PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Republicans Continue Fight With Wolf Over Who’s In Charge
Senate and House Republicans continued their fight with Gov. Wolf over who’s in charge on two fronts last week, and will add a third this week.
Ending The COVID-19 Emergency
On July 8, Senate and House Republicans sent House Resolution 836 (Diamond-R- Lebanon) to Gov. Wolf for his action after the PA Supreme Court turned back Republican efforts to unilaterally declare an end to the COVID-19 emergency. Read more here.
The key issue for the Court was the General Assembly failed to present the resolution to the Governor for his action, so that’s exactly what they did.
Of course, Gov. Wolf promptly announced he would veto the resolution. Read more here
In a related action, House Republicans amended and moved Senate Bill 1166 (Ward-R- Westmoreland) that would amend the state constitution to prohibit a disaster emergency declared by a governor from lasting more than 21 days, unless it was extended by a concurrent resolution of the General Assembly.
The bill also allows the General Assembly to act unilaterally to end a disaster emergency by concurrent resolution without presenting it to the Governor for his action doing away with what we learned in civics class as the “checks and balances” in the constitution.
House Republicans are expected to give the bill a final vote this week before returning it to the Senate for concurrence.
Blocking Participation In RGGI
The second front in the tug-of-war over who’s in charge happened in the House, also on July 8 when, as expected, House Republicans and 26 Democrats voted 130 to 71 to pass House Bill 2025 (Struzzi-R-Indiana) that would block Pennsylvania from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative without approval of the General Assembly.
Four Republicans voted against the bill from the Southeast counties. Read more here.
“This bill gives a voice back to the people by allowing those of us who represent them to have say in this process. Any carbon tax will ultimately be paid for by Pennsylvania residents and businesses. Given Pennsylvania is already ahead of the carbon dioxide reduction goals established under the governor’s Climate Action Plan, why would we want to jeopardize thousands of Pennsylvania jobs and trigger significantly higher electricity rate increases when the existing competitive market has already achieved these gains?” said Rep. Jim Struzzi (R-Indiana), prime sponsor of the bill.
Countering Republican opposition, the Department of Environmental Protection released a new analysis of its proposal to cut carbon pollution emissions from power plants which shows hundreds of lives and billions of dollars would be saved in Pennsylvania.
DEP also said economic modeling shows that participating in RGGI will lead to a net increase of more than 27,000 jobs and add $1.9 billion to the state’s Gross State Product.
DEP notes RGGI could also provide the resources to help transition workers and communities to the new energy economy that everyone agrees is coming. Read more here.
Clearly, Republicans and the Wolf Administration are talking past each other on this issue.
House Bill 2025 now moves to the Senate where Republicans could take up the measure as early as this week.
But again, the 130 to 71 vote in the House is not enough to override an expected veto by Gov. Wolf, so this may all be just for the folks back home.
Regional Election Of State Judges
The Senate, in part no doubt prompted by the adverse PA Supreme Court decision on terminating the COVID-19 emergency, is scheduled to take Committee action on House Bill 196 (Diamond-R-Lebanon)– that would amend the state constitution to require statewide appellate court judges– PA Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court– to be elected form judicial districts.
Republicans have long felt they would see more favorable jurists on the bench of these courts if they had to be elected in districts throughout the state rather than the current arrangement of no districts that has favored candidates from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, of both parties.
Right now the PA Supreme Court has more Democratic members and the Commonwealth Court has more Republican.
Some are also saying having to draw new judicial voting districts would be a ripe target for gerrymandering, just like Congressional, House and Senate districts have been.
Fun facts: Identical constitutional amendments have to be passed in two successive legislative sessions, something that could be done in time to be on the ballot for voters in May 2021 and Gov. Wolf can’t veto those bills.
If the measure is passed by voters, however, the General Assembly still has to pass implementing legislation which the Governor can veto, at least until January of 2023 when his term ends. Read more here.
This is just another issue in the “Who’s In Charge?” political battle now going on with the Governor.
Gov. Wolf doubled down on telling the public to wear masks last week putting out no fewer than seven press releases on the issue and enlisting the bipartisan support of Pennsylvania’s two U.S. Senators– Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D)– in the effort. Read more here.
In the face of increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Westmoreland and Washington counties, local health authorities and the state are considering whether to impose targeted mitigation measures. Read more here.
And, of course, wearing masks.
Even as his home county of Centre endorsed mandatory masking last week [Read more here], Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) and other Republicans are saying they don’t dispute the idea of wearing a mask– “What we’re disputing is by using his emergency powers, this governor is dictating to the people. We live in a free society, people can make decisions for themselves.” Read more here.
