PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: No Movement On Major Issues In COVID Shortened Legislative Week

The House had a shortened legislative week when Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) announced he tested positive for COVID.  They canceled Thursday’s voting session while they tried to do contact tracing to see who he might have had contact with recently.

            As a result, there was no movement on issues like Election Code fixes, allocating $1 billion (or so) of federal CARES relief money to help small businesses, front-line workers and others, redistricting or campaign finance reform and certainly no movement on the state budget which only includes enough money to run state government through November 30.

            Election Fixes?

            The clock is winding down to November 3 election day, and with nothing to lose, the County Commissioners Association last week urged– pleaded with– the General Assembly to at least pass a clean bill allowing election officials to begin preparing mail-in ballots for counting ahead of election day. Read more here.

            Republicans in the Senate have House Bill 2626 (Moul-R-Adams) primed and ready and could take final action on it this week, but the House would still have to concur in any amendments and they aren’t coming back to session until October 19– 15 days before the election.

            House and Senate Republicans continued their efforts to overturn the PA Supreme Court ruling on mail-in ballots and last week formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court to put the ruling on hold.  Read more here.

            House Republicans opened another new front in the ongoing election battle by moving House Resolution 1032 (Everett-R-Lycoming) that would create a Select Committee on Election Integrity to look into how the November election is being regulated and conducted.

            Giving the Committee subpoena power and other provisions got almost universal condemnation from Democrats and Gov. Wolf, who called the resolution a partisan attack on election administrators “at a time when we should be doing everything we can to instill confidence in our elections.”  Read more here.

            Before the House adjourned for the week, some Southeast Republicans were expressing similar worries about the resolution.  Read more here.

            Eight conservative House Republicans were also attacking the election from a different angle when they filed a lawsuit to prevent Centre and Delaware counties and the City of Philadelphia from accepting grants to assist them with the November 3 election.

            The plaintiffs say they will be “injured” because the grants targeted counties and a city with progressive voting patterns and they don’t want progressive candidates to win the election.  Read more here.

            Lancaster and other counties also received election grants to help them with the election from nonprofit groups. Read more here.

            And in yet legal action, the Trump Campaign filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get watchers in Philadelphia Election Offices to watch people registering to vote and filling out mail-in ballots.  Read more here.

But election lawyers, city officials and the state’s top elections official all say there is no right under Pennsylvania law, even for a certified poll watcher, to watch people do things like register to vote or fill out a mail-in ballot.

There was an “oops” in Philadelphia last week when someone made off with a laptop and USB drives from the warehouse storing Philadelphia’s voting machines due to a “security laps.”  Read more here.

IT Outage Hits Voter Services

            The Governor’s Office of Administration reported Sunday an IT hardware issues is affecting online services for multiple agencies, including online voter registration and other services of the departments of State, Revenue, Human Services and the Liquor Control Board. Read more here.

            Budget Holes

            While there was no action on finishing the state budget, September state revenues were either ahead of estimates by $248.7 million or $347.3 million, depending on whose numbers you believe.

            The Department of Revenue said revenues were up $248.7 million for the month based on their estimates and $459 million for the fiscal year.  Read more here.

            The Independent Fiscal Office said monthly revenues were up $347.3 million based on their estimates and $739.6 million for the year.  Read more here.

            At a hearing last week by the House Finance Committee, the State Treasurer’s office said Pennsylvania will need to obtain at least $4.5 billion in additional funding to get through FY 2020-21.  Some legislators suggested borrowing that amount to plug the deficit hole.  Read more here.

            The State Treasurer’s office said the state budget is being artificially propped up by federal CARES Act money.  Without it, the state would have gone into a negative balance last August.

            COVID Budget Vehicle

            While everyone is expecting a Lame Duck General Fund Budget after election day, Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, quietly introduced Senate Bill 1350 as a vehicle for the supplemental FY 2020-21 budget with respect to COVID-related expenses and has scheduled an October 5 Committee meeting to consider the bill.

Sen. Browne also introduced  Senate Resolution 400 to put in place a temporary rule saying if amendments spend more money, that has to be offset with cuts elsewhere.

            The Resolution is due to be considered by the Senate Rules Committee October 5.

            They only put that rule in effect when they’re going to do a budget.  Humm….

            Crowd Limits Are Back

            On October 1, a federal appeals court granted Gov. Wolf the stay he requested while the merits of the early COVID shutdown orders and crowd limits are litigated.  Read more here.

            So, the number of fans at football games and outside events are again limited to 250 and to 25 at indoor events.  Many schools had been gradually increasing the number of fans since a district federal court struck them down September 14.

            Stay tuned for the next round….

            Limited Liability Waivers

            The House State Government Committee reported out two bills to provide limited liability lawsuit protection for businesses related to COVID–

House Bill 2546 (Grove-R-York) would establish a COVID Good Samaritan Emergency Liability Act related to medical care providers.

House Bill  2352 (Grove-R-York) establishes the Commonwealth Fraud Prevention and COVID-19-Related Liability Act related to medical expense claims.

            Both bills were reported to the full House for action.

No word yet on when they may address the COVID liability concerns of school districts heard at House and Senate hearings on this issue.

            Schools Opening/Closing

It was another up and down 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.

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.

