PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Senate, House Facing Last 3 Voting Days Before Election

The Senate and House have scheduled three more voting days before the November 3 election– October 19, 20 and 21– but so far they have done little to address the major issues staring them in the face–

— 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 $1.1 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;  and

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

            Add to that other issues that have languished–

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.

            This can be your handy checklist for tallying what they get done.

            Election Changes?

            County commissioners were pushing hard again last week for the Senate and House to give them at least a few days ahead of the November 3 election to get ready to count the mail-in ballots.

            On October 8, the Secretary of the Department of State reported more than 2.3 million people have requested mail-in ballots, and that number is climbing.  Read more here.

Senate and House Republican leaders declined media interviews on the subject last week, but there have been calls among House Republicans at least talking about it, for a few minutes.  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.

            Record Voter Registration

            The Department of State reported a record number of people have registered to vote in Pennsylvania– 8,908,777– with the registration deadline still a week away– October 19.  There are 4,175,532 Democrats (47 percent), 3,459,627 Republicans (39 percent)., and the rest are “other.”

            Nearly 186,000 more people are registered than were registered in the 2016 Presidential election.

            More than 2.3 million people request mail-in ballots for November, much higher than the 1.5 million in the June Primary.

            92,747 ballots have already been returned.  Read more here.

Ready To Rumble

            Attorney General Josh Shaprio said his office will be ready to take any legal actions necessary on election day and will “continue to battle every lawsuit that comes filled with baseless allegations of voter fraud by the president or anyone else.”

            “… And I can assure the people of Pennsylvania that we have been spending a long time preparing for this.  We will be ready.  And we will ensure that their vote is secured, protected and counted.”  Read more here.

            In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner said, “Anyone who comes to the cradle of American Democracy to suppress the vote, and violates the law and commits crimes, is going to find themselves in a jail cell talking to a Philadelphia jury.”  Read more here.

            Election Lawsuit Scorecard

            On Friday, a federal judge in Eastern Pennsylvania threw out a Trump Campaign lawsuit allowing campaign representatives to monitor people registering to vote or filling out mail-in ballots.  Read more here.

            On Saturday, a federal judge in Western Pennsylvania threw out a Trump Campaign lawsuit dismissing challenges to how mail-in ballots can be collected.  Read more here.

            On October 6, the Department of State asked the PA Supreme Court to back her in a legal dispute with the Trump Campaign over whether counties should count mail-in ballots when a voter’s signature doesn’t necessarily match the one on their voter registration.

            In guidance last month to counties, the Department said state law does not require or permit them to reject mail-in ballots solely over a perceived signature inconsistency.  Read more here.

            No Election Panel

            On Friday, House Republicans dropped their plan in House Resolution 1032 (Everett-R-Lycoming)  to fast-track an 11th-hour effort to set up a Republican-majority election panel with subpoena power amid accusations that it was an effort to steal the election.

            House Republican leader Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) blamed “the left and their media allies” for forcing Republicans to drop the plan.  Read more here.

            Voter Registration Crash

            For more than 48 hours– from October 3 to 5, the Department of State’s online voter registration went down along with online services of the departments of Revenue, Human Services and the Liquor Control Board due to a hardware issue in a Virginia data center managed by a contractor.

            “There is no indication at this time of any malicious physical or cyber activity, or that any loss of data has occurred,” the Department said.  Read more here.

            Judicial Impeachment

            Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) caused a stir last week when he introduced House Resolution 1044 to impeach Democratic PA Supreme Court Justice David Wecht for his votes on decisions on the election code and Gov. Wolf’s emergency declarations that did not go the way the conservative lawmaker wanted.

            Almost immediately, the PA Bar Association, the Chief Justice of the PA Supreme Court (a Republican) and Justice Wecht denounced the move as an attempt to intimidate the Court.

Chief Justice Thomas Saylor said, “An independent judiciary is a cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. Threats of removal directed against judges based upon their decisions in selected cases are an affront to judicial independence.”

PA Bar President David Schwager said, “The judiciary must have the independence to interpret the law without political interference or threats of impeachment by another branch of our democracy. The remedy for those who disagree with a court’s decision is to appeal consistent with the rule of law. The structure within our system of jurisprudence operates to protect the rights of all and has served our citizens for more than 200 years. The remedy of impeachment is an extreme one that should be invoked sparingly and only in the most extraordinary circumstances.”

Justice Wecht said, “In the United States of America, we do not impeach judges with whose opinions we disagree.  We are a nation of laws, not a nation of mobs.  When anyone, including legislators, attempts to intimidate our judges, they threaten our liberties and the rule of law.  It is ironic that here in Pennsylvania, the cradle of our nation’s liberty, some would forget our history and the tradition of judicial independence that has safeguarded our people’s freedoms.”

