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The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

February 27, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

We're undertaking a new effort with The Caucus to track how and why the legislature spends the roughly $360 million it receives each year. But some lawmakers are less than thrilled. This week, how House lawyers are claiming "legislative privilege" to shield details of spending from the public. We're fighting back, but this is hard and expensive work, and we need your support.

Donate now and support more reporting on transparency in the legislature.

Also this week, a deep dive into how political insiders (not voters) pick special election candidates. Plus, great stuff from Western PA this week: a continuing PublicSource project looking at how 376,000 drivers have their licenses suspended for unpaid traffic tickets, and, from the Post-Gazette, a brewing crisis for rural residents as EMS calls go unanswered.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I guess there are some seriously creative lawyers there."

— David Cuillier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Arizona and president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, on the legislature's claim of "legislative privilege" to shield details of expense records

 STATE BUDGET 

Raiding Pa.'s 'special funds' dedicated to roads, the environment — and horse racing?

In January, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed diverting money from a special fund to support horse racing in order to create a scholarship program for state-owned schools. So what the heck is the horse-racing fund, and why does it exist?

Lawmakers created the Race Horse Development Fund in 2004 as part of a package that legalized casinos. Subsidized by slot machines, the fund's stated purpose is to promote horse breeding, as well as to fund purses — total prize money distributed to winners — and horsemen’s pensions.

It’s actually one of more than 150 such funds created by the legislature to provide dedicated money to causes like the environment, caring for the elderly, and public transit. But over the years, these funds regularly have been raided to fill budget holes or balance the books.

The state House wanted to end a protracted budget battle in 2017 by rerouting $630 million in special fund money to help fill a $2.2 billion hole, PennLive reported. Gov. Tom Wolf eventually signed a budget that borrowed against one special fund in particular, funded by a landmark tobacco settlement

Nathan Benefield is vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank that has deemed these funds the “shadow budget” and believes their "surpluses" should be utilized before raising taxes.  

He said he doesn’t think pulling money out of the Race Horse Development Trust Fund would be that big of a deal.

“I think it is overblown what the impact is," Benefield said. “These are certainly wealthy individuals getting those prizes.” 

The horse-racing industry disagrees, and local farmers are raising alarm.

If lawmakers agree to pull $204 million out of the fund for the scholarship program, it wouldn’t be the first time that particular piggy bank has been raided.

Between 2010 and 2014, the legislature diverted $212 million from the Race Horse Development Trust Fund, mostly to fill budget gaps, according to an audit. But it's hardly the only victim of fiscal maneuvers.

The Motor License Fund, for example, is bankrolled by license fees and gas taxes and was meant to be used to repair state highways. Instead, it now primarily pays for the Pennsylvania State Police.

It's these kind of budget moves that just earned Pennsylvania a failing grade from a nonprofit that reviewed the budget practices of all 50 states.

"Only one state — Pennsylvania, which posted a bottom-dwelling average of D-minus — received no credit in any of the five indicators in budget maneuvers," the report, produced by the Volcker Alliance, stated.

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

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March 20 in Pittsburgh for a conference on transparency and your right to know! Reserve your tickets today.

 CAPITOL NOTEBOOK 

Pa. releases voting system guides, Cutler demurs on speaker question, and more from the week

» Prepping for November: The Department of State has published county-specific information on how to use new voting systems. The step-by-step guides include photos and video. 

» “Yes or no”: House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) demurred when asked if he wants to be the chamber's next speaker. “I am focused on my job right now,” he told reporters Monday. “If and when that time comes, it is [a question] that I certainly will entertain.” 

» A new lawmaker (for now): In Philadelphia, Democrat Roni Green easily won a special election for a state House seat, the Inquirer reported. Her victory may be short lived: She has to run again in the spring primary.

» The road to nowhere: The state’s transportation department will soon have to find funding for public transit that doesn’t come from the Turnpike Commission, WESA reported. “Not everything has to be funded by the government,” PennDOT’s Yassmin Gramian told lawmakers. 

Cynthia Fernandez, Spotlight PA

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg.
Can't-miss reads from this week
» SPOTLIGHT PA: Protesters to AG Shapiro: Commute more life sentences
» SPOTLIGHT PA: How Pa. is preparing for the coronavirus as CDC warns it's coming 
» AP: Ex-Sen. Folmer pleads guilty to possession of child pornography
» YORK DISPATCH: Judge says York lawyers are "sandbagging" open records appeals
» INQUIRER: Families file lawsuits as suicides in Pa. prisons hit record high
» INQUIRER: The state's first supervised injection site will open in Philly next week
» CAPITAL-STAR: Quorum snafu leaves board unable to deny charter application
» PA POST: Rastafarian says Lebanon jail put him in solitary over hair
THE RIDDLER

Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

Drive to nowhere (Case No. 27): The driver of a car traveled forward in the same direction on the same road in the same small town for 2 hours and ended up in the exact same place she started. She never made a turn, never put the car in reverse, and never went farther than a few thousand feet. Where was she driving?
 
Stumped? Get a hint. Feeling smart? Challenge a friend

Last week's answer: He was bald.

Congrats to Cathy L., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who correctly answered: Jeff W., Kathy W., Melinda C., Lou R., Don H., George S., Kenneth J., Bob S., Deborah D., Jeffrey F., Jon N., Pam W., Dennis H., Ted & Liz, Annette I., Karen K., Joann S., Jim S., Maggie E., Barbara W., Melanie B., Sean K., Karen H.T., Drew C., Mark C., Jonathan T., and Michele M.
» This week's Riddler hint: I have several names.
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