Episode 57: Food and water

With the legislature out of session for (probably) the entire summer, it’s time to turn our attention to some other reporting projects outside the daily grind of Harrisburg.

Paula Knudsen of The Caucus and Sam Janesch of L&P and The Caucus have spent the last couple weeks reporting on a ubiquitous, little-discussed feature of Capitol life: food—tables and tables of it!—that routinely sits outside committee meetings and political events, and which is paid for with tax dollars.

Paula and Sam explain how much money is in lawmakers’ budgets for all that food, why it doesn’t count in their state-supplied per diems, and more.

Plus, PennLive’s Wallace McKelvey joins us to talk about water quality, a topic he’s been reporting on for many months. Specifically, he’ll explain why the DEP’s water inspectors have become so short-staffed over the last decade, how water systems across the state have been falling into disrepair, and what that could all mean for the average Pennsylvania water-drinker.

Also: this is the final podcast of the summer before a short hiatus. We’ll be back and better than ever when the legislature returns to session in the fall!

Episode 56: The art of the “get out of town” budget

It’s a brave new world for the commonwealth’s budget process—at least compared to the last decade or so. For the first time in many years, lawmakers are poised to pass a budget ahead of the June 30th deadline, and Wolf is likely to sign it after letting the previous three plans pass without a signature.
Their proposal has made it through the House and, as of Friday morning, is awaiting final Senate consideration. It’s a mostly status-quo bill—spending $32.7 billion, or about 1.7 percent more than last year’s plan.
That extra cash doesn’t come from any new revenue (there’s none in the plan) but instead, from strong returns in the 2017-18 fiscal year, healthy projections next year, and some internal transfers. Plus, election year pressures are giving lawmakers extra incentive to agree to a plan and get out of Harrisburg fast.
WITF’s Capitol Bureau Chief Katie Meyer leads a discussion on the ins and outs of the budget plan with Capitolwire Bureau Chief Chris Comisac and Marc Levy of the Associated Press—plus explains why all budget numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.
We’ll also provide an update on lawmakers’ long-awaited congressional redistricting overhaul, which seems increasingly unlikely to pass the House in time to impact the 2021 redistricting process.
And just a note: This episode of the podcast was recorded live as an episode of WITF’s morning show, Smart Talk. That means it’s a full hour long, and includes underwriting breaks.

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Episode 55: Amendments for all

This week had everything: major bills moving, last-minute amendments, a little back-room plotting, and a lot of yelling on the Senate floor.

A bill to create a citizen’s commission on redistricting has passed the Senate and is now awaiting House action—but it looks very different than it did just a few weeks ago. Now, a number of changes have given the legislature more power in the process, plus an entirely new clause has been added that seeks to elect appellate judges by region.

Confused about how those things go together? Reporter Jan Murphy and columnist John Micek, both of PennLive, join us to hash out the details.

Plus, we’ll discuss House Speaker Mike Turzai unexpectedly shoehorning his own abortion-restricting language into a human trafficking bill, an effort to keep judges safe from dogs, addressing sexual harassment in the legislature, and more.


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Episode 54: Too many redistricting bills, not enough time

It’s crunch time for the House and Senate to get a redistricting overhaul passed in time for congressional reapportionment in 2021. But you wouldn’t be able to tell there’s a month to the deadline by spending time in the Capitol.

No less than seven (at least) bills on the subject are floating around both chambers. And though the Senate has made progress toward a compromise, the House is nowhere close.

Stephen Caruso of the PLS Reporter and Liz Navratil of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette join us to talk about the fate of the map-drawing process.

Plus, they give the latest updates on the gubernatorial race, and a recent executive order from Governor Tom Wolf.

Episode 53: Election retrospective, medical marijuana transparency

This week, Pennsylvania had an election.
If you’re a person who noticed this happened, you may have also noticed that some of the outcomes were expected, others were not, and various partisans and pundits still seem pretty divided about whether Democrats can expect a proverbial “blue wave” come November.
Lots to take in! So, Steve Esack of the Morning Call and Wallace McKelvey of PennLive join us to talk through the various important threads still hanging loose post-primary, and preview what’s likely to come in a very (very!) important election year.
Plus, some down-low changes took place in the commonwealth’s medical marijuana program this week, and we unpack what it might mean for open records laws/general transparency statewide.

