PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Senate, House Coming Back To Harrisburg With Little Progress On Major Issues

The Senate and House are coming back to Harrisburg October 19, 20 and 21 for the last three scheduled voting days before the election after making little progress last week on the big issues they face.

            That list includes–

— Reforming the way House and Senate voting districts are drawn;

— Election law fixes;

— Finish the state budget that now runs out November 30;

— Allocating the remaining $1.3 billion (or so) in federal COVID relief money to help small businesses, front line works and more;

— Helping renters avoid evictions and mortgage holders foreclosures;

— Paid parental leave to deal with family and health care issues;

Recommendations from the Grand Jury Report on clergy child sexual abuse [2018];

— Banning all gifts to public officials;

— Campaign finance reform;

— Complete disclosure of outside income by Senate and House members; and

— Increasing the minimum wage.

            Keep your scorecard handy this week!

            Election Changes?

            Despite continuing pressure from counties, the Associated Press reported Friday talks over fixing the election law to allow for quicker vote counting are stalled.  Read more here.

The Republican priority continues to be the election “reforms” in House Bill 2626 (Moul-R-Adams)– now in the Senate– that Gov. Wolf has threatened to veto.

            National media outlets are beginning to report the story saying Pennsylvania could hold up determining the outcome of the Presidential election with one of the slowest ballot counting processes in the country.  Read more here.

            Department of State Secretary Kathy Boockvar said Friday she expects the “overwhelming majority of ballots” will be counted by the Friday after the election, but declaring a winner may take longer if the results are close.  Read more here.

            Court Steps In… Again

            On Wednesday, the PA Supreme Court said it would again step into the election mess by considering whether counties should count mail-in ballots when a voter’s signature doesn’t exactly match the one on their voter registration card.  Read more here.

            Lame Duck Budget

            On Friday, the Associated Press reported the obvious– “Deadline Looms To Defuse Pennsylvania’s Budget Time Bomb,” and in an understatement, said there is little certainty about where the funding is going to come from to fill a budget gap now estimated to be more than $5 billion.  Read more here.

            Finishing the state budget– the short term budget runs out November 30– has become like the weather, everyone is talking about it, but no one is doing anything!

            Plan To Spend Remaining CARES Money

Since Republicans weren’t coming up with a plan, Senate Democrats Friday outlined a plan for spending the remaining $1.331 billion in federal CARES COVID relief money the state still has sitting around in its accounts. Read more here.

The Plan includes–

— $125 million for individual and family relief with utility bill assistance.

— $575 million for business assistance, specifically for: Nonprofit assistance; Main Street and Historically Disadvantaged Businesses; Barbers, salons, personal care industry; Tourism; Bars, taverns, restaurants, private event spaces and hospitality.

— $15 million food security.

— $125 million for high Medicaid hospitals.

— $141 million for higher education.

— $75 million for child care.

— $100 million for hazard pay in existing programs, and expanded programs for pharmacies.

— $150 million for property tax relief.

— $25 million for public safety.

            Gov. Wolf outlined his plan for spending the remaining federal CARES funding in August, which– surprise– includes many of the same elements, although dollar amounts differ.  Read more here.

            Federal Budget Rescue?

            On October 15, U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell officially shot down the Trump Administration’s $1.8 trillion COVID relief package offer last week, showing clear divisions between the White House and Republicans in the Senate.  Read more here.

            McConnell said he plans to put the slimmed down $500 billion Republican COVID package up for a vote– without relief for states and cities– this week.

            But, things change quickly in D.C.

            Gaming Revenues Holding

            The PA Gaming Control Board reported Friday September revenues from all gaming and fantasy contests were up 1 percent over September of 2019.

            Revenue from slot machines was down 16.4 percent over last year and table games were down 16.2 percent over 2019.  Read more here.

            Signs One, Vetoes One

            The game of legislative ping-pong continues on COVID requirements as Gov. Wolf Friday vetoed House Bill 2513 (Everett-R-Lycoming) that would have allowed restaurants to open up to full capacity without regard to state or federal COVID mitigation guidelines.  Veto Message.

            The Governor signed House Bill 2487 (Ryan-R-Lebanon) that requires members of all three branches of state government– Legislative, Executive and Judicial– to forgo one mandated cost of living increase in their salaries in December.

            The bill would save the state an estimated $3,170,000 toward filling the $5 billion state deficit hole.

            Well, every little bit helps!  

No word yet on what the Senate and House Republicans will do with the $172 million surplus they have in their legislative operating accounts.

            COVID Comeback Package

            On Wednesday, House Republicans unveiled a “COVID Comeback” package of taxpayer funded manufacturing zones with state and local tax abatement and targeted job creation tax credits to help the state’s economy recover from the impacts of the pandemic.  Read more here.

            The proposals are modeled after a variety of other existing “zone” programs the state now runs and previous proposals made by the Republicans.

            Obviously, setting up new zones, getting manufacturers interested, building facilities, training workers all takes lots of time so the benefits of this program may not be seen for some time.

            Renter, Homeowner Relief Program Changes

            On Tuesday, Gov. Wolf rolled out additional changes to the renter and homeowner mortgage relief program run by the PA Housing Finance Agency to provide assistance above the $750 monthly cap.  Read more here.

