PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: $912 Million Relief Package, 21 Day Emergencies, Wolf’s Priorities
Bipartisanship accidentally broke out late last week in Harrisburg when the Senate and House and Gov. Wolf worked to move a $912 million COVID-related relief package for businesses, individuals and school districts.
Senate Bill 109 (Pittman-R-Indiana) passed the Senate and was reported out of the House Appropriations Committee putting it in position for a final vote this week.
It didn’t hurt that about $767 million of this proposal comes from the second federal COVID relief bill and $145 million was a loan from the state Workers’ Compensation Security Fund suggested by Gov. Wolf.
The bill contains–
— $570 million Rental and Utility Assistance Grant Program for individuals;
— $145 million Hospitality Industry Recovery Program with grants up to $50,000; and
— $200 million aid to educational institutions.
21 Day Emergencies
However, the week started with a heated partisan fight over Senate Bill 2 (Ward-R- Westmoreland) that would amend the state constitution to limit emergencies declared by the Governor to 21 days, unless extended by a joint resolution passed by a majority of 253 Senate and House members.
Republicans made the bill a referendum on Gov. Wolf’s handling of the COVID pandemic pointing to the impact his decisions had when he closed down businesses and put people out of work.
Democrats argued Republicans did nothing to actually improve the response to the pandemic, but focused on passing legislation to reopen everything when people were dying from COVID and tens of thousands were getting sick.
Yes, it got that pointed and worse. The “debate” resulted in a partisan 28 to 20 vote, Republicans supporting to pass the bill.
House Republicans, also wanting in on the fun, passed their own bill with the 21 day emergency amendment– House Bill 55 (Grove-R-York)– and later moved Senate Bill 2 out of Committee and set it up for a possible final vote this week.
If– when– approved by the General Assembly, the amendment will go to the voters at the primary election in May, bypassing any action by the Governor to stop it.
House Republicans will continue to put the spotlight on the impact COVID has had on businesses when the House Commerce Committee holds a hearing February 1 to again hear testimony from the taverns, clubs and VFWs on the impact of COVID on their operations.
On January 28, Gov. Wolf laid out his 2021 legislative agenda, including a preview of some of his budget initiatives. He will formally unveil his FY 2021-22 budget February 2 — Groundhog Day– during a video budget address to the Senate and House. Read more here.
And here are some other things to watch out for in his budget address– Read more here.
The biggest part of his agenda was a multi-BILLION-dollar workforce development program funded by a severance tax on natural gas.
Although there were no specifics, Wolf said, “Our economic recovery requires a strategic investment in workforce development that addresses these inequities, supports workers most significantly impacted by the pandemic, and focuses on high-quality, well-paying jobs and careers.”
Gov. Wolf has proposed using a natural gas severance tax to fund education and a Restore PA infrastructure initiative in the past and– like in the movie Groundhog Day– this proposal too will repeat their reception– it will be D.O.A. in the Republican House and Senate.
Another major part of his agenda is urging the federal government to invest in Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, including broadband expansion, flood mitigation, contaminant remediation, blight, green infrastructure, transportation projects and support for transit.
On Friday, Wolf wrote to Pennsylvania’s Congressional Delegation asking them to prioritize critical infrastructure, when Congress considers a new aid package. Read more here.
Also on the Governor’s agenda is–
— Increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $12/hour, with a path to $15/hour;
— Taking additional steps on criminal justice reform and healthcare reform;
— Reduce the Corporate Net Income Tax and close the Delaware loophole;
— Legalize adult-use marijuana as a source of revenue for restorative justice;
— Govt. Reforms: gift ban, campaign disclosure, lobbyist reform; and
— Election Reform to speed counting of ballots, same day voter registration, early voting options.
On January 28, the Election Law Advisory Board, the 23-member, bipartisan group charged by law with reviewing how elections are run, met for the first time. Read more here.
The Board includes election officials, local elected leaders and state lawmakers.
The group unanimously elected Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence, a Democrat to serve as its Chair and Republican Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz as its vice chair.
Amy Cozze, Northampton County’s chief election registrar, reminded other Board members of the toll that disinformation took on Pennsylvania’s local election officials, leading them to quit their jobs in droves last year.
Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon), an outspoken critic of the 2020 elections, said, “I’m glad to be here talking about the nuts and bolts” of election administration.
