PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: 5-Month State Budget Puts Off Hard Decisions Until After Nov. 3 Election
The Senate and House passed and Gov. Wolf signed into law a $25.75 billion FY 2020-21 budget last week on one of the earliest dates for enacting a budget since Tom Ridge was Governor.
The bad news– it’s only a five month budget and lawmakers and the Governor put off all the hard decisions until after the November 3 election when they hope the Commonwealth’s financial picture will be a little clearer.
The budget is based on FY 2019-20 numbers and makes cuts of 50 percent or more in appropriations to carry agencies through November 30, the new budget deadline, and the constitutionally mandated end of the 2019-20 legislative session.
Primary, special and higher education institutions are funded at full year amounts based on FY 2019-20 numbers, some of the only exceptions to the five month budget cuts.
Budgeteers also found what they hope is a solution to stopping an instant $300 million increase in school property taxes by allocating federal COVID-19 recovery money to pay for local homestead tax exemptions which normally come from the state’s casino revenue. Read more here.
Estimates now are the state is looking at a budget deficit of somewhere around $5 billion, but that could change up or down in five months both from the standpoint of revenues collected and increased costs.
For example, Medicaid added 49,852 people to the rolls from March to April in 2020 far exceeding 2019’s 9,668. Read more here.
The Senate and House have also not decided on whether they will chip in their $172 million surplus from their own operations for the cause or even freeze their own pay which automatically goes up every year with inflation. Read more here.
Both are symbolic actions for sure, but every little bit helps!
Also unknown is whether there will be another round of federal assistance to sure up states, local governments, school districts and agencies like PennDOT which have all suffered revenue losses as a result of COVID-19 shutdowns.
The Democratic U.S. House passed another $3 trillion stimulus that would aid state and local governments, but its future is unknown in the Republican U.S. Senate. Read more here.
Some Pennsylvania newspapers are also beginning to editorialize about the timing of the real FY 2020-21 state budget.
They are urging the Senate, House and Governor to finish work on the state budget before the November 3 election, so voters get to see the hard choices they make and hold them accountable at the polls, rather than rely on lame ducks with no accountability after the election. Read more here.
IFO Revenue Report
On May 26, the Independent Fiscal Office released its latest revenue projections showing the FY 2019-20 General Fund revenue estimate is now $31.8 billion or $3.7 billion below the IFO’s estimate in June of last year– $35.518 billion.
The enacted FY 2019-20 General Fund budget totaled $33.997 billion.
$2.1 billion of the FY 2019-20 reduction is the result of the shift of tax payment deadlines to July 15 which means a net decrease of revenue of about $1.6 billion due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. Read more here.
Of course this will all change as more information comes in on COVID-19 budget impacts.
Ending COVID-19 Emergency Order
House Republicans took the first step toward ending the heart of Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency order by passing House Concurrent Resolution 836 (Diamond-R-Lebanon) and moving it to the Senate
Ten Democrats sided with Republicans in passing the resolution. Read more here.
The resolution would end treating essential and non-essential businesses differently under the order and effectively allow all businesses to open under COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.
Republicans believe, if passed by the Senate, the resolution will go into effect immediately. The Wolf Administration disagrees, pointing to a provision in the state constitution requiring presentment of all concurrent resolutions to the Governor for his action.
House Republicans also passed several bills to reopen specific kinds of businesses as they have done the last few weeks.
Surprise! 3 House Rs Quarantined
Just hours prior to the vote on the resolution, a political firestorm erupted in the House when Republicans Rep. Andrew Lewis (R-Dauphin) announced, via press statement, he had tested positive for COVID-19 and had just ended a self-quarantine period.
Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon), one of the leaders of Republican efforts to reopen everything, followed Lewis’ announcement with one of his own saying he was just finishing self-quarantine because he was exposed to someone with COVID-19.
It was later revealed a third member– Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon)– was also in self-quarantine due to exposure to someone with COVID-19. He too was a leader in the reopen everything effort.
House Republicans failed to tell Democrats anything about any of these cases even though their members served at committee meetings and on the floor with the Republicans who many times failed to wear protective masks. Read more here.
Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia), a healthcare lawyer, posted what NBC News called an “epic rant” on his Facebook page assailing Republicans’ secrecy and failure to disclose the cases he said put him, his family and constituents at risk. Read more here.
Republicans tried to defend their secrecy by saying they were following their personnel rules, but Democrats were not having any of it and tried, and failed, to adjourn the House to allow time to sort things out.
During the debate, an unnamed Republican allegedly called Rep. Sims “a little girl” for his reaction to the whole situation. [Rep. Sims is the first openly gay member of the House.]
Finally, after an extended, raucous debate on the House Floor, House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) disagreed with the Republican defense up to that point– that they were just following the rules– and said if he was in that position he would immediately self-disclose and quarantine and he thought all members should.
He also said he was not personally aware of the COVID-19 status of the House members named. Read more here.
An editorial by the conservative Tribune Review in Westmoreland County on May 29 called the Republican secrecy over their COVID-19 cases “unconscionable” and “abhorrent.”
