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Could math fix Pa.'s beleaguered unemployment fund?

Plus, 'frack out' fears in Greene County.

A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
July 22, 2022
Solvency switch, ballot brief, budget surprise, water woes, wasted vaccines, canceled plans, and the grass is greener on the roof. It's Friday.

Pennsylvania's new budget includes money to pay off $42 million in debt that was incurred to keep unemployment benefits flowing in the COVID-19 crisis. But lawmakers have failed to adopt a policy that supporters say would protect the system in future downturns and save taxpayers millions.

When the state's unemployment trust fund — the pot of money that covers benefit payments — doesn't have enough money to meet the public need, the state has turned to multibillion-dollar federal loans to cover costs. 

This was true in the Great Recession and in the COVID-19 pandemic, when the state's unemployment rate hit historic new highs. 

The taxpayer-funded debt service tied to the Great Recession borrowing alone topped $570 million between 2013 and 2020.

And while there is Democrat-sponsored legislation that proponents say would keep more money in the trust fund and avoid (or at least minimize) similar debt, the proposal has been stagnant since February of 2021.

Spotlight PA explains the push and the pushback.

THE CONTEXT: The legislation, HB 549, would update aspects of the state's unemployment program, including the solvency formula that determines how much money the unemployment trust fund should have on hand.

That calculation also guides the revenue mechanisms, like unemployment taxes paid by employers, that feed the trust fund. When the solvency rate gets low enough, unemployment taxes on employers go up. 

HB 549 proposes a new and more aggressive solvency formula that would predict future needs based on previous peaks. Supporters say that would ensure revenue mechanisms remain robust enough to keep the coffer adequately stocked, lowering the reliance on costly loans. 

But critics of the proposal, including influential business groups, say keeping unemployment taxes higher for longer is unfair for already struggling business owners, and lawmaker opposition has largely followed their lead.


"Philadelphia could pass really progressive legislation about abortion access and ... would still be subject to the limitations of the Abortion Control Act."

—Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project on what changes in state law would mean for so-called abortion access 'sanctuary cities' 

» BUDGET BREAKDOWN: Join us Tuesday, July 26 at 6 p.m. on Zoom for a free breakdown of Pa.'s multibillion-dollar budget and how it will impact you. Register for the event here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org.

The beautiful upper Delaware River near Matamoras, via Julie J. Send us your Pennsylvania pics, use #PAGems on IG, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
ACT 77: State GOP lawmakers have launched another attempt to have Pennsylvania's expanded mail-voting law thrown out, arguing that a prior federal court ruling on undated mail ballots in Lehigh County effectively voided the measure, the AP reports. The move comes with a similar lawsuit already before the state Supreme Court and an election months away. Anxiety among election officials is already high.

RELIEF DODGE: A plan to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into state property tax relief was quietly axed in Pennsylvania's latest budget deal, per the Morning Call. Under the initiative, revenue from table games would have been put into the property tax relief fund instead of directly into the state's general fund. It took 11 years for the state's fiscal health to reach a necessary threshold, but the plan changed.

'FRACK OUT': PublicSource traveled to New Freeport in Greene County, a tiny community where residents are concerned about their water supply and refusing to drink it amid reports of errant fracking fluid from an EQT well site. Locals are complaining of oily showers, bad smells, and mysterious rashes. A microbiology professor's independent testing determined the water isn't potable. More tests are pending.

MISSED SHOTS: Nearly 2.2 million COVID-19 vaccines have been discarded in Pennsylvania since they first became available here, TribLIVE reports. Some of the vials were broken or lost, but a majority expired before they could be used, according to state data. Spotlight PA documented the Wolf administration's previous efforts to keep the details of COVID-19 vaccine waste hidden using a decades-old law

COVID-POSITIVE: President Joe Biden tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, leading to the cancellation of his planned trip to outline a $37 billion national crime prevention plan in Wilkes-Barre, CBS News reports. Biden, 79, was set to travel to Philadelphia after Wilkes-Barre and then head to Delaware. The White House said his symptoms were mild. First Lady Jill Biden reportedly tested negative.

NEW TITLE: Pittsburgh Public Schools has named Wayne Walters as its new superintendent, per WESA. Walters served as interim superintendent after Anthony Hamlet resigned amid scandal last September.

NEW HOUSE: The Sixers would leave Wells Fargo Center for a new, $1.3 billion arena in Center City under a new privately funded proposal, 6ABC reports. The team launched a website explaining the idea.

SAVE UP: Efforts to protect historic African American cemeteries in Pennsylvania will get a $50,000 boost from a national cultural preservation group. Axios explains where the money will go and why it's needed.

HILL HOUSE: An unusual, nearly 2,000-square-foot house that's up for sale in Berks County sits on more than 10 acres of wooded land and has "grass on the roof that can be mowed with a tractor," ABC27 explains.

PA BINGO: National Pennsylvania Day has come and gone, but we can still play a round of Pennsylvania Day bingo, via @PennsylvaniaGov.

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: Bugs 🐜🕷🦟

Yesterday's answer: Exoskeleton

Congrats to our daily winners: Michelle T., John A., Elaine C., Lynne E., Kevin M., Craig W., Stephen G., Bonnie M., Barbara F., Don H., John P., Susan D., Mike B., Jodi R., Dan W., Susan N.-Z., Ed O., Judith D., Al M., Kim C., James B., Doris T., Steve D., Kimberly D., Jessica K., Karen W., Joel S., Fred H., Dianne K., Nancy S., Michael B., Beth T., George S., Alice B., Chuck M., Mary Jo J., Alissa H., Ted W., Cindy M., Lewis M., and Daniel M.
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