PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Budget Season Begins, Another New Vaccine Plan, Tolling Bridges
Budget season kicked off in the House last week with the grim news– no surprise– the state will have to make up for a $2.5 to $3 billion structure deficit and at least $2 billion more in one-time income– including federal COVID relief funds– before they even tackle the FY 2021-22 budget.
Gov. Wolf’s proposal to increase the personal income tax, increase the threshold for tax forgiveness, adopt combined reporting for businesses and cut the corporate income tax were at the center of lots of questions during the Department of Revenue hearing. Read more here.
The Secretary of Revenue Dan Hassell focused many of his comments on the 2.6 million households that would receive a tax cut under the proposals.
Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee argued against the tax breaks repeatedly asking questions about how giving tax forgiveness or tax breaks to all those taxpayers was legal and constitutional. Read more here.
The budget hearing with the Department of State and its Acting Secretary Veronica Degraffenreid became heated at times between members of both parties wanting to ask questions about the 2020 elections instead of strictly budget-related issues.
About the only news to come out of that hearing was that the Wolf Administration spent $3.4 million in taxpayer money on lawyers in connection with the many lawsuits filed during the 2020 elections in addition to the $1.8 million in taxpayer money spent by Senate and House Republicans challenging the election results. Read more here.
Budget Hearing Resources:
Just to remind legislators of yet another funding crisis, PennDOT announced Thursday it is considering putting tolls on nine major bridges in the state to pay for major upgrade or replacement projects. Read more here.
They listed bridges in Allegheny, Berks, Clarion, Dauphin, Jefferson, Luzerne (2), Philadelphia and Susquehanna counties.
Tolling would be all electronic and collected by using E-ZPass or license plate billing, something more, or less, perfected since the beginning of the pandemic.
“PennDOT’s current highway and bridge budget for construction and maintenance is about $6.9 billion per year – less than half of the $15 billion needed to keep Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges in a state of good repair and address major bottlenecks on our roadway network.”
PennDOT said much of its current highway and bridge funding comes from gas taxes, which are declining due to alternative fuels and fuel efficiency.
Over the next year, PennDOT said it would continue to evaluate these projects and give the public an opportunity to “engage.”
Of course, legislators engaged immediately by putting out press releases in opposition or expressing serious concerns.
Gaming, Other Revenues
On Wednesday, the PA Gaming Control Board reported total January gaming revenue was up 2.7 percent over January a year ago, with Internet Casino Gaming hitting a record high in revenue. Read more here.
The PA Lottery reported sales are on track to hit a 50-year high for the fiscal year of just over $5 billion. Read more here.
The PA State Employees’ Retirement System reported earning more than 11 percent on its investments during 2020, adding about $3.4 billion to the fund’s assets for the year. Read more here.
PSERS also noted Penn State University made a lump sum advance payment of nearly $1.1 billion towards its unfunded pension liability in 2020.
The Department of Agriculture reported its Dog Law Enforcement Program has gone in the hole $1.4 million in the current fiscal year and highlighted the need for a dog license fee increase. The fee has not been increased in 25 years. Read more here.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday House Democrats are aiming to set up a floor vote on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion federal COVID/economic aid bill by the end of this week. Read more here.
Among many other provisions, the bill includes $195 billion in aid to state governments and $155 billion in aid to local governments. Read more here.
While Republicans in Harrisburg are secretly hoping the federal government will bail them out of the budget woes– again– Republican members of Congress from Pennsylvania oppose the measure.
Republican Congressman Mike Kelly from Northwest Pennsylvania called the COVID relief bill “immoral” because it would add to the federal deficit. Read more here.
He added, the bill “has nothing to do with COVID relief, but has to do with bailing blue states that have never been responsible with the way they spend.” Read more here.
That would certainly be news to Harrisburg Republicans who have called the shots of state spending for a long time.
Note that Congressman Kelly also filed multiple lawsuits to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results and declare Trump the winner and has a lawsuit pending with the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out the state’s entire mail-in voting law. Read more here.
