PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: More Of The Same Fight For Power

Senate and House Republicans and Gov. Wolf continued their struggle last week over who’s in charge of setting state policy on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, so what you see here should be more than vaguely familiar.

            Lebanon Gets Its Money

            On August 14, Gov. Wolf announced an agreement with Lebanon County which will result in the release of $12.8 million in federal COVID-19 aid to local businesses and nonprofits.

            In return the county, which reopened early in defiance of state closure orders and has been opposed to mitigation measures like wearing masks, will launch a $2.8 million campaign to emphasize the importance of wearing face masks to mitigate the spread of the virus.  Read more here.

            Lebanon County was the only county not to get COVID-19 aid because of the political stance it took opposing mitigation measures.

            Nursing Home Investigation

            Attorney General Josh Shapiro confirmed his office has opened a criminal investigation of the Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center which has been ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak in Beaver county.

            At least 73 residents have died of the virus and more than 300 residents and staffers have been infected. Read more here.

            More Push Back By Republicans

            Not Govt’s Job: Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks), Majority Chair of the House Labor and Industry Committee, said at a hearing on unemployment compensation issues last week–“It’s not the government’s responsibility to pass mandates, to pass orders, to try to keep us safe.”

            He added the talk of safety cannot be the sole driving force behind the decisions we are making and cannot be the driving force behind what the Governor and the Secretary of Health are doing.

He called for Americans to exhibit “personal responsibility” to fight the COVID-19 pandemic while arguing it is the job of private businesses and individuals, not lawmakers and public servants, to implement health policy.  Read more here.

            The comments were part of a 10 minute speech at the end of the hearing.

            Local Schools Should Decide: House Republicans announced a series of legislative proposals to put the decisions about whether to hold fall high school sports back on local school districts rather than having the state make the decision– House Bill 2787 (not yet online).

A second proposal– House Bill 2788 (not yet online)— would allow students to continue their education and sports for an additional year to make up for the loss of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. Read more here.

            The move was in response to Gov. Wolf’s decision last week to “strongly recommend’ school districts delay youth sports until 2021.  Read more here.

            For his part, Wolf said he has no plans to change his recommendation.  Read more here.

            Meanwhile, high school athletes in Pittsburgh, Luzerne County, and Dauphin County tested positive for COVID-19 and their sports programs were shut down.

            Restaurant, Bar Relief: On August 12, Sen. Pat Stefano (R-Fayette) announced he would be introducing legislation to help provide relief to restaurants and bars struggling to stay open and keep workers employed.

            His bills would lift the 25 percent capacity restrictions, remove the restriction of requiring a patron to buy a meal to buy an alcoholic beverage on-premises and make various license changes.  Read more here.

            More School Guidance

            On August 13, the departments of Health and Education issued more guidance to schools on how to respond when students and/or employees test positive for COVID-19. School district asked for the advice as they make plans to reopen.  Read more here.

            Meanwhile college students are beginning to return to campus under their reopening plans.

            Five students at Gettysburg College tested positive for COVID-19 and a video of freshmen at Villanova not social distancing at an outside orientation, many without masks, went viral.

            A controversy erupted when Penn State and some colleges in Pittsburgh required students to sign liability forms or COVID-19 agreements before being allowed back on campus.

            And the Big Ten and other college sports conferences announced their fall sports, including football, are canceled, much to the disappointment of local businesses.

            Disparities In Health Care

            On August 13, Gov. Wolf’s Health Disparities Task Force released a report making more than 50 recommendations on reducing the racial and economic disparities in health care that have been seen more clearly in the fight against COVID-19. 

            The report covers housing, criminal justice, food insecurity, health disparity, education and economic opportunities.

            Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine made a point of saying each of these areas is a health issue.  Read more here.

            Barely Approve

            A CNBC/Change Research Poll released last week showed 51 percent of voters approve of Gov. Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but 49 percent say they disapprove.

            On students returning to school, the poll found Pennsylvanians were torn– 44 percent said it was safe to let students return and 44 percent said it wasn’t.

            Counties/States Of Concern

The statewide percent-positivity for COVID-19 went down to 4.0 percent from 4.1 percent last week– five percent is bad.

Counties with concerning percent-positivity include Fayette (10.4 percent), Armstrong (8.9 percent), Cameron (8.7 percent), Huntingdon (7.1 percent), Dauphin (6.5 percent), Northumberland (6.4 percent), Mercer (6.3 percent), Erie (5.9 percent), Crawford (5.8 percent), Forest (5.8 percent), York (5.6 percent), Indiana (5.5 percent), Franklin (5.4 percent), Lawrence (5.3 percent), and Berks (5.0 percent).  Read more here.

The Department of Health also updated its list of self-quarantine states to remove Nebraska, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.  Travelers returning from these states no longer have to self-quarantine for 14 days. Read more here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,313 deaths on August 8 to 7,468 deaths on August 16. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 118,092 on August 8 to 124,660 on August 16.

