PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Redrawing Districts, Easing Restrictions, Closing Window, Changing Time
The House and Senate were both in session last week and lots of issues were swirling around the Capitol Rotunda.
Redrawing Voting Districts
The process for redrawing legislative voting districts formally kicked off last week when Senate and House leaders– Republican and Democratic– named four members to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission– one for each Caucus. Read more here.
Not surprisingly, they appointed themselves– Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland), House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre), Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia).
The four leaders have to agree on naming a fifth person as Chair of the Commission, something they have 45 days to do. In the past, the leaders haven’t been able to agree on a 5th, so the job was left to the PA Supreme Court and is typically a retired judge.
The PA Supreme Court is controlled by Democrats, and politically, Democrats are quietly counting on that control to help them in having a more effective say in how districts are drawn than they did 10 years ago when they didn’t control the Court. Read more here.
Republican leaders made promises of transparency and fairness, but have a long history of drawing districts in their favor– gerrymandering– but these promises were far from legislation supported by groups like Fair District PA and the Committee of 70 that promoted bills letting citizen-commissioners draw voting districts.
Child Sexual Abuse
The House and Senate both took action on “emergency” constitutional amendments to give victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window to file civil lawsuits against their abusers.
The rarely used emergency amendment process, which requires passage by a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, proved to be more controversial than anticipated.
Republican House members used the bill as an opportunity to offer other “emergency” constitutional amendments of their own on issues like prohibiting school districts and state agencies from collecting union dues– Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin); imposing a cap on spending by state government– Rep. David Rowe (R-Union); and limiting the liability generally for lenders, fiduciaries and economic development agencies to promote economic development– Rep. Valerie Gaydos (R-Allegheny); but all those amendments were withdrawn after statements on the floor.
The House is expected to take up the bill again this week, but getting to a two-thirds vote may be difficult because Republican support is thin. Read more here.
With both the Senate and House moving different bills, they will ultimately have to figure out which one will be given final action and is sent to voters May 18, if they make it.
The reason the emergency process is being used is because of a major screw up by the Department of State which failed to advertise the regular constitutional amendment after it passed the General Assembly the first time last year resulting in the resignation of agency Secretary Kathy Boockvar.
Tax Day Moveth
The Internal Revenue Service moved the deadline for filing taxes to May 17, since they were busy mailing out stimulus checks and trying to finish up processing 2019 and 2020 tax returns.
Pennsylvania automatically follows the feds so state taxes are also due May 17. Read more here.
The delay in the date will mean delays in reporting revenues by a month which will factor into decisions to finalize the state budget due June 30.
Gaming Revenues Down
On March 16, the PA Gaming Control Board reported total gaming revenue in February was down by less than 1 percent from February of 2020, right before the shutdown due to COVID in March. Read more here.
Not surprisingly, slot machine revenues were down 26.95 percent from last February and table games were down 25.87 percent.
How Should We Spend Federal $$$
There was more coverage last week of how much money communities and school districts will be getting in new federal COVID aid.
Of course, they and state government will be faced with how to spend all that money.
Although early, many of those recipients are trying to make those decisions. Here a sampling from local reports–
Of course, some states are thinking now they can cut taxes with the influx of the new federal cash, but there are provisions in the rescue package that would limit what they can do. And as always, a political controversy has broken out.
More COVID Restrictions Eased
On March 15, Gov. Wolf announced he was easing more restrictions on restaurants and bars, allowing alcohol service without the purchase of food, increasing dining capacity limits to 75 percent for those who self-certify and lifting the curfew effective April 4. Read more here.
Capacity limits for indoor and outdoor events will also be increased.
Requirements for mask-wearing, social distancing will still apply.
Now, restaurants are reporting problems hiring back staff to take new jobs that are available. Read more here.
On March 19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control changed its guidance to schools to allow desks to be three feet apart instead of six, with other appropriate masking and sanitation requirements. Read more here.
The change removes an obstacle many school districts could not overcome in reopening schools to in-person learning. Read more here.
Vaccine Rollout Continues
While the number of vaccinations continues to increase, the same problems with seniors getting appointments, counties complaining about being short-changed in getting vaccine supplies and other issues surrounding the complex vaccine distribution effort persist.
In spite of everything, the Wolf Administration is still aiming to have vaccine appointments for all Phase IA priority people by March 31 [Read more here]; move on to Phase 1B priorities for vaccination in April [Read more here] and hit the Biden Administration goal of being able to open up vaccinations to everyone by May 1. Read more here.
Visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage for this week’s ups and downs.
COVID Percent Positivity Up
As of March 19, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing the statewide percent positivity jumped to 6.5 percent from 5.7 percent last week after a steady decline over the last few months– anything over 5 percent is bad.
The daily number of COVID cases is also inching up.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 24,573 on March 13 to 24,774 on March 20. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 964,296 on March 13 to 984,515 on March 20.
As of March 13, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 2,614,522 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 2,335,756 last week– and 1,428,876 have been given the required two doses– up from 1,200,200 last week.