“If we have reached a point in Harrisburg where it is not necessary to inform the opposition party that they may have been exposed to a potentially fatal disease, politics has turned down a blind alley from which there is no return.” Read more here.
Rule changes are now being discussed in the House and at least one Senator has suggested a rule change there to make disclosures and more apply to members and staff. Read more here.
16 More Green Counties
On May 29, after the House vote on the Resolution, Gov. Tom Wolf announced 16 additional counties will take another step forward and move to Green Phase effective 12:01 a.m., June 5. The counties include Allegheny, Armstrong, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Clinton, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Indiana, Lycoming, Mercer, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland. Read more here.
The Governor also announced the Department of Education would be issuing guidelines next week on reopening schools in the Fall and was emphatic that they would open.
At the same time, he said schools may operate differently with fewer students in classrooms and more online learning, but they would reopen. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf also said his Administration is doing everything it can to avoid a general shut down of businesses in the Fall, if there is a second round of COVID-19. He said planning is underway now to ramp up the availability of testing and putting in place an aggressive contact tracing program.
PA Supreme Court Ends Emergency
On May 27, the PA Supreme Court announced the statewide judicial emergency prompted by COVID-19 would end effective June 1. Read more here.
The Court issued an order authorizing local courts to extend or declare local judicial emergencies to respond to local conditions. Read more here.
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 5,139 on May 25 to 5,555 on May 31. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 68,186 on May 25 to 71,926 on May 31.
As of May 28, a total of 1,960,728 Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment since March 15, the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. That number is up 45,987 from May 21.
On May 28, the Department of Labor and Industry announced it had uncovered a massive, multi-state unemployment scam where up to 58,000 stolen identities were used to fraudulently apply for unemployment benefits. Read more here.
State Treasurer Joe Torsella Thursday announced he would be temporarily paying all unemployment claims by check to combat the fraud. Read more here.
Among the stolen IDs was apparently Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumerland) who received more than $7,000 in unemployment compensation checks in her mailbox she did not apply for. Read more here.
Overtime Resolution Vetoed
The Senate last week passed House Concurrent Regulatory Review Resolution #1 in a party line vote– Republicans supporting– blocking new state overtime rules from taking effect and sent the resolution to the Governor for his action.
On May 29, Gov. Wolf vetoed the resolution saying the General Assembly failed to comply with the Regulatory Review Act as it considered the resolution and took its actions beyond the deadlines established in that law. Read more here.
Barring an override attempt by the Senate and House and further legal action, the Department of Labor and Industry’s new overtime regulation will go into effect following publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.
The regulations expand the eligibility for overtime to 143,000 new workers in the state. Read more here.
Liquor Privatization Redux
The bill would close all the state-owned liquor stores, privatize the wholesale liquor system and create private outlets for liquor.
This legislation is similar to House Bill 466 (Turzai-R-Allegheny) vetoed by Gov. Wolf in 2015.
In a press statement, Rep. O’Neal said, “When Gov. Tom Wolf shutdown the liquor stores, he almost returned Pennsylvania to Prohibition and showed us why government should never be in control of alcohol sales.
“Grocery stores and restaurants quickly and efficiently found ways to adapt to the pandemic while the PLCB, at Wolf’s direction, caused mass mayhem and turned Pennsylvanians into modern-day bootleggers.”
PennLive.com reported the last state to privatize its liquor system– ironically Washington, which was the initial heart of the COVID-19 outbreak– is apparently having a case of buyer’s remorse and wants a do-over, according to one study. Read more here.
Clergy Abuse Of Children
Rep. Mark Rozzi (R-Lehigh), who was abused by a priest in the Allentown Catholic diocese as a child, filed a lawsuit Tuesday he hopes will get around the statute of limitations for victims to file claims for child abuse. Read more here.
Rep. Rozzi, who has been trying to get the statute of limitations changed, is relying on a August state Superior Court ruling that allowed a similar lawsuit based on new information from the 2016 grand jury report on statewide child abuse by Catholic clergy commissioned by the Attorney General.
June 2 Primary Election
As of May 28, 1.26 million Democrats and 520,000 Republicans have applied for mail-in ballots for the June 2 Primary election. Read more here.
Counties all across the state are worried about counting all those mail-in ballots in a reasonable period of time, whether all the ballots will even be received by the deadline– 8:00 p.m. on election day– whether voters will find new polling places reduced in number by COVID-19, whether poll workers will all show up, how the new voting machines will work– you get the idea.
This could all be a slow motion train wreck, but one thing is for sure, county officials are trying their best under difficult and unusual circumstances.
But, whatever happens, it will be a preview for the November 3 main event.
Some Good News
PennDOT reported the number of fatal vehicle crashes in 2019– 1,059– was the lowest since record-keeping began in 1928. There were also 131 fewer deaths on state highways compared to 2018. Read more here.
The House and Senate both take a week off for the June 2 Primary election and do not return to voting session until June 8, 9 and 10.
With the FY 2020-21 state budget “done,” they will now have to find other interesting things to do.