PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Reliving Pandemic, New Districts Later, Questions On Ballot Questions

Members of the House Appropriations Committee continued budget hearings last week re-living the early days of the COVID pandemic with the departments of Health and Community and Economic Development and telling PennDOT what a bad idea it was to put tolls on bridges to fund major construction projects.

            Nursing Home Deaths

            One repeated line of questioning by Republicans at the House budget hearing with Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam was over whether an early policy of requiring nursing homes to readmit COVID patients for continuing care contributed to increasing the number of cases and deaths at those facilities.

            Beam responded by saying the state wanted to ensure that hospitals weren’t overrun and, “to the extent that it could be done safely,” allow nursing home residents to recover in their own homes– the nursing homes.  Read more here.

            The Associated Press reported, “Despite a high number of nursing home deaths in Pennsylvania, no investigation has thus far pointed to the policy as a cause of death or outbreak. Meanwhile, nursing home trade associations in Pennsylvania say they are not aware of a nursing home that was forced to accept a COVID-positive patient against its will, or that the order led to death or an outbreak.”  Read more here.

            As a followup on another nursing home issue, the House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee has a hearing Tuesday on COVID vaccine distribution for older adults and those in long-term care.

            Expanding Eligibility For Vaccines

            Acting Secretary Beam was also grilled on a variety of issues related to the COVID vaccine rollout at the House budget hearing last week.  Read more here.

            One of the key issues brought up by House Republicans was why the state expanded eligibility for the vaccine in January to anyone over 65 when there was still a limited supply of vaccine. At the time, only those over 75 were eligible along with health care workers and residents and staff of nursing homes.  Read more here.

            Had she been allowed to answer the question directly, the real answer was on January 12, as the Trump Administration was going out the door, the CDC released new guidelines telling states to expand eligibility to everyone over 65.  They said they would stop holding back millions of doses reserved for second rounds of shots.  Read more here.

            Two days later, the Trump Administration announced there were no reserves.  Read more here.

            Waiver Program

DCED Secretary Dennis Davin was repeatedly asked by House Republicans about the Gov. Wolf’s closure of  “non-life sustaining” businesses to slow the spread of COVID and the fairness of the waiver program that went along with it to show how devastating it was.  Read more here.

Gov. Wolf closed non-life sustaining businesses on March 19, 2020 to slow the spread of COVID. Read more here.  The waiver program was actually an idea suggested by Senate Republicans in response to the Governor’s order.  Read more here.

The order closing non-life sustaining businesses transitioned into the Red-Yellow-Green three phase reopening plan announced by Gov. Wolf on April 22.  Read more here.  On May 1, the Governor announced the first counties to move to the Yellow phase.  Read more here.

Bridge Tolls Bad

Republican lawmakers expressed their opposition to a proposal by PennDOT to put tolls on nine bridges across the state to fund major rebuild projects at the House hearing on the Department of Transportation’s budget.  Read more here.

PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian said the COVID pandemic which reduced revenues from the vehicle fuel taxes by $500 million through January. 

In 2019, before the pandemic, PennDOT was forecasting a deficit of $2.5 billion a year for bridge and highway projects and $1.2 billion for public transit costs.  Read more here.

Overall, Secretary Gramian told the Committee PennDOT is doing about $6.9 billion worth of highway and bridge projects when it should be doing $15 billion.

She added the $1.1 billion in federal COVID relief funding received by PennDOT so far has not made up the difference, in particular for long-term funding needs.

            At the end of the hearing, Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne), Minority Chair of the House Transportation Committee, told his colleagues that it’s “difficult to fund transportation,” adding “those were decisions [about the tolls] we made, that this General Assembly made in an effort to find an easy path forward for an admittedly very complicated problem.”

            He was talking about the 2012 law giving PennDOT and the Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board the authority to adopt tolls.  Read more here.

            $800 Million Loss

            The state-related universities– Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln– told the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday the COVID pandemic resulted in an $800 million loss in revenues, added COVID costs and lost income from investments at the schools.  Read more here.

These four universities received a total of $123.9 million in federal CARES relief funding, of which $54.3 million went for student aid–

— Penn State: $55 million total, including $27 million for students. Read more here.

— Temple: $44.2 million, including $15 million for students.  Read more here.

— Pitt: $21.3 million, including $10.6 million for students.  Read more here.

— Lincoln: $3.4 million, including $1.7 million for students. Read more here.

