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Shapiro Tied to Unofficial Voter Registration Website Secretly Harvesting User Data, Mailers Show

(This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.)

Gov. Josh Shapiro allowed his signature to be used on mailers guiding people to request mail-in ballots through Vote.pa — a URL that closely resembles the official state voter registration website of vote.pa.gov but which also surreptitiously collects user data for political campaign purposes.

The new revelation underscores the deep extent to which Pennsylvania Democrats and left-of-center organizations have invested in the website that one Republican state representative called an “obvious attempt to steal information from voters or potential voters.”

Vote.pa is owned and managed by Commonwealth Communications, a 501(c)(4) political nonprofit managed by JJ Abbott. Abbott has a long resume in Democratic politics, including a stint as press secretary for former Governor Tom Wolf. Aside from managing Vote.pa, Commonwealth Communications sponsors various political messaging that supports Democrats and left-of-center causes.

 

 

The photo of the mailer was posted to X by Allegheny County Council At-Large Member Sam DeMarco, who is also chair of the Allegheny County Republican Party. DeMarco later provided a fuller picture of the mailer, pictured here.

Vote.pa allows people to register to vote on that site, and was launched in 2020. For the first couple of years, the site had a prominent disclaimer that by using the forms provided on its pages, a user would be consenting to receive messages from the site. That disclaimer then disappeared sometime in the fall of 2022, according to an analysis of website captures made by the Internet Archive.

For most of 2023 and 2024, visitors to the website would have had to click through to the privacy policy on a completely separate page to understand that they were giving their data to political operatives. The policy says, “We may use your personal information in connection with our political efforts and activities.”

The website looks like it was taking advantage of the fact that only about nine percent of Americans click on a website’s policies before using, and even fewer read through those policies completely. Those estimates come from a 2019 Pew Research report.

A request for comment to the governor’s office was not returned.

Just as Broad + Liberty was preparing on Monday to report on the site’s data harvesting and had requested comment, the site’s managers removed the voter registration option from its home page.

The mailers with Shapiro’s signature were sent by The Voter Project Fund, a sister organization to The Voter Project. The Voter Project’s website is sparse, but has an oversized button that says, “CLICK HERE TO REGISTER TO VOTE” which links to Vote.pa.

As Broad + Liberty previously reported, Shapiro attended a small party on April 7 at Penn State Abington sponsored by The Voter Project that was focused on voter registration. A social media post shows the governor using an iPad to verify his voter registration, but it’s unclear whether the registration party was guiding people to vote.pa or to the actual state website.

With the new information that Shapiro is working hand in hand with The Voter Project and its sister organization, a valid question is whether Shapiro’s 2022 campaign had access to the kinds of data the project had been collecting for about two years. Or, does Shapiro expect to be able to make use of the data in a re-election campaign in 2026?

Those questions and others were put to the governor’s office, but the request for comment was not returned.

In Broad + Liberty’s first story, State Rep. Seth Grove (R – York) said, “Vote.pa is an obvious attempt to steal information from voters or potential voters who are very likely looking for the Department of State’s website.”

Grove went further on Wednesday.

“The Governor of all people should be ensuring accurate information is being provided to voters promoting an official government website,” Grove said. “I’m calling on Governor Shapiro to set the record straight right now and recommend voters go to vote.pa.gov for voting information, not a misinformation website looking to harvest data from voters. Regardless of the separation of his campaign and official activities, he is the Governor, citizens pay close attention to what he says in any capacity. I am also calling on the Governor to convene his Elections Threats Task Force and condemn this website immediately.”

With the new developments of the Shapiro mailer, more Republicans voiced criticism.

“While, at the moment, it may be legal to do this, and we are checking to determine if it runs afoul of state or federal law, it certainly doesn’t pass the ethical smell test,” said State Senator Cris Dush (R – Cameron, Centre) , who chairs the senate’s State Government Committee with oversight of the Department of State.

“We’ve seen far too many of these leftist organizations taking on the lessons learned from scammers who have been tricking our citizens into giving their personal information to rip off our constituents. That the governor would sink to the same level, especially after his time as attorney general and seeing the devastating effects of these rip off artists, is a clear indication that he is no longer on the side of the citizens of this Commonwealth.”

Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill (R – York), who also serves on the State Government Committee, echoed some of those criticisms.

“This is an egregious example of creating a website to trick voters into thinking it’s the Department of State. What is worse is that the governor, who recently created a nebulous election security task force, is peddling this site,” Phillips-Hill said.

“Instead of propping up a website intended to deceive voters, he should be busy with his CODE PA initiative to figure out how else the .pa domain could exploit hardworking Pennsylvanians into thinking they are interacting with their state government when in reality, they are handing over personal information to activists,” she concluded.

A request for comment to the Senate Democratic caucus was not returned.

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Senator Bob Casey sent out a post on X that urged followers to “map out” a plan to vote, and linked to Vote.pa.

Casey appears to have a close relationship with the lead manager for The Voter Project Kevin Mack. According to a CNN transcript, Mack had Casey’s ear during the few days between the end of the 2020 election and when Pennsylvania was finally called for Joe Biden.

