PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Signed Budget, PennDOT Out Of Money, COVID Surges
Last Monday, without any fanfare, Gov. Wolf Monday signed the finished FY 2020-21 state budget bills into law– Senate Bill 1350 (Browne-R- Lehigh) – General Fund budget and House Bill 2536 (James-R-Venango) – Fiscal Code– that fellow state Democrats are saying does not address a wide range of important issues, including using available federal funds to provide additional aid to workers and businesses impacted by the COVID pandemic. Read more here.
If new aid is coming, it will have to come from the federal government which so far has not come to agreement on a new stimulus package. And, most of the aid programs Congress enacted earlier in the year will end December 30, including unemployment compensation. Read more here.
In an interview with the Associated Press Saturday, PA House Republican Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) said small businesses and people who have lost work
[due to the pandemic]
need more federal assistance. “The election’s over, this is not a time for finger-pointing [sic].” Read more here.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are preparing to reembrace their concerns about the growing federal deficit under a President Biden after greenlighting big spending bills and huge tax cuts under President Trump. Read more here.
PennDOT Funding ‘Emergency’
But, a “new” budget issue is threatening lawmakers’ bread and butter take-home to their constituents– road, bridge and transit funding.
PennDOT has been warning lawmakers for nearly two years about the pending funding crunch and now, as a result of the COVID pandemic PennDOT’s fiscal cliff is here and it will arrive December 1. Read more here.
Last Monday, PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian told the Senate Transportation Committee Pennsylvania’s transportation funding “is in a state of emergency.” She said the impacts from declining gas tax revenues, a lack of “meaningful” federal investment, and losses resulting from COVID- 19 are taking its toll.
About $600 million worth of PennDOT projects will be halted due to the lack of funds on December 1. Read more here.
Gramian said she estimates funding losses at between $500 and $600 million, due to reduced travel related to COVID.
“We have already lost nearly $400 million that we will not recover. Thankfully, traffic volumes are coming back up, but not at pre-pandemic levels, and regardless, that revenue is gone for good.”
She pointed out that PennDOT provided information about losses to the federal government, hoping that they would give relief.
She said PennDOT has reduced 2020 programs to $2.2 billion, compared to $2.5 billion in 2015, and they have reduced the construction program by an additional $300 million.
Gramian said PennDOT is also taking steps to reduce costs, including withdrawing advertisements for 19 resurfacing projects and canceling seven unexecuted contracts and adjusted maintenance activities.
She stressed that some areas cannot be trimmed such as staffing levels and budgets for winter maintenance.
“But even with these efforts, in order to completely offset the drastic predictions of revenue shortfall in the Motor License Fund due to COVID-19, we would have had to reduce the total construction program to $1.3 billion or less for 2020 and to stop work on active design projects to cover all existing contracts.”
On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the PA Turnpike Commission will borrow $550 million to cover the overdue transit payments it owns PennDOT. Read more here.
3 More Vetoes
Gov. Wolf signed 25 other bills unrelated to the budget last week, but, as promised, vetoed three other bills– so far– House Bill 1747 (Dowling-R-Fayette) and House Bill 2440 (Kortz-D-Fayette) dealing with protecting the rights of gun owners to buy, carry and sell guns during a declared emergency and to declare a variety of gun-related industries life-sustaining and Senate Bill 790 (Scarnati-R-Jefferson) that would roll back environmental protection standards for conventional oil and gas drilling. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf has vetoed 17 bills so far this year, many of them Republican efforts to overturn his policies on dealing with the COVID pandemic.
Wolf has until November 30 to decide whether to sign House Bill 1737 (Gleim-R- Cumberland) that would provide some liability protection for school districts, businesses, health care providers and others from lawsuits related to their COVID response.
No Election Audit
Last Monday, the bipartisan Legislative Budget And Finance Committee voted against conducting a risk-limiting audit of the November election after three different election audit experts interviewed by the Committee all declined to do the audit. Read more here.
The Committee was given the authority to audit the election by Republicans in House Resolution 1100 after a politically divisive debate in the House.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said, “I am disappointed the LBFC would choose to block such an important process in an open and transparent democracy. I am also surprised, considering we asked for a report to be completed on the primary, and did not hear any objections.
“Our chamber will continue to pursue policies that protect and promote election integrity. We still believe a complete audit is the best way to proceed and improve.”
The Legislative Budget And Finance Committee meets again on Wednesday, December 2 to report out two of the Committee’s completed studies. The Committee could possibly address the issue of an election audit again at that time.
Monday, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), as Acting Chair of the House State Government Committee, Monday issued a background report on events leading up to the November election, including changes in election law made in 2019 before the pandemic, guidance issued by the Department of State and a summary of some of the election-related lawsuits filed. Read more here.
On Wednesday, the Senate Republican Policy Committee and conservative House and Senate members gave the Trump Campaign and Rudi Giulini a forum to outline their baseless complaints of voting fraud during the November election. Read more here.
