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Pa. House power struggle likely heading to court

Plus, Berks County recount request dismissed by judge.

Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.

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A daily newsletter by The logo of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
December 8, 2022
House control, local news, status update, recount rejected, special candidates, election subpoenas, and a very big vault. It's Thursday. Welcome.

Republican leaders in Pennsylvania's state House say Democrats have mounted a "paperwork insurrection" to take over the lower chamber amid an ongoing dispute around the latter party's claim to control.

Spotlight PA reports a Delaware County judge swore state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) in on Wednesday during an unpublicized ceremony on the floor of the chamber, making her the presiding officer of the state House until the new session begins Jan. 3, her office said.

McClinton quickly scheduled three special elections to fill seats vacated by Democrats — one was posthumously reelected and the other two resigned before taking higher office — and cited a 2004 precedent in which a top Republican had himself sworn in early to do the same.

But the move comes with major legal question marks, and a top Republican source indicated that a legal challenge is likely to follow. 

Read Spotlight PA's full report on the fracas: Dispute over Pa. House special elections, control likely heading to court.

THE CONTEXT: With those three seats — all in Allegheny County, and all considered safely Democratic — still open, Republicans say they retain a 101-99 House majority and the administrative power that comes with it.

Democrats won 102 seats in last month's midterms, but Republicans say the vacancies mean that narrow majority only exists on paper.

Before the last session ended, GOP Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) — then serving as House Speaker — set a special election for one of the seats, that of late state Rep. Tony DeLuca (D., Allegheny), for Feb. 7. 

However, the Pennsylvania Department of State told Cutler on Wednesday that he lacked the legal authority to schedule the contest. 

McClinton kept the Feb. 7 date and applied it to all three special elections, though Republicans argue she's without standing to call them.

This fight is leading up to a bigger showdown on Jan. 3, when the new legislative session begins and a new speaker is typically chosen.

» This is crunch time. We're in the final weeks of our most important fundraising campaign of the year to keep Spotlight PA going in 2023. Now is the time to show your support by making a tax-deductible gift now. As a special bonus, all contributions will be DOUBLED.


“When the same names and business or family connections keep cropping up as to where these grant dollars were directed, it’s probably more than some amazing coincidence.” 

—State Rep. Frank Burns (D., Cambria) claiming conflicts of interest around millions of dollars in federal aid and the members of a Johnstown nonprofit
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» THE EXIT: Join us Thursday, Dec. 15 from 3-3:30 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A with Pennsylvania’s 47th governor, Tom Wolf, on his two terms, his legacy, and what comes next for the state. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

Exton's Iron Lake, as seen in full fall color by Elliott C. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania

A still lake surrounded by trees with bright yellow leaves.
Today's top news story in Pennsylvania.ADDED, AXED: A measure was axed from Congress' must-pass defense funding bill that would have forced tech firms like Google and Meta to pay hundreds of local news outlets for their content. Critics said the legislation was a handout for traditional media companies and some of the industry's most controversial owners in states like Pennsylvania. Some want to see a Local News Payroll Tax Credit instead.

Today's second top news story in Pennsylvania.OFFICIAL RESULTS: Election officials at Pennsylvania's Department of State told Carter Walker of Votebeat that they expect to have all midterm races certified by the end of next week. Spotlight PA and Votebeat reported that an unprecedented wave of recount requests — most targeting high-profile wins by Democrats — have bogged down certifications in some counties and at the state level.

Today's third top news story in Pennsylvania.RECOUNT DENIED: A Berks County judge has dismissed recount petitions filed by a local Republican committee that alleged voting machines had changed votes for Republican candidates to votes for Democrats in last month's midterms there. The judge said the petitioners failed to substantiate their claims. The county's board of elections expects to complete its delayed certification as soon as today.

Today's fourth top news story in Pennsylvania.SPECIAL SELECTION: WESA reports that Democratic party leaders in Allegheny County will pick their candidate for the special election to replace late state Rep. Tony DeLuca on Sunday, one of several special elections mentioned at the top of this newsletter. They'll use ranked voting to choose from eight candidates for the safely Democratic seat, including the mayor and deputy mayor of Penn Hills. 

Today's fifth top news story in Pennsylvania.SMITH SUBPOENA: Election officials in Allegheny County are among those nationwide who have received subpoenas for their communications with former President Donald Trump, his aides, or his allies. The subpoenas were issued by special counsel Jack Smith, who is probing classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago, the U.S. Capitol siege, and Trump's effort to stay in power after his loss.
Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.

VAULT TOUR: Pennsylvania's treasury is sitting on $4 billion worth of unclaimed property and storing it in "the largest operational vault in the U.S." State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York) has a 14-minute guided tour of the vault and its unusual inventory. See if any of it is yours here.

BOY IN THE BOX: Philadelphia police will reveal the findings of their investigation into the identity of a 1957 murder victim known to generations as "the boy in the box" today. The child's identity was confirmed through DNA testing and genealogy. A press conference is set for 11 a.m. 

LEGACY MOVE: PennLive's list of "5 things you may not know about Gov. Tom Wolf" includes an anecdote, highlighted here by @RyanDeto, about how Wolf may have helped save Hershey bars with whole almonds.

OFFICIAL SCAM: Municipalities fall for online scams too. Tarentum Borough in Allegheny County was swindled out of nearly $140,000 by an email spoofing scheme — all while facing a big budget deficit

TV HANDOFF: Philadelphia news legend Jim Gardner will host his last Action News for WPVI-TV at 6 p.m. on Dec. 21. He'll be replaced in the anchor's chair by Brian Taff, the station announced this week.

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.

Yesterday's answer: Productively 

Congrats to our daily winners: Michelle T., Craig W., Becky C., Patricia M., Don H., Barbara F., Susan D., Jon W., Chuck M., Jane R., George S., Susan N.-Z., James B., Elaine C., Dianne K., Bill S., Ed O., Wendy A., John B., Stanley J., and Vicki U.
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