On the same day, the House State Government Committee held its second of 14 hearings on the 2020 elections featuring county election officials, Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz and Jonathan Marks, Deputy Secretary for Elections at the Department of State.
The hearing was focused on the technical problems with the state’s SURE voter registration data system, which will be replaced with a new system in about 18 months. Read more here.
The House State Government Committee is scheduled to hold its third hearing on the 2020 elections February 11. The topic of the hearings was announced as election audits.
Vaccine Chaos Continues
On January 26, Gov. Wolf said, while there continue to be many “challenges” to implementing the COVID vaccination program in the state due to the limited supply of dozes from the federal government, he wanted to “ensure that the vaccine is provided in a way that is ethical, equitable and efficient.”
By mid-week, the Biden Administration announced they would be increasing the supply of vaccines going to states over the next several weeks, but that does little good if the delivery system is broken. Read more here.
Media coverage across the state last week clearly showed a hodgepodge of approaches to vaccinations, from healthcare institutions sticking with the original priority lists, to places like Delaware County [Read more here], Altoona [Read more here] and the Lehigh Valley [Read more here] who set up their own mass vaccine distribution sites.
Major health systems like UPMC and Penn State Medical, who were listed by the state as vaccine providers in the central part of the state, were not even taking appointments for shots [Read more here].
Meanwhile, a family-run pharmacy in Hershey that was also listed was overrun by calls.
A major controversy broke out in Philadelphia where the city linked up with a nonprofit group to distribute vaccines headed by a 22-year-old CEO who didn’t have appropriate medical credentials or training. Read more here.
Saturday, a deputy health commissioner in Philadelphia resigned as a result of the controversy. Read more here.
With no centralized system for getting appointments for vaccines like some other states have, people are left to scramble for vaccines on their own checking with multiple listed providers for appointments and getting more and more frustrated. Read more here.
Republican leaders in the House [Read more here] and Senate [Read more here] said Gov. Wolf’s top priority should be to get people vaccinated– and BTW he shouldn’t be taxing the natural gas industry.
Other Republican legislators suggested the PA National Guard should be called out to establish vaccination sites in every county. Read more here.
But it wasn’t just Republicans who were critical, Democratic lawmakers jumped on the Governor as well. Read more here.
The political “blame game” has just gotten started on this issue. Read more here.
Click Here to read media coverage from last week’s battles over vaccinations.
Senate/House Vaccine Hearings
On February 1, the House Health Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the state COVID vaccine distribution system and its “strengths and weaknesses” that should more formally air out more of these issues.
On February 4, the Senate Aging & Youth and Health & Human Services Committees are scheduled to also hold a joint hearing on implementation of the state COVID vaccination plan.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
The number of new COVID cases per day began to inch up last week to nearly 10,000 on Friday and the number of deaths were also increasing slightly again. Hospitalizations for COVID generally stayed about the same.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 20,526 on January 23 to 21,602 on January 30. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 799,957 on January 23 to 839,239 on January 30.
As of January 29, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 9.3 percent, down from 10.5 percent last week– anything over 5 percent is bad.
There are no counties at 5 percent or below. Clarion County is close at 5.3 percent.
As of January 30, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 757,766 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up 240,000 from last week– and 183,646 have been given the required two doses– up 76,700 from last week.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 26,580 claims for unemployment compensation between January 17 and 16, down 14,844 from just two weeks ago when claims were 41,424. Read more here.
Current Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) appointed former Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) to serve on the PA Gaming Control Board for the next two years with a $145,000 annual salary. Read more here.
The Senate and House have now set the May 18 Primary for special elections to fill the seats of the late Sen. David Arnold (R-Lebanon) and Rep, Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland).
On Friday, Angela Reese announced she was running for the Republican nomination to fill her late husband’s seat. Read more here.
The current makeup of the Senate is 27 Republicans, 21 Democrats and 1 Independent. The House has 112 Republicans and 90 Democrats.
Both seats are expected to stay Republican.
The House and Senate return to voting session February 1 to finish work on the $912 million COVID relief package, take final action on at least one controversial constitutional amendment and to hear Gov. Wolf’s video budget address February 2.
In addition to the Committee activity already noted, the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee is scheduled to meet February 1 to consider a letter to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission urging them to disapprove DEP’s proposed Carbon Pollution
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