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Pitt budget block, anti-trans sports ban, and poll-watcher power

Plus, hot-button bills are en route to Gov. Wolf.

A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
June 30, 2022
Funding fights, poll watching, Trump advice, trans athletes, confirmed cases, public pivot, and remembering Winky's. Hello! It's Thursday.
Precarious 11th-hour budget talks between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders in the GOP-controlled General Assembly have been further complicated by a proxy fight over abortion that's imperiled hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition assistance for college students.

On Monday, GOP lawmakers in the state House tacked a condition onto the appropriations bill that grants hundreds of millions of dollars — much of it for in-state tuition discounts — to four state-related universities. 

The amendment says that to get their share of almost $600 million in total funding, the four schools — Lincoln University, Penn State University, Temple University, and the University of Pittsburgh — must swear off fetal tissue research, a growing conservative flashpoint, under oath.

Pitt is a primary target of the effort over its medical research using tissue obtained from aborted fetuses, something the school says is "fully compliant with federal and state regulatory requirements" but which opponents of abortion access have wanted stopped since at least 2019. 

Now it's a sticking point contributing to delays in budget talks that appear increasingly likely to run past today's deadline for a deal.

THE CONTEXT: In recent years, the number of Republican representatives who support blocking Pitt's funding has steadily increased.

Insiders have noted that this year's opposition could also owe to former university chancellor Mark Nordenberg's role in a legislative redistricting process that resulted in a less-GOP-friendly state House map.

What comes next, and the extent to which this holds up further budget progress, remains unclear. While the amendment won the backing of many state House Republicans, it has limited support elsewhere in the Capitol, including among Republicans in the state Senate.

While it only needed a simple majority to be added to the university funding bill, the funding bill itself needs two-thirds support to pass either chamber — meaning Democrats would have to get on board.

On Tuesday, Democratic legislators from western Pennsylvania said they will not support the legislation as amended.

"The bottom line is this, all the laws in the world don't mean a thing if we don't have district attorneys that are willing to enforce them."

State Rep. Josh Kail (R., Beaver) on Wednesday's creation of a special committee that could recommend the impeachment of progressive Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner; four Democrats also voted yes

» LAW & LOOPHOLE: Join us Thursday, July 7 at 6 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on the limitations of the state's police misconduct database and a discussion on other police accountability efforts. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

Saying hello to one of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club's horses at the El Solsticio at Iglesias Garden celebration in Philly on June 25. Thanks for sharing, @jpiette660Send us your Pennsylvania pics, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
CLOSER WATCH: A contested Republican-led bill that loosens the rules around poll watchers in Pennsylvania is headed to the desk of Gov. Tom Wolf, who is opposed, per WITF. The bill would let poll watchers recruited by candidates and political parties travel outside their home counties and get closer to voters. Voting rights advocates fear the bill could lead to a weaponizing of the role and intimidation at the polls. 

LEGAL LEVERAGE: Former President Trump was quick to share his praise over this week's final passage of "The Poll Watcher Empowerment Act." He also called for the state budget — the one still in active negotiations — to be tied to bills carrying stricter election rules. Spotlight PA previously reported that some conservative lawmakers came into budget season with a similar strategy for leverage in mind.

VETO-BOUND: A bill banning trans women from competing in women's sports from grade school through college in Pennsylvania is also headed to Gov. Wolf's desk after earning final approval in the state Senate, Capital-Star reports. Wolf has vowed a veto. Supporters say they want to level the playing field. But experts who study the issue say a blanket ban like the one passed on Wednesday is "anti-evidence."

MONKEYPOX: A monkeypox case in Pittsburgh brings the state's total to five amid an ongoing global outbreak, TribLIVE reports. The Biden administration has announced an "enhanced nationwide vaccination strategy" to curb the spread of the virus. There are now more than 300 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S., with no reported deaths. The WHO says the virus isn't an emergency but should be monitored.

TONE SHIFT: One of the first bills Doug Mastriano sponsored as a state senator was an effective ban on abortion, WHYY reports. Now the Republican nominee in a close race for governor, Mastriano, long known for his extreme views on the procedure, is shifting his tone. Berwood Yost, who heads the Franklin & Marshall College poll, said the reason is simple: Most Pennsylvania voters don't feel the same.

DEAR MOM: New York Times journalist Caity Weaver's mom died at home in Harrisburg on June 14. Weaver's tender, humorous obituary for the podiatrist with a "cackle that crashed through rooms" has since gone viral.

FARE FIX: A tech "bug" saw 1,600 SEPTA customers double-charged on their Key cards for trips into Center City. Billy Penn reports refunds have gone out to half of the affected straphangers so far.

JUMP AROUND: The invasive jumping worms now making their way across Pennsylvania go by many names: Alabama jumpers, Jersey wrigglers, or wood eels. The Allegheny Front has a gardener's defensive guide

NEW LIFE: A historic steel factory in Leetsdale, Allegheny County, is back in business, this time making parts for solar panels, WESA reports. The plant was once used to make steel for World War II. 

WINK WINK: Anyone remember Winky's? If not, WQED has a Twitter thread about the burger chain that had 42 stores in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1982.

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: The Great Outdoors
Yesterday's answer: Conservationist 

Congrats to our daily winners: Craig W., Art W., Don H., Becky C., Mike B., Susan D., Vicki U., Judith D., Elaine C., John A., Susan N.-Z., George S., Jude M., Ted W., Tish M., Kimberly D., David W., Stanley J., Bill S., Dianne K., Fred H., Karen W., Elizabeth W., Kim C., Doris T., Jill A.-S., Sharon P., James B., Al M., and Lynne E.
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