            Wrap Up

The House wraps up its budget hearings this week after hearing from the departments of Education were COVID response is sure to be on the agenda; Labor and Industry where Unemployment Compensation questions will no doubt dominate; Human Services where “out of control costs” are a staple; and ending with a hearing Thursday with the Governor’s Budget Secretary.  Here’s the schedule.

The Senate will start its agency-by-agency budget hearings March 8 when we do this all over again.  Here’s the schedule.

FY 2021-22 Budget Testimony/Resources:

Department of Aging

Department of Agriculture

Department of Community & Economic Development

Department of Corrections

Department Of Drug & Alcohol Programs

Department of Environmental Protection

Department of General Services

Department of Health

Department of Revenue

Department of State

Department of Transportation

Independent Fiscal Office

Liquor Control Board

State Police Liquor Enforcement

State-Related Universities-

     — Penn State University

     — University of Pittsburgh

     — Temple University

     — Lincoln University


Click Here for videos of completed House hearings


Click Here for testimony and videos of completed hearings.

            Federal Aid Half Done

            Early Saturday morning, the U.S. House passed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID/economic relief bill– a.k.a. American Rescue Plan– on a party-line vote, Democrats supporting.  Read more here.

            While no Republican members of Congress from Pennsylvania supported the bill, state House and Senate Republicans are secretly applauding, because it contains aid for states, local governments, school districts and state programs that will save the lots of headaches putting together the FY 2021-22 state budget.   Read summary of contents here.

            But the job is only half done; the U.S. Senate has to vote yet.

            The House version contained an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15, but that was only a nod to the importance of the issue for Democrats, because the U.S. Senate parliamentarian has already ruled a minimum wage increase cannot be included in the final aid package.  Read more here.

            Redrawing Legislative Voting Districts

            The big takeaway from the joint Senate and House hearing last week on the impact of the delay in the 2020 U.S. Census numbers was the obvious– the process for redrawing legislative and Congressional voting districts in Pennsylvania will be delayed.  Read more here.

            The head of the PA Legislative Data Processing Center told lawmakers if the state gets the Census numbers by September 30, then the Center can get the numbers in shape for mapmakers to finish their job in May 2022 when the primary election is to be held.  Read more here.

            At the hearing, Republicans criticized the representative of the U.S. Census for not doing their job in this age of computers.  Sen. Cris Dush (R-Indiana) noted some how they got it done when they were carrying around results on horseback.

            Republicans seem to forget the 2020 Census was collected under the Trump Administration and delayed by the COVID pandemic and lawsuits against the Administration for wanting to ask questions about citizenship and not counting undocumented immigrants.  Read more here.

            Opponents of gerrymandering– like the League of Women Voters, Fair Districts PA, Draw the Lines PA and the Committee of Seventy— pointed out modern mapping tools allow anyone to draw and redraw voting districts in hours not days or weeks.  Read more here.

            They plan to put their own proposed voting district maps before the Legislative Reapportionment Commission enlisting an army of citizen-mappers using tools they plan to put online.

            Republicans Cry Foul!

            Senate and House Republicans criticized the Wolf Administration for the way it wrote the constitutional amendment question to be put on the ballot in May on limiting emergencies declared by governors to 21 days.  Read more here.

            They said the question is slanted to scare voters into voting against the measure.

            The amendment passed in Senate Bill 2 says emergencies declared by a governor can only last 21 days, unless the Senate and House pass a resolution continuing the emergency.  If they do nothing, the emergency ends.

            The actual question– in this case two questions– put on the ballot are written by the Department of State– for some obscure reason– and are not included in the legislation–

— Question #1: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?

— Question #2: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?

            Formal advertisements in newspapers across the state have both the language passed by the General Assembly, the ballot question and a plain language explanation by the Office of Attorney General.

            President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) told reporters, “The questions are written in a way to scare voters away. But I trust the voters of Pennsylvania. We are going to take the questions to them and give them the background. We are going to work to educate our constituents on why – no matter how it is worded – this referendum needs to pass.

“We will provide voters with the information to make an intelligent decision. I’m confident that once the people learn the real initiative behind the amendment they will vote ‘yes’ in order to restore checks and balances back to Pennsylvania.”

Last Election Challenges Thrown Out

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out multiple challenges to Pennsylvania’s November election results on Monday brought by Pennsylvania Republicans.  None of the challenges contained specific allegations or evidence of votes being deliberately cast illegally.  Read more here.

