PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: 2021 Could See Fundamental Reshaping Of PA State Government

The new year has the potential to see a fundamental reshaping of state government by those who now run the General Assembly.

            With solid Republican gains in both the Senate and House, their efforts to curb the emergency authority of the Governor and to politically reshape state appeals courts through constitutional amendments will move full steam ahead.

            They will also have the opportunity to redraw their own voting districts for the next 10 years to keep Republicans coming back to the General Assembly.

            Here is a preview of four critical issues that will start the new 2021-22 legislative session–

— Constitutional Amendment Limiting Emergency Authority Of The Governor: Borne out of Republican opposition to Gov. Wolf’s COVID pandemic response, the Senate and House will pass for the second time a constitutional amendment requiring the General Assembly to act to extend a Governor’s emergency declaration beyond 21 days– Senate Bill 1166 sponsored by now Senate Republican leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland).

Since it’s a constitutional amendment, it would go directly to voters as early as the May Primary election with no action by the Governor required.

            This fundamental change would turn every emergency from a flood ,to the opioid crisis, to the pandemic, to civil disturbances into a political football subject to the slow-moving legislative approval process.

— Constitutional Amendment Electing State Appeals Court Judges By District: Borne out of Republican opposition to election-related decisions by the Democratically-controlled PA Supreme Court, the General Assembly is also set to pass for the second time a constitutional amendment requiring the election of PA Supreme Court, Commonwealth Court and Superior Court judges by individual districts, rather than statewide as is currently done– House Bill 196 (Diamond-R-Lebanon).

            Again, the change would go directly to voters with no action required by the Governor.

            Opponents of this fundamental change in the structure of the Judiciary say it gives Republicans the opportunity to gerrymander voting districts like they did with the House, Senate and Congressional districts, but this time to pick judges. Read more here.

— Redrawing Legislative & Congressional Voting Districts. The finalization of the 2020 Census numbers in 2021 will set off the process to redraw voting districts for the House, Senate and members of Congress.

            Pennsylvania is expected to lose at least one Congressional seat.  In spite of Republican proposals to reduce the size of the General Assembly, there will also be 50 Senate and 203 House districts to redraw.

            Since the General Assembly failed to pass any “citizen reforms” to the redistricting process, the existing rules putting legislators in charge of drawing their own districts is expected to continue.

            Good government groups like Fair Districts PA and the PA League of Women Voters are continuing to press for redistricting reform and a change in House and Senate rules to require legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support– like their redistricting proposals– to be voted on.  Read more hereRead more here.

            Senate and House Republicans have also announced plans for inquiries into what went right– or more importantly what went wrong– during the November election from their point of view that will yield other changes to the state election process.  Read more here.

            Some Republicans are already making noises about throwing out the entire “no excuses” mail-in balloting option, for example, and adopting other changes to make it harder for people to vote.

            As one headline put it– “Everybody Wants To Change Pennsylvania Election Law, But Mistrust Is High.”

— FY 2021-22 State Budget: On or about February 2, Gov. Wolf will lay out his formal FY 2021-22 budget proposal to kick off the state budgeting season.

            Ironically, February 2 is also Groundhog Day, and will no doubt see a repeat of a repeat of the budget wrangling we’ve seen in past years as Republicans seek to hold the line on taxes, borrowing and spending and with Gov. Wolf and the Democrats proposing something quite different.

            In an op-ed piece on January 1, Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, counseled “fortitude” and “ingenuity” in dealing with the new year’s budget.  He projects a $3.5 billion state deficit going into budget discussions for FY 2021-22.  Read more here.

            He said one-time federal funding support and improved revenues allowed the state to get through the FY 2020-21 budget without raising taxes or resorting to long-term borrowing.

            [Reminder: Republicans have used long-term borrowing to balance state budgets in the past, including in 2010 to pay off $4.2 billion in Unemployment Compensation Fund debt to the federal government [Read more here] and in 2017 when they authorized $1.5 billion in borrowing to balance the FY 2017-18 state budget [Read more here].

            [Reminder: The FY 2020-21 budget was balanced with $1.3 billion in one-time federal COVID relief aid, $2 billion in one-time enhanced federal medical and social service payments and $531 million in one-time transfers from a variety of state funds for a total of at least $3.831 billion in one-time budget “enhancements.” Read more here.]

            As noted, Sen. Browne projects a $3.5 billion deficit in FY 2021-22 as a starting point for discussions.

            Given this deficit, Sen. Browne said, “It is paramount that we identify more efficient and effective ways to allocate state resources, including reducing redundancies, while still delivering critical resources to our citizens.”

            At the same time, he said the state should take any savings and redirect them to invest in our education systems and to the care of older Pennsylvanians.

            “We must support fiscal policies that promote sustainability as a pathway not only through this public health crisis, but also so Pennsylvania businesses can flourish for the long term and the state’s economy can grow.”

            On the other team, Gov. Wolf and Senate Democrats have both proposed major state aid packages to businesses and workers affected by the COVID pandemic.

