PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Senate, House Leave Town After Taking No Action On Key Issues

The Senate and House left town Wednesday leaving all the critical issues they should have dealt with on the table for when they are scheduled to return November 10, after the election. 

For some of those issues, action then will be moot, like in the case of election fixes, for others it means continuing the loss of businesses and workers from their jobs due to the COVID pandemic Read more here.

            The Senate and House left $1.3 billion in federal COVID relief money that could have helped small business, front line workers, and many others unspent, this after repeated attempts of Gov. Wolf and Democrats urging them to take action.  Read more here.

            While the lack of movement on some issues was anticipated, Senate Republican leadership surprised some of their own and House Republicans by not moving legislation to make changes needed to the assistance program to landlords and renters they desperately need because of the impact of the COVID pandemic.  Read more here.

            There was also no final action on legislation to give limited liability protection to businesses and school districts hit with lawsuits as a result of the COVID pandemic.

            Among the other issues left undone are–

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

— 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.

            Lame Duck Budget

            So, there will be a lame duck budget afterall– no big surprise– when legislators get the opportunity to make drastic cuts in state spending or move money around to fill the $5 billion (or so) state budget deficit without fear of any consequences from the voters… for at least two years.

The temporary budget they adopted in May runs out November 30.

With Congress and the President still going back and forth on whether there will be another federal COVID stimulus package that includes financial aid for states, the fiscal picture may not be much clearer by the time the Senate and House get back to Harrisburg November 10.

The Independent Fiscal Office will hold a virtual briefing on October 29 to release updated state revenue estimates and discuss economic trends affecting FY 2020-21 which will add further definition to that fiscal picture. 

Click Here for more on the briefing and to register.

            No Election Fix

            But the most critical issue left on the table was making fixes to the election law so counties can speed up counting mail-in ballots.

            In a statement released Thursday, after the Senate and House went home, the County Commissioners Association said they have been “pleading” with the General Assembly to change the law to speed up vote counting, but “it appears these pleas will go unanswered for this election.”

            “…(C)ounties in Pennsylvania today are now pleading with voters, candidates and the media to be patient regarding the timeline for completion of election results, because state law continues to only allow counties to begin pre-canvassing starting at 7 a.m. on Election Day.”

            Nearly 3 million mail-in ballots will be waiting in county election offices to be processed by election day.  Read more here.

            Department of State Secretary Kathy Boockvar has said 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.

            Republicans Lose More Election Lawsuits

            On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a PA Supreme Court ruling allowing mail-in ballots postmarked by election day and received up to three days later to be officially counted in the election.  Read more here.

PA Republican Party chairman, Lawrence Tabas, said the party disagrees with the decision and, noting the 4-4 decision, “it only underscores the importance of having a full Supreme Court as soon as possible.”

Democrats called it a victory for Pennsylvania voters.

But, like a lot of things with this election, this issue isn’t over until it’s over.

Thursday, the Republican challenger to Cong. Matt Cartwright in Northeast Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit asking the courts to prevent counties from counting mail-in ballots postmarked by November 3 that arrive up to three days after election day.  Read more here.

            On Friday, in a separate action, the Pennsylvania State Republican party again asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the three day mail-in ballot extension using the same arguments they lost on earlier in the week.  Read more here.

It’s worth noting that Pennsylvanians who cast military or international ballots still have their votes count even if they arrive up to a week after election day.

But, the outcome on this issue in the U.S. The Supreme Court could change with a new member on that bench, as Pennsylvania Republicans pointed out.  Read more here.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has tentatively scheduled a vote on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination for Monday, just in time to hear these cases.  Read more here.

On Thursday, Republicans had another lawsuit thrown out of federal court over purging 21,000 supposedly deceased voters from the state voter rolls.  Read more here.

Also on Thursday, conservative Pennsylvania Republicans had their lawsuit thrown out of federal court over grants to Centre and other counties to help offset the increased costs of running elections.  Cited as one of their reasons they should not be allowed– they might lose an election to more progressive candidates.  Read more here.

On Friday, the Trump campaign lost another lawsuit, this time over whether to let their campaign representatives monitor people registering to vote or filling out mail-in ballots in Philadelphia election offices.  Read more here.

Later on Friday, the PA Supreme Court unanimously sided with the Department of State in ruling counties can’t toss out mail-in ballots based on perceived discrepancies in voter signatures, settling a key issue before the election.  The action was opposed by Republicans.  Read more here.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said in reaction, “This administration’s continued weakening of the voting security features is damaging to the integrity and confidence in our election.”  Read more here.

Mail-In Ballots By The Numbers

            As of October 23, the Department of State said a total of 2,940,219 mail-in ballots have been approved: 1,864,361 from Democrats, 739,511 from Republicans and 336,347 from “others.”

The total number of mail-in ballots returned and confirmed by counties is 1,449,400– about 50 percent– 1,023,402 from Democrats, 293,318 from Republicans and 132,680 from “others.”

The deadline to apply for a mail-in ballot is October 27.

The deadline to cast an in-person ballot at county election offices is October 27.

            Veto Override Fails

            The House fell two votes short of overriding Gov. Wolf’s veto of House Bill 2153 (Everett-R-Lycoming) which would have opened up restaurants with few COVID restrictions.  Read more here.

