PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: House, Senate Getting Organized, Strong Revenue Numbers
On Tuesday, the Senate and House returned to Harrisburg for the first time since November for the start of a brand new legislative session and spent their first– and only– day swearing in new members, adopting basic operating rules and made a start at getting organized.
In the House, things were relatively orderly in electing the Speaker– Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), although there was a brief skirmish over House Rules where Democrats wanted changes to require votes on more legislation with broad support.
They didn’t get the changes they wanted, and the Rules were adopted anyway.
House Republicans and Democrats even got a head start over the Senate by naming standing committee chairs– actual committee members will come later. There were new faces in many of the positions because of member turnover. Read more here.
One of the reasons for the different mood in the House was the death this past week of Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) from a brain aneurysm. He had also tested positive for COVID in December. Read more here.
The fireworks were in the Senate where Republicans did not allow Democratic Senator Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) to be sworn because legal challenges by his Republican opponent to some of the ballots cast were still resolved in federal court. Read more here.
According to election results certified by the counties and the Department of State, Brewster won the seat by only 69 votes.
While Senate Democrats complained the Republican maneuver left residents of the district without representation, Senate Republicans said it didn’t really matter because they did not expect votes on any major issues in January. Read more here.
At one point in the raucous debate, Republican President Pro Tempore Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) replaced Lt. Gov. John Fetterman as presiding officer for the day so Republicans could move forward with blocking the swearing in and other business. Read more here.
This drama briefly made national news, before the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building Wednesday. Read more here.
From there things went further downhill, with Democrats voting against the basic operating rules of the Senate and against formally electing Sen. Corman as President Pro Tempore, which typically ends up as a unanimous vote, but not this year.
Republicans in the Senate and House also moved ahead with plans to review the November 3 election in light of what they say are concerns about the integrity of the election process.
On Tuesday, Republicans Senate passed a motion by Republican Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) to form a Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform.
The Special Committee, as described in a co-sponsor memo circulated by Sen. Corman, will focus on the review of all aspects of the 2020 General Election, including: the security of the vote before, during and after Election Day; the accuracy and security of the election process, particularly during the pre-canvassing and canvassing stages; the uniformity of the election processes across the Commonwealth; the impact and role of our judiciary on the election process; the impact and role of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in issuing interpretations, guidance and instructions regarding the election process and the conduct of the election as a whole; and other election related issues that may come before the Committee.
In the House, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee, Tuesday released a tentative schedule for 14 public hearings to review the election. The first hearing could come in the next two weeks. Read more here.
Rep. Grove released a report in November providing basic background on the November election process, from his perspective. Read more here.
County election officials made it clear last week they hope to have the opportunity to share their election experiences and recommendations to make the process better and vote counting faster. Read more here.
Up until now, those officials felt like they have not had much impact because they’ve been caught in the middle of political maneuvering by the political parties. Read more here.
On January 4, the Department of Revenue reported December state revenue collections were $465.8 million, or 14.5 percent, more than anticipated. Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $18.5 billion, which is $467.1 million, or 2.6 percent, above estimate. Read more here.
The Independent Fiscal Office also reported December revenue was $774.4 million or 26.2 percent above its more conservative revenue projections from last June. Read more here.
Of course, estimates say there will be a $3.5 billion deficit going into budget talks for FY 2021-22, but every little bit helps!
Some COVID Rules Loosened
On Thursday, the departments of Health and Education announced new recommendations for school districts to encourage the return of elementary school students to in-person classes, with the appropriate COVID safeguards. Read more here.
The decision on when to return and how is still left to local school districts, but the new guidance provides more support to parents seeking in-person classes.
The move was immediately criticized by the state teachers union. Read more here.
Philadelphia officials said Friday they could allow a return to indoor dining on January 16, if the COVID numbers continue to improve. Read more here.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health confirmed the first case of the more highly contagious COVID variant strain of the virus in Dauphin County. The case was the result of an international travel exposure to the virus, not general community spread. Read more here.
An infectious disease expert at Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie said the new variant may require a change in the precautions people take to avoid infection, like staying 10 or 12 feet from people, rather than six. Read more here.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 16,239 on January 2 to 17,394 on January 8. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 657,292 on January 2 to 703,265 on January 8.
The Department of Health also reported Pennsylvania’s rate of COVID testing was above the national average for the first time in the most recent White House COVID Task Force Weekly Report. Read more here.
Rep. Summer Lee (D-Allegheny) became the twelfth state legislator to test positive for COVID since the pandemic began. Read more here.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 38,512 claims for unemployment compensation between December 27 and January 2, down very slightly from last week’s 38,279. Read more here.
On Friday, the Department of Labor and Industry announced the additional federal unemployment payment boost included in the recently passed federal stimulus bill will start to automatically appear in payments starting this week. Read more here.
However, the agency said about 509,000 other unemployment claimants cannot yet file for unemployment for weeks after December 26 until the U.S. Department of Labor releases additional guidance. Read more here.
The House returns to session January 11, 12 and 13, but there isn’t much of the agenda, except, perhaps more organizing.
The Senate does not return to Harrisburg until January 25.