            Senate Democrats proposed a $4 billion aid program in early December based on long-term borrowing.  Read more here.

            Just before Christmas, Gov. Wolf proposed redirecting $145 million from the Workers’ Compensation Security Fund to aid small businesses impacted by the COVID pandemic.  Read more here.

            In the December 17 mid-year budget brief, Budget Secretary Jen Swails predicted FY 2020-21 will end with a  razor thin $3.7 million budget surplus, but at the same time pointed to five areas of significant budget concerns going forward.  Read more here.

            Lots more to come on the budget.

            Federal COVID Aid

            The second major federal COVID aid bill signed into law on December 27 provided more one-time financial support for certain state programs and PennDOT [Read more here], but Gov. Wolf has already said it is not enough to help businesses, individuals and state and local governments recover.  Read more here.

            Education groups, in particular, have said the latest federal stimulus relief is a promising start, but more must be done to help schools recover from the pandemic costs.  Read more here.

            Local governments in the Lehigh Valley noted while they squeaked by in their 2020 budgets, the real pain could come in 2021.  Read more here.

            Click Here to read a summary of general provisions in the COVID relief package.

            Click Here to read a summary of climate, energy provisions.

            Sense Of Urgency – Not

            Despite the urgent calls for action on these and other issues, the Senate has scheduled a total of only 13 voting session days in the first three months of the year– four in January, three in February and six in March.

            The House has scheduled a total of 16 voting session days in the first three months of the year– seven in January, three in February and six in March.

            Looks like business as usual from here.

            Gov. Dick Thornburgh

On December 31, the family of former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who made integrity and efficiency the hallmarks of his public service as a governor, U.S. attorney general and under-secretary-general of the United Nations, announced he had died peacefully of natural causes in Pittsburgh.  He was 88.  Read more here.

            He was widely praised by Republicans and Democrats for his leadership on state and federal issues.

            Former Gov. Tom Ridge spoke for many when he said, “His public service was a model of integrity and character that anyone seeking office would be wise to follow. A remarkable public servant and an even better man.”

            Read his biographyRead more about Gov. Thornburgh’s environmental accomplishments.

            Some COVID Restrictions Lifted

            On December 30, Gov. Wolf announced he would be temporarily lifting some COVID restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms, schools and other indoor and outdoor venues on January 4.  Read more here.

            Businesses would still be subject to capacity limits, mask requirements and gathering limits.

            2020 Year In Review

The annual year in review articles continued last week.  Here’s a selection for those who want to relive 2020–

— Jan Murphy: 21 Ways PA’s Lawmakers Changed Your Life In 2021 And Beyond

Top Stories Of 2020: COVID And The State Shutdown

— Deb Erdley: Voters Saw Presidential Campaign Like No Other In 2020

— Stories Of The Year: Western PA Became A Focal Point In The Election

Year In Review: From A Pandemic, To Police Shootings, To Protests, Philadelphia Needs To Adjust

2020 Was An Ugly Year In Harrisburg, Don’t Expect 2021 To Be Much Better

We’re Tired Of 2020, But Some Find Energy In Having A Sense Of Purpose

Lehigh Valley’s 2020 Sports In Review: COVID Pandemic Leaves Indelible Mark

— Top Stories Of 2020: Schools Balance Health And Education As COVID Surges

— Cap-Star: 2020 In Review: Protests That Swept Pennsylvania

— Cap-Star: Top 10 Most Read Stories Of 2020

— PLS Reporter: Harrisburg Highlights: Reviewing The Top Headlines Of 2020

— PLS Reporter: Pennsylvania Newsmakers In 2020

The Most Curious Things We Learned About Philly In 2020

— Op-Ed: New Year’s Resolutions For Pennsylvania Legislators – PA League Of Women Voters

— Op-Ed: Looking At New Year’s Resolutions In An Era Of COVID

— Editorial: Some Light Amid Darkness Of Awful Year

— Editorial: Goodbye To 2020

— Editorial: The Scary Year That Was 2020

— Editorial: 2021 Resolution – Learn Lessons From 2020

            What’s Next?

            On January 5 the Senate and House will convene at high noon to begin the 2021-22 legislative session and swear in new members.

            In the Senate, watch to see if there is a Republican challenge to seating Sen. Jim Brewster (R-Allegheny) whose reelection is still tied up in a court challenge by his Republican opponent Nicole Ziccarelli.  Read more here.

            Click Here to watch the Senate

            In the House, Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said he would be swearing in members in groups, not all at once, as a nod to COVID precautions.  That still didn’t sit well with some Democratic members who wanted Republicans who routinely don’t wear masks to be sworn in last and separately from all other members.

Click Here to watch the House.

The Senate also announced its voting session days through June last week.  The House had previously announced its schedule through December–

Click Here For Senate Voting Session Days

Click Here For House Voting Session Days


Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Political NewsClips

Click Here For PA Coronavirus NewsClips

Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Environment & Energy NewsClips

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