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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
August 18, 2022
More money, fracking finds, 'compassionate release,' new polling, 'epic scandal,' QAnon case, and how to hunt a home. It's Thursday.
THE URGENCY OF NOW: There is a lot at stake in the fall election and we've got big plans to inform and empower voters across Pennsylvania. But first, we need you: If we raise $15,000 by 11:59 p.m. Saturday, we'll unlock a $15,000 matching gift to help continue our work.

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—Colin D., PA Postmaster
POLITICAL PAY 

Nearly every lawmaker in Harrisburg preaches fiscal responsibility. But almost none of them seem to mind when their own pay swells state spending. 

With Pennsylvania lawmakers due for their largest inflation-linked raise ever, one that's set to push their base pay to over $100,000, Spotlight PA examined how often lawmakers here say no to the automatic hikes.

Since 2008 — the most recent year for which records are available — 176 lawmakers have paid back almost $578,000, according to the State Treasurer's office. For scale, the legislature received more than $9.5 million in total pay raises during that time, The Caucus (paywalled) found.

Just six lawmakers, five Republicans and one Democrat, have given back at least a portion of their annual pay raises in the past four years.

Patty Kim (D., Dauphin) gave back all the money she's received in pay increases since joining the legislature in 2012, adding, "I can't in good faith accept [cost-of-living adjustments] when I'm fighting for a minimum wage."

Read Spotlight PA's full report on the issue: Pa. lawmakers are set to get huge raises. They can return them, but almost nobody does.

THE CONTEXT: The Caucus reached out to every member of Pennsylvania's General Assembly, already among the highest paid in the U.S., to ask if they would support suspending or eliminating the raise this year. (It was last paused in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Twenty of the 252 legislators currently in office wanted to talk. Most didn't respond. One, state Rep. Louis Schmitt (R., Blair), answered a reporter's query with two sentences: "I received your email. Now piss off."

The annual raises are tied to inflation under a 27-year-old state law that legal experts believe violates the intent of Pennsylvania's Constitution, but which they also acknowledge is unlikely to be overruled

The inflation-related pay hike for lawmakers comes as wages for working Pennsylvanians fall behind inflation by a growing margin.

The state's Independent Fiscal Office found "real average hourly earnings" here — a measure of workers' pay adjusted for inflation — declined by 3.9% in June, the largest contraction all year, via the Morning Call.

NOTABLE / QUOTABLE

"Now we're seeing new faces rallying the cause — including the likes of Matt Walsh and Libs of TikTok."

—Lee Leveille of Health Liberation Now, a trans rights advocacy group, on targeted and escalating harassment of staff at children's hospitals in Pittsburgh and Boston over gender-affirming health-care services
 
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📷 POST IT
A "hummingbird clearwing" moth, which photog @noraodendahl says resembles a cross between a bird and an insect. Send us your photos or art, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
DAILY RUNDOWN
FRACK STUDY: Researchers looking at 400 cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in of a sample of about 2,500 Pennsylvania children concluded that kids living near fracking wells at birth are up to three times more likely to develop the disease, The Guardian reports. The Yale School of Public Health study found risks were highest for those living within 6,500 feet of a well. Pennsylvania law only requires 500 feet of distance between fracking wells and homes.

FINAL MONTHS: Sixty-five-year-old Bradford Gamble had two choices: stay in Pennsylvania prison, where he'd been sent for a murder committed at the age of 19, and receive treatment for his cancer, or leave prison and go home to die. Spotlight PA's Danielle Ohl, who wrote about Gamble for a series on the state's broken "compassionate release" law, learned he died on Sunday, five months after his release.

POLITICAL SNAPSHOT: New general election polling has Democrats growing their lead in November's marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate. The polling by a Republican firm, Public Opinion Strategies, has Democrat John Fetterman up 18 points over Republican Mehmet Oz in the race for U.S. Senate, and Democrat Josh Shapiro up 15 points over Republican Doug Mastriano in the race for governor. 

KIDS FOR CASH: Two Pennsylvania judges who sent children — some as young as eight — to jails in exchange for kickbacks have been ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of victims, the AP reports. The ruling against Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan came in a long-running civil suit against the ex-Luzerne County judges. The federal judge presiding called it "a scandal of epic proportions."

NEW CHARGES: A QAnon adherent who was arrested after showing up illegally armed at a ballot-counting location in Philadelphia in 2020 has now been arrested on Jan. 6-related counts. NBC News reports Antonio LaMotta was arrested in Virginia on Tuesday. The affidavit cites evidence, including social media posts, in accusing LaMotta of committing four misdemeanors during the Capitol siege.
IN OTHER NEWS

DREAM TEAM: If you missed this month's virtual Q&A with Spotlight PA’s new State College bureau, no worries: We've got the video here. The team of four reporters is focused on government accountability in rural counties, and Penn State, one of the state's largest and most influential institutions.

BUG BLITZ: Spotted lanternfly killing was once all the rage in Pennsylvania, but is that zeal beginning to fade? To find out, we talked to the creator of an app, probably the best means of tracking such a thing, and a retiree from Plymouth Meeting with 13,000-plus confirmed lanternfly kills.

FRENCH CLASS: The word of the week is crudité (aka veggie trays). It's also the political gaffe of the week, thanks to Pennsylvania's ongoing U.S. Senate race. Billy Penn tells you where to find excellent crudité in Philadelphia, while Bon Appétit offers a million ways to make your own.

HOME HUNTS: The City and ProPublica have a useful guide to vetting your next apartment like a reporter on assignment. While much of it is New York City-centric, some of the tips apply more broadly. For example: Arrive early for a showing and chat up existing tenants for the most reliable intel.

NO NABE: A neighborhood in Ashley, Luzerne County, is slated to be eliminated under a proposed plan to widen I-81, The Citizens' Voice (paywalled) reports. People have lived there for generations.

THE SCRAMBLER
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. Answers submitted by 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.
 
G O G E L D A C A P I

*Note: Instead of listing this week's theme here, we're going to ask you all to guess it at the end of the week for an extra chance to win Spotlight PA swag.
 
Yesterday's answer: Backpacks

Congrats to our daily winners: Mike B., Ted W., Brooke S., Matt D., Barbara F., Steve H., Beth T., Barbara O., Irene R., Jenel E., Marty M., Theresa T., Kim C., Michelle T., Joyce D., Susan N.-Z., Hugh M., Jill M., Jodi R., Judith D., Chuck M., Eddy Z., Brian B., John A., Elaine C., Mark O., Craig W., Wendy A., Ed M., Deb N., Becky C., David S., Susan D., Jane R., Janice H., Susan R., Ed R., Nancy S., Stephen G., Don H., Patricia M., Bruce B., Adrian S., Dan W., Elvino M., George S., Starr B., Lewis Z., Susan D., Rick A., Jody A., Bessie R., James B., Kimberly D., Stanley J., Ana G., Doug W., Karen W., Doris T., Joel S., Sandy S., Kenneth J., Tish M., Ed M., Bill S., Margaret Mary H., Dianne K., Donna D., Beth L., David W., Jude M., Warren D., Beth B., Janet C., Myles M., Becca S., Connie K., Mary Jo J., Eugene M., Marsha B., John Ho., John Ha., Kevin M., and John P.
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