Mack’s professional biography, which has since been removed from his firm’s website, used to boast that his work for The Voter Project had helped Democrats win Pennsylvania.

On the right, a website run by right-of-center activist Scott Pressler also appears to harvest user data. However, Pressler’s web URL, earlyvoteaction.com, is not a close match to the official Department of State’s site the way vote.pa is. Additionally Pressler’s site contains conspicuous disclaimers that would give a user pause. Those disclaimers are not only on the home page, but also when a user moves to the registration page for a specific state.

It’s currently unclear if any elected officials have directed people to Pressler’s site the way Democratic Senators Jay Costa (Allegheny) and Judith Schwank (Berks) have with their campaign affiliated X accounts.

Vote.pa used to have a conspicuous disclaimer telling users by using the website they were consenting to be contacted later, but those disclaimers were dropped sometime around the beginning of 2023.

For example, in January of 2023, Vote.pa’s voter registration page had no disclaimer present. But a capture of the website from August 2022 shows the voter registration page had a disclaimer reading, “**By submitting this form, I agree to receive periodic emails from the VOTE.pa Team. I understand that I may unsubscribe at any time.**”

Emailed requests for comment to Commonwealth Communications, The Voter Project, and Voter Project Fund were not returned.

IRS 990 forms that are a window of transparency into some nonprofits shows that The Voter Project has been funded over the years by groups like The Hopewell Fund, Sixteen Thirty Fund, and New Venture Fund.

All of those groups are aligned with or are part of the constellation of nonprofit organizations managed by Arabella Advisors, an organization the Atlantic called “The Massive Progressive Dark-Money Group You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Commonwealth Foundation Launches Billboards Promoting Lifeline Scholarships

The Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, launched a six-figure advertising campaign this week, using billboards to promote Lifeline Scholarships.

The nonprofit is promoting Lifeline Scholarships, which help children in failing public schools access better schools. Although Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) ran on a promise to support those scholarships, he used his line-item veto to remove them from last year’s budget. Commonwealth hopes to build public awareness and support so that the Lifeline Scholarships program will be included in the state budget this year.

The Democratic majority in the state House and state teachers’ union opposed the program. A spokesperson for Shapiro did not respond to requests for comment.

The first three digital billboards will run for the next 12 weeks at major locations along I-76, I-676, and the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia. Multiple other billboards have slated launches in the Pittsburgh, Wilkes Barre/Scranton, and Harrisburg areas.

Commonwealth will be following the billboards with radio spots and ads in other media, as well, said Christian Stellakis, a spokesman.

The ads urge parents to visit LifelineScholarships.com to explore the potential of the program’s proposed Educational Opportunity Accounts (EOAs) for their kids.

“Every child deserves access to an excellent education,” said Erik Telford, the senior vice president of public affairs at the Commonwealth Foundation. “Lifeline Scholarships empower families to do just that by allowing education funds to follow the student. Parents get to choose the schools that best meet their kids’ needs.”

Lifeline Scholarships, proposed by the state legislature last year, would establish EOAs for students trapped in schools ranked in the bottom 15 percent of the state’s educational institutions. In these failing schools, fewer than 10 percent of students test proficient in math, and just 25 percent reach proficiency in English.

“Too many kids are currently trapped in failing schools. Lifeline Scholarships would provide parents $10,000 to send their child to a better and safer school,” Telford said. “We want to make families aware of the transformational impact of Lifeline Scholarships so that when they become available, parents can take advantage of the new opportunity to secure their children’s future.”

Funded separately from existing education formulas, Lifeline Scholarships would not impact public school budgets. Though Shapiro vetoed the legislation in August 2023, the latest polling reveals a strong majority of Pennsylvania voters (61 percent) believe the governor should enact Lifeline Scholarships.

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Judge Dismisses PA Automatic Voter Registration Lawsuit

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s executive action turning Pennsylvania’s “motor voter” system from “opt in” to “opt out” will stand, thanks to the plaintiffs’ lack of standing.

That was the finding of U.S. District Judge Jennifer P. Wilson on Tuesday when she rejected a lawsuit by 25 state legislators claiming Shapiro’s changes to the state’s voter registration process are unconstitutional.

Wilson ruled the plaintiffs had not “alleged any individualized and particularized harm.” Therefore, she ruled they “do not have standing” to pursue the lawsuit.

Last fall, Shapiro ordered PennDOT to automatically register people when they received their driver’s licenses or state identification cards unless they opt out of the process. The lawsuit, led by Rep.  Dawn Keefer (R-York) claimed that was unconstitutional because it usurped the authority of the state legislature.

The suit also claimed that when President Joe Biden signed an executive order in March 2021 requiring all federal agencies to develop plans to increase voter registration, his action was also unconstitutional.

Keefer, who is running for the state Senate, did not have an immediate comment on the ruling. The plaintiffs were members of the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus and other conservative lawmakers.

Under Shapiro’s new system, people can opt out of getting their voter registration. Under the previous system, they had to opt in to register at Department of Motor Vehicle centers.

