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First-time Pa. lawmakers reflect on a wild session

Plus, the luxury perks of elected office.

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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen

Tuesday, August 29, 2023
In session, all-expenses-paid, spoiled streams, disaster probe, power plan, police accounts, and a 'shipwreck museum' in the making.

One of the biggest-ever classes of new lawmakers joined the Pennsylvania legislature this year, just in time for one of the most chaotic and turbulent legislative sessions in decades. 

Spotlight PA followed three of them — state Reps. Justin Fleming (D., Dauphin), Tarik Khan (D., Philadelphia), and Dallas Kephart (R., Clearfield) — as they navigated a first term full of power struggle and scandal.

Read their reflections in the full report: Scandals, power struggles, and policy: Three new state reps weather a wild first session.

THE CONTEXT: Since January, Spotlight PA has regularly interviewed the three lawmakers as they navigated their first year in office, one marked by dysfunction, budget controversy, a fluctuating state House majority, and a high-profile Democratic resignation amid misconduct reports.

“Part of the reason why I ran — and this is why this has been a little bit frustrating for me — is I want this enterprise to run well,” said Fleming. “I want government to serve the folks it's supposed to serve.”

Kephart said he knew from the start that the ingredients were there for a "volatile" session and he was quickly proven right as speaker of the House intrigue enveloped the chamber alongside a math dispute.

The state House will reconvene next month, and Spotlight PA reports budgetary tensions could carry into the fall. After Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro's high-profile veto of a private school voucher proposal he backed in this year's budget, Kephart said, "The well’s been poisoned a bit."


"I definitely thought we’d be further along."

—Brandi Fisher, leader of the Alliance for Police Accountability, on growing frustration with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey's approach to enacting the kinds of police reforms he championed on the campaign trail
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» Shapiro to announce Google, PASSHE partnership, via @Jaxon__White
» Union leaders defend state employee contracts, via PennLive (paywall)
» Pa. Senate panel to consider new primary date, via @timelywriter
» Shapiro: State Police drop college requirement, via PoliticsPA
» In-state tuition discount still in budgetary limbo, via the Pitt News
» MISSED CONDUCT: Join us Thursday, Aug. 31 from 6-7 p.m. on Zoom for a free panel discussion on Penn State’s post-Sandusky misconduct policies, transparency in higher education, and how universities can keep students and employees safe. Register here. Submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org.

» CRIMINAL SOLUTION: Join Spotlight PA, the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and experts on Thursday, Sept. 14, 6-7:30 p.m. ET at Point Park University for a live discussion on how a Pennsylvania law traps those with mental health issues in jail. RSVP now; seating is limited. 

» STORYFEST: Spotlight PA is participating in Philly Story Fest, a first-of-its-kind festival that brings together storytellers from across the city on one stage. Join us Thursday, Oct. 5 from 7-10 p.m. at the Bok building in South Philadelphia (1901 South 9th St.). Tickets are $25 and available here.
A blue dasher dragonfly at Stoneleigh, a natural garden in Villanova, Delaware County, courtesy of Don N. Have a photo to share? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A blue dasher dragonfly at the cascading-edge water garden at Stoneleigh in Villanova, Delaware County.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.POLITICAL PERKS: LNP (paywall) tallied up some of the all-expenses-paid luxury trips accepted by Pennsylvania state lawmakers (often under the guise of policy-making research or regional boosterism). The outlet found more than $175,000 in gifts disclosed by 45 lawmakers in 2022 (on top of their lofty base salaries) but says the details in such disclosures vary by person and often "leave much to the imagination."

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.CHEMICAL STREAMS: More than three-quarters of Pennsylvania streams contain the toxic "forever chemicals" known as PFAS. The Inquirer (paywall) reports: The United States Geological Survey
sampled streams across Pennsylvania and found that 76% of them contained the presence of at least one compound from the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) family.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.
'ROOT CAUSE': A massive gas leak at a storage facility in Cambria County last year followed water and oxygen-induced corrosion that caused a well casing to fail, the owner reports. The leak lasted for weeks and released huge volumes of natural gas and planet-warming methane, topping a list of the worst U.S. climate disasters in 2022. A settlement with Pennsylvania state regulators was announced in April.
Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.TIRE FIRES: A cryptocurrency mine in Carbon County wants to burn tires to fuel its energy-intensive operations, prompting an outcry from residents and environmental activists concerned about pollution. StateImpact reports the waste coal-fired facility in Nesquehoning wants state regulators to sign off on the plan in an area advocates say has high poverty and deep-seated environmental justice concerns.

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.
POLICE SHOOTING: Experts tell WHYY that Philadelphia's handling of this month's fatal police shooting of 27-year-old Eddie Irizarry Jr. could further strain community relations and reignite familiar concerns about transparency and accountability. Police initially claimed the Aug. 14 shooting was self-defense and that Irizarry attacked officers with a knife. But body-cam footage later showed he never exited his car.
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TAX TROUBLE: Elk Creek Township in Erie County has an unusual problem: too much tax revenue. Erie Times-News (paywall) reports the township's former collector took in thousands in overpayments and the municipality is now asking for help determining who's owed what.

FESTIVAL DEATH: A musician from Rochester, NY, died at a music festival at the ruins of the Austin Dam in rural Potter County over the weekend, the Bradford Era reports. No cause of death was immediately listed for Shae Ebner, 28, who was found deceased in water at the site, per police.

22 YEARS LATER: President Joe Biden won't attend next month's 9/11 commemorations in New York City, Pennsylvania, or Virginia. He'll meet with service members at an Alaskan military base instead, per AP.

UNION HALLS: The National Labor Relations Board says residence hall assistants at U Penn can unionize. The decision rebuffs the administration and sets the stage for a vote this fall, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. 

SHIPWRECKED: There are an estimated 196 shipwrecks within the roughly 740-square-mile swath of Lake Erie being considered for a national marine sanctuary. Advocates say it would be a shipwreck museum, via WESA.

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 5:30 p.m. on issue date will be counted.
Yesterday's answer: Desirous

Congrats to our daily winners: Vicki U., Jon W., Daniel M., Mike B., Susan N.-Z., Kim B., Eric F., Jodi R., Bruce B., Kimberly D., Becca S., Barbara F., Don H., Wendy A., William Z., Judith D., Victoria F., Mark C., John E., Mary S., Stacy S., Stanley J., Bruce B., Susan D., Bob C., Elaine C., Ted B., James B., Susan R., Patty R., Dennis M., Beth T., Leslie B., Sherri A., David T., John P., Tom M., John H., and Kim C.
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