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Obscure Pa. law could hinder broadband expansion

Plus, unofficial medical marijuana directory draws scrutiny.

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A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
June 3, 2022
Broadband blocks, false advertising, ballot dates, Mastriano docs, gas prices, Lucky's landing, and 🌷 challenge extended until Sunday. It's Friday!
As Pennsylvania looks to expand rural internet access, an obscure state law could complicate a historic infusion of financial support.

The infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden includes the largest-ever federal investment in broadband. Pennsylvania could receive as much as $1 billion, enough to seriously move the needle.

But a 2004 state law gave telephone companies what one critic dubbed a “virtual veto” over publicly owned networks — the kind increasingly relied on by internet expansionists — amid competition concerns.

New federal guidance "strongly encourages" states to suspend such restrictions as they spend billions in new grant dollars.

And Spotlight PA reports that has left Pennsylvania facing a choice: Roll back the restrictions or risk defying the federal government.

THE CONTEXT: The struggle over high-speed internet in Pennsylvania can be traced back to the 1990s, when phone companies, locked in a battle for customers with cable and cell phone providers, pushed lawmakers to limit local governments' ability to build new networks.

Lawmakers agreed, in a larger deal with the industry, to ban local governments from offering broadband unless they first asked the original phone company in the area whether it would provide the service itself.

Now, as more municipalities look to launch their own networks and attempts to roll back the restriction remain stalled in Harrisburg, it's unclear what might happen to the state's $1 billion share of federal seed money. 

The federal infrastructure law says recipients can't disqualify local governments from applying for the funding, and consequences for failing to do so aren't spelled out in official guidance either. 

Sascha Meinrath, a professor of telecommunications at Penn State and the lead author of a 2019 report on Pennsylvania broadband access, said the apparent conflict could prompt legal battles.

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Thank you to the 19 people who contributed Thursday, including Joelle B., who said, "We need good and reliable information about PA." Join Joelle now, make your gift, and it will be DOUBLED.

"I would love to know why the nonprofit charitable organization NRA needs to raise money in our community. I'd love to know what they do with the money."

Richard Detwiler, a retired teacher living in the Souderton area, on an NRA fundraiser held last night near a Montgomery County elementary school
Rays of sun at a Lancaster County farm, via PA Poster Danielle W. Send us your gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
POT DOCTORS: An unofficial online directory of doctors who can approve patients for medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is the latest flashpoint between physicians and marijuana card websites. Physicians can't advertise their involvement with the program, but companies like the one behind the registry can. Its phone number is the one listed alongside every doctor's name on that list, prompting accusations of fraud and a warning from state officials, Spotlight PA reports.

NEW RULING: A Commonwealth Court judge has ruled that undated mail ballots should be counted in Pennsylvania's neck-and-neck Republican U.S. Senate primary. It's unclear whether there are enough undated mail ballots to sway the outcome of the race between David McCormick and Mehmet Oz. The provisional ruling could also be undone by a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision, the AP reports. If left standing, the state court's decision would impact future elections here.

J6 PROBE: Politico reports that GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is cooperating with the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack. Mastriano is said to have agreed to an interview and turned over documents (found here) about his work arranging buses that carried protesters to Washington, D.C. that day. But Politico reports a "sizable carve-out" in his subpoena means much of what he produced was already publicly available on social media.

BUY HIGH: Attempts to help consumers cope with higher gas prices haven't gained much traction in Harrisburg, The Morning Call reports. That lack of movement comes with Pennsylvania's gas prices consistently charting higher than the national average. Among the motionless proposals: $2,000 direct payments and bills to lower the state's gas tax. GOP-led calls to lower prices with more drilling likely won't matter at the pump. Here's a good guide on how gas prices work.

SAFE WORKS: Pittsburgh's new syringe services program is expected to be up and running by the end of summer, the Post-Gazette reports. State law bars most programs like it, but ordinances in Philadelphia and Allegheny County allow them locally. A bill that would allow more localities to do the same was introduced by state Reps. Sara Innamorato (D., Allegheny) and Rep. Jim Struzzi (R., Indiana) in January. 

HOUSE CALL: The cause of last week's deadly house explosion in Pottstown is still under investigation, but local officials tell the Morning Call a meth lab has been ruled out. Home fuels haven't, with investigators now saying one half of the duplex involved was using natural gas and the other propane.

DEBT FREE: The Biden administration will forgive all federal student debt belonging to former students of the Corinthian Colleges chain, which operated locations in Bensalem, Pittsburgh, and Blairsville before collapsing in 2015. The move will erase $5.8 billion in debt for more than 560,000 people.

HEALTH GIANT: Excela Health and Butler Health System have announced a planned merger that would create southwestern Pennsylvania's third hospital giant, TribLIVE reports. The yet-to-be-named result would merge locations in Westmoreland County, Clarion County, and Butler County.

LUCKY'S STAND: City Paper profiles a gay bar in Pittsburgh's Strip District named Lucky's that's still standing as its much larger neighbor, the former Wholey's warehouse, is demolished to make way for an office tower. Lucky's is apparently too busy celebrating Pride Month to notice.

SPEED FREAKZ: Fresh off a naming rights deal with Virginia's Richmond Raceway, Sheetz now has its own Nascar car (sort of). Sports Business Journal reports it's a one-off for next month's Nascar weekend at Pocono Raceway, but the deal could grow if all goes well. 

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: Amusement parks
Yesterday's answer: Whirligig

Congrats to our daily winners: Beth T., Craig W., Eddy Z., Virginia C., Hugh M., Becky C., Barbara F., Theresa T., Irene R., Starr B., Doris T., Don H., Marty M., Bruce B., Bette G., Ted W., Michelle T., Joel S., Teri H., Susan N.-Z., Daniel M., Ronnee G., Kimberly S., Heidi B., Diane P., Susan R., Jim A., Barbara S., David S., Moon M., Kimberly D., Susan D., John F., Bonnie R., Judith D., Dianne K., John A., George S., Elaine C., Lynne E., Nancy S., Hoss E., Mike B., James B., Bill S., Elizabeth W., Sharon P., Alan V., John B., Vicki U., David W., Lex M., Bruce B., Kimberly B., John P., Eugene M., Steve H., Myles M., and Johnny C.
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