Republican PA Cong. Kelly, Senate and House Republican leaders and other state Republicans had challenged the constitutionality of the entire mail-in voting system and asked for it to be thrown out.  Read more here.

Another Republican challenge asked that 10,000 mail-in ballots that arrived after election day due to Postal Service delays not be counted..  Read more here.

            As a result of these decisions, changes or reforms of the voting system in Pennsylvania will be in the hands of the House and Senate and the Wolf Administration.

            No changes are likely soon– even the obvious ones to give counties more time to get mail-in ballots ready for counting– until after the House and Senate finish their “review” of the 2020 elections.  Read more here.

            The current House State Government Committee schedule has the hearings lasting until at least May 5, less than two weeks before the May 18 primary election.  Read more here.

            The next Committee hearing is Thursday on the voter registration process.

            Vaccine Rollout Continues

Pennsylvania’s COVID vaccine rollout picked up a little more momentum last week not only as a result of at least 40,000 more doses being available, but as mass vaccination centers began to open in several areas of the state.  Read more here.

Two major health systems finally stepped up to rollout mass vaccinations– UPMC [Read more here] and Penn State Health [Read more here].

Gov. Wolf announced COVID vaccinations were completed at 600 nursing homes across the state, but acknowledged the obvious– there are still major gaps in the program.  Read more here.

Problems getting enough vaccines also forced the cancellation of some clinics giving out second COVID shots, but Acting Secretary of Health Beam said they believe they will have everyone who got a first shot covered for a second shot “within a safe time frame.”  Read more here.

The Senate last week gave final approval to legislation– House Bill 326 (O’Neal-R- Washington)– authorizing the PA National Guard to get involved in planning mass vaccination sites across the state and put the bill on Gov. Wolf’s desk Friday.  Read more here.

Although the Department of Health said last week they would stick with the existing priorities for giving out vaccines, Philadelphia the week before and now St. Luke’s Health System in the Lehigh Valley said they would be giving teachers a high priority.  Read more here.

            Speaking of priorities, Geisinger, a major health system in Central PA, announced it had allowed employee family members to skip the COVID vaccine line to get vaccinated raising another question of fairness against Department of Health guidelines.  Read more here.

            A hospital in the University of Pennsylvania Health System also had a similar practice.  Read more here.

            A variety of groups in Pittsburgh [Read more here], Philadelphia [Read more here] and Central PA [Read more here] are working actively to make sure underserved and minority communities have access to vaccinations.

            Read this week’s COVID NewsClips for much more on the vaccine rollout.

            Health System “Profits”

            UPMC, a major statewide nonprofit health system, Friday reported record revenues of $23.1 billion in 2020, resulting in a “profit” of about $1 billion.  Read more here.

            Interesting note– UPMC received over $1.1 billion in federal CARES Act aid in 2020 to shore up its finances, one of the largest amounts in the United States.  Read more here.

            On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny), who is running against current Mayor Bill Peduto in the May Democratic primary, said he would renew Pittsburgh’s legal challenge to UPMC’s nonprofit status in an attempt to collect more city and school district taxes.  Read more here.

            At the other end of the state, Tower Health replaced its CEO after sustaining big losses in its Philadelphia and suburban hospitals.  Read more here.

            COVID-19 Record Death Toll

COVID numbers were down again last week, led by a drop in statewide percent positivity from 6.5 percent to 6.3 percent.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 23,570 deaths on February 20 to 24,000 deaths on February 27.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went  from 911,591 cases on February 20 to 929,697 cases on February 27.

As of February 26, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 6.3 percent, down dramatically from 6.5 percent last week– anything over 5 percent is bad. 

There were 20 counties below 5 percent positivity, up from last week’s 17.

As of February 26, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 1,576,984 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 1,387,443 last week– and 649,020 have been given the required two doses– up from 479,797 last week.

            What’s Next?

            The Senate and House are due back in Harrisburg for voting session the week of March 15.

            As noted, the House wraps up its agency-by-agency budget hearings this week and has other hearings scheduled on issues related to COVID vaccinations, voter registration, county mental health and other services, among others.

Click Here for House schedule.

            The Senate so far has one joint hearing by the Education and Health and Human Services Committees on education during the COVID pandemic set for Wednesday.

 Click Here for Senate schedule.


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

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