PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Republicans Focus On Nov. Election, Democrats Want COVID Aid To Workers, Small Businesses

The focus again last week for Republicans in the Senate and House was the November election and its aftermath.

            On Thursday, Senate and House Republican leaders issued a three-page statement saying they are committed to addressing concerns surrounding the November election which they called  “an emergency.”  Read more here.

            The statement said the most pressing issues they identified over the last three weeks were–

— The security of voting and the manner in which votes are counted;

— The Secretary of the Commonwealth’s management of the 2020 General Election; and

— The impact of the Judiciary on the 2020 General Election and subsequent candidate legal challenges.

            “In addition to the issues we are reviewing for legislative action, concerns regarding fraud and deception impacting the 2020 General Election have been reported to us. However, proving the legitimacy of these troubling reports is outside of our legislative authority and is more appropriately directed to both law enforcement and the court. “

            They also pointed out, “We cannot take steps to appoint electors for this election given these provisions in the Election Code. Doing so would violate our Election Code and Constitution, particularly a provision that prohibits us from changing the rules for election contests of the President after the election.

“It would also set a precedent that a simple majority of the General Assembly can override the will of the people as evidenced by the popular vote.”

            On Friday, in spite of this statement, a group of conservative Republicans from the Senate and House also sent letters calling on Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation to dispute Pennsylvania’s Presidential electors, for Attorney General Shapiro to appoint an independent prosecutor to review election “irregularities,” and to the state Inspector General requesting a review of the Department of State’s internal election policies and procedures.  Read more here.

            The signatories included House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin).

            Not mentioned last week was the fact that counties pleaded with the Senate and House way before election day to make changes in the election law that would have avoided problems highlighted first in the June primary election and then in November.  Read more here.

            Also not mentioned were the multiple state and federal court decisions that went against allegations of voting fraud, voting machine issues, challenges to mail-in voting and other concerns that Republican legislators so often cite. [Read “Legal Challenges” here.]

            There was also a call by other Republican members for a special session of the General Assembly to address election integrity issues [Read more here].  They followed the call with a petition circulating among members asking Gov. Wolf to convene the special session [Read more here].

At least one Republican House member wants to do away with expanded mail-in voting altogether. Read more here.

            On Wednesday, not to be outdone, five Republican members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation also criticized the U.S. Department of Justice for saying there was no evidence of voting fraud that would change the outcome of the election.  Read more here.

            However all this turns out in court or Congress, how Pennsylvania runs elections will be a major issue in the new year.  Read more here.

            Democratic COVID Aid Plan

            With new COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths rising dramatically to record levels across the state last week, Senate Democrats Friday outlined a plan to provide aid to workers, businesses, individuals, hospitals and others impacted by the COVID pandemic in Pennsylvania.

            The program would be funded by a $4 billion “emergency” bond issue.

            At the time the FY 2020-21 budget was passed in November, Democrats lamented the fact it did not support workers, small businesses and individuals hit hard by the pandemic, so they are trying to address that with this proposal.

            Click Here for details on the proposal.

            Last week also saw several articles about why more than $1 billion in federal CARES aid sat around in state accounts for more than six months while workers and small businesses were suffering through the pandemic and state lawmakers “haggled.”  Read more here.

            There are more questions being raised about why the final FY 2020-21 state budget itself did not use the federal COVID aid to help workers and businesses deal with the pandemic.  Read more here.

            Articles also came out again last week about why the Senate and House did not make the changes requested in the rental and mortgage relief program that would have avoided millions of dollars in assistance being left unspent in the program.  Read more here.

            Of course some of these issues about providing more COVID-related aid could be resolved if Congress passed another stimulus package, but that is far from certain at this point.  Read more hereWhat’s On The Table In Congress.

            Hospital Beds Filling Up

            As of Thursday, 85 percent of the state’s ICU beds were occupied by COVID patients.  Read more here.

Nearly half of all hospitals in the Southcentral region of the state and a third of those in the Southwest anticipate staffing shortages within the next week as hospital beds fill up.  Read more here.

            Hospitals in the Philadelphia area say they are overloaded with COVID patients that are impacting the quality of care they can provide.  Read more here.

            On December 3, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said she was worried about modeling that shows the state will run out of intensive care beds for COVID patients this month. Read more here.

            Expanded Testing

            On December 1, Gov. Wolf announced the state would be sending ‘strike teams’ into 61 counties without health departments to expand the availability of COVID testing across the state over the next 12 weeks.  Read more here.

            The Administration also expanded the availability of the COVID Alert PA app to anyone 13 to 17 years old, with parental permission, to increase the number of people who can be alerted to a possible exposure by the app.  Read more here.

            In a related action, the Department of General Services announced the State Capitol in Harrisburg would be closed to events and visitors starting December 7.  Read more here.

            The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources also canceled all in-person events and programs organized by its staff or volunteers in state parks and forests across the state starting December 6. The parks and forest themselves remain open to visitors.  Read more here.

            Revised Quarantine Times

            On Friday, the Department of Health issued new guidance that aligns the state’s quarantine times with new guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  Read more here.

            The new guidance provides an option for a 10-day quarantine without testing or a seven-day quarantine with a negative test on or after day-five of quarantine.