Previously, House Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said a new voting registration system should be created by legislation rather than by an executive order from the governor.

And others have also expressed concern with the change.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has admitted to registering foreign nationals to vote for nearly two decades,” J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, previously told DVJournal. “They continue to fight to conceal the full extent of how many foreigners registered to vote through the DMV process. This new automatic voter registration program will crank in more errors to the voter rolls.”

Shapiro took a victory lap Tuesday.

“In 2020, I defeated Donald Trump and his conspiracy theorist allies in court more than 40 times to defend Pennsylvanians’ votes and protect access to the ballot box,” Shapiro said. “Today, we’ve done it again by getting their frivolous effort to stop automatic voter registration in our commonwealth dismissed. Automatic voter registration is safe, secure, efficient, and entirely within my administration’s authority.”

“As governor, I will always remain focused on protecting our democracy and ensuring our elections are free, fair, safe, and secure. Let today’s ruling be another reminder that taking legal advice from Donald Trump is never a winning strategy,” Shapiro said.

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Two of Shapiro’s Clean Energy Sources in New Power Plan Unlikely to Arrive by 2035 Deadline

(This article first appeared in Broad + Liberty.)

Governor Shapiro reignited the energy debate in the commonwealth last week when he announced his long term energy plan that includes a cap-and-trade mechanism to lower the state’s carbon emissions, and also sets new goals for the state’s energy portfolio.

But many critics of the plan say key details are missing, and some of the energy sources he’s banking on are still so theoretical or untested that it creates a risk for the commonwealth to bet on those technologies at the moment.

Shapiro’s plan asks the state to get 35 percent of its energy from so-called clean energy sources by 2035.

The acceptable sources for that goal are called “Tier I sources”, and include “solar, wind, low-impact hydropower, geothermal, small modular nuclear reactors, nuclear fusion technology, and fugitive emissions from coal mines and landfills,” according to a report by StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Two of those sources — small modular nuclear reactors, and fusion reactors — still appear to be struggling to become commercially viable, raising serious questions as to whether those technologies could play a legitimate role in the state by the 2035 goal — a mere eleven years away.

Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Small Modular Nuclear Reactors, or SMRs, are exactly what their name sounds like: taking large nuclear power plants and downsizing them to make their construction and geographic placement easier and more flexible.

Although the idea has caught a lot of hype, actual deployment of the technology has proven frustrating.

“In fact, SMRs are not forecast to hit the commercial market before 2030, and although SMRs are expected to have lower up-front capital costs per reactor, their economic competitiveness is still to be proven in practice once they are deployed at scale,” an article from the website Energy Monitor says.

An example of the real-world difficulties can be found in western states, where a recent deal to start deployment of SMRs had to be abandoned in November.

“Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a coalition of community-owned power systems in seven western states, withdrew from a deal to build the plant, designed by NuScale Power, because too few members agreed to buy into it,” a report from Science.com said. “The project, subsidized by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), sought to revive the moribund U.S. nuclear industry, but its cost had more than doubled to $9.3 billion.”

“To some observers, the plan’s collapse also raises questions about the feasibility of other planned advanced reactors, meant to provide clean energy with fewer drawbacks than existing reactors,” the report went on to say.

“There’s plenty of reasons to think [the other projects] are going to be even more difficult and expensive,” Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the outlet.

The Utah news created shocks in North Carolina, where the state’s largest energy producer, Duke Energy, is betting big on SMRs.

“We are disappointed that the Carbon-Free Power Project will not be moving forward but remain committed to pursuing new nuclear to provide our customers affordable, reliable and clean energy solutions and meet the growing energy needs in our communities,” the company said in response to the Utah failure.

But the same statement also noted that Duke is hoping to add “next-generation nuclear technologies starting in the mid-2030s.”

Duke Energy already has two locations picked out for the first deployments of its anticipated fleet of SMRs and is sawing away at the permit, regulatory, and transmission issues right now. Pennsylvania knows none or very few of those things, making 2035 seem unrealistic.

Fusion Reactors

If SMRs face long odds to be in the state’s portfolio by 2035, fusion reactors may be an even longer shot.

A small scientific breakthrough in 2022 rekindled imaginations of a power source that would largely be emissions free and radically drop costs.

“But it turns out that fusion power is … hard. Really hard. Really complicated,” an article from Space.com says. “Full of unexpected pitfalls and traps. We’ve been trying to build fusion generators for three-quarters of a century, and we’ve made a lot of progress — enormous, groundbreaking, horizon-expanding progress. But we’re not there yet. Fusion power has been one of those things that’s been ‘only 20 years away’ for about 50 years now.”

An undated “FAQ” page from the International Atomic Energy Agency provides an optimistic yet tame forecast.

“A prototype of a fusion reactor (DEMO) is expected to be built by 2040. Electricity generation and exploitation is also expected to take place in the second half of the century, depending on funding and technical advancement.”

With a prototype only being deployed by 2040, it beggars belief that the technology could play a meaningful role in the state’s clean energy portfolio by 2035.