            Unemployment – State

For the week August 1 to August 8, there were 27,094 unemployment claims, down over 2,277 from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

The number of Pennsylvanians still awaiting a resolution on their unemployment claims dropped from 90,000 last week to 30,000 this week, according to testimony at a House Labor and Industry Committee hearing last week.

Over 1.9 million people in Pennsylvania filed for unemployment benefits since March 15.

“Unemployment compensation benefits are supposed to act like a parachute to help dislocated workers experiencing an economic freefall,” said Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks), Majority Chair of the Committee. “For too many Pennsylvanians, that parachute simply never opened. They and their families are still free falling.”

“While I am very proud of the work our agency has done, none of us — none of us — at L&I are satisfied,” said  Secretary Jerry Oleksiak. “And we won’t be satisfied until every Pennsylvanians who is eligible for benefits has been made whole.”

Legislators and the agency are considering a number of solutions to prevent the backlogs, but nothing has been put into writing.  Read more here.

Unemployment – Feds

On August 14, Gov. Wolf sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s Congressional Delegation urging Congress to extend the federal $600 weekly unemployment benefit payment that expired July 31.  Read more here.

Gov. Wolf also expressed concern about President Trump’s plan to provide an extra $400 a week benefit to replace the $600 payment.  The Trump plan would have states commit to pay $100 of the benefit.  Without the state commitment, the benefit would drop to $300 a week.  Read more here.

Last week the U.S. Senate left town without an agreement on the next COVID-19 relief package and isn’t due back until September 14. Read more here.

Eviction Moratorium Ending

            Estimates presented at a hearing of the House Democatic Policy Committee said from 391,000 to 586,000 Pennsylvania households will be at risk of eviction when the statewide eviction moratorium ends on August 31– 25 to 40 percent of households.

            Advocates said eviction moratoriums alone are not enough to deal with the problem since they simply delay the inevitable as renters accumulate debt on other bills.

            Several House members talked about possible solutions from establishing a mediation program, payment plans options with landlords and charging late fees on rent.

            Combined with the federal $600 a week unemployment benefit ending and no replacement in sight, this issue will only get bigger.  Read more here.

Postal Delays

Citing a warning by the U.S. Postal Service about its delivery times, the Wolf Administration is asking the PA Supreme Court to extend deadlines for mail-in ballots to be received and counted in the November election.

A letter from U.S. Postal Service General Counsel Thomas Marshall warns that Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot deadlines are “incongruous” with the postal service’s delivery standards and he recommended that voters mail in their ballots a week before the deadline for it to be received and counted.

That deadline, under current law, is the close of polls on election day, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. But Wolf’s administration pointed out that state law allows voters to apply for a mail-in ballot up until a week before the deadline, nevermind mail it in.  Read more here.

Meanwhile the new Postal Service management announced it was removing high-speed mail processing equipment from hundreds of locations around the county, including in Pennsylvania the Postal union said was designed to sabotage Pennsylvania’s mail-in balloting.  Read more here.

These actions are on top of Trump campaign and Republican political action group lawsuits designed to limit the number of places mail-in ballots can be dropped off and purging Pennsylvania voter rolls of more than 800,000 “inactive” voters.

The Senate and House are expected to take up the issue of changing the election law to allow more time to count mail-in and absentee ballots when they are scheduled to return to session in September.

But they can’t wait too long to make the changes.  Read more here.

            The CNBC/Change Research Poll released last week found over half– 54 percent– of voters said they were likely to vote in-person on election day, while 33 percent said they would vote by mail.

These results show a much different picture than what actually happened in the June Primary when 1.5 million voted by mail and 1.3 million in-person.

Poll Positions, But

Three new polls were released on the Presidential race in Pennsylvania last week all showing former Vice President Joe Biden running ahead of President Trump.  But they were all taken before Biden’s announcement of Kamala Harris as his pick for Vice President.

The CBS/YouGov Poll had Biden beating Trump 49 percent to 43 percent.

The CNBC/Change Research Poll had Biden beating Trump 48 percent to 44 percent.

The Emerson Poll had Biden Beating Trump 52 percent to 43 percent.

It’s a long time to November.

The Draft Is Still Here         

            Well, maybe not the draft, but men must still register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

            Ordinarily, this isn’t news, but Pennsylvania has the second worst registration rate in the Country– only California is worse– at 83 percent.  Typical rates are 92-93 percent.

Over 110,00 men have failed to register in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

            Men who don’t register face prison time and a fine of up to $250,000.

What’s Next?

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

The House Transportation Committee has two days of hearings scheduled on the House Republican Task Force bill package designed to help address the shortfall on state transportation funding needs, without really providing any more money. Read more here.

The House Democratic Policy Committee has scheduled two days of hearings on police reform, one covering the Pittsburgh Region and another covering the Harrisburg region.

 Click Here for the schedule of House Committee meetings/hearings.

The Senate set September 8 as their return date. 

The headline hearings this week include House and Senate Education Committees’ hearing on the safety of reopening K-12 schools this fall.  Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.


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