Not to be forgotten on the list of things to do, the Senate has yet to hold confirmation hearings on Gov. Wolf’s picks to lead the several key state agencies– Health– Alison Beam; Education– Noe Ortega; Labor and Industry– Jennifer Berrier; and State– Veronica Degraffenreid. Read more here.
As of February 22, all but Veronica Degraffenreid, who was only named recently, have been formally submitted to the Senate and are several days into the 25 legislative day– not regular calendar day– review time. Read more here.
Three of the agencies play critical roles in issues related to the COVID pandemic– Health– obviously; Labor and Industry– unemployment compensation; and Education– getting kids back in school.
The Department of State runs elections– enough said.
Let’s just say all four agencies have not been controversy-free with Republicans, so confirmation hearings are expected to be lively…. whenever they happen.
Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) announced he would be resigning his Senate seat on March 8 to take a position with Congressman Matt Cartwright. His focus will be on job creation. Read more here.
Rep. Marty Flynn (D-Lackawanna) announced he would be seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for the seat. Reps. Bridget Kosierowski (D-Lackawanna) and Kyle Mullins (D-Lackawanna) also have interest in running.
In Westmoreland County, five Republicans are looking for the party’s endorsement to run for the vacant House seat there. The Democrats have already picked their candidate. Read more here.
Former Sen. Tom Killion (R-Delaware) will be starting the next phase of his public career as a lobbyist for Wanner Associates in Harrisburg. Read more here.
More Vaccine Chaos
On Wednesday, the Department of Health announced “mistakes” in handling the Moderna COVID vaccine resulted in as many as 100,000 people unsure of their second shots. Two shots of the current vaccines are needed for it to work effectively. Read more here.
Although the Department of Health said it wasn’t playing the “blame game,” reporting Friday identified the culprit– the Department of Health. Read more here.
The Hospital and Health System Association said the Department of Health gave orders for vaccine providers not to hold back the second doses of the vaccine to get as many shots as possible into arms and that’s what they did. Read more here.
The Health Department and providers are now scrambling to make sure second doses get into arms before the 42 day deadline for getting the second dose.
In making the original “mistakes” announcement, the Department of Health made sure they mentioned the new Joint Legislative Vaccine Task Force was on board with how to correct the mistakes. Read more here.
Several mass, walk-in vaccinations sites are opening or will be open soon in the state starting in Philadelphia– by the Federal Emergency Management Agency– and in Pittsburgh.
Elsewhere, it’s the same catch-as-catch-can arrangement for getting appointments with the weather and the “mistakes” over the handling of the Moderna vaccine forcing the cancelations of thousands of appointments.
The weather also significantly delayed the shipments of vaccines for days putting the state further behind. Read more here.
The House Appropriations Committee has set aside all of Thursday for the budget hearing on the Department of Health where these and other COVID-related issues will no doubt be explored.
The House Education Committee has two days of hearings scheduled this week on the impact of COVID on public and non-public schools and institutions of higher education.
Want more details on the chaos last week, read the Weekly COVID NewsClips.
The Department of Health has a webpage where you can check whether you are eligible to get vaccinated that links to a list of vaccine providers with limited contact information.
A group of University of Pittsburgh students and hundreds of volunteers across the state have done something much better. Read more here.
They created a VaccinatePA.org website that pulls data for when and where vaccines are actually available and how users can get an appointment or join a waitlist.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
COVID numbers across the board last week were down significantly, led by a drop in statewide percent positivity from 8 percent to 6.5 percent.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 23,072 deaths on February 13 to 23,570 deaths on February 20. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 892,344 on February 13 to 911,591 cases on February 20.
As of February 19, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 6.5 percent, down dramatically from 8 percent last week– anything over 5 percent is bad.
There were 17 counties below 5 percent positivity, up significantly from last week’s three.
As of February 19, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 1,387,443 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 1,210,194 last week– and 479,797 have been given the required two doses– up from 378,567 last week.