The Other Health Emergency
Thirty-eight months after Gov. Wolf declared the opioid overdose crisis a statewide emergency, Pennsylvania still has the third-highest number of drug-related overdose deaths in the nation– 5,144 in 2020. Read more here.
In terms of deaths per 100,000, Pennsylvania ranks sixth with West Virginia first.
A Department of Health spokesperson said it would be inaccurate to say Pennsylvania is doing “poorly” compared to other states when CDC data shows there was a 24 percent increase in overdose deaths nationwide, while in Pennsylvania deaths only increased 18 percent. Read more here.
Running For Governor
A very, very early Susquehanna Polling and Research poll on potential Republican candidates for Governor in 2022 found 60% undecided, the most popular candidate.
Former Cong. Lou Barletta had 20% support; Sen. Doug Mastriano 11%; Cong. Dan Meuser and William McSwain, a former U.S. Attorney, each had 3%; former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley 2% ; and “other” was least popular at 1%.
Barletta and Mastriano led the pack in terms of name recognition at 67% and 66%, respectively, followed by Lt. Gov. Cawley at 54%. Read more here.
By the end of the week, Lou Barletta said he will make a decision in the next few weeks on whether he will run. Read more here.
Another Republican– Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) said Friday he is taking a “serious look” at a run for governor. Read more here.
The interesting thing about Sen. Laughlin is that in recent weeks he announced his intention to introduce legislation to legalize adult use of marijuana, increase the minimum wage to $10 with an inflation increase in future years and a bill to increase the solar energy share under the state renewable Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards.
4 Special Elections
With the sudden retirement of Rep. Jeff Pyle (R-Armstrong) due to medical issues, there will now be four special elections held on May 18– two House and two in the Senate. Read more here.
The other vacant House seat was previously held by Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) who passed away earlier in the year.
In the Senate, the seat held by Sen. Dave Arnold (R-Lebanon), who also passed away, and Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna), who moved to a new job, are both up for grabs.
$726,877 Among Friends
In spite of the pandemic last year, House and Senate members collected $726,877 in per diems to pay for their travel, room and food expenses, which ranged from $178 to $200 per day. Click Here to find how your legislator did.
Perhaps to counter that story last week, Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) announced he would be introducing legislation again this year to eliminate the annual cost of living increase for legislators and senior executive branch staff for the second year in a row. Read more here.
Of course where there is controversy there is also opportunity. Thursday Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) announced the introduction of legislation to do away with per diem payments. Read more here.
As if to remind us the kinds of weighty issues they deal with, among the bills moving and introduced in the House and Senate last week were these.
The Senate and House both reported legislation out of committee– Senate Bill 410 (Ward-R- Westmoreland) and House Bill 334 (Jozwiak-R-Berks)– which would bring back license plate registration stickers as an indication of an up-to-date vehicle registration for local law enforcement.
The stickers were eliminated as a cost-savings measure in 2017. Read more here.
An editorial had it right commenting on this ‘Back to the Future’ move, saying it brings “back an unnecessary system that costs millions. That’s an idea that isn’t sticking to anything.” Read more here.
Local police with radar guns? The House Transportation Committee approved legislation– House Bill 606 (Rothman-R-Cumberland)– authorizing the use of radar speed timing devices by local police, an issue debated for decades in the General Assembly.
We’ll see how fast the bill gets a vote by the full House. Read more here.
The House also moved legislation– House Bill 335 (MacKenzie-R-Lehigh)– to literally change time and keep Pennsylvania on daylight savings time year round.
Even if passed, the law would not take effect until Congress acts to allow states to permanently follow DST. Read more here. The Senate is due to consider a resolution this week on the same issue– Senate Resolution 36 (Martin-R-Lancaster).
And if these explosive issues weren’t enough, House members from Lehigh, Northampton and Berks counties introduced legislation to repeal the state law allowing residents to buy and set off powerful fireworks– House Bill 988 (Schweyer-D-Lehigh). Read more here.
Here are some other key legislative moments from last week–
Regional unemployment numbers released for January show increases in a number of areas, including–
Of course, the real reason for the House and Senate coming back to session the last two weeks was for campaign fundraisers. This week are 22 political fundraisers scheduled. Read more here.
The Senate and House are back in Harrisburg for voting session this week and then they break until April 12.
The Senate continues its agency-by-agency budget hearings with the departments of Community and Economic Development and Corrections.
The Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform meets again for a hearing described only as “state and local insight on the administration of elections.”
The House has a full slate of committee meetings and hearings featuring another House State Government Committee hearing on COVID policy– this time on suspending government regulations and another election 2020 hearing, this time on county election day operations and satellite offices.
The House Consumer Affairs Committee holds its second hearing on the state electricity industry and its future utilities and retail energy suppliers.
The House Environmental Committee has another “Embracing Pennsylvania’s Energy Potential” information meeting on hydrogen power and carbon capture.
Prescription drug prices are on the agenda for a House Insurance Committee informational meeting and “warm hand-offs” related to drug treatment is the subject of a House Human Services Committee informational meeting.
The House may take a final vote on the “emergency” constitutional amendment to get a proposal before voters in May to open a two-year window for victims of child sexual assault to file civil lawsuits, but time is running short. Read more here.