The guidance does not apply to health care settings or those living in certain congregate settings such as nursing homes or prisons. Read more here.

            Protect Rights Of Elderly

            On November 30, the PA Supreme Court’s Advisory Council on Elder Justice called for immediate consideration of recommendations made in August by advocates for older people in Pennsylvania’s nursing and long-term care facilities related to the COVID pandemic.

            Click Here for the full Council statement.

            The August report made recommendations on resident rights, detection, prevention, response and mitigation measures, communications and transparency, staffing, monitoring and oversight and on volunteerism.

            Click Here for a copy of the report.

Statewide Percent Positivity 14.4%

As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went up to 14.4 percent from 11.7 percent last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.

The 10 counties with the highest percent-positivity include– Mifflin (29.7 percent); Potter (28.9 percent); Bedford (28.4 percent); Montour (25 percent); Juniata (24 percent); Somerset (22.4 percent); Tioga (22.2 percent); Franklin (21.2 percent); Lawrence (20 percent); and Indiana (19.7 percent).

For comparison, Allegheny County is 12.6 percent up from 9.7 percent last week and Philadelphia is 14.4 percent up from 13.2 percent last week.

There are NO counties below the 5 percent threshold at this point.

 See your county’s percent-positivity here.

            COVID-19 Death Toll, Record New Cases

New cases of COVID again hit record highs on Saturday– 12,884 on a single day.  Hospitalizations and deaths also hit new records.

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 10,275 deaths on November 28 to  11,262 on December 5. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 351,667 on November 28 to 411,484 on December 5.

Last week two Republican Senators tested positive for COVID– Doug Mastriano (Adams) [Read more here] and Judy Ward (Blair) [Read more here]– after attending a largely maskless Senate Republican Policy Committee hearing Wednesday in Gettysburg on the November election.

Incoming Senate Republican leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) also attended the hearing.

On December 2, days after the test results were announced, acting Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said “clearly, mistakes were made” on COVID safety at the hearing.  Read more here.

            Unemployment/Federal Aid

The Department of Labor and Industry reported 26,983 claims for unemployment compensation between November 15 -21, up from the previous week. Read more here.

Last Monday, the Department of Labor and Industry announced an estimated 11,000 people who received unemployment benefits under a federal COVID unemployment benefit program will have to repay some or all of those funds because they didn’t qualify for the program.  Read more here.

On December 3, Gov. Wolf sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation urging them to extend several COVID-related federal unemployment programs set to expire at the end of December.  Read more here.

“The number of COVID-19 cases is surging now and expected to continue increasing in the weeks to come, endangering both the public and economy,” said Gov. Wolf. “I strongly urge you, our congressional delegation, to consider how important the CARES Act has been to our nation and our state in helping businesses and workers and in preventing further contraction of the economy, and to act swiftly to extend these programs.”

Meanwhile, unemployment rates keep falling across the state with Pittsburgh reporting 7.2 percent unemployment [Read more here] and Lancaster County 5.3 percent [Read more here].

Also, Lancaster County reported they had over 8,700 unfilled jobs available in the county [Read more here], while residents in Philadelphia said they feel “stuck” as a result of their unemployment [Read more here.]

SNAP Benefit Payments Moved Up

On December 3, the state Department of Human Services announced it is altering payment schedules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the month of December to allow all benefits to be issued without risk of delay in case of a federal government shutdown.

SNAP is a federally funded program and the federal government is currently funded through December 11, 2020.

To avoid any potential disruption, recipients may receive their benefits earlier than anticipated and in one payment as opposed to two issuances. All December SNAP benefits will be available on EBT cards by December 11, 2020.

Click Here for the complete announcement.

State Revenue Up

On December 1, the Independent Fiscal Office reported November state revenue collections were $2.34 billion, which was $90.9 million above the monthly projections associated with the Independent Fiscal Office’s June 2020 Official Estimate.

General Fund fiscal-year-to-date (FYTD) collections exceed the estimate by $1.11 billion (8.0 percent).

The Department of Revenue also issued a report on November revenue collections, but said it could not provide a comparison to anticipated revenues because estimates were not yet available for the recently passed FY 2020-21 budget.  Read more here.

Found Money

Turns out the Wolf Administration found a temporary “accounting” work-around for PennDOT’s funding problems that allowed highway and bridge projects to continue after all passed the December 1 stop date.  Read more here.

State Treasurer Joe Tursella also offered to help provide the Administration with a temporary loan that would keep the projects going and contractors paid through June 30.  Read more here.

The PA Turnpike Commission also said it would be borrowing $550 million to cover the transit funding payments to PennDOT it missed during the first part of the year.  Read more here.

But, this is not a permanent fix or even a long temporary fix from a funding problem PennDOT has been saying would come for nearly two years.

CDL License Extension

On December 2, PennDOT announced expiration dates for commercial driver licenses and commercial learner’s permits will be extended for Pennsylvania residents in response to statewide COVID-19 mitigation efforts through December 31, 2020.  Read more here.

Click Here for the latest information on COVID-related changes by PennDOT.

What’s Next?

Expect more of the same heading into the holiday season!

The official Senate and House swearing in day is January 5.


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