            House Republican leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) refused to say whether there will be an attempt to reconsider the vote on the override after the election.  Read more here.

            The Senate and House also gave final approval and sent to the Governor several other COVID-related bills including–

Senate Bill 1110 (K.Ward-R-Westmoreland) requiring the Department of Health to release information on COVID and other communicable diseases by municipality (House Summary); and

Senate Bill 1164 (J.Ward-R-Blair) requiring the Department of Health to report COVID deaths to coroners (Senate summary).

            No word on what the Governor will do with them.

            Broadband/Criminal Records

            Also receiving final approval and on the way to the Governor’s desk were bills providing for some criminal record reform, the courts and addressing a portion of the broadband availability issue. 

The bills include–

House Bill 440 (Delozier-R-Cumberland) which further provides for the expungement of criminal records in certain circumstances under the ‘clean slate’ provisions (Senate summary).

Senate Bill 976 (Regan-R-Cumberland) which creates a commerce court program with the Superior Court and the county Court of Common Pleas and codifies the Veterans Courts program into law (House summary).

House Bill 2438 (Owlett-R-Tioga) further provides for electric cooperatives to deploy broadband services (House summary).

            Robot Delivery Services

            The Senate and House also delivered to the Governor’s desk legislation– Senate Bill 1199 (Aument-R- Lancaster)– clearing the way for PennDOT licensing automated or remotely operated “personal delivery devices”  — a.k.a. robot vehicles– and preempting local regulation of these devices (House summary).

Democrats, who opposed the bill, could not help but comment that Republicans were pushing a bill that would kick people out of delivery jobs at the same time they were decrying the need to create jobs and put people back to work as a result of the pandemic.

Counties Of Concern

Gov. Wolf last week listed these counties of most concern in terms of growing numbers of COVID cases–  Huntingdon (9.9 percent), Westmoreland (8.9 percent), Bradford (8.3 percent), Lackawanna (8.2 percent), Lebanon (8.2 percent), Perry (8.2 percent), Elk (7.9 percent), Susquehanna (7.1 percent), Bedford (6.8 percent), Berks (6.5 percent), Lawrence (6.4 percent), Luzerne (6.0 percent), Schuylkill (5.9 percent), Dauphin (5.7 percent), Armstrong (5.6 percent), Centre (5.6 percent), Tioga (5.5 percent), Carbon (5.1 percent), Indiana (5.1 percent), Montour (5.0 percent), Blair (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 4.3 percent from 33.9 percent last week.

            The Department of Health made more changes to the list of states they recommend travelers self-quarantine when they return, removing Texas from the list.  Read more here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 8,466 on October 17 to 8,654 on October 24. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 180,943 on October 17 to 192,622 on October 24.

            Unemployment Drops In Sept.

For the week October 11 to 17, there were 19,233 unemployment claims, down from 20,251 last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

Economic Indicators

On Thursday, the Independent Fiscal Office put out its monthly report of economic indicators for October, the last before the election, which found–

— June Retail Spending Increased 6.8 percent in Pennsylvania

— Pennsylvania Personal Income Grows by 12.0 percent in Q2

— Pennsylvania Records 10th Largest Percent Decrease in State GDP in Q2

— Pennsylvania Employment Expands 1.2 percent in September

            Read more here.

            Poll Position

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

Center For American Greatness/Insider Advantage PA Poll: Biden 45.8%, Trump 42.6%

AARP 50+ PA Poll: Biden 50%, Trump 47%; 65+ Voters: Biden 57%, Trump 40%

Republican PAC/Trafalgar PA Poll: Biden 47.5%, Trump 46.4%

USA Today/Suffolk U. PA Poll: Biden 48.6%, Trump 42.4%

Reuters/Ipsos PA Poll: Biden 49%, Trump 45%

CNBC/Change Research PA Poll: Biden 49%, Trump 47%

Fox News PA Poll: Biden 50%, Trump 45%

Rasmussen PA Poll: Biden 50%, Trump 45

The Hill/HarrisX PA Poll: Biden 51%, Trump 46% Poll: Biden 51%, Trump 44%

Morning Call/Muhlenberg PA Poll: Biden 51%, Trump 44%

Quinnipiac PA Poll: Biden 51%, Trump 43%

Morning Consult PA Poll: Biden 52%, Trump 43%

CNN/SSRS PA Poll: Biden 53%, Trump 43%

            Someone is spending a lot of money on polls, but, are they more reliable than they were in 2016?  Read more here.

Going Away Speeches

One of the rituals in the Senate and House is to do tributes for or hear final speeches from retiring members.

The most elaborate last week was the tribute to retiring Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) recognizing his 20 years of public service.

Click Here to watch his nearly 15 minute tribute video.

            What’s Next?

The Senate and House will not be back until after the election on November 10, so there is very little– meaning almost no– committee activity between now and the election

In the House, the House Democratic Policy Committee has a hearing set for this week on utility shutoffs, but there is nothing else on the schedule.  Click Here for the full House schedule.

In the Senate no meetings or hearings are scheduled. Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.

All the action is back home in their districts.


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