News & Politics

Our picks for stories of the year

City & State’s most popular stories and what they mean to our coverage

A Pennsylvania State Police vehicle.

A Pennsylvania State Police vehicle. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In Harrisburg, 2023 was marked by budget disputes and a political tug-of-war for control of the state House, but the year also presented new challenges and opportunities for a commonwealth looking to transition into a new digital age. 

Pennsylvania schools and law enforcement agencies were forced to respond to a series of so-called “swatting” threats in March 2023, consisting of false reports of bombs and active shooters to school districts in multiple counties. According to the FBI, the term “swatting” refers to hoax calls to 911 that are designed to elicit a law enforcement response, usually from a swat team. The calls typically cost thousands of dollars per response, and their occurrence in Pennsylvania this year highlights the new challenges that technology can present to government entities and law enforcement. 

Shortly following the threats, City & State put together an explainer examining the basics of swatting, with additional context from the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI. The story also noted how one state lawmaker quickly introduced a proposal seeking to strengthen criminal penalties for swatting crimes.

Another set of issues in the digital realm that lawmakers began discussions on in 2023 – and may be forced to act on in the not-too-distant future – are matters related to consumer data privacy and social media regulation. In September, the state House Commerce Committee held a public hearing on data privacy and whether to establish a set of data privacy rights for Pennsylvania consumers. 

That hearing on that bill, as well as action on a separate Senate bill seeking to establish social media protections for children, could foreshadow future action on these issues in the months and years to come.

That’s not to say there wasn’t any action on the digital front this year. In September, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed an executive order outlining standards for the state’s use of artificial intelligence, and he also established a Generative AI Governing Board to recommend “guidance and direction on the design, development, procurement, and deployment of Generative AI” in state agencies – which likely isn’t the last we’ve heard on AI from state and federal lawmakers. 

In 2023, Pennsylvania saw the first homes in the state repaired or weatherized using funds from the Whole-Home Repairs program, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by state Sen. Nikil Saval that secured $125 million in federal funds from last year’s budget. 

Our piece on the initiative’s implementation detailed how the program works, but also illustrated how the program could show up in the future. When we covered Whole-Home Repairs in August, similar programs were being introduced or reviewed in other states, and U.S. Sen. John Fetterman had shown interest in introducing a federal version of the initiative. The first-of-its-kind legislation garnered widespread demand from residents and support for consistent funding going forward. 

-Justin Sweitzer, Managing Editor

I appreciated the human angle in our coverage of Whole-Home Repairs. The Thompson family – whose home was the first Whole-Home Repairs project completed – shared a relief that illustrated why the program is such a big deal to Pennsylvanians. But it remains to be seen whether the state can keep up with the program’s high demand. An additional $50 million for the program was included in the state budget passed in August, but it was not included in the code bills passed Dec. 13 to accompany and implement the budget. Families are frustrated by long waitlists and lower-than-expected grant amounts – certainly issues to watch in 2024. 

Workforce development was another area we had our eyes on this year, and one that also received plenty of bipartisan attention. Lawmakers approved nearly $30 million total for workforce training, vo-tech programs and apprenticeship programming. In response to workforce shortages, a changing economy and an aging population, numerous initiatives boosting alternatives to traditional college drew legislative support. 

Our September piece on these increasingly available alternatives helped me understand the variety of options that are out there in the commonwealth – from ‘earn-as-you-learn’ paid apprenticeships within labor unions to financial assistance at technical colleges to partnerships between businesses and schools. 

As lawmakers and the private sector continue attempts to solve Pennsylvania’s workforce shortage in 2024, I am sure City & State will keep pace with them, continuing to break down what each attempt means for the people of the commonwealth. 

-Jordan Brignol, Associate Editor

Over the past 12 months, we have published hundreds of stories, from breaking news to deep dives, legislation primers to winners and losers. Out of all of those articles, these are the ones that have stuck with our staff throughout the year. We hope you enjoy reading (and rereading them) as much as we did reporting on them.

The two stories I chose each showcase what I feel makes City & State tick: our ability to not just cover a topic that would otherwise be ignored or given short shrift, and to explain the underlying issues and the people addressing them. 

In May, we published one of a series of articles exploring how the public and private sectors were addressing the ongoing crisis faced by communities lacking consistent and affordable broadband access. This particular story delved into how the state’s Broadband Development Authority was potentially causing the state to lose out on millions in federal funding by failing to identify broadband needs. Featuring a primer on the overall situation, including how regions are impacted by lack of service and the obstacles to improving access, this article also spotlighted the players on all sides – and how the communities most impacted by inadequate or nonexistent access continue to suffer in the absence of forward progress.

In August, we published an explainer on skill games and the growing debate caused by their expanding presence in establishments across the state. As part of our continuing reporting on the role of skill games in the gambling firmament and in the state’s revenue forecasts, this article breaks down how polarizing these video machines have become – and who stands to profit and lose in the battle over their existence. A history on gaming in the state, a breakdown on budget implications and a table-setting for how the issue will impact 2024 make this a paragon of City & State reporting. 

-Greg Salisbury, Editor

Here at City & State, we cover everything from politics and power players to policy and personality. An integral part of that responsibility is following candidates and campaigns that could shape laws and party balance, particularly in key areas of the state. One region that found itself in headlines throughout the year was Bucks County. 

The Bucks County Commissioner race was closely followed, not only because it was seen as a barometer for the commonwealth’s suburbs and which way the state was leaning but also as a referendum on the national social topics – and the self-described “parental rights” movement – making their way into county and school board races. In an Aug. 28 story, we detailed an internal document within the Democratic Party that expressed concerns with voter registration and fundraising numbers for the party within the county. The fundraising and voter registration trends, which seemed to be favoring Republicans, ultimately didn’t sway the election in the party’s favor, as Democrats were able to keep control of the county board of commissioners. At the same time, Democrats won all five seats up for grabs in the Central Bucks School District, taking the reins from a Republican-majority board that took over in 2021 and approved a policy that allows community members to request that books be removed from school libraries for “inappropriate” content. 

These stories stand out as a clear indicator of the state of Pennsylvania politics as well as the responsibility that reporters, like us at City & State, have to investigate leads and inform readers of the objective truth based on the facts given and the context around them. These two stories also highlight the differences between online narratives and on-the-ground realities. The stories that dominate television news shows or social media feeds often don’t reflect the true environment on the ground, and even expert perspectives need to be considered cautiously given the situation they’re presented in. Only on Election Day can we truly see whether party and candidates’ concerns or trending public opinions play out in real-time, and what the results could mean for the commonwealth going forward. 

Regardless, coverage of hyperlocal issues and school board meetings comes as a full-circle moment for many in journalism who began their internships or early careers covering largely forgotten school board meetings years before they make the headlines they do today. It’s our job as reporters to provide necessary insight into campaigns and insider politics, but also the larger trends surrounding elections and whether or not top officials’ promises or prognostications ring true. There’s always room for improvement. We can take many lessons away from our top stories and the new developments from 2023, but above all else, our responsibility to go beyond getting the headlines – to go into communities and share stories of the people impacted by the politics – remains. And we look forward to uncovering that and more in 2024. 

-Harrison Cann, Senior Reporter