Redrawing Voting Districts
The Senate and House State Government Committees have scheduled a joint hearing Wednesday on what the impact might be of the delay in publishing the U.S. Census numbers until September on redrawing legislative and Congressional voting districts in time for the 2022 elections.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) already said the May 2022 Primary election may have to be delayed [Read more here], but others say they could get it done.
Public interest advocates said last week the public should be involved in redrawing voting district maps, not just the five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission. Read more here.
Enough Republicans opposed the idea of letting a citizens commission draw their voting districts over the last few years to stifle any citizen redistricting reforms. Apparently, they don’t feel comfortable privatizing this aspect of their government.
In 2018, the PA Supreme Court determined Congressional districts drawn by Republicans– who control the redistricting process– violated the state constitution and had to redraw them after the General Assembly failed to act. Read more here.
“More and more, you have uncompetitive general elections and that contributes to a very divisive partisan rhetoric and an inability to govern,” said nonpartisan Committee of Seventy CEO David Thornburgh.
Electing Judges By District
On Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said the Republican initiative to elect state appellate court judges by voting districts will not be on the May Primary Election ballot. Read more here.
“We want to take some time, and maybe hold some hearings and get as much input on it as possible,” Sen. Corman said. He added, it’s also worth considering other options too, like merit-based selection, that would distance judges from politics.
This is the second time the General Assembly is considering the amendment and the last stop before it goes to voters for their approval or disapproval.
The Senate and House passed the amendment the first time last session in party-line votes, Republicans supporting.
However, this session the momentum of House Bill 38 (Diamond-R-Lebanon) has slowed down considerably since it was reported out of a House Committee in mid-January by just one vote.
Public interest advocates have said the bill is nothing but another opportunity for Republicans to gerrymander voting districts to get control of the state courts.
Republicans were unhappy with court rulings during the 2020 election, in particular, those by the Democratically-controlled PA Supreme Court.
There will already be two constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot in May– one to let the General Assembly end disaster emergencies declared by a governor by doing nothing and an amendment to prohibit the abridgement of rights due to race and ethnicity (but not sexual orientation). Read more here.
For the record, Gov. Wolf last week signed his fourth renewal of the COVID disaster declaration [Read more here] and the week before he signed his thirteenth renewal of the disaster declaration related to the opioid overdose crisis [Read more here].
Also for the record, the General Assembly has consistently failed to propose any plan to reduce new cases and deaths from COVID, other than to oppose what Gov. Wolf has done.
Let’s hope the new Joint Legislative Vaccine Task Force will break that record.
Three new candidates entered the U.S. Senate race last week– Rep. Malcom Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) on the Democratic side [Read more here] and Jeff Bartos, former candidate for Lt. Governor, [Read more here] and Sean Gale [Read more here] on the Republican side.
Interestingly, Sean Gale announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in the same press release as his brother Joe Gale, the controversial Republican Montgomery County Commissioner, when he announced his candidacy for Governor. Read more here
Joe Gale was censured last summer by his fellow county commissioners for his racist remarks during Black Lives Matter protests. Read more here. He also supported Trump’s voter fraud conspiracy theories and supported overturning the November election results Read more here.
Completing the roster of new candidates is Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) who announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor. Read more here.
The Senate returns to voting session the week of February 22. The House is due back the week of March 15.
The House continues its agency-by-agency budget hearings February 22 with the departments of Environmental Protection, Community & Economic Development, Transportation, the Liquor Control Board, Agriculture, Health, Drug & Alcohol Programs, state-related universities.
Also scheduled are hearings on the U.S. Census and redistricting and the impact of the COVID pandemic on public schools and colleges.
The House Environmental Committee holds an information meeting on Pennsylvania’s natural gas economy and to consider a letter commenting on proposed DEP Chapter 105 regulation changes.
The PA Democratic Policy Committee has several hearings scheduled on the Delaware River, environmental and infrastructure funding and energy jobs. Read more here.
The Senate is in session and has a relatively light committee schedule so far.