PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Budget Hearing Season Begins, Election Hearings Continue, New Vaccine Plan

The House Republicans will fire the opening shots at Gov. Wolf’s FY 2021-22 budget proposal this week on several fronts when they start agency-by-agency budget hearings Tuesday.

            The Department of State– which runs Pennsylvania’s elections– will no doubt get some attention Wednesday, along with the Department of Corrections.

            The House Commerce Committee will hold its own hearing Tuesday on a budget-related proposal– the impact of raising the minimum wage.  Gov. Wolf put out a vigorous defense of his minimum wage proposal last week saying the current minimum wage of $7.25 is “embarrassingly low.”  Read more here.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania— a legislative agency– follows up with a hearing Thursday on expanding broadband access in rural Pennsylvania, another part of Gov. Wolf’s budget.

            Click Here for the full House schedule.

RCAP Expansion

            In response to Gov. Wolf’s proposal to increase the debt ceiling for the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program by $1 billion to pay for asbestos and lead removal and schools and other projects, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) introduced Senate Bill 90 that would REDUCE the existing debt ceiling by $100 million.

            Guess we know where that proposal may end up.

            2022 Primary Delay?

            Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said Friday the 2022 Primary Election may have to be delayed because U.S. Census information used to redraw voting districts will not be available until September.  Read more here.

            Although not certain, Corman said candidates need to be given enough time to go through the petition process to get their names on the ballot for the May 17, 2022 primary.

            When the PA Supreme Court struck down Congressional voting districts in January 2018 because they “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state constitution, i.e. were gerrymandered to favor Republicans, the Court issued a new map in late February after the General Assembly failed to act.

            The Court also approved a revised nomination petition calendar so the Primary Election could still be held May 15, 2018.  Read more here.

If the U.S. Census information does come out in September, there are eight months until the May Primary to redraw the voting districts, get through some legal challenges and then the nomination petition process.

Pennsylvania will use the same process it has used in the past to redraw congressional, state Senate and House districts that resulted in gerrymandered voting districts favoring Republicans. 

Of course, the Democratic PA Supreme Court will be there to hear appeals.

The Senate and House State Government Committees have joint hearings scheduled for February 24 on the impact of the delayed U.S. Census counts on redrawing districts.

More Time, Please!

County election officials from Mercer and Sullivan counties both told the House State Government Committee at a hearing Thursday they needed more time to precanvass– get mail-in ballots ready for counting– to ensure more timely reporting of election results.  Read more here.

Hope Verelst, Sullivan County Director, made the interesting observation if precanvassing was allowed in the November election the entire discussion of the results would have been very different.

 She said if the results of mail-in balloting would have been reported right away, it would have been clear Biden was ahead from the beginning.  The rest of the time would have been a discussion of whether Trump was going to catch up.

Instead, the walk-in votes were counted first with Trump ahead and then his lead was seen as slipping away after a few days as the mail-in results were counted and reported until Biden finally won by 80,000 votes.

Both county officials also said, in response to repeated questions from Republicans, the checks and balances in the system for physically requesting a mail-in ballot and voting that ballot made it very unlikely someone could fraudulently submit a ballot or vote in-person without getting caught

In fact, there have been several charges filed against Republican voters for doing just that during last year’s elections.

Click Here for copies of testimony from this and previous election hearings by the House State Government Committee.

The Committee is scheduled to hold its next hearing on the 2020 elections February 25 on the topic of voter registration.

            Countering Vaccine Rollout Chaos

            Responding to the continuing chaos in the COVID vaccine rollout, Gov. Wolf Tuesday announced the creation of a joint Task Force between the Administration and General Assembly to “share vaccine information and communicate issues and solutions expediently on behalf of and to the broader General Assembly.”  Read more here.

            This is significant.  It’s the very first time since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, that Gov. Wolf reached out to the General Assembly with any sort of joint arrangement for dealing with any aspect of COVID.

            Legislative members of the Task Force include Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), Sen. Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia), Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington) and Rep. Bridget Kosierowski (D-Lackawanna).

            Sen. Augment wasted no time announcing his idea to appoint a “vaccine czar” with a military background to coordinate the rollout of COVID vaccinations in the state.  Read more here.

