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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
January 12, 2022
Dear reader,

Incredible news: Spotlight PA was just recognized as one of the most promising and valuable local news endeavors in the country.


The American Journalism Project will invest $1 million over the next three years to add business and operating positions to help us sustain our vital, nonpartisan reporting and public-service programming.

While these grants will help us expand our capacity, the future of Spotlight PA is ultimately in your hands. If you value our work and want to see it continue, please make a contribution today.

In an important election year, there is so much work to be done. Please join thousands of Pennsylvanians and become a member now.

—Christopher Baxter, Spotlight PA editor-in-chief
Benefit burdens, fire source, veto penned, dentist charged, fentanyl checks, dire straits, and it's cold out ... bring those pets in. Happy Wednesday.
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LASTING HURDLES

A report commissioned by Pennsylvania's legislature found that staff confusion and benefit disruptions persist months after Pennsylvania's multimillion-dollar upgrade of its unemployment computer system, WESA reports.

The $35 million, long-delayed overhaul went live in June and touched off a fresh wave of clerical chaos during a time of surging pandemic-era demand. 

The report by the Unemployment Compensation Benefits Modernization Advisory Committee found confusion continues and an unspecified number of claims remain "caught up in the constraints of the new system."

THE CONTEXT: The report also highlights attrition as a concern, with the understaffed system facing a massive backlog of claims and what officials have called an unprecedented wave of targeted fraud.

Spotlight PA reported last year that unemployment fraud had impacted Pennsylvanians with legitimate claims — and some with no claim at all.

The state worked to cut down on fraud by hiring a vendor, ID.me, to vet new filings, but advocates worried the solution came with added barriers.

Among the fixes recommended in the committee's report: public messaging about the alternatives, namely in-person identity verification options, that the report says the state has "not engaged in any public communication" about.

Read more unemployment coverage from Spotlight PA here.

NOTABLE / QUOTABLE

"I can't help but think the climate in our country at the time of the offense and rhetoric coming from elected officials had a profound effect on him and contributed to his actions that day."

—Attorney Timothy Woodward on Anthony Nero's guilty plea for threatening a Norristown Democratic Party office that he also shot at in 2021
💉 COVID-19 NEWS
» SAME STRATEGY: Gov. Tom Wolf says vaccinations are still the best COVID-19 mitigation measure and that he has no plans for new masking, shutdown, or stay-at-home orders at this time, the Associated Press reports.

» TEST COSTS: Private insurers will begin covering the costs of at-home COVID-19 tests as of Saturday. Reimbursements will only be required for tests purchased on or after Jan. 15, CNBC reports.

» PITT PUSH: The University of Pittsburgh unenrolled an unspecified number of students who failed to get a COVID-19 vaccine and barred some employees from campus buildings for doing the same, per the Post-Gazette.

» MASK RULE: The parents of four students are suing the North Allegheny School District in federal court over an optional masking policy they say has further endangered their high-risk children, TribLIVE reports.

To find a COVID-19 vaccine, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your zip code to 438829 (GETVAX).
 
📷 POST IT
An interesting juxtaposition of two trees shot in Shank Park, Derry Township. Thanks for sharing, Robert N.! Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
DAILY RUNDOWN
FATAL FIRE: Investigators say they're "99% to 100%" sure the fatal rowhouse fire in Philadelphia's Fairmount neighborhood — one of the deadliest in recent U.S. history — started when a five-year-old ignited a Christmas tree with a lighter. The child survived the blaze. Twelve people, including nine other children, did not. The Inquirer says key questions about safety measures in the public housing unit remain.

FEE FIGHTERS: Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a GOP-led bill aimed at stopping his carbon fee for power plants that burn fossil fuels, a key part of the outgoing governor's climate change agenda. Capital-Star explained last week how Wolf used state funding for local projects to get Democrats in line and ensure the Republican bill fell short of a veto-proof majority. Legal action to stop the fee appears likely.

MURDER CASE: Federal prosecutors allege a Pittsburgh-area dentist and big-game hunting enthusiast killed his wife while on an African hunting trip to collect a multimillion-dollar insurance payout, TribLIVE reports. A recently unsealed indictment says 67-year-old Lawrence Rudolph, the ousted head of the Safari Club International, falsely claimed the death was an accident. Rudolph's attorneys say he's innocent.  

SAFE STRIPS: Potentially life-saving fentanyl test strips are considered drug paraphernalia under state law and are therefore illegal in Pennsylvania. The Morning Call reports the push to change the law and allow the strips to be used and carried statewide is gaining support in Harrisburg at a critical time: Pennsylvania overdoses have been trending up again after years of gradual decline, with 5,172 deaths in 2020.

MONEY MESS: Chester's police pension fund has less than four months of benefits left and "bankruptcy is on the table" as the city's financial outlook worsens, WHYY reports. A state-appointed receiver says the dire state of the city's pensions is in part due to a calculation adopted by local officials in 2009 that made the pensions easier to "spike" or manipulate. Overpayments may need to be recouped.
IN OTHER NEWS

CRASH LANDING: Four people survived a medical helicopter crash in Drexel Hill on Tuesday with minor injuries. 6ABC reports four passengers, including an infant, were headed from Maryland to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Officials said it is a "miracle" that no one was critically injured.

SANCTUARY 2A: Months after voters backed making Blair County a "Second Amendment Sanctuary," local officials are trying to figure out what exactly that means. They're also trying to get 24 different municipalities to agree to the same set of guidelines, the Altoona Mirror reports.

CONVENTION CALL: Pittsburgh's 2024 Republican National Convention host bid has split the city's Democrats, with prominent party members like Mayor Ed Gainey putting out the welcome mat and others taking umbrage, City Paper reports. "Um absolutely the f*** not," a county councilor tweeted.

PHILLY LEGENDS: In one of the last interviews before his death on Sunday at the age of 65, comedian and Philly native Bob Saget waxed nostalgic about his hometown and Temple University icon Lew Klein, who got Saget his first showbiz break. Saget's Glenside homecoming show was slated for March. 

PET SMART: Looks like the seasonably cold temperatures are sticking around. Be like the owners of this extroverted Pittsburgh cat and bring your animals in with the promise of a prime window seat. Under state law, dogs can't be leashed outside for more than 30 minutes when it's below freezing.

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.
 
T F A E G S A B E B D L R

*This week's theme:
Words that are fun to say.
 
Yesterday's answer: Whippersnapper

Congrats to our daily winners: Becky C., Alan V., Mike B., Michelle T., Vicki U., Don H., Mike B., Barbara F., Doris T., Craig E., Susan D., Craig W., Beth T., Deb N., Janet C., Susan N.-Z., Judith D., Kimberly S., Irene R., Steve D., George S., Keith F., Karen W., Lou L., Lynne E., Kim C., James B., Bette B., Bob S., William S., Suzanne S., Bill S., Sue D., David S., Wendy A., Marty M., Al M., Karen M., Daniel M., David W., Dan W., and John A.
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