On a related issue, Gov. Wolf extended the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures that would otherwise happen to people as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19 to August 31. Read more here.
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 6,753 on July 5 to 6,904 deaths on July 12. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 89,854 cases on July 5 to 95,414 cases on July 12 (tentative numbers due to system maintenance).
The Department of Labor and Industry changed its format for providing information on unemployment claims last week. Now they just give weekly totals.
For the week June 28 to July 4, there were 44,086 unemployment claims, down 1,175 from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056. Read more here.
Republican House members from Bucks County have added their voices to last week’s bipartisan request of House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) asking the House Government Oversight Committee investigate the failure of the state’s unemployment compensation system during the pandemic. Read more here.
Try Your Luck?
In response to requests from lawmakers, the Gaming Control Board announced last week it would hold another auction for mini-casino gambling licenses on September 2. The legislators thought they might be able to fill some budget holes with the money.
The one drawback, eligible licensed casino operators in the state have not bid on a new license in seven prior auctions. Read more here.
Well, how about pot?
On July 9, Democrats in the Senate called on Gov. Wolf and Republican leaders in the Senate to consider legalizing adult-use of recreational marijuana to help fill the budget holes. They said legalization could raise as much as $581 million a year. Read more here.
Law Enforcement Reform
Two Senate-passed law enforcement reform bills are waiting for House action this week. They include– 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).
It’s not clear yet, whether the House will take up those bills or move others as the law enforcement reform issue continues to simmer across the state. Read more here.
Prescription Pricing Transparency
The House took final action and sent to the Governor 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.
So soon, maybe pharmacists can actually tell you how you can save money on prescriptions.
Proponents of putting an end to voting district gerrymandering that favors one party over another have switched to Plan B– legislation– House Bill 2638 (Thomas-R-Bucks)– which would set the rules for how voting districts are drawn.
Time ran out to consider amendments to the state constitution to lay out a new process for who draws districts boundaries, so setting the rules for how they are drawn is the next best thing.
The Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee– Rep. Garth Everett (R-Lycoming)– did not respond to press inquiries about the bill. Sen. John Disanto (R-Dauphin), Majority Chair of the Senate State Government Committee, said they’ve been “too busy” with COVID-19 and needed election code changes.
If no action is taken on this bill by January, Pennsylvania will be stuck with the same politically-driven gerrymandering that made us infamous across the country. Read more here.
And for those keeping a scorecard, the House announced these committee assignment changes last week–
— Rep. Mark Keller (R-Perry) was named Majority Chair of House Agriculture Committee;
— Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset) named to the House Agriculture Committee ;
— Rep. Martin Causer (R-McKean) resigned as a member of the House Environmental Committee;
— Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Clinton) was named to the House Environmental Committee;
— Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) resigned as a member of the House Appropriations and Judiciary Committees;
— Rep. David Zimmerman (R-Lancaster) was named a member of the House Appropriations Committee; and
— Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga) was named a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
You have to scratch your head at these.
The anti-tax lobbying group Americans For Tax Reform led by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist who has long supported small state and federal governments was approved for a taxpayer-funded federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan of $350,000. Read more here.
According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Catholic Church used a “special and unprecedented exemption from federal rules to amass at least $1.4 billion in Paycheck Protection Program aid, with millions going to dioceses that have paid huge settlements or sought bankruptcy protection because of clergy child sexual abuse cover-ups.” Read more here.
Turns out both the House — July 13 & 14– and Senate– July 13, 14, & 15– will be in voting session this week.
The House is likely to amend and move legislation– House Bill 2407 (Everett-R- Lycoming) is one vehicle– to fix some of the voting-related issues that came to light during the June Primary election on mail-in and absentee voting in particular.
On COVID-19, the House is expected to vote on Senate Bill 1166 (Ward-R- Westmoreland) amending the constitution to allow for unilateral termination of a disaster emergency.
There are also several other bills on their voting list related to reopening during the pandemic.
The House Democratic Policy Committee has hearings scheduled on COVID-19 health disparities and on long-term care facility plans to deal with COVID-19.
On the Senate agenda is a Committee vote on legislation– House Bill 196 (Diamond-R- Lebanon)– to require statewide appellate court judges– PA Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court– to be elected by judicial districts.
Also set for a Committee vote is House Bill 2463 (Grove-R-York) that would prohibit a Governor from directing agencies to ignore requests for records and information under the state Right-To-Know law, another sticking point between the Governor and Republicans.
We’ll have to see what actually happens this week as the tug-of-war continues.