“If Governor Shapiro is going to overthrow Pennsylvania’s competitive market for electricity, he should at least tell us where the power will come from and how much each source will generate,” said David N. Taylor, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association.

“The governor’s mandate would monopolize half of Pennsylvania’s electricity market for his chosen power sources, so how many small modular nuclear reactors will be online in the commonwealth by 2035? Who will build them? Where will they be located? How much generation will they add to the grid? When will nuclear fusion be discovered and by whom?

“If Governor Shapiro intends to mandate the usage of these sources, he should be able to answer these questions.”

A request for comment to Governor Shapiro’s office was not returned.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward who sits on the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, also says she has more questions than answers. For example, she says Shapiro’s proposal to mix in federal dollars is one of those areas.

“Shapiro has offered no detail or explanation of where exactly the federal funding will come from, nor does he address how it will be used, or confirm if it will be sustainable,” Ward said. “More importantly, do these federal dollars come with strings attached, such as labor union requirements, DEI, or other items? It all seems to be cobbled together in a quagmire. Shapiro plays this quagmire off as if it is visionary. Instead it is murky and built on a house of cards.”

A request for comment to two Democrat members of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee about SMRs and fusion were not returned.

New PA Election Task Force Draws Congressional Scrutiny

Last month, Gov. Josh Shapiro and Secretary of State Al Schmidt launched an Election Threats Task Force.

This month the new task force garnered Congressional interest. The Federalist first reported Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) is seeking information on whether Pennsylvania’s new task force, working with the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, will stifle free speech during the 2024 election.

In a March 20 letter, Jordan said his committee had subpoenaed the Department of Homeland Security, CISA’s parent agency, for information.

In his letter, Jordan said, “The reporting about a partnership between CISA and the Pennsylvania Election Threats Task Force reinforces concerns that CISA is again partnering with third parties in a way that will censor or chill Americans’ speech. The Task Force will reportedly focus on ‘combat[ting]misinformation’ as defined by the government, including online speech regarding Pennsylvania’s controversial ‘no-excuse mail-in voting.’

“The government’s involvement in this type of speech is particularly alarming because, as the Supreme Court has recognized, ‘the importance of First Amendment protections is at its zenith for core political speech.’”

When he announced the new task force Shapiro said, “Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, and we are working to continue defending Pennsylvanians’ fundamental freedoms and ensure we have a free, fair, safe, secure election this November. As attorney general, I brought law enforcement leaders at every level together to ensure our elections remained free from fraud, interference, and intimidation here in Pennsylvania – and I made a commitment to continuing that work as governor.”

Previously, the Congressional House Committee on Oversight and Accountability found that government agencies asked Twitter and Facebook to stop the spread of some online speech–specifically a pre-2020 election article in the New York Post about Hunter Biden’s laptop–deemed “misinformation” or “malinformation,” regardless of free speech rights.  Politically, preventing that article from widespread dissemination benefited then-candidate Joe Biden.

Jordan termed malinformation “Orwellian.”

Published reports say CISA officials leaned on Twitter (now X) and Facebook to remove or limit certain posts.

Asked to comment, Pennsylvania House Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) referred DVJournal to his earlier statement: “The greatest threats to Pennsylvanians having confidence in our elections are a state Supreme Court that willfully refuses to follow the plain language of Pennsylvania’s election laws as enacted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly; a Pennsylvania Department of State that has a history of offering conflicting, confusing, and last minute election guidance that purposefully sows chaos, confusion and discord into the election process; and a Democratic Party that has proudly refused to embrace even the most universally supported election security measures that would increase confidence in our election process by requiring Pennsylvanians to show identification each time they vote.

“By turning our elections into a military and law enforcement exercise, Gov. Shapiro completely misses the point of election security and his administration’s role in conducting free, safe and secure elections. Pennsylvanians do not need a show of arms to feel confident in our election system. They need our laws to be implemented as designed, properly interpreted and uniformly enforced,” Cutler said.

The Department of State issued this statement to DVJournal in response to Jordan’s letter: “As noted in the Shapiro administration’s news release last month, members of the Pennsylvania Election Threats Task Force share information and help coordinate plans to mitigate threats to the election process, including threats to election workers, and protect voters from intimidation. It also works to combat mis- and disinformation about the electoral process by providing voters with accurate, trusted election information.

“The Department of State is grateful to count the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — organizations with which it has had longstanding, productive relationships — among the Task Force’s members. CISA provides voluntary guidance and resources so all levels of government can protect their cyber and physical infrastructure, and it has proved a critical partner in keeping Pennsylvania’s elections free, fair, safe, and secure.”

The U.S. Supreme Court may have the final word.

The issue of government interference in free speech online is also part of Murthy v. Missouri, a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in which a lawyer for some of the states said the CISA, White House staff, the FBI, and the surgeon general have coerced changes in content posted to social media to remove conservative views.

 

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PA GOP Rejects Shapiro’s PACER Cap-and-Trade ‘Tax’ on Ratepayers

When Gov. Josh Shapiro introduced a proposed cap-and-trade carbon credits system last week, he called it a “plan tailored for Pennsylvania.” According to the governor, The Pennsylvania Climate Emissions Reduction Act (PACER) proposal would replace the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and save consumers $252 million.

