Key stories in the Keystone State

Four issues Pennsylvania’s political press should stay on

PENNSYLVANIA — Political reporters and commentators here will continue to ponder, as the Philadelphia Inquirer did on November 9, Pennsylvania’s future swing state status. Even so, there are other key issues confronting the Keystone State and its political press corps—issues that will continue to be clouded by inflamed rhetoric and political money.

Here are four evolving stories Pennsylvania’s political reporters should continue to cover closely in the days and months ahead:

1. Voter Access. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson in October delayed Pennsylvania’s voter ID requirement, he didn’t kill it. Elections next year are set (though not certain) to be the first with the law—requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls—in place.

So, how will that work? What issues will arise? And how does Pennsylvania’s evolving voter ID story fit into the broader story of voter access around the country? There will be many threads here for reporters to follow.

This year, election rights advocates expressed concerns—both before and after November 6—over how misinformation and confusion stemming from the not-yet-in-effect law may have affected voter turnout here. Voters faced a “cyclone of confusion created by Pennsylvania’s voter ID law,” wrote the Allentown Morning Call on Election Day, though the paper described area turnout as “brisk” nonetheless.

Turns out, Pennsylvania was one of two key states to “report a material decline in turnout” this year from 2008, as the New York Times’s Nate Silver wrote on November 12. The relative lack of attention paid to the state by the presidential campaigns was likely a factor here. What were others, and, was confusion around voter ID among them?

Democratic state lawmakers have called for investigations, citing reports of voter ID-related confusion at polling places and the high number of provisional ballots, and the ACLU and NAACP, among other groups, are “gearing up to reverse the [ID] law.”

Election Day results didn’t really surprise. As with past presidential elections, margins in Philadelphia offset Republican victories nearly everywhere else. In 59 Philadelphia voting divisions, Romney got zero votes, “the kind of numbers that set Republicans into paroxysms of voter-fraud, angst,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer in an interesting door-knocking story, but “may not be so startling after all” given, as a political science professor told the paper, “ ‘these dense urban corridors that are extremely Democratic’.”

But, with the state tantalizingly within Republican reach every four years, and the confusion surrounding the implementation of the voter ID law, expect the “voting wars” to carry on here. Reporters will need to follow closely.

2. Black Gold and Texas Tea. Well, not exactly. Oil wasn’t a key issue in the 2012 election, but coal and natural gas both played roles and promise to be players in the coming years in this and other swing states.

Coal-fueled ads (and campaign rhetoric) were all over the Pennsylvania airwaves this fall, courtesy of Tom Smith, the Republican who lost his bid to unseat US Sen. Robert Casey and, in the campaign’s final week, from the Romney campaign (reminding Western Pennsylvania that he “likes” coal). The rhetoric did not stop on November 6. The country’s largest privately-owned coal mining company announced layoffs (largely in Ohio and Utah) the day after Election Day, “blaming,” as the Washington Post reported, “a ‘war on coal’ by the Obama administration,” a “charge…repeatedly leveled during the election,” the Post noted, although “energy analysts say that the coal-mining business is suffering because of competition from low-cost natural gas and rising production costs of coal.” More challenges are certainly ahead for the industry in this state and others.

At the same time, the burgeoning natural gas industry promises more jobs, cheaper energy, and concerns about both its environmental cost and how much it pays—or doesn’t pay—in state taxes. “Gas drilling,” as a recent AP headline had it, “presents President Barack Obama with historic choices” (a Pennsylvania government official is quoted in the piece expressing “concern” over potential federal regulations on oil and gas development in the state).

Covering these topics well already is StateImpact, a collaboration of NPR and member stations. StateImpact has explained issues from abandoned Pennsylvania wells and new job training to the political activism of companies themselves and the impact of shale gas development on other industries, such as plastics. News outlets here should take note.

How these industries develop and change will impact how voters behave and who spends money to influence that vote. The intersection of energy and politics in this state will continue to demand journalistic attention.

3. Budget Woes While the federal government faces scheduled budget changes that could, if they occur, affect Pennsylvanians—and will require attentive coverage by reporters here—the state has its own budgetary challenges ahead. News outlets will need to beef up budget-related reporting.

Pension costs are pegged to climb by more than 40 percent in each of the next two state budgets. Local governments—from Scranton to Harrisburg—face significant fiscal challenges. Public education funding is also under stress and the state’s higher education system faces a possible strike by professors.

Pennsylvania’s auditor general recently invoked a looming “financial cliff” to “sound the alarm,” as the Reading Eagle (via AP) reported, “over the rising debt piling onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.” Chances are, this won’t be the last time a “cliff” is invoked by a politician or government official “sounding alarms,” and reporters here must be ready to help readers navigate that rhetoric and understand where alarm is actually warranted—and why. (See this piece by CJR’s Greg Marx on problems with the “fiscal cliff” metaphor.)

5. Vice Squad. Finally, reporters should stay on top of developments related to the state’s lottery, liquor stores, and increasing reliance on casino gambling.

Some lawmakers are interested in farming out the state’s lottery, a cash machine that earmarks its net proceeds toward programs for senior citizens. It’s unclear how much traction this will gain.

The privatize-it train has already left the station over the state’s monopoly on liquor sales. The battle has a wide range of advocates—smaller government types, wine connoisseurs, and more—but unionized workers have been pretty successful in keeping the effort at bay.

Meanwhile, five companies are battling over a second Philadelphia casino location, with some wanting the city itself to get into the act. Pennsylvania was slow to the casino gambling table, seeing them grow in bordering New Jersey, Delaware, and West Virginia first. But it’s now a $3 billion business and climbing. The gambling industry’s a player here.

Here’s hoping Pennsylvania’s political media meets the many reporting challenges ahead. Pennsylvanians are counting on it.

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Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.