelphia city commissioner and member of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Task Force on Elections, wrote.

Leigh Chapman, the state's acting chief elections officer, added in written remarks: "The Department of State, again, encourages all parties to engage in a conversation about funding elections in the Commonwealth instead of prohibiting a much-needed additional resource to counties."  

Testimony and video from Tuesday's hearing are available here. Additional hearings are expected before any formal movement on the bills.

THE CONTEXT: All 67 Pennsylvania counties were invited to apply for a Center for Tech and Civic Life grant in 2020 after Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and his wife donated an initial $250 million to the group.

Spotlight PA reported that as COVID-19 cases rose and counties were flooded with millions of mail ballot applications, election directors were desperately searching for ways to cover newly mounting costs.

They turned to private philanthropy when it became apparent the GOP-led General Assembly wasn’t going to help them pay for things like sneeze guards, hazard pay for poll workers, or more staff to handle the deluge of mail ballots from voters who didn’t want to risk exposure by voting in person.

Of the counties that applied — including 13 that former President Donald Trump won in 2020 — all received the amount they requested or more.

But a contingent of right-wing Republicans said the grants were fundamentally unfair because Democratic-leaning counties got more money. Election directors in those areas used those funds to offer voters additional ways to cast a ballot, including satellite offices and drop boxes.

In a statement, the Center for Tech and Civic Life said it is a "nonpartisan organization backed by Republicans, Democrats, and nonpartisan officials," reiterating that all election offices were eligible to apply.

"The tolls are not only unfair, they are unjust. The location of those toll bridges will change both communities in ways that are unimaginable."

Luzerne County Acting Manager Romilda Crocamo on a plan to toll I-80 bridges to raise money for their upkeep; here's PennDOT's project pitch
» BROKEN RULES: Join us Thursday, April 14 at 6 p.m. EST via Zoom for a free discussion on Pa.'s medical release law for state prisoners, who the law impacts, and the strain it places on people in prison, their families, and taxpayers. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org.
A flowery Philadelphia mural, courtesy of @lora_exploresSend us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
CLIMATE RULING: Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court has blocked Gov. Tom Wolf from implementing a key element of his climate change agenda, the AP reports. The ruling came one day after Wolf's carbon fee on fossil fuel-fired power plants survived a last-ditch override attempt in the state Senate. The ruling bars the regulation from being published and taking effect "pending further order of the court."

WEALTH WATCH: With public disclosures on the personal finances of Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate candidates in hand, WHYY got to work answering questions like: Just how rich are Mehmet Oz and David McCormick? Which candidate owns a ton of stocks? Who has college debt? Who has credit card debt? Who has no debt? And whose spokesperson lived in his basement for $800 a month

'BORDER STATE': The Republican candidates for U.S. Senate are closely aligned on the issue of immigration, repeating phrases like "every state is a border state" while keenly aware of the hold the subject has on the GOP electorate. The Post-Gazette has a look at their border security and immigration pledges, as well as a breakdown of what President Joe Biden has done in this area since taking office. 

MEDICAL CLAIMS: The anti-abortion group Undefeated Courage is offering abortion pill reversal treatments outside Planned Parenthoods in York and Harrisburg, but medical professionals say it's unclear whether the treatments work. Other anti-abortion groups in Pennsylvania are doing the same, including crisis pregnancy centers that receive millions of dollars in taxpayer money from the state, via WITF.

SCHOOL SHOOTING: Erie High School was locked down on Tuesday for a shooting that left one student hospitalized in stable condition. Classes have been canceled for the remainder of the week. There have been at least three shootings on school grounds in Pennsylvania so far in 2022, the others reported in Pittsburgh and Sharon Hill

OUT WITH THE NEW: The old Philadelphia Inquirer building is the new Philadelphia Police Department building. Suffice it to say the paper's architecture critic is not a fan of what they've done with the place.

THADDEUS TIME: A statue of Civil War-era congressman Thaddeus Stevens was unveiled in Gettysburg last weekend, per ABC27. Sculptor Alex Paul Loza is the first Latino artist with a public artwork in Gettysburg.

CLASS COSTS: Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher says GOP state lawmakers are using the university's in-state tuition discount as a "bargaining chip" and that more than 21,000 students could be affected, via The Pitt News. 

TIL: Smedley Butler, an extensively decorated Marine who went on to write searing critiques of the U.S. military industrial complex, was born in Pennsylvania and is buried here. The New Republic has a profile.

DODGE COIN: Philly isn't getting into the cryptocurrency market after all, Technical.ly reports. While cities like Miami have launched their own digital currencies, Philly officials have decided against it for a host of reasons.

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.

*This week's theme: Nautical, me hearties
Yesterday's answer: Allision

Congrats to our daily winners: Susan D., Judith D., Elizabeth W., Dianne K., Nancy S., Doris T., and Susan N.-Z.
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