            Then again, other impeachment resolutions have been introduced by conservative Republicans, like Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) to impeach Gov. Wolf– House Resolution 915— and the Mayor of Pittsburgh– House Resolution 426— as political statements that never went anywhere.

            Republican Resignation?

On October 8, House Republican leadership called on Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Lawrence) to resign after a video surfaced on social media showing him encouraging his 5-year old son to draw from a cigar and use profane language.

The Republicans said they were “disgusted” by the conduct.

So far, Rep. Bernstine has not resigned saying the video shows “jokes that went way too far.”  Read more here.

Bernstine won his House seat in 2016 after it was held by a Democrat for five terms.  Republicans hold a slight registration edge.

Scarnati Lawsuit Dismissed

On October 7, a Jefferson County judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) against journalists personally over public records that documented questionable campaign spending by Scarnati’s campaign. 

            Had the lawsuit been successful, it would have put a damper on efforts to review campaign spending records.  Read more here.

            Wide Open Field

            Speculation continued last week over which Republicans will run for Governor and U.S. Senate after U.S. Senator Pat Toomey made his retirement announcement official on October 5.  The list of hopefuls is long.  Read more here.

            Another Wolf Court Win On Shutdowns

            Gov. Wolf chalked up another win in the U.S. Supreme Court last week after it refused to hear a challenge to his COVID business shutdown orders from March.  The appeal was brought by business owners and a Republican candidate for the House– Danny DeVito [no, not that one].  Read more here.

            Audit Waivers Not A Level Playing Field

            While he may have won in court, Gov. Wolf’s COVID business shutdown waiver program was roundly criticized by Auditor General [and candidate for Congress] Eugene DePasquale

DePasquale released some findings so far from his audit of the waiver program saying the program was inconsistent, unfair and ‘remarkably subjective,” comparing it to a “Keystone Kops routine.”

He said the audit has not yet found evidence that political considerations played a role in which businesses got waivers and which ones were turned down, but the investigation is ongoing.  Read more here.

            Lame Duck Budgeting

            Other than moving Senate Bill 1350 (Browne-R-Lehigh) in and out of the Senate Appropriations Committee, there was no movement on budget issues last week, although the Senate did adopt Senate Resolution 400 (Browne-R-Lehigh) to put in place a temporary rule saying if amendments spend more money, that has to be offset with cuts elsewhere.

            Three more voting days before the election….

            Federal Budget Rescue?

            President Trump Friday proposed a $1.8 trillion COVID relief package that includes $300 billion in aid to states and cities which could provide some much-needed cash to fill Pennsylvania’s budget holes, if allowed.

            U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell had just said earlier in the day another stimulus package is “unlikely in the next three weeks.”

U.S. House Democrats the prior week passed a $2.2 billion COVID relief package that includes $436 billion in aid to states and cities.  Read more here.

Stay tuned…. 

            Legalizing Games Of Skill?

            The Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Policy Committee held a hearing October 6 on Senate Bill 1256 (Corman-R-Centre) that would legalize– “regulate “– games of skill and tax them with the Gaming Control Board providing oversight.

            Courts have ruled games of skill are illegal in Pennsylvania, even though many business establishments have them.

            One witness estimated there are between 15,000 and 35,000 games of skill machines in the state.  Another estimated 40,000 illegal machines.  The State Police have estimated there are 20,000 illegal machines.  So let’s just say there are a lot.

Pennsylvania Lottery officials said in 2019 they were losing between $95 million to $138 million annually because of the skill machines, but now say the growing industry is costing them an estimated $200 million a year in revenue.  Read more here.

            A consultant told the Committee games of skill could generate $50 million for the state in 2021 with an annual revenue stream of over $100 million, assuming COVID restrictions are lifted.

            The established casinos said their revenue would be impacted after investing significantly in casino locations around the state.  They said similar legislation passed in Illinois resulted in a 17.9 percent drop in casino revenue over seven years.

            Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R-Bucks), Majority Chair of the Committee and an advocate for casino gaming, said the high tax rate for casino gaming machines was “prohibitive,” and it was clear why there is an incentive to install illegal machines because business owners can keep a large percentage of the money put in the machines.

            Click Here to watch a video of the hearing and for available written testimony.

Pay Freeze

On October 6, the Senate finally sent House Bill 2487 (Ryan-R-Lebanon) to the Governor that would freeze the salaries of Senate and House members, judges and top Executive Branch officials for one automatic cost of living increase  after passing the bill on September 23.