Episode 52: Primary primer

Pennsylvania’s primary elections are this coming Tuesday, and there’s a lot to pay attention to.

Three GOP candidates for governor are facing off to see who will take on Tom Wolf in November. York County Senator Scott Wagner, who also owns a trash-hauling company, is seen as an apparent frontrunner after clinching the important state Republican Party nomination. But, since there’s been little external polling, it’s difficult to say for sure whether fellow candidates Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth have a shot at the nomination as well.

There are also a number of very crowded congressional races to pay attention to—and they’re especially chaotic because this is the first election that’ll use the commonwealth’s brand new congressional map.

The primary also features a weirdly-competitive democratic primary for lieutenant governor, with a truly colorful cast of characters involved.

Philly Inquirer and Daily News columnist John Baer and AP reporter Marc Levy join us to break down the many moving parts.

Episode 51: Meek Mill and more


Marc Levy of the Associated Press and Liz Navratil of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette join us for a roundup of a whole bunch of initiatives kicking around the Capitol

That includes a move to expand background checks for gun purchases, and a hearing on creating an independent citizens’ commission for redistricting. Plus, we’ll recap a recent debate between the three GOP candidates for governor.

And in related news, rapper Meek Mill was released from a Pennsylvania prison this week. His controversial sentence began in November, when he was arrested for violating a parole stemming from a more than decade-old weapon and drug possession conviction.

The case called attention to what many say is a systemic problem with Pennsylvania’s judicial system. We’ll discuss a push in state government to change that, and whether it’ll get past a conservative legislature.

Episode 50: Philly soda tax / Capitol roundup


When Philadelphia wanted to combat obesity and reduce its impact on health care early last year, it turned to a controversial measure: the soda tax.

Since then, the 1.5 cent-per-ounce tax has inspired equally passionate support and opposition.

Detractors of additional food, beverage and container taxes say they result in job loss, harm communities and adversely impact lower income families.

Proponents, meanwhile, cite health benefits, and say the additional tax revenue is an investment in neighborhoods and public education.

More than a year after its implementation, Philadelphia’s tax is now coming back to the fore in Harrisburg, as a number of lawmakers move to kill it, plus prevent any new levies on food, beverages and food containers. Allegheny County Republican Mark Mustio, the lead sponsor of that legislation, joins Smart Talk to explain why he thinks the tax is such a bad idea.

And representing the other point of view is Donna Cooper, Executive Director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), a Greater Philadelphia child advocacy organization. Cooper believes the tax is doing a world of good for the Philly community and the programs that serve it.

In other news, this week was a busy one in the state Capitol. With WITF State Capitol Bureau Chief Katie Meyer hosting, Capitolwire Bureau Chief Chris Comisac stops by to discuss the major events: including the House passing contentious bills on abortion and Medicaid work requirements, new rules for medical marijuana, some inter-legislator tension, and much more.

Chris Comisac.png

Chris Comisac


Episode 49: TV ad-pocalypse

On this week’s podcast, we catch up on a slew of nasty ads that have been circulating on TV—a sign the GOP gubernatorial primary is heating up.

Paul Mango and Scott Wagner are taking turns calling each other liberal and (in Mango’s case) “violent,” a slumlord,” and a “deadbeat dad.” Paula Knudsen and Brad Bumsted of The Caucus and John Micek of PennLive join us to discuss why those unusually personal attacks are happening, and what they may do for the two candidates’ prospects.

Plus, we recap the latest on sexual harassment in the legislature, as well as a potentially ill-fated push to overhaul Pennsylvania’s justice system.

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Episode 48: A perfect storm for change

Pennsylvania’s not a state that changes course easily. But over the past few months of redistricting chaos, not to mention wider, national unrest over guns and sexual assault, the commonwealth has seemed on the brink of some major shifts.

That’s what John Baer is hypothesizing, anyway.

The longtime columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer joins us to discuss why he thinks the battle over Pennsylvania’s congressional districts might be the catalyst needed to complete long-gestating initiatives to reform the judiciary and the redistricting process.

Plus, we’ll discuss how all these factors may be playing into the November election.