PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Court Election Fixes – Point To Democrats; Court Overturns COVID Orders – Point To Republicans
After all the back and forth about what to do on election law fixes, the PA Supreme Court stepped in last week and gave what many saw as a win for Democrats.
On September 17, the Court handed down rulings on several key election issues–
— Knocked Green Party Presidential Candidate Howie Hawkins off the ballot, to the delight of Democrats who thought he would take votes from Joe Biden like the Green candidate did in 2016;
— Gave counties more time to count mail-in ballots [but nothing before the election to get ballots ready to count]; and
— Approved the use of mail-in ballot drop boxes by counties to make it easier for voters to return ballots, something House Republicans said is illegal. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who litigated the cases, called it a “victory for voters,” and “… (it) will help ensure that every eligible voter will more easily be able to cast their ballot and have it counted fairly.” Read more here.
Senate Republicans said, “This ruling is not about ensuring fair elections – it is about allowing one party to steal this election. Under the Constitution, the responsibility to determine the times, places and manner of elections lies solely within the legislative process.” Read more here.
House Republicans said, “Today’s decision makes Pennsylvania’s elections less secure and opens the door to serious questions about the integrity of the process in one of the most significant national and state elections in recent memory. Even more concerning is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has once again normalized the Wolf administration’s disrespect for the Constitution, the rule of law and the voice of the people.” Read more here.
Some believe the Court ruling will sour any attempt at making any more changes to the state election law that counties clearly want to happen, but that fight may not be over. Read more here.
House Bill 2626 (Moul-R-Adams)– the Republican version of election changes– is in the Senate Appropriations Committee all ready for the Senate when it returns this week.
The bill contains many of the things counties wanted, including pre-processing of mail-in ballots (not pre-election day counting), but Gov. Wolf has promised to veto the bill as it stands now.
Senate Republicans said they hope to restart negotiations with the Wolf Administration [Read more here]. Gov. Wolf was again pressing the General Assembly for action via another press event on the subject. Read more here.
Republicans Celebrate COVID Court Win
Republicans did have some good news from courts last week. They hailed a federal court decision on September 14 that struck down as unconstitutional Gov. Wolf’s business closure order (no defunct) and the limits on how many people can gather in one place (250).
The court said it believed the Wolf Administration was “well-intended” in trying to protect the public from the virus, but, “The liberties protected by the Constitution are not fair-weather freedoms– in place when times are good but able to cast aside in times of trouble.” Read more here.
Senate Republicans said, “The courts have validated what we have been saying all along – Governor Wolf’s arbitrary and open-ended decisions violate the Constitution. The founding fathers established a system of checks and balances that – even in an emergency – can and do function within the bounds of the Constitution.” Read more here.
Gov. Wolf responded by saying the ruling will, of course, be appealed, “There’s no sense debating a ruling that will be appealed. Two of three federal judges upheld what we did.
“But what’s not up for debate is that our early and decisive action saved lives. While the federal government dithered, Pennsylvania took action. Our hospitals were never overwhelmed
“So would we, in hindsight, do some things differently? Of course.
“Would I follow the irresponsible demands of the President or the Republican legislature? Absolutely not.” Read more here.
On September 17, Attorney General Josh Shapiro did file papers in federal court asking for a stay in the court’s ruling.
He also requested the court to allow the crowd size limits to stay, for now, warning allowing large groups to gather “will result in people’s deaths” from COVID. Read more here.
Read here why Wolf’s appeal of the court decision may succeed.
The Department of Health reminded Pennsylvanians the primary orders issued to protect the public health remain in place, regardless of the federal court ruling. Read more here.
On September 18, in response to the court ruling, the Department of Education issued new guidance to K-12 schools related to parents and fans at sports games urging schools to voluntarily follow the state’s earlier guidance of attendance limits of 250 outdoors and 25 for indoors. Read more here.
Meanwhile, House Bill 2787 (Reese-R-Westmoreland) making school districts the sole “decider” about how to handle sports-related issues during a pandemic is sitting on Gov. Wolf’s desk. He has until September 21 to sign or veto or let the bill become law.
The bill was passed by more than enough votes to override a Wolf veto, if the Democrats stick with the bill and vote against their Governor.
Gov. Wolf also asked– again– for action by the General Assembly on spending the over $1 billion in federal CARES funding the state still has left to support hazard pay for front-line workers. Read more here.
PA COVID Orders Saved Lives
On September 16, well-timed comments from the University of Pittsburgh Public Health Dynamics Lab said its work shows the measures Pennsylvania put in place early to deal with the COVID pandemic saved thousands of lives.
Mark Roberts, the Director of the Lab, said, “It clearly has saved lives, no question at all. It’s easy to project that there would be two to three times the deaths, at a minimum, with less social distancing.” Read more here.
