PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Republicans Score Legislative Hat Trick In Opposition To Wolf
Senate and House Republicans finished the week with the legislative equivalent of a hat trick– passing two constitutional amendments and a third bill limiting the governor’s authority during an emergency or reacting to decisions related to the pandemic that didn’t go their way.
Senate Bill 1166 (Ward-R-Westmoreland) a constitutional amendment allowing the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate a governor’s emergency declaration [Read more here] and House Bill 196 (Diamond-R-Lebanon) another amendment electing judges by districts rather than statewide [Read more here] were passed by Republicans with limited support from Democrats.
Before the final vote in the Senate, Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh) tried to amend Senate Bill 1166 with bipartisan language creating an independent, citizen commission to redraw legislative districts to prevent gerrymandering. The effort was defeated by a party-line vote– Republicans opposing. Read more here.
These constitutional amendments do not go to the Governor for his action, but need to be passed again early next year in a second legislative session before they go before voters perhaps as early as May, if Republican maintain control of the Senate and House after the November election.
House Bill 2463 (Grove-R-York)– preventing a governor from ignoring the Right-To-Know Act requests for public information during an emergency–was passed unanimously by the Senate. Even so, Gov. Wolf said he will veto the bill. Read more here.
In addition to these actions, House Republicans passed yet another bill– House Bill 2541 (Farry-R-Bucks)– again trying to give counties the authority to reopen businesses even if they were subject to a governor’s closure order, a variation on, but similar to, legislation vetoed before by Gov. Wolf– Senate Bill 327 (Argall-R-Schuylkill).
Republicans are still unhappy about keeping limits on so many business operations.
Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine responded to that notion in a press conference last week saying, “In Florida you can see what happens when you don’t do any mitigation efforts and you basically let the virus burn.” Read more here.
The same day Republicans were taking the final votes on the constitutional amendments and the Right-To-Know bill, Gov. Wolf announced he was reimposing restrictions on bars and restaurants, indoor and outdoor gatherings and requiring businesses, to the extent possible, to go back to teleworking to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“During the past week, we have seen an unsettling climb in new COVID-19 cases,” Gov. Wolf said. “When we hit our peak on April 9, we had nearly two thousand new cases that day with other days’ cases hovering around 1,000. Medical experts looking at the trajectory we are on now are projecting that this new surge could soon eclipse the April peak. With our rapid case increases we need to act again now.”
The new orders took effect at 12:01 a.m., Thursday, July 16, 2020. Read more here.
Republican lawmakers immediately denounced the new restrictions saying it justified passing the “reforms” they did last week to limit the Governor’s authority. Others said this will be the “final blow for countless businesses in the hospitality industry.” Read more here.
And, adding more fuel to the partisan fire, Gov. Wolf said Thursday at a press conference he withheld $13 million in federal CARES relief funding from Republican-control Lebanon County because they didn’t “follow the rules” and took action to reopen prematurely.
“There are consequences. These are the consequences. I think I’m being consistent here,” said the Governor. Lebanon County is the only county that did not receive federal funds. Read more here.
Meanwhile a grassroots movement of restaurant owners, sports teams and others are attempting to fight the new restrictions. Read more here.
In a related action, Republicans on the Public Utility Commission again tried to end the moratorium on utility shut offs during the pandemic emergency, but the result was the same– a tie vote– with the two Democrats voting against ending the moratorium and two Republicans voting for so it remains in place. There’s one vacancy on the Commission. Read more here.
And, on the same day all this was happening, a new Monmouth PA Poll was released showing 67 percent of voters feel Gov. Wolf was doing a good job handling the pandemic and 42 percent said President Trump was doing a good job. Read more here.
The Monmouth PA Poll also found Vice President Biden was leading President Trump 53 to 40 percent in the Commonwealth.
But, it’s a long way to November….
On July 17, three former Pennsylvania governors– Schweiker, Ridge and Rendell (two Republicans and a Democrat)– voiced their support for how Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, including endorsing statewide mitigation efforts and mask-wearing. Read more here.
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 6,904 deaths on July 12 to 7,015 on July 19. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 95,414 cases on July 12 to 101,027 on July 19.
For the week July 5 -11, there were 44,086 unemployment claims, up 712 from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056. Read more here.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported Friday 92 percent of those who filed unemployment compensation have been paid, however, 2.2 million Pennsylvanians filed claims since the COVID-19 shutdowns started in mid-March so a lot of people still didn’t get paid. Read more here.
Law Enforcement Reform Bills
On July 14, Gov. Wolf signed the first two law enforcement reform bills passed by the General Assembly in response to the George Floyd protests. Read more here.
Many people are asking the logical question– what’s next? Read more here.
The reform measures are aimed at reducing the cost of the probation system by putting in place policies that would not jail ex-offenders for certain so-called “technical violations” of probation like missing an appointment or for non-payment of fines under certain circumstances.
Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks) said during the debate the state spends $100 million jailing ex-offenders for probation violations, many of them minor. Read more here.
The bill now goes to the House for action.
The issue of how to control the use of consumer fireworks was answered in part with the 49 to 1 passage of Senate Bill 932 (Boscola-R-Lehigh) that would let Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, cities of the third class and one township in Bucks County adopt local regulations controlling their use.
Although a number of Senators expressed concerns the bill did not go far enough, only– Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming)– voted against the bill.
The issue continues to be the subject of petition drives and calls for the repeal of the state law authorizing more powerful fireworks. Read more here.
No Election Fix
Although a vote on fixing problems uncovered by in the June Primary Election was discussed in the House for last week– like the obvious need to extend the time counties have to count tens of thousands of mail-in ballots– no action was taken.
The Senate State Government Committee does have a hearing scheduled this week on election issues, but in practical terms moving legislation to fix these problems was pushed off until the fall, like many things.
Pennsylvania Democrats filed a lawsuit to counter what they called the Trump Campaign’s effort to suppress voting in a lawsuit the Republicans filed to limit the number of places voters can drop off mail-in ballots for counting. Read more here.
On Friday, the federal judge handling the Trump Campaign lawsuit agreed to expedite the case. Read more here.
Gaming Revenue Down
On July 16, the PA Gaming Control Board reported FY 2019-20 revenue from gaming was down 18 percent from FY 2018-19 due to the shutdown of casinos by COVID-19. Read more here.
June revenues were also down 51.1 percent when compared to June 2019. Read more here.
On a brighter gaming note, the mini-casino due to open in Westmoreland County is looking to hire more than 500 people. Read more here.
New York City Canceled
Bad news for people who like to go to New York City at Christmas time– on the company dime.
The Pennsylvania Society announced its 122nd Annual Dinner that brings state politicians (current and would-be), business (political donors) and other state leaders to the Big Apple has been canceled due to concerns about COVID-19. Read more here.
The weekend Christmas shopping trip to New York organized by the Fricks, Carnegies and Pews only for Republicans in 1899 has been in a state of flux for several years because its traditional venue– The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel– underwent renovations.
Perhaps it’s time for the event to be held in Pennsylvania as Gov. Rendell proposed in 2003? A Pennsylvania Society in New York? Seems odd.
The House is scheduled to return to voting session on September 15, but remains at the call of the House Speaker if urgent business develops.
The House Democratic Policy Committee also has a hearing on police reform.
The Senate has not published its fall voting schedule and remains at the call of the President Pro Tempore.
The only Senate Committee action scheduled so far are a virtual hearings on 2020 election issues and a hearing by the Senate and House Democratic Policy Committees on worker protections during the COVID-19 pandemic.