PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: School Bells Are Ringing, College Students Coming Back

The next three weeks will be critical as school districts and colleges move to implement their COVID-19 reopening plans.

At a joint hearing of the Senate/House Education Committees last week school districts again emphasized the need for the General Assembly to deal with the issue of lawsuit liability protection.  [Watch hearing.]

            Also highlighted was the problem of teacher and substitute shortages as districts try to fill vacant positions in the current COVID-19 environment.  Read more here.

            The House Education Committee followed up the hearing on August 20 by reporting out three bills to address holding high school sports and some school district concerns, but not all and not the liability issue–

House Bill 2787 (Reese-R-Westmoreland) would 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 2788 (Topper-R-Bedford) 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; and

Senate Bill 1216 (Langerholc-R-Cambria) would allow the Secretary of Education to waiver certain teacher certification requirements or issue temporary certifications to help districts fill teaching gaps.

            A Governor’s Office spokesperson said, “Instead of running a bill that redshirts high school athletes, the Republican legislature should focus on partnering with the administration to battle the pandemic and allocate additional resources for small businesses and implement protections for our front-line workers like paid sick leave.”

            Let Them Play!

            The PA Athletic Oversight Committee also held a hearing on reopening high school sports August 18 that laid the groundwork for other following events last week.  [Watch hearing]

            On August 20  a ‘Let Them Play!’ rally was held on the Capitol steps featuring Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) and other Republican legislators.  Read more here.

            Then on Friday, as expected, the PIAA board voted 25-5 to allow fall high school sports to move forward, against Gov. Wolf’s strong recommendation, and with the support of Senate and House Republicans.  Read more here.

            But the COVID-19 rules adopted by the PIAA mandate no fans, but bands and cheerleaders will be allowed with total facility capacity not exceeding 250 in “pods’ of no more than 50 and masks and social distancing will be required for anyone in the facility.  Read more here.

            The action follows more announcements of fall high school sports being temporarily suspended or shutting down as COVID-19 explosures and test results were reported.  Schools in Allegheny County, Dauphin County and Lackawanna County suspended programs and the City of Harrisburg decided not to play fall sports.

            Mask Up Or Pack Up!

            Penn State students started congregating and partying even before school officially began last week [Read more here.] resulting in a stern warning by Penn State President Eric Barron Thursday– “Do you want to be the person responsible for sending everyone home?”  Read more here.

            These open violations of the COVID-19 rules occurred in spite of a Penn State “Mask Up Or Pack Up” educational campaign.

            On Friday, Penn State announced 148 students tested positive for COVID-19, with 5,000 tests still pending.  Read more here.   Students and staff at the University of ScrantonBloomsburg University and Millersville University also tested positive.

            The University of Pittsburgh had the same problem as Penn State with partying students early last week [Read more here]. Then it was reported two Pitt students tested positive for COVID-19 [Read more here].

By Wednesday, Pitt, as well as Drexel University, made the decision to switch to all remote instruction for the fall semester [Read more here.]

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,468 deaths on August 16 to 7,578 on August 23. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 124,660 on August 16 to 129,048 on August 23.

One of those testing positive was Republican Congressman Dan Meuser from Northeast Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

            Unemployment – State

For the week August 9 to August 15, there were 25,584 unemployment claims, down over 1,510 from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

On August 21, the Department of Labor & Industry reported Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was up one-half of a percentage point over the month to 13.7 percent in July.  The national rate fell 0.9 percentage points from June’s level to 10.2 percent.

The Commonwealth’s unemployment rate increased by 9.3 percentage points from July 2019 while the national rate was up 6.5 points over the year.  Read more here.

On August 21, Gov. Wolf decided to opt into the Trump Administration program to provide an extra $300 per week in unemployment benefits, but at the same time called on Congress to restore the full $600 payment that expired on July 31.  Read more here.

The state did not go for the full $400 benefit, because the state would have to use its own money to pay the extra $100 and Pennsylvania is, for all intents and purposes, broke with a $5 billion deficit– and the FY 2020-21 state budget isn’t done for the year.

Opioid Disaster Renewal

On August 19, Gov. Wolf signed his 11th renewal of his January 2018 opioid disaster declaration to help the state fight the opioid and heroin epidemic. Read more here.

Disaster declarations are good for 90 days.

Gov. Wolf has already renewed his COVID-19 disaster declaration once in June and the renewal is due to run out on September 2.  There is no doubt he will renew his COVID-19 declaration again.

Poll Position – Pandemic

            A new Morning Call/Muhlenberg Poll out last week found–

— Trump: 51 percent Negative Rating On Pandemic, 47 percent Fair To Excellent

— Wolf:  67 percent Fair To Excellent on the pandemic, 31 percent Poor

— 55 percent said they wear a mask all the time, 29 percent most of the time

— 39 percent support hybrid school openings, 28 percent online, 22 percent in-person

            PA Election Fixes?

            With less than three weeks to go before counties can begin mailing out ballots, concerns over lawsuits and the reliability of the Postal Service delivering mail-in ballots in time dominated many discussions last week in and around the Capitol.  Read more here.

            Although the House announced plans to come back for voting session on September 1 and 2, the Associated Press reported closed-door talks between the Wolf Administration and House and Senate Republicans on election fixes show few signs of wrapping up.  Read more here.