House Republicans, however, call it a tax on consumers.

“The governor is asking us to pass a tax increase on Pennsylvania without even knowing what that increase is,” said House Republican Whip Tim O’Neal (R-Washington). “I can say with confidence that this proposal as written is Dead on Arrival with the House Republican Caucus.”

House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Josh Kail (R-Beaver) said PACER’s carbon fees would be passed along to residential and business consumers. “This a tax on our neighbors, on our parents, on our kids. This is a tax on our manufacturers.”

Republican Leader Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) compared the PACER proposal to a hostage exchange trading “a bad multi-state agreement [for] a single agreement just with ourselves that is equally high in terms of the tax rate,” he said. “That’s bad policy because we as ratepayers will all be paying that.”

Cutler argued that Pennsylvania’s energy production transition from coal to natural gas reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The state ranked second in the United States in natural gas production behind Texas.

“That’s why [RGGI] wants us in,” he said. “They’ve already adopted policies that limited production in their own states. They need a producer… You’ve got these states that mean well, but then they also say at the same time, ‘Let’s not develop energy in our own area. Let’s have someone else do it.’”

Virginia and New York are the only RGGI states listed in the country’s Top 25 energy producers. Almost half of the eleven RGGI member states are in the bottom five.

Shapiro vowed that PACER would create 14,500 jobs.

Republicans suggest that those added jobs won’t offset the amount of job losses that will happen if PACER becomes law.

“A Pennsylvania-specific cap and tax program will only further single us out amongst our neighbors,” predicted O’Neil. “Forcing energy producers out of state and taking thousands of family-sustaining jobs across our commonwealth with them.”

GOP caucus leadership added that they were extremely concerned that the focus on green energy could destabilize the electric grid and lead to blackouts.

“We had a pretty robust debate on the House floor on what happens with solar panels at the end of their useful life,” said Cutler. “What happens with wind turbines at the end of their useful life or when they fail like when they did in Texas during [the 2021 freeze]? Then you have a serious reliability problem.”

Kail was more sober in his analysis.

“PJM was actually commenting on this,” he said. “We are increasing demand for electricity while at the same time pushing policies like this that decrease our ability to generate electricity. So the more people are using electricity the less reliable the grid becomes. One day you’re going to turn on the lights and they won’t come on.”

A recent study by Quanta Technology warned that loss of “base load” power on the PJM grid as electricity demand continues to rise could put Pennsylvania at risk for blackouts starting in 2028. And that’s without the price pressures of a cap-and-trade system.

The report stated, “Maintaining adequate [electric] resources will be a challenge for the PJM system in the future when the grid is likely to be operating under abnormal conditions (e.g., extreme weather events).”

Why is Shapiro pushing the PACER program, rather than either simply joining RGGI or dropping the carbon credits policy?

O’Neil suggested that Shapiro isn’t focused on the Keystone State but more interested in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. “Once again, it seems like the governor is more interested in appealing to primary voters in California than making life better for the people right here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The Governor’s Office did not return a request for comment.

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PA Legislature, Governor Consider Driver’s Licenses for Illegal Immigrants

Should illegal immigrants be able to get Pennsylvania driver’s licenses? At first, the Shapiro administration seemed to support this idea. Now, not so much.

Answering questions from members of the House Appropriations Committee on March 4, Secretary of Transportation Mike Carroll said he and Gov. Josh Shapiro favor allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

“The issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is something that I support, the department supports, the governor supports, with safeguards necessary to make sure that folks that are issued those products are treated the same as folks that have a regular driver’s license or a naturalized citizen or a citizen of the U.S.,” Carroll said.

However, during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee two days later, Carroll was more tentative.

“There are other agencies that will have a role with respect to the oversight,” Carroll said in response to a question on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants from Sen. Shariff Street (D-Philadelphia). “And it’s going to be important to make sure that those other agencies are able to get to a comfort level before that bill were to advance.”

Shapiro’s spokesman Manuel Bonder told DVJournal, “The Shapiro administration will continue to evaluate this proposal as it moves through the legislative process” — a far cry from a statement of support.

The bill (HB 769) sponsored by Philadelphia Democratic Reps. Danilo Burgos, Christopher Rabb, and Joseph Hohenstein would allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and state identification cards. It remains pending in the transportation committee.

One member of that committee, Rep. Donna Scheuren (R-Gilbertsville), told DVJournal, “Granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants undermines the rule of law in Pennsylvania, and I stand against it. Driver’s licenses are a privilege for citizens and legal residents, not those who broke immigration laws, to enter our country illegally. It undermines our immigration system and could threaten our national security.

“As a member of the Transportation Committee, I believe my job entails writing or approving legislation that ensures proper safety measures are being taken in all forms of travel throughout our state,” said Scheuren. “This policy just opens a whole new list of concerns that PennDOT has not yet addressed. I am very opposed to this legislation, and I hope the Shapiro administration reconsiders their support.”