            Counties Of Concern

            Gov. Wolf last week listed these counties of most concern in terms of growing numbers of COVID cases–  Counties with concerning percent-positivity include Centre (12.0 percent). Northumberland (8.3 percent), Juniata (6.8 percent), Indiana (5.9 percent), Lebanon (5.7 percent), Snyder (5.2 percent), York (5.2 percent).  Each of these counties bears watching as the state continues to monitor all available data.  Five percent or more is bad.  Read more here.

            The statewide percent positivity for COVID decreased again to 3.2 percent from 3.7 percent last week.

            The Department of Health more changes to the list of states they recommend travelers self-quarantine when they return and added Kentucky, Texas and Utah and removed Louisiana from the list.  Read more here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 8,103 on September 26 to 82,16 on October 4. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 155,232 on September 26 to 163,535 on October 4.

New Health Insurance Proposal

On October 2, Gov. Wolf opened another front on health issues by announcing a new health reform plan that focuses on affordability, access, equity and value for all health needs.  Read more here.

The announcement follows two other events where Gov. Wolf and Democratic legislators highlighted the need to protect the federal health insurance law– a.k.a. Obamacare– from legal challenges by a new U.S. Supreme Court justice.

The new state proposal would has three components–

— Interagency Health Reform Council (IHRC), established with an executive order. The council will be composed of Commonwealth agencies involved in health and the governor’s office. The initial goal will be to develop recommendations by December 30 to find efficiencies in the health care system by thinking about how to align programs where feasible, including the joint purchasing of medications, aligning value-based purchasing models, and using data across state agencies to promote evidence-based decisions.

— Regional Accountable Health Councils (RAHCs). The Department of Human Services will add requirements to form five RAHCs across the state into the managed care agreements. RAHCs will be required to collectively develop regional transformation plans – built on community needs assessments – to reduce disparities, address social determinants of health, and align value-based purchasing arrangements.

— Health Value Commission. The?governor will work with the legislature to?establish the Health Value Commission, charged with?keeping all payors and providers accountable for health care cost growth, to provide the long-term affordability and sustainability of our health care system, and to promote whole-person care. As proposed, the newly created entity would be led by up to 15 commissioners appointed by the governor and the General Assembly who have an expertise in the health care marketplace, including five state agency heads.

            Read more here.

            Unemployment Drops In August

For the week September 20 to 26, there were 22,955 unemployment claims, up very slightly from 22,762 last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

Regional reports on unemployment numbers around the state last week showed significant drops in August–

Lehigh Valley Sees Steep Drop In Unemployment Rate For August- 10.3% from 12.6%

Pittsburgh Area Jobless Rate Drops 2.3 Percentage Points To 10.2%

Erie County Unemployment Rate Falls To 11.2 Percent

Lancaster County Jobless Rate Falls To 7.9 Percent In August

            Poll Position

            Of course, there were more new polls released on the Presidential race in Pennsylvania last week, but they don’t mean much now that President Trump tested positive for COVID and threw things for another loop.  But, here they are anyway–

Post-ABC News PA Poll: Biden 54 percent, Trump 44 percent

Republican PAC/Trafalgar PA Poll: Biden 48.1 percent, Trump 45.9 percent

NY Times/Siena College PA Poll: Biden 49 percent, Trump 40 percent

Fox News PA Poll: Biden 51 percent, Trump 44 percent

Morning Call/Muhlenberg Poll: Biden 51 percent, Trump 44 percent In Lehigh Valley Congressional District

Delaware Valley Journal SE PA Poll: Biden 60.6 percent, Trump 35.1 percent

Poll Shows Biden Beating Trump 54 percent To 45 percent Statewide, But Trump Holds Advantage In NE PA Counties

Report – Toomey Not Running?

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey will not run for reelection and won’t run for Governor either.  An announcement is expected on Monday.  If correct, that means the race for Governor among Republicans just broke wide open.  Read more here.

Naked Truth?

            The previous week the news was filled with stories about “naked” ballots, mail-in ballots mailed in without using the security envelope that could not be counted.

            To help explain how to correctly handle a mail-in ballot, three Allegheny County councilwomen went shirtless with signs strategically placed in photos with instructions on how to do it correctly.  Read more here.

            A new definition of political “transparency”?

            What’s Next?

It’s the Senate’s turn to be in session this week, although they cut the number of days from three to two– October 5 and 6.

Senate Appropriations has 14 bills on their agenda, several related to reigning in the Governor’s authority during a declared emergency, a COVID FY 2020-21 budget vehicle and other COVID related issues.

The Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee has a long anticipated hearing on Senate Bill 1256 (Corman-R-Centre) that would expand gambling yet again to include games of skill and video gaming terminals, an issue that was hot back in June, but is being looked at as a tool to fill the state budget holes.

Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.

A handful of Committee meetings are scheduled in the House, including a hearing on the impact of COVID on healthcare delivery by the House Republican Policy Committee.

Hearings on voting issues, improving Internet access for education and telehealth and legal aid for tenants facing eviction are being held by the House Democratic Policy Committee.

Click Here for the full House schedule.

Another fun week ahead!

            Playing Numbers 4 & 6

            Keep these numbers in mind– the House has four remaining voting days scheduled this session and year  The Senate has six.  All subject to change, of course.  Can they get everything done they need to… or should?

            I think we all know the answer to that.  But what WILL they get done?


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