PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Republicans Move Constitutional Amendment On Emergencies
Although neither the Senate and House were in voting session last week, Republicans took action to keep legislation to limit emergencies declared by a Governor to 21 days on track for a final vote so it can be on the May Primary election ballot.
21 Day Emergencies
On January 22, as its first act of the new legislative session, the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee reported out Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, that includes a constitutional amendment to limit the Governor’s authority to issue emergency declarations.
The amendment would limit an emergency declared by a Governor to 21 days, unless the General Assembly passed a joint resolution extending the emergency.
Constitutional amendments like this need to pass in two legislative sessions before they are put on the ballot for approval or disapproval by voters.
If passed by the House and Senate this year, this would be the second approval and the amendment could go to voters as early as the May Primary election.
Legislation containing constitutional amendments cannot be vetoed by a Governor.
This issue reflects the conflict between the Wolf Administration and the Republican-controlled General Assembly over restrictions imposed by the Governor to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans proposed a constitutional amendment on this issue, because legislation last year to end the emergency declaration related to the pandemic was vetoed by Gov. Wolf and there were not enough votes to override.
Senate Bill 2 was voted out of Committee by a partisan vote, Republican supporting. Several Democratic Senators raised concerns regarding the requirement for the 253 member General Assembly to extend an emergency declaration during an emergency.
Republicans argued that based on the impact of the expansive executive orders issued in the past year, the General Assembly needs a bigger voice in the process.
The Senate is expected to pass Senate Bill 2 this week and send it to the House.
The Senate and House will then have to figure out which bill to move for final action.
Senate/House Name Committee Members
Last week, the Senate and House finished naming chairs and members of their respective standing committees. They are now organized and ready for legislative business.
The Senate has 22 standing committees and the House has 28 standing committees.
For your reference–
State Row Officers Sworn In
On January 19, the incumbent Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro and new Republican incoming State Treasurer Stacy Garrity and Auditor General Timothy DeFoor were all sworn in without partisan rancor. Read more here.
Of course, you didn’t read much about it in the media.
Good News, Bad News
On January 21, the Independent Fiscal Office issued its five-year projections of state revenues and expenditures that estimates an FY 2020-21 fiscal year balance of $1.5 billion, largely thanks to significant federal COVID aid, one-time budget transfers and a quicker than expected economic rebound.
The bad news– totally not a surprise– is the IFO is projecting a $2.5 billion deficit in FY 2021-22, with a structural deficit of $959 million, barring any more federal COVID aid of course.
Besides increasing costs, all the one-time revenue gimmicks used to balance the FY 2020-21 budget won’t be available in FY 2021-22 like–
— $3.3 billion+ in federal COVID relief aid;
— $431 million in special fund transfers; and
— $100 million from the Rainy Day Fund transfer.
The IFO also expressed a concern the state’s job losses related to the economic downturn and COVID are likely to take longer to make up or never recover.
They pointed out the job losses from the 2008 recession took six years to fully recover and the IFO is projecting the same for the COVID recession.
In fact, Friday, the Department of Labor and Industry reported the labor force and payrolls shrank again in December with the labor force falling by an estimated 15,000. Read more here.
The IFO report added there has also been a dramatic increase in labor productivity as employers made changes to their operations in response to the pandemic. This suggests, they said, a lot of the labor loss will not be made up because of the productivity gains.
Gaming Revenues Down 22.24%
The bright spot was revenue from iGaming, sports wagering and fantasy sports contests was up 443 percent over 2019 .
Less revenue means less funding for property tax relief, and local and state projects funded by gaming revenues.
Biden Picks Dr. Levine
On January 19, the Biden Administration announced the selection of Dr. Rachel Levine as the Assistant Secretary of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Read more here.
On January 22, Gov. Wolf announced he would nominate Alison Bean, his Deputy Chief of Staff, to be Secretary of Health, replacing Dr. Levine.
At the same time, he also named Dr. Wendy Braund interim Physician General, a position formerly also held by Dr. Levine. Read more here.
Child Care Worker Grants
On January 20, Gov. Wolf announced one-time grants of $600 for child care workers are available to licensed child care providers as a result of federal COVID relief funding.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
The number of new COVID cases per day and rate of hospitalizations for COVID generally declined last week. While the number of deaths per day also declined, but remains high, the state reported a total of 20,526 deaths since the pandemic began.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 19,188 on January 16 to 20,526 on January 23. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 761,777 on January 16 to 799,957 on January 23.
As of January 22, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 10.5 percent– anything over 5 percent is bad.
There are no counties at 5 percent or below. Centre County is at 6.6 percent.
As of January 23, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 519,991 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine and 106,541 have been given the required two doses.
Two more legislators last week announced they tested positive for COVID– Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne) and Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R-Bucks). Both said they are experiencing mild symptoms.
A total of 16 House and Senate members have now tested positive for COVID.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 32,921 claims for unemployment compensation between January 10 and 16, down from last week’s 41,424. Read more here.
On January 22, the Department of Labor and Industry reported December’s unemployment rate fell by 0.1 percent in December to 6.7 percent. But, the labor force shrank by another 15,000 jobs and payrolls fell by almost 38,000. Read more here.
The Department also reported it was beginning to make supplemental federal COVID unemployment benefit payments to claimants under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. Read more here.
The House and Senate return to voting session January 25 and will also be in session the week of February 1 to hear Gov. Wolf’s FY 2021-22 budget address.