Rep. Mike Cabell (R-Luzerne) asked Carroll on Monday about undocumented immigrants obtaining REAL IDs in Pennsylvania. Beginning in May 2025, Pennsylvanians will need a REAL ID, a passport, or military identification to board an airplane or enter a military base or federal building.

“Over a dozen states already allow noncitizens, including illegal immigrants, to obtain driver’s licenses,” said Cabell. Meanwhile, federal DHS (Department of Homeland Security) policy stipulates that states can offer REAL ID to those with TPS temporary protected status. Does Pennsylvania allow noncitizens with TPS to obtain a real ID?

Carroll said, “When it comes to REAL ID, I was in the House when the REAL ID was voted the first time, and I voted against it because I thought we had a REAL ID in Pennsylvania: it’s called a Pennsylvania driver’s license. (But) Pennsylvania complied with the federal requirement. I have the greatest level of faith in our Pennsylvania motor vehicle folks that those folks that are getting REAL IDs. About 20 percent of Pennsylvania drivers have a real ID at this point, have the documentation necessary to support that REAL ID.”

He mentioned the documentation can be challenging to obtain, especially for women who use their married name.

“But the issuance of REAL ID is not something that happens haphazardly in Pennsylvania,” said Carroll.

Cabell also mentioned ghost flights that drop off illegal immigrants at various locations in the middle of the night. Carroll said he did not know what ghost flights were.

“There was one that just happened. It was diverted into Philadelphia in December,” said Cabell. “The question is, are we positive that there are not people (who are) obtaining REAL IDs in other states, and entering into our state?”

Carroll didn’t know.

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), the Republican chair of the committee, also asked Carroll whether “the administration does support licenses for illegal immigrants.”

Carroll said, “With the necessary safeguards so that law enforcement can do its job.”

Grove also asked whether the Department of State, which handles voter services, interacts with PennDOT. Deputy Secretary Kara Templeton said the Department of State and the counties have access to the SURE voter registration system. Last fall, Shapiro began a program to register voters automatically when they sign up for a driver’s license.

Rep. Craig Williams (R-Chester/Delaware), a candidate for attorney general, also opposes giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Rep. Lisa Borowski (D-Newtown Square) said, “I look forward to learning more about the provisions of HB 769 when it is vetted through the committee process.”

 

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O’NEAL: Time for Big Ideas in Pennsylvania

This year has ushered in a lot of expensive talk in Harrisburg.

In just two months, we have seen Gov. Josh Shapiro and legislative Democrats push separate plans to increase taxpayer-funded spending by billions of dollars.

First, a partisan report from the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) called for a $5 billion increase in education funding. Not to be outdone, Gov. Shapiro followed up with a whopping state budget proposal that spends nearly $50 billion, an 8 percent increase over the current year. In response, we have already seen warnings from media organizations that expensive proposals like this will lead to massive tax increases on all Pennsylvanians.

So, here we are again. The age-old argument that the best medicine for Pennsylvania’s problems is to throw more tax dollars into the void. Problem: The courts decided the system by which we fund public education is unfair. Solution: Spend more money! Problem: Pennsylvania is economically uncompetitive. Solution: Spend more money

This thinking is akin to topping off the gas tank of a car with a broken engine. No amount of money is going to mysteriously raise the test scores by which we judge whether or not our kids are learning. And no amount of money is going to magically make Pennsylvania’s archaic business policies more attractive to job creators.

Gov. Shapiro continues to traverse the state, saying he wants to “get stuff done,” and in his budget address, he called on the legislature to do more to help Pennsylvania compete with our neighbors. But his actions say the opposite.

Whether it’s fighting to protect an unconstitutional tax in court that will stifle energy production and cause utility costs to skyrocket or caving to special interests by vetoing hundreds of millions of dollars for poor kids in low-achieving schools, the governor has shown he’s willing to talk the talk but then walk in the opposite direction.

With that said, lawmakers cannot just be “no” on everything. We need to start thinking big to address the issues facing our Commonwealth. Pennsylvania is not going to tax and spend its way to economic prosperity, but we are also not going to make people’s lives better by doing nothing.

Instead of enacting the governor’s plan and forcing tax increases on Pennsylvanians, why don’t we let folks keep more of their hard-earned money? Recently, I circulated a legislative memo to reduce the Personal Income Tax that has received bipartisan support. As costs continue to rise, people deserve to keep more of what they earn and not have to worry about increases in their tax bills.

Now is the time to make monumental changes to our education system because what we have is clearly not working for everyone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2021, Pennsylvania ranked in the top 12 in state spending per pupil. Furthermore, the Commonwealth Foundation points out that Pennsylvania’s per-pupil funding increased to $21,263 in the 2021-22 school year, up from 37.6 percent since 2013.

And while we have consistently increased state funding for education by record amounts over the years, we have continued to see students’ test scores lag. What if we gave students in underperforming schools that $21,000 and just see if they can’t find a better place to learn?

While we’re looking at how we fund public education, we should finally tackle property tax reform. For years, families and seniors on fixed incomes have had to deal with this ever-increasing burden. Now, as mortgage rates and home prices rise, young people can’t even begin to think about getting that first home at all. Property taxes are just another massive barrier preventing many from achieving what was once the pinnacle of the American Dream.