            The Postmaster General continues to take fire from federal and state lawmakers [Read more here].  Attorney General Shapiro and other states also filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service  [Read more here] over eliminating mail sorting equipment and other changes they say will slow down delivery of mail-in ballots– the word ‘sabotage’ was used.

Late in the week the Postmaster said mail-in ballots will be a priority, but also said none of the mail sorting and other equipment he eliminated would be restored.  Read more here.

            At the same time, the Wolf Administration asked the PA Supreme Court to take over another election-related lawsuit– this time by Democrats– because it raised critical questions about how the election will be run.  Read more here.

On Friday, The Guardian reported the Trump Campaign, in another lawsuit, has failed to produce any evidence of vote-by-mail fraud in Pennsylvania after a federal judge ordered it to do so.  The Trump Campaign lawsuit is challenging Pennsylvania’s procedures for handling mail-in balloting, in particular drop-off ballot boxes.  Read more here.

Bipartisan Mail-In Voting Support

Last week, two op-eds by two sets of Republicans and Democrats supported mail-in balloting as a way to make elections more secure and safe for voters.

Alan Novack and T.J. Rooney, the former heads of the Pennsylvania Republicans and Democrats made the point mail-in ballots do not favor one political party over another.  Read more here.

Former House Republican Leader David Reed and Former Bucks County Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy promoted mail-in ballots as a way to keep safe during the pandemic.  Read more here.

Bogus Election Mailing

Cumberland County election officials Friday issued a warning about a bogus mailing to residents addressed to “current resident” or past voters purporting to allow people to register to vote and request mail-in ballots.  Read more here.

If you want to register to vote, you can do it online through the official Department of State website.

If you want to request a mail-in ballot, you can do it online through the official Department of State website.

Battleground PA

            Evidence Pennsylvania is a battleground state wasn’t hard to find last week.

Pennsylvania Democrats had prominent roles in the Democratic National Convention, from Sen. Bob Casey casting the delegation’s votes for Joe Biden from in front of Biden’s childhood home in Scranton [Read more here] and legislators and members of Congress delivering speeches [Read more here].

Gov. Wolf told Pennsylvania Democrats “can’t afford to let” Trump win Pennsylvania and that Biden will inherit a “mess” if he wins the presidency.  Read more here.

            The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia served as the backdrop for President Obama’s DNC speech where he warned democracy is at stake if Trump wins a second term. Read more here.

            President Trump traveled to Scranton– no coincidence– to tell his supporters a Biden presidency would produce “chaos” in America and questioned whether Biden was even born in Scranton.  Read more here.

            Trump only carried Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes in 2016 out of more than 6 million cast, less than 1 percent, the closest presidential race in the state since 1840.  Read more here.

            Poll Position PA – Elections

            The new Morning Call/Muhlenberg Poll released last week had Joe Biden beating Donald Trump by a slim 49 to 45 percent.  A conservative New Heritage Poll had Biden beating Trump 50 to 46 percent.

            An interesting result from the New Heritage Poll found 45 percent of voters would vote for a Democratic Congressional candidate and 38 percent for a Republican.

            The Morning Call/Muhlenberg Poll also found–

— 64 percent said they will cast their vote in person, 26 percent by mail

— 47 percent said there is a greater chance of election fraud by mail, 46 percent disagreed

— 55 percent believe Pennsylvania is prepared to keep November election safe

            Gaming Revenue Up

            The PA Gaming Control Board reported July revenues from all gaming bounced back from the pandemic closures to squeak out a 0.56 percent increase over July 2019.  Read more here.

            Online gaming of various sorts came in as the real winner making up nearly 22 percent of all casino gaming revenue.  Read more here.

            An illegal gaming operation was raided by the State Police in Berks County last week resulting in the seizure of nearly 60 electronic gaming machines operating in the open with the approval of the local government.  Read more here.

            Penn National Gaming received a license to open a mini casino in Berks County paying $7.5 million for the privilege.

            Pardon Me

            PA Capital-Star reported 177 people have spent months waiting for Gov. Wolf to give the final sign off on pardons already approved by the Board of Pardons.  The Governor’s Office said there is no “time constraint” for making a decision.  Read more here.

            Reform of the pardon system is an important initiative of Lt. Gov. Fetterman.

            Pittsburgh Gun Challenge

            PA Superior Court ruled Wednesday the appeal of gun owners who filed private criminal complaints against the mayor of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County District Attorney and members of city council over a new firearms ordinance last year must be heard by Commonwealth Court, not the Superior Court.  Read more here.

What’s Next?

The House changed its mind and is now coming back to voting session on September 1 and 2, probably to take a run at election reforms needed to make the general election in November run more smoothly, especially for mail-in balloting.

Otherwise, the House is due back in session on September 15, but it remains at the call of the House Speaker.

This week’s committee activity includes a House Environmental Committee hearing on DEP’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Program covering power plants (RGGI), the House Human Services Committee has an informational meeting on drug and alcohol abuse and the pandemic and the House Republican Policy Committee has a hearing on the important role of law enforcement in protecting communities   Click Here for the schedule of House Committee meetings/hearings.

The Senate is set to come back on September 8.. 

This week’s committee activity includes a Senate Environmental Committee hearing on DEP’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Program covering power plants (RGGI) and a Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee hearing on fire and EMS issues.  Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.


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