PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: COVID-19 Emergency Continues, Early Budget Talk, Police Reform Bills Move
The PA Supreme Court last week turned aside Senate Republican attempts to end the COVID-19 emergency declared by Gov. Wolf saying simply— in 40 pages– Republicans didn’t follow the state constitution.
As Gov. Wolf has said all along, the resolution Senate and House Republicans passed ending the emergency was not presented to the Governor for his action and the state constitution requires “presentment” to the Governor. Read more here.
Senate Republicans called the decision a “titanic shift in power” and noted they had already started the process to amend the constitution to limit the Governor’s emergency authority.
House Republicans said they will “continue to work on helping Pennsylvanians rebuild and recover from the Governor’s decisions.”
Virus Cases Increase
Last week Pennsylvania saw an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases, particularly in Allegheny County, Philadelphia, Dauphin and Lancaster counties, as restrictions were eased over the last few weeks. Read more here.
Allegheny County health officials called the increases ‘truly alarming’ and reimposed bans on on-premises alcohol consumption and recommended quarantine for travelers coming back to the County from states where virus cases have increased dramatically. Read more here.
While Philadelphia moved into the Green Phase of reopening, they kept restrictions banning indoor dining and will not allow bars, gyms and fitness centers to reopen. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf and the state Health Department followed up by issuing an expanded order requiring masks to be worn whenever anyone leaves home and goes to a public space [Read more here] and recommended a 14-day self-quarantine period for state residents returning from 15 states seeing dramatic increases in the number of COVID-19 cases [Read more here].
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 6,606 deaths on June 28 to 6,753 on July 5. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 85,496 cases on June 28 to 89,854 cases on July 5.
From March 15 to July 1, the total number of unemployment claims were 2,237,204, up from 2,190.224 last week.
Regional unemployment numbers reported last week show reductions in May of around 3 percent– Lehigh Valley dropped 3 points to 13.8 percent; Erie fell 3.4 points to 13.8 percent; Wilkes-Barre/ Scranton dropped 2.9 points to 15.5 percent; and Lancaster fell 3.8 points to 11.4 percent, but that’s still triple last year’s number.
Two lawmakers– Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington) and Rep. Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery)– wrote a letter to House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) asking for the House Committee on Oversight to conduct an investigation into the state’s unemployment system failures during the COVID-10 pandemic. Read more here.
$225M To Help Businesses/Deadline Short
July 9 is the last day to apply for the first round of grants from the $225 million in federal CARES Funding to help small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Small businesses need to apply through local Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). Read more here.
A FOX43/Susquehanna Polling and Research released last Monday found 49 percent of registered or likely voters said they approve of Gov. Wolf’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, while 42 percent disapprove.
A poll by FOX43/Susquehanna Polling and Research in April showed 68 percent of respondents approved of Wolf’s management of the pandemic, while 18 percent disapproved.
Trump/Biden: Monday’s poll found 46 percent of respondents said they would definitely or probably vote for Joe Biden for President, while 41 percent said they would definitely or probably vote for a second term of Trump.
April’s poll had Biden with a bigger lead— 48 to 42 percent– over Trump.
Dedicated Funds First Target Of Nov. Budget
On July 1, House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said Republicans will be first looking to raid dedicated funds and divert revenue streams going into those funds to balance the state’s budget in November when the five month budget they passed in May runs out.
He made the comments on the July 1 WITF Smart Talk Program [about 26 minutes in] when asked how Republicans would make up a $4 or $5 billion state budget deficit in November.
Speaker Cutler said, “Our goal is to more closely align our expenditures with the revenue that’s coming in. And that obviously could mean cuts for retooling of some programs. It also should mean though I think using the surpluses that we already have available.
“There are special accounts and lapse funds that the governor has control of that number into the hundreds of millions of dollars. That should be the first place that we look.”
In March, Gov. Wolf used authority given to him by the General Assembly to transfer $30 million from the Underground Storage Tank Indemnification Fund to be part of the $50 million program to purchase medical equipment needed to fight COVID-19.
PPA has been working to make sure those funds are repaid and will be educating House and Senate members of the importance of keeping the USTIF insurance fund whole.
FY 2019-20 $3.2 Billion Short
On July 1, the Department of Revenue reported Pennsylvania ended the 2019-20 fiscal year with revenues $3.2 billion, or 9.1 percent, below estimates. FY 2019-20 revenues totaled $32.3 billion.
General Fund collections for June totaled $2.7 billion, which was $577.4 million, or 17.8 percent, less than anticipated.
The department estimates that approximately $133 million of the $577.4 million shortfall in June can be attributed to moving due dates for various taxes. It is estimated that the remaining $444.4 million of the June shortfall is due to reduced economic activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more here.
It was a no-go, at least for last week, on Senate action to expand gambling and use of video gaming terminals. No doubt, they will try again as budget pressures mount.
Police/Law Enforcement Reform
The Senate last week opted to give final approval to a pair of House police reform bills– House Bill 1841 (Readshaw-D-Allegheny) requiring disclosure of police officer employment records and providing for increased training (House Fiscal Note & Summary) and House Bill 1910 (Williams-D-Chester) further providing for police bias training and mental health evaluations (House Fiscal Note & Summary).
The bills are now in the process of getting to the Governor’s desk for action.
The Senate also sent two other bills to the House on police reform– Senate Bill 459 (Costa-D-Allegheny) requiring the reporting of use-of-force incidents (Senate Fiscal Note & Summary) and Senate Bill 1205 (Street-D-Philadelphia) requiring the development of use-of-force policies by police departments (Senate Fiscal Note & Summary).
One law enforcement reform bill did make it to the Governor’s desk and was signed into law last week– Senate Bill 637 (DiSanto-R-Cumberland) would make it easier for ex-offenders to get professional licenses for 29 different job categories and reenter the workforce (House Fiscal Note & Summary). Read more here.
Gov. Wolf and other stakeholders celebrated a clean slate bill that became law a year ago that has helped 1 million people get jobs and housing by wiping away 35 million arrest records and minor criminal charges that were standing in their way. Read more here.
The PA Supreme Court recently decided a case under the state Whistleblower Law which said individuals who believe they were fired in retaliation for reporting abuse, discrimination or harassment of another employee do not have to first file a complaint against their employer with the state Human Relations Commission. Read the decision.
An individual can go directly to court if the action is taken under the Whistleblower Law. Legal experts say the case upends decades of employment law. Read more here.
Mail-In Ballot Lawsuit
While Pennsylvania Republicans have generally supported mail-in balloting, the Trump Campaign last week filed a lawsuit against the state and every county over issues like setting up convenient mail-in ballot drop boxes. Read more here.
In response to the lawsuit, York County is looking at increasing the number of mail-in ballot drop boxes. Read more here.
This week, the House is expected to move legislation to address some of the voting problems arising from the June 2 Primary election, among them mail-in balloting. Read more here.
Prescription Pricing Transparency
The Senate amended and passed House Bill 943 (Gaydos-R-Allegheny) that prohibits “gag clauses” in pharmacy benefit manager contracts with pharmacies which prohibits pharmacists from disclosing any information to their customers that could potentially reduce their out-of-pocket costs for medications.
The bill is now in the House which is scheduled to take a concurrence vote this week.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee also reported out House Bill 941 (Heffley-R-Carbon) providing for pricing transparency and addressing inadequate reimbursement rates for prescription drugs by pharmacy benefit managers in the state Medicaid Program. The bill is now on the Senate Calendar for action.
Fireworks On Fireworks
Before the July 4th holiday, the Senate amended and passed legislation– Senate Bill 932 (Boscola-D-Lehigh)– giving officials in only nine local governments– Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown, Erie, Reading, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Bensalem Township, Bucks County– authority to ban the use of consumer fireworks in their jurisdictions.
Many Senators were not happy it didn’t cover their communities, but voted 48 to 2 to send the bill to the House.
State-Owned Universities’ Reform Now Law
Gov. Wolf signed House Bill 2171 (Sonney-R-Erie) makes fundamental changes to the authority of the Board governing the 14 state-owned universities to consolidate schools, eliminate programs, turn existing schools into branch campuses of other universities, create new schools, and share back-office services.
The future of those institutions could look quite different with these reforms. Read more here.
Sad Connection To Russian Bounty Issue
PA Post reported the deaths of three Marine Reservists, two of whom were part of a unit based in Harrisburg, are now being investigated by the U.S. to determine if they died because of Russian bounties for killing U.S. service members. Read more here.
The House is scheduled to be in voting session July 7 and 8 and high on its list of priorities is moving legislation to fix voting problems arising from the June 2 Primary election. Read more here.
House Republicans also listed House Bill 2025 (Struzzi-R-Indiana), a bill that takes away DEP’s authority to enact any program to reduce carbon pollution emissions, for a vote by the full House.
The Senate has no fixed date for returning to voting session and remains at the call of the President Pro Tempore.