The House last week passed the Religious Freedom Act– House Bill 2530 (Owlett-R- Tioga)– which prohibits the infringement of the right to assemble and worship during a disaster emergency. The effort was led by Republicans who wanted to make a political point. Read more here.
None of the state limits on gathering sizes ever applied to religious gatherings from the beginning of the pandemic in Pennsylvania and no places of worship were shut down by state pandemic-related orders.
Gov. Wolf did, however, encourage religious leaders to exercise discretion in order to mitigate the spread of illness.”
As one article said, “Pennsylvania churches were never shut down. So why are lawmakers wasting time to keep them open?” Read more here.
On September 17, Gov. Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Levine signed the orders increasing allowable occupancy from 25 to 50 percent for indoor dining at restaurants and bars due to take effect September 21. Read more here.
In a surprise move, Gov. Wolf moved the deadline for last call for alcoholic beverages from 10:00– which bar and restaurant owners hated– to 11:00 p.m.
Western Pennsylvania restaurant owners were not impressed, saying, “It really doesn’t help,” others said the extra hour helps a little. Read more here.
Counties Of Concern
Gov. Wolf last week listed these counties of most concern in terms of growing numbers of COVID cases– Columbia (13.4 percent), Indiana (10.7 percent), Juniata (10.3 percent), Centre (9.2 percent), York (7.4 percent), Fulton (6.7 percent), Armstrong (6.5 percent), Chester (6.5 percent), Butler (6.2 percent), Franklin (6.2 percent), Montour (6.2 percent), Beaver (5.7 percent), Clarion (5.5 percent), Mercer (5.4 percent), Dauphin (5.2 percent), Greene (5.1 percent), and Lycoming (5.1 percent). Five percent or more is bad. Read more here.
The statewide percent positivity for COVID increased to 4.2 percent from 4.0 percent.
The Department of Health also removed Hawaii, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas from the list of states they recommend travelers self-quarantine when they return and added Nebraska and Wisconsins. Read more here. Read more here.
It was another see-saw week last week as elementary and secondary schools and colleges opened and closed, suspended sports programs, instituted quarantines and switched to remote learning as they adjust their COVID plans on the fly.
The big news was the Big Ten college sports conglomerate announced September 16 it would be resuming football games the third week in October. Read more here.
No packed stadiums and no tailgating, but in Penn State’s hometown of State College businesses may see some relief, but restrictions remain in place so it will still be a challenge. Read more here.
The announcement was made on the same day Penn State Athletics announced a single-round high for COVID cases with 50 new positives. Read more here.
Click Here if you want to get an idea of how schools and colleges are reacting to COVID cases. Look for “Schools” and “Colleges” in the NewsClips.
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,862 deaths on September 12 to 7,956 on September 19. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 143,805 cases on September 12 to 149,845 on September 19.
The Senate had a fourth employee test positive for COVID last week and as a result, all public tours of the Capitol in Harrisburg were suspended, although the building remains open to the public. Read more here.
Unemployment Drops In August
For the week September 6 to 12, there were 21,747 unemployment claims, down slightly from 22,626 last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056. Read more here.
On September 16, representatives of the Department of Revenue painted a “challenging” picture of state revenue and economic conditions over the next two to four years as Pennsylvania’s economy recovers from the COVID pandemic.
They made their remarks at a hearing of the House Finance Committee. Click Here to watch the hearing.
Amy Gill, Deputy Secretary for Tax Policy, said gross state product will not return to 2019 levels until 2022 and unemployment levels are not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2025.
Most appropriations folks believe the General Assembly will have to somehow make up a $4 billion to $5 billion deficit — made worse by increasing costs for medical and human services– whenever they complete work on the FY 2020-21 state budget.
The interim budget adopted in May by lawmakers runs out November 30 when the legislative session formally ends.
But no one is really talking about how to deal with the budget yet– hoping still– Congress will bailout states and local governments.
Gov. Wolf and Lt. Gov. Fetterman were again pushing legalization of adult use of recreational marijuana last week, but that’s DOA in the Republican Senate and House. Read more here.
So as we said, pick your budget nightmare!
Gaming Revenue Up
On September 16, the PA Gaming Control Board reported August revenue from all sources of gaming actually beat August of 2019 numbers by 5.89 percent, proving once again it takes more than a pandemic to keep gamblers from gambling. Read more here.
In their tag-team approach to lawmaking these days, the Senate is in voting session September 21, 22 and 23 and the House is off until September 29.
As noted, the Senate has election reform legislation and a few other issues they could do as well as a full slate of committee meetings this week. Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.
It is, afterall, coming down to the mandatory end of session November 30, so it’s the last chance lobbyists will have to move bills before they all die [the bills].
The House is off this week, but committees have several hearings and informational sessions on issues related to the Wolf Administration’s COVID response (House Republicans), eviction (House Democrats) and police reform (House Democrats). Click Here for the full House schedule.
We’ll see what else the Senate comes up with to do this week
[Posted: Sept. 20, 2020]