PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Election Law Fixes, Budget Are Priorities For Fall

It’s already the second week in August and the Senate and House are beginning to talk about how they plan to deal with the two issues they need to get done this fall– election law fixes so the November election goes smoothly and finishing the state budget.

            House Republican Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) said August 5 he is likely to call the House back into session in “late August,” if there is agreement on the fixes needed to avoid a November election disaster, particularly in counting mail-in ballots.  Read more here

            His comments come on the heels of an August 1 report by the Department of State on the June 2 Primary Election which generally gave counties high marks for coping with new voting machines, a flood of mail-in ballots and other changes.

            Like House and Senate hearings have highlighted, the report said counties need much more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting, allowing more time for counties to send ballots to voters and more time to return them and allow poll workers from other areas to work in any polls to deal with the shortage of workers. Read more here.

Consolidation of polling places, particularly in Allegheny County and Philadelphia led to concerns about disenfranchisement.  Allegheny County went from 830 to 211 and Philadelphia from 850 to 190 due to the shortage of poll workers and COVID-19 concerns. 

            Of the 2.8 million votes cast in June, 1.5 million cast them by mail-in ballot and 1.3 million in person.  Many more mail-in ballots are expected in November.

            The national issue of what to do with the U.S. Postal Service was highlighted by Philadelphia members of Congress last week who pointed out the noticeable slow down of mail service will be a big issue for the November election.  Read more here.

            800,000 Voters

            Efforts by the Republican group Judicial Watch continue to purge what they say are 800,000 “inactive” voters from the state’s registration rolls.

            The group has filed a lawsuit against the state as well as Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties to purge voter rolls.

            An analysis by the Bucks County Courier Times earlier this year found the counties they opted to sue had the highest voter registration rates and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

            Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause are opposing the lawsuit. Read more here.

            Republicans are the minority party in Pennsylvania, in terms of voter registration. There are 4,103,786 registered Democrats, 3,323,625 Republicans, 820,959 Independent, 405,404 Other for a total of 8,653,774 voters in the state.

            Revenue Up/Budget Still In Red

On August 3, the Department of Revenue announced Pennsylvania collected $4.1 billion in General Fund revenue in July, the first month of the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

The Department of Revenue estimates approximately $1.6 billion of the revenue collected in July can be attributed to extending due dates for various taxes as a result of the pandemic. Read more here.

On a brighter note, the State Lottery reported in the year ending June 30 it made more than $1 billion last year for senior programs, just shy of last year’s record.  Read more here.

            The General Assembly will still have to make up an estimated $5 billion budget deficit— counting FY 19-20’s $3.2 billion deficit and the continuing revenue shortfalls in FY 20-21 due to COVID-19– when it gets to work on finishing the state budget this fall.

            Congress is still in up and down negotiations on the next stimulus package which may or may not have money in it to fill revenue gaps states, school districts and local governments have identified as a result of COVID-19.

            If it doesn’t, dramatic cuts are in store for state programs across the board, because Republicans that run the Senate and House have already said they can’t see increasing taxes on already battered businesses and workers to make up a $5 billion shortfall.

            Remember, the House and Senate only passed a five-month budget in May that runs out for most agencies November 30.

            The House and Senate have only one voting day scheduled in November and that’s it for the year, so work on the budget will have to happen when they return in September and October.  For the House that’s September 15 and the Senate September 8.

            Unless, the schedule changes.  But, they only have until November 30 when this two-year session ends as required by the constitution.

            No Touchdown

            In contrast to previous statements about allowing school districts to develop their own plans for reopening in the fall– following some state guidance– Gov. Wolf reversed field August 6 and issued guidance strongly recommending elementary, secondary and youth sports be postponed until at least January 1. Read more here.

            The move was clearly a fumble in the eyes of Republicans in the Senate “a shock” and House “out of bounds” and they encouraged the PIAA to stay the course with the guidelines they already issued.  Read more here.

            Late Friday, PIAA punted and said they would delay fall sports by two weeks to allow time for further discussions with the Wolf Administration.  Read more here.

            Colleges and universities are left to develop their own plans for fall sports, at least so far.

            New Education Secretary

            And on August 4, in the middle of schools and colleges reopening, Gov. Wolf announced Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera will be leaving to become President of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster on October 1.

            He named Noe Ortega, the current Deputy Secretary of Postsecondary and Higher Education, as his choice to succeed Rivera, subject to Senate confirmation. Read more here.

            Health Insurance Costs

            On August 7, the Insurance Department reported 2021 federal health insurance plans in Pennsylvania will, on average, see a modest decrease in cost next year, according to recent rate filings. Read more here.

While open enrollment is months away, the agency encouraged consumers to begin thinking about health insurance options.  Read more here.

Pennsylvania is supposed to have its own health insurance exchange for the 2021 open enrollment period, but there have been delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Read updates here.

            Counties/States Of Concern

The statewide percent-positivity for COVID-19 went down to 4.1 percent from 4.6 percent last week– five percent is bad.

Counties with concerning percent-positivity include Union (11.8 percent), Indiana (7.9 percent), Fayette (7.7 percent), Fulton (7.4 percent), Huntingdon (6.7 percent), Erie (6.2 percent), Mercer (6.2 percent), Lawrence (6.0 percent), Northumberland (6.0 percent), York (5.8 percent), Clearfield (5.7 percent), Luzerne (5.4 percent), Juniata (5.3 percent), Lancaster (5.3 percent), Beaver (5.2 percent), Delaware (5.2 percent), and Mifflin (5.0 percent).   Read more here.

            The Department of Health added three states to the list of states travelers should self-quarantine when returning– Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin.  Read more here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,209 deaths on August 2 to 7,313 deaths on August 8. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 113,590 cases on August 2 to 118,092 on August 8.


For the week July 26 to August 1, there were 29,371 unemployment claims, down over 6,400 from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

There are still more than 90,000 Pennsylvanians who haven’t been paid any unemployment compensation since the pandemic began in March.  Read more here.

Will Feds Pay For Riot Damage?

On August 7, Gov. Wolf requested the U.S. Small Business Administration grant a disaster declaration in Philadelphia to provide assistance in the form of low-interest loans for homeowners, businesses and eligible nonprofits after numerous arson fires due to civil unrest which caused millions of dollars in damages from May 30 through June 8.

“The pandemic already created significant financial hardship for businesses across the Commonwealth,” said Gov. Wolf. “The additional financial damage from these incidents in Philadelphia only added to the problem, which is why these low-interest loans are so desperately needed.”  Read more here.


On August 3, the Department of Health launched a violence data dashboard to collect data on the scope, frequency, geography and populations affected by violence in Pennsylvania. The creation of the dashboard was a mandate in the Gov. Wolf’s 2019 Executive Order to Reduce Gun Violence.  Read more here.

The same day, Attorney General Josh Shapiro reported the Safe2Say school violence tip line neared 50,000 calls with bullying, suicide and self-harm dominating the tips they received.  Read more here.

Legislative Bullying?

On August 4, Rep. Tom Murt (R-Montgomery) said he called local police last Monday because his Democratic colleague Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) sent him a text he said “was angry, enraged and wrathful, accusing me of treating LGBTQ+ rights as a ‘joke or a football’.”

Rep. Murt said the text was followed by his call to Sims which included a “verbal, hostile and threatening attack on me personally, using foul language, screaming at me…’ Read more here.

In a Tweet responding to Murt, since removed, Sims said, “Lol in my entire life I’ve never said these things to Tom or anyone else. I did make it abundantly clear to him that killing the effort to advance LGBTQ legislation in Pennsylvania with his weird campaign effort is something that I’d make sure advocates knew about. And they do.”  Read more here.

In May, Rep. Sims made national news with what the media called an “epic rant” after a Republican colleague admitted hiding positive COVID-19 test results.  Read more here.

What’s Next?

The House is due back in session on September 15, but House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) said he is likely to bring the House back late in August to address election law fixes, if all parties can agree.

The House Labor & Industry Committee has an informational meeting set on the state’s unemployment compensation system and the House Democratic Policy Committee has hearings on COVID-19 eviction mitigation legislation, virus testing challenges and on responses to maternal mortality.  Click Here for the schedule.

The Senate set September 8 as their return date and have no committee activities scheduled at this time.  Click Here for the schedule.


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