Finally, if we want Pennsylvania to compete economically with our neighbors, let’s put forth policy that actually puts us in their league. According to the Tax Foundation, Pennsylvania ranks 31st in tax competitiveness for job creators.

Let’s accelerate the reduction of the Corporate Net Income Tax, something Gov. Shapiro has said he supports, and let’s do it without anti-business poison pills like combined reporting. Let’s finally tackle real permitting reform with reasonable timelines for approval so that businesses can actually responsibly plan ahead in Pennsylvania.

If the governor wants to “get stuff done,” House Republicans are ready and willing. But he should come up with better ideas than emptying the state’s reserves and increasing taxes on Pennsylvanians. Now is the time for big change, so let’s “get it done.”

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Shapiro’s Budget Would Balloon Deficit to $6 Billion Plus, Watchdog Says

Hold on to your wallet.

The Commonwealth Foundation has come out with another critique of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed $48.3 billion 2024 budget. The organization says it will lead to a $2,000 tax increase for a family of four after state surpluses are drained.

Officials at the state’s free-market think tank say, if passed, this budget would expand Pennsylvania’s structural deficit to more than $6 billion by 2028. And that would bring significant tax increases, according to its research.

The budget includes $4.5 billion in new spending initiatives. It would take the surplus from $7 billion to less than $4 billion, a structural deficit of more than $4 billion for revenue versus spending, a think tank spokesman said. The structural deficit would drain the fund balance, eventually requiring a tax increase.

Shapiro would use the state’s general fund balance and then move on to the $7 billion Rainy Day Fund. However, state law says Pennsylvania’s Rainy Day Fund reserves “shall not be used to begin new programs but to provide for the continuation of vital public programs in danger of being eliminated or severely reduced due to financial problems resulting from the economy.”

Commonwealth officials said that Shapiro’s budget flouts this statute.

“Gov. Shapiro’s deficit projections seem deliberately misleading,” said Commonwealth Foundation Senior Vice President Nathan Benefield. “Pennsylvania has lost nearly 65,000 residents to other states over the last two years—working adults are leaving the commonwealth. Yet, the Shapiro administration believes the economy will surge and state revenues will exceed the IFO’s calculations by more than $850 million in fiscal years 2024–25 and 2025–26. The governor’s math doesn’t add up.”

Shapiro’s budget projections also put a rosy spin on revenue growth while underestimating spending increases. But the Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) calculations paint a different picture.

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, noted the surplus and Rainy Day Fund boost the state’s bond rating; if those are depleted, the bond rating would fall, increasing the cost of borrowing. The state would need to borrow from other entities to pay its obligations, whereas now it borrows from the Treasury. The current Rainy Day Fund is saving taxpayers $100 million in long-term debt costs, Grove said.

Reacting to the governor’s budget estimates, state Sen. Jarrett Colemen (R-Breiningsville) said, “The legislature should absolutely use the IFO’s revenue projections when determining what funds will be available. What’s more concerning is that even with the overly optimistic revenue projections offered by the governor, his spending levels would drain the Rainy Day Fund and all other reserves by the middle of 2027. Spending at that pace is completely irresponsible.”

Despite the governor’s promises, Shapiro’s budget outlook projects no increases in basic education funding after fiscal year 2024–25. This means the budget deficit will be about $4 billion higher than his forecast, Commonwealth officials claim.

Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the governor, defended Shapiro’s budget and disparaged the Commonwealth Foundation.

“Gov. Shapiro is focused on getting things done and creating opportunity for Pennsylvania families – not on poorly written press releases from special interest groups,” said Bonder.

“Gov. Shapiro doesn’t believe it should be a badge of honor for politicians to tax Pennsylvanians more than needed, just for over $14 billion to sit in a bank account in Harrisburg — the situation we find ourselves in now. The facts are clear: the governor’s budget is balanced, cuts taxes – doesn’t raise them – and even if every single thing in this proposal were enacted, we would still have an $11 billion surplus at the end of the day,” Bonder said.

Benefield disagreed.

“Pennsylvanians can’t afford the thousands more in taxes that Shapiro’s budget would heft upon them,” said Benefield. “Nor can they afford an administration that uses creative accounting to mask the true cost of the governor’s spending proposals. Our families deserve better than runaway government spending, increased deficits, depleted reserves, and tax hikes on working families.”

View the Commonwealth Foundation’s fact sheet here.

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CIARROCCHI: Children of a Lesser God

(This column first appeared in Broad + Liberty.)

The governor giveth, the governor taketh away.

On a positive note, during his annual budget address, Governor Shapiro called on the Republican Senate and the Democratic House to work together to pass Lifeline scholarships. They would allow low-income parents whose children attend the worst public schools in Pennsylvania to use scholarships to transfer to a better school. (In 2023, the problem was the House, run by Democrats: the Senate passed Lifeline.)

On a less positive note, the governor’s budget contains no money to pay for Lifeline.