On Friday, conservative Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams) [Read more here] and 26 conservative House Republicans called for the withdrawal of Pennsylvania election certification results and the installation of electors who support President Trump to override the election results [Read more here].
Also on Friday, a federal appeals court rejected the main Trump Campaign challenge to Pennsylvania’s election results. The Trump-appointed judge who wrote the decision said, “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.” Read more here.
The Trump Campaign said they will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Late Saturday, the PA Supreme Court unanimously threw out another Republican lawsuit challenging all 2.5 million mail-in ballot votes in the November election and lifted an order by a Republican Commonwealth Court judge blocking certification of all down-ballot election results. Read more here.
In a concurring opinion, Justice David Wecht wrote, “They have failed to allege that even a single mail-in ballot was fraudulently cast or counted.”
While the Court’s two Republican justices joined the five Democrats in opposing throwing out the mail-in ballots, the Associated Press reported the Democrats suggested the lawsuit’s underlying claims that the mail-in balloting system might violate the constitution are worth considering. Read more here.
After the PA Supreme Court ruled Monday, Allegheny County should count 2,349 mail-in ballots in the tight race between incumbent Jim Brewster and his Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli [Read more here], the Department of State vote count webpage shows Brewster is leading Ziccarelli by 89 votes.
New Mitigation Efforts
Last Monday, Gov. Wolf announced expanded COVID mitigation measures on the heels of modeling which estimates Pennsylvania will run out of intensive care beds sometime in December if new COVID cases are not reduced. Read more here
Hospitals in Erie [Read more here], rural areas [Read more here] and the Philadelphia area are reporting spikes in COVID case admissions putting pressure on their available ICU beds [Read more here] and other medical services [Read more here].
A group of 400+ hospital doctors and nurse leaders in Pennsylvania issued an urgent call ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday to limit gathings, wear masks and take other precautions to avoid spreading COVID. Read more here.
The model also projects Pennsylvania could have more than 32,000 deaths by the end of February. As of Friday, 10,234 Pennsylvanians have died of COVID.
Among the expanded measures-
— Schools: Schools must sign an attestation they are complying with cleaning and safety protocols, if they plan to continue in-person education after November 30;
— Telework: An order saying telework is mandatory unless impossible for businesses;
— Liability Protection: The Administration is introducing liability protection for all businesses that maintain in person operations and are open to the public. Businesses will receive immunity from civil liability only as related to the Secretary’s masking order given that individuals and entities are engaged in essential emergency services activities and disaster services activities when enforcing the order;
— Revised Gathering limits;
— Empowering Local Government To Enforce Restrictions; and
— Ramping Up Enforcement.
The Wolf Administration will also be sending COVID-related information to cell phones across the state via the wireless emergency alert system. Read more here.
House Republicans reacted to the new measures by saying, “While Pennsylvanians prepare to go Black Friday shopping at big box retailers unrestricted by new orders from Gov. Wolf, bars and restaurants are going to be left to languish under more onerous limitations on their ability to do business during what should be a robust holiday season.
“Pennsylvanians are currently policing their own activity during the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. What they do not need during this unprecedented holiday season is the heavy hand of government forcing them to do that which they have been doing on their own accord for months.”
Renewed COVID Emergency
On Wednesday, Gov. Wolf also renewed his COVID disaster declaration for another 90 days to deal with the dramatic surge in new COVID cases and hospitalizations. Read more here.
Republicans in the Senate and House have repeatedly tried to end the declaration or limit its term by requiring the General Assembly to approve any renewals.
So far, those efforts have not succeeded, however, the Senate and House passed a constitutional amendment in Senate Bill 1166 sponsored by the new Republican Majority Leader Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) that would require legislative approval of disaster emergencies beyond 30 days.
The Senate and House would have to pass the identical language a second time in 2021 before the issue would go directly to voters, bypassing the Governor.
Statewide Percent Positivity 11.7%
As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went up to 11.7 percent from 11.1 percent last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.
The 10 counties with the highest percent-positivity include– Juniata (27.2 percent); Mifflin (22.7 percent); Bedford (22.3 percent); Somerset (22.3 percent); Tioga (21.3 percent); Schuylkill (18.9 percent); Potter (18.7 percent); Cambria (17.4 percent); Indiana (16.8 percent); and Huntingdon (16.3 percent).
For comparison, Allegheny County is 9.7 percent up from 9 percent last week and Philadelphia is 13.2 percent up from 13 percent last week.
There is only one county– Forest (3.6 percent)– that is below the 5 percent threshold at this point.
COVID-19 Death Toll, Record New Cases
New cases of COVID again hit record highs on Friday– 8,425 on a single day.
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 9,801 on November 21 to 10,275 deaths on November 28. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 302,564 cases on November 21 to 351,667 on November 28.
On Tuesday, Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) tested positive for COVID, becoming the sixth state lawmaker and the third in the past week