            The Governor took the action because there was no agreement in the Senate and House over legislation to make these and other changes to the program.  Read more here.

            The PA Housing Finance Agency said they had 47,891 applications from renters for assistance and were able to assist 5,743 and 23,694 applications from landlords and were able to assist 3,624 over the last three months.  Read more here.

            The Agency received 3,080 applications for assistance from homeowners and approved $5.2 million of the $12.2 million in assistance requested.  Read more here.

            Racist Assault

Gisele Fetterman, the wife of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, was verbally assaulted last Sunday by a woman at a grocery store who followed her out of the store to her car repeatedly using racial slurs.  The incident occured near her home in Braddock, Allegheny County.  Read more here.

Fetterman, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Brazil, recorded part of the incident on her phone and posted it on her Twitter account saying, “I love love love this country but we are so deeply divided. I ran to the local grocery store and was met by and verbally assaulted by this woman who repeatedly told me I do not belong here.”  Read more here.

“This behavior and this hatred is taught. If you know her, if she is your neighbor or relative, please, please teach her love instead.”  Read more here.

State Police later identified the woman and after an investigation said her actions were a violation of state criminal law, but Fetterman said she did not want to see her prosecuted.  Read more here.

            COVID Fall Resurgence

            On Wednesday, the Department of Health officially said the dramatic increase in COVID cases in the last two weeks is the start of a Fall Resurgence, but it does not plan to reimpose a stay-at-home order or shut down businesses again in response– “at this time.”  Read more here.

Though some of the increased caseload is due to expanded testing, the state’s hospitalization and test positivity rates are also rising.

Counties Of Concern

Gov. Wolf last week listed these counties of most concern in terms of growing numbers of COVID cases–  Northumberland (8.6 percent), Centre (7.6 percent), Bradford (7.4 percent), Lebanon (7.4 percent), Lawrence (6.9 percent), Potter (6.3 percent), Westmoreland (6.3 percent), Fulton (6.2 percent), Montour (6.0 percent), Berks (5.9 percent), Indiana (5.9 percent), Huntingdon (5.8 percent), Lackawanna (5.4 percent) and Schuylkill (5.0 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 went up to 3.9 percent from 3.7 percent last week.

            The Department of Health made more changes to the list of states they recommend travelers self-quarantine when they return adding Alaska, Indiana and North Carolina.  Read more here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 8,344 on October 10 to 8,466 on October 17. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 171,050 on October 10 to 180,943 on October 17.

Among the notable COVID cases last week– Republican candidate for State Treasurer Stacy Garrity, who tested positive on Wednesday after attending President Trump’s campaign rally in Johnstown.  She is in self-quarantine for 10 days.

            Unemployment Drops In Sept.

The Department of Labor and Industry reported Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent in September, down 2.3 percentage points from August.

The national rate fell 0.5 percentage points from its August level to 7.9 percent. The Commonwealth’s unemployment rate increased by 3.5 percentage points from September 2019 while the national rate was up 4.4 points over the year.  Read more here.

For the week October 4 to 10, there were 20,251unemployment claims, up from 19,844 last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

            Poll Position

            Another week, another bunch more polls on the Presidential race.  Here are results from last week–

Trafalgar PA Poll: Biden 47.4 percent, Trump 45.1 percent

Baldwin Wallace University Great Lakes PA Poll: Biden 49.6 percent, Trump 44.5 percent

Morning Consult PA Poll: Biden 52 percent, Trump 44 percent

Reuters/Ipsos PA Poll: Biden 51 percent, Trump 44 percent

Civiqs PA Poll: Biden 52 percent, Trump 45 percent

            Election day is still 16 days away.  It seems longer.

            State University System Overhaul

            On Thursday, the State System of Higher Education continued its efforts to remake the 14 state-owned colleges announcing it is exploring two possible combinations of schools– California-Clarion-Edinboro and Bloomsburg-Lock Haven-Mansfield.

            It will also seek an additional $35 million in state funding to support the system redesign efforts.  Read more here.

            Enrollment in state university schools has declined from 120,000 a decade ago to 93,700 this year. Read more here.

            COVID Property Reassessments?

            Allegheny County officials said last week they were bracing for a “big volume” of requests from hotels, shopping centers and other commercial property owners for property tax reassessments as a result of the impact of the pandemic.

            Officials in surrounding Western Pennsylvania counties were also reporting a surge in appeals.  Read more here.

            The obvious concern is the reassessments will cost county, municipal and school districts, already hit hard by COVID pandemic, even more tax revenue.

            What’s Next?

As noted, the Senate and House will be back in voting session October 19, 20 and 21 and any one of the issues listed above could be on the agenda… or not.

The Senate has a light committee schedule so far– but that will change.  As of now there are information meetings or hearings on broadband deployment, State System of Higher Education redesign and the state dog law.

Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.

The House has a bunch of committee meetings scheduled on everything from COVID treatment options, an update on the state unemployment compensation system, solar energy, municipal indebtedness and more. 

Click Here for the full House schedule.

            P.S. Fundraisers

            Senate and House members have 30 campaign fundraisers scheduled for this week.  Not a record, but still a lot.


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