The debate over school choice has become a national battle and, unfortunately, a partisan battle at times. Worse, some politicians and the teachers’ union pit parent against parent, student against student. As if some parents shouldn’t be allowed to have a choice, as if some kids should be forced to go to bad schools — just to prove a point. As if some kids are lesser.

Lifeline is a small, targeted program to help the poorest families, whose children are forced to attend the worst schools. (President Biden might say: “C’mon man.”)

In response to a Court ruling urging the Commonwealth to increase funding for public education — with a focus on students falling behind, attending chronically underperforming schools, the governor’s 2024-2025 proposed budget has the largest-ever annual increase in public education — over $1.5 billion.

(One might note that the governor’s proposal comes immediately after the 2023-2024 budget, which contained the largest increase in public education spending ever, almost $1 billion. That came one year after the 2022-2023 budget which contained the largest increase in public education spending. And so on.)

For those believing that more taxpayer money is needed for public schools: you got it.

Despite the teachers’ union and their special interests’ never-ending public relations campaign to confuse us, we do have several types of public schools in Pennsylvania. Most children attend schools operated by local school districts — what most people think of as “public schools.”

However, there are other public schools in Pennsylvania: charter schools. There are both the traditional school building type (“brick and mortar” schools) and cyber charter schools. While they are created and operated independently, they are funded by taxpayers, authorized to operate and regulated by school districts or the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and their budgets, assessments and board meeting minutes are all available to the public. They are public schools under state laws.

Over 68,000 Pennsylvania students attend a cyber charter school. Nearly 90,000 Pennsylvania children attend a “brick and mortar” charter school. Together, they are larger than the largest school district — Philadelphia School District, plus the Pittsburgh and Reading School Districts combined.

So, when the governor promised over $1.5 billion for public schools, you’d think that charter school parents would be cheering, too. Well, not so fast.

Because while the governor promised over $1.5 billion more for public education, he also proposed cutting cyber education by $262 million.

The governor giveth; the governor taketh away.

The governor’s argument is that cyber schools don’t need as much money for buildings as traditional public schools. At first, that may seem to have some validity. But, the facts and state law shows that, sadly, it’s rhetoric over reality — even putting aside the judge’s ruling urging more spending.

First, contrary to rhetoric and intentional confusion by special interests, cyber schools actually do in fact have buildings. It’s where the administrative officers are, where teachers teach, counselors meet, and students may go for additional help or tech support. Some larger cyber schools have multiple buildings or office space across the state, as Pennsylvania students may attend any cyber school. So, cybers do have buildings and building costs — despite not getting one penny of taxpayer money to get those buildings.

Second, yes by law, cybers are prohibited from using taxpayer money for their buildings. (They typically issue bonds, borrow from banks, or raise the money through donations to buy, build or retrofit buildings.) So, having prohibited cybers from using taxpayer money by law, it seems unfair and disingenuous to cut their education budgets by claiming they don’t need money for buildings.

Third, cybers — as is the case for “brick and mortar” charter schools — only get paid about 70-75 cents on the dollar of the local school district where the school is located to educate their students. The local school district gets to keep 25 to 30 percent of the money spent on education — allegedly to help with “administrative” or “support” costs, etc. So, school districts already get up to 30 percent of a student’s educational costs — for not educating a student — and now, this budget would give a cyber school actually educating the child even less?

(Pennsylvania’s charter school law was passed in 1997. Under state budgets up through 2011, school districts were paid an additional 30 percent of the cost of students who transferred out of a school district and into a charter school of any type. So, for fourteen years, they got 60 percent of the funding of students that they did not educate. Since 2012, they get up to 30 percent of the student’s education costs — again, for children they are not educating.)

I believe every child of God deserves a shot here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and one of the best ways we can guarantee their success is…a quality education. I’ve been very clear that I’m open to that concept that you described (school choice)…”

This is what Governor Shapiro told the nation live on television. It’s what he has repeated to the Wall Street Journal and to newspapers and radio and television stations across our state.

The governor attended Jewish Day School — a choice his parents made. (As did my parents, sending me and my brothers to Catholic School in South Philly.)

The governor and his wife send their children to Jewish Day School. (As my wife and I did for our children, by sending them to Catholic Schools in Chester County and Philadelphia.)

Many want to believe that the governor wants “every child of God” to have a shot — to be all they can, to reach their potential. He repeatedly says it. It’s how he has lived his life as a student and as a parent.

It’s time for him to step up and fight for all Pennsylvania children. Bring the parties together. Tell the teachers’ union to stand down — as many of them send their own children to charter, cyber, religious and private schools.

It’s time to stop dividing our children and positioning them as competitors — with one “stealing” money from the other. It’s time to recognize that most parents have “school choice” — they move or they pay for it; but, others don’t have any choice. So, cutting charter funding and failing to pass Lifeline reduces choices, which violates commonsense and compassion.

It’s time for the budget and our laws to match the governor’s soaring rhetoric.

Otherwise, we may have no choice but to assume that cyber students, charter students, and public school students trying to escape the worst schools in Pennsylvania are “children of a lesser god.”