            Of course, the chaos, frustration, short supplies of vaccines, crashing appointment software and phone lines, and calls for teachers and others to be put first in line for vaccinations continued last week.

            Then there was a report in New York that for $50 a hacker put together some software that checked available vaccine providers for appointments automatically and came up with open appointments for anyone checking.  Read more here.

            Sounds a lot better than what many Pennsylvania seniors are doing now– letting their kids or strangers on Facebook search a dozen sites one at a time repeatedly for appointments.  Read more here.

            On Friday, Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam announced she had issued a new order that has the goal of clarifying the state’s expectations for vaccine providers and at the same time reducing the overall number of providers from 1,700 to what she called the more efficient and bigger 200 to 300 providers.  Read more here.

            She again said they would not be looking at a centralized appointment system and would not be changing the CDC priorities for vaccinations for teachers.  The Health Department is still focused on getting everyone in the Priority IA group vaccinated. 

            As a followup on one of the key issues during the COVID pandemic, the House Democratic Policy Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the current status of COVID infections and response in long-term care facilities.

            New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is under fire for a policy adopted early in the pandemic placing COVID patients into nursing homes that many believe increased the number of infections and deaths in those homes.  Read more here.

            If you want more details on COVID issues last week, check the weekly COVID NewsClips.

COVID-19 Record Death Toll

The number of new COVID cases per day generally declined again during the week as did the number of deaths.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 22,396 on February 6 to 23,072 deaths on February 13.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 865,604 on February 6 to 892,344 on February 13.

As of February 12, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 8 percent, down from 8.6 percent last week– anything over 5 percent is bad. 

Again this week, there were only three counties below 5 percent positivity– Washington at 4.9 percent, Cambria at 4.3 percent and Cameron at 3.6 percent. 

As of February 13, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 1,210,194 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 918,210 last week– and 378,567 have been given the required two doses– up from 246,390 last week.

Health Insurance Sign Ups Reopen Feb. 15

Pennsylvania’s health insurance marketplace– Pennie— reopens for enrollments February 15 to May 15 both online and by phone.

Typically, a person estimated to earn less than $51,000 a year – or a family of four estimated to earn less than $105,000 – would likely qualify for financial assistance to lower the cost of your monthly payment and/or out-of-pocket expenses.

PA Supreme Court Endorsements

State Republicans and Democrats endorsed candidates for the open seat on the PA Supreme Court last week.  Read more here.

            Kewin Brobson, President Judge of Commonwealth Court, was endorsed by Republicans and Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin was endorsed by Democrats.

            The open seat is the result of the mandatory retirement of Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican.  Democrats hold a 5 to 2 majority on the Court, so the open seat election won’t change the partisan balance.  Read more here.

U.S. Senate Race

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman set off a controversy after releasing a U.S. Senate campaign video addressing a 2013 incident when he was mayor of Braddock where he pulled a gun on a Black jogger after hearing gunshots.  Read more here.

The video came two days after he formally announced he was running for U.S. Senate to much statewide media coverage.  Read more here.

Two other candidates entered the U.S. Senate race last week– former Montgomery County borough council president on the Democratic side [Read more here] and a Republican businessman from West Chester [Read more here].

$53.6 Million In Super Bets

The PA Gaming Control Board reported $53.6 million in wagers were placed on the Super Bowl last weekend, a 74 percent increase over wagers placed on the game last year.  Read more here.

At the same time, some gamblers were complaining they did not have the opportunity to place some kinds of proposition bets related to the game, like the color of the Gatorade dumped over the winning coach’s head or the length of the National Anthem.  Read more here.

            What’s Next?

            The Senate returns to voting session the week of February 23.  The House is due back the week of March 15.

            In the meantime, the House will begin its agency-by-agency budget hearings February 16 which will continue for 11 days.  Click Here for House schedule.

            The Senate has no committee hearings scheduled at this time. The Senate begins budget hearings March 8.   Click Here for Senate schedule.

            The PA House Democratic Policy Committees have a joint hearing on racial and gender bias in the state court system set for Friday. Read more here.


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

TAP HERE for all articles in February 15 EXPRESS Update