Hmmm… 13 days to walk the bill to the other side of the Capitol Building, seems like a lot.

No word yet on what the Senate and House will do with the $172 million or so surplus in their operating accounts.

New Gathering Limits

On October 6, the Wolf Administration relaxed– a little– the limits they imposed earlier on inside and outside events or gatherings of a temporary nature, like fairs, concerts, shows, and school sports but not an office building, classroom, production floor or other regularly occurring business or operation.

Instead of the 25 person limit indoors and 250 person limit outdoors, the new limits are based on a percentage of the official occupancy limits of the building or outside venue.

Venues must maintain 6-foot social distancing and wear masks.  Read more here.

Renter/Mortgage Relief Extended

On October 6, Gov. Wolf quietly extended the deadline for applying for COVID-related mortgage and rental assistance grants until November 4.  Read more here.

The program gives renters who qualify up to $750 a month for a maximum six months paid directly to their landlords, and gives homeowners up to $1000 a month for six months paid to mortgage lenders.

Click Here for applications.

PUC Changes Utility Shut Off Moratorium

On October 8, the Public Utility Commission voted to end the across-the-board moratorium on shutting off utilities to non-paying business and residential customers on November 9.

The moratorium will remain in place for residential customers at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Additional consumer protection measures were added for other customers, including requiring utilities to issue an extra pre-termination notice to customers at risk of losing service, waiving fees for protected customers, relaxing income proof requirements and making long-term payment arrangements available to small businesses.  Read more here.

The moratorium did not stop efforts by utilities to collect what is owed by their customers.

PUC Chair Gladys Brown Dutrieuille said the Commission will revisit the issue in the first quarter of 2021.

            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 (9.4 percent). Northumberland (9.3 percent), Snyder (7.8 percent), Lebanon (6.6 percent), Montour (6.6 percent), Perry (6.5 percent), Schuylkill (6.5 percent), Wayne (6.1 percent), Lackawanna (6.0 percent), Indiana (5.9 percent), and Lawrence (5.4 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 3.7 percent from 3.2 percent last week.

            The Department of Health more changes to the list of states they recommend travelers self-quarantine when they return and added Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming and removed Georgia from the list.  Read more here.

There are now 26 states on the list.  Read more here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 8,216 on October 4 to 8,344 on October 10. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 163,535 on October 4 to 171,050 on October 10.

            Unemployment Claims Drop

For the week September 27 to October 3, there were 19,844 unemployment claims, down from 22,955 last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

            On October 8, the Department of Labor and Industry announced it has installed new identity verification steps to help stem the tide of fraudulent unemployment compensation claims plaguing the system.

The Department contracted with federally certified identity verification provider to provide the verification services. Read more here.

            Poll Position

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

Monmouth University PA Poll: Biden 54%, Trump 43%

Quinnipiac PA Poll: Biden 54%, Trump 41%

CBS News PA Poll: Biden 51%, Trump 44%

CNBC/Change Research PA Poll: Biden 50%, Trump 46%

Reuters/Ipsos PA Poll: Biden 50%, Trump 45%

Emerson PA Poll: Biden 50%, Trump 45%

NYT/Siena College PA Poll: Biden 49%, Trump 42%

Some media outlets are saying Biden is pulling away [Read more here], others say it doesn’t look good for Trump, but don’t count out. [Read more here]

            As they say, the only poll that counts is the one on election day!

            Local Gun Control

            On October 7, the City of Philadelphia filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to allow the city and other municipalities to enact stronger gun safety laws. Read more here.

            Earlier last week, Philadelphia officials expressed alarm at the surging gun violence in the City which so far this year has recorded more homicides than all of last year.  Read more here.

            On October 6, the State Police reported the state’s firearms background check system’s third quarter was the busiest in the history of the Instant Check System completing 406,151 checks.  The previous record was 369,807 in 2013.

So far this year, 238 individuals have been arrested for warrants after attempting to purchase firearms illegally, including 93 who were taken into custody at the point of purchase.  Read more here.

            What’s Next?

Both the Senate and House took this week off to celebrate Columbus Day– or Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Thanksgiving in Canada– October 12.

As noted, the Senate and House have only three voting days scheduled before the election day break– October 19, 20 and 21– but that could change.

The Senate has a very light committee meeting schedule this week, with the Senate Republican Policy Committee having a hearing on expansion of hate crime laws and the Democratic Policy Committee holding a hearing on expanding the Amber Alert System. 

Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.

The House has an equally light schedule with no meetings or hearings by standing committees and three hearings by the House Democratic Policy Committee on video gaming terminals and skill games, oil and gas drilling waste loopholes and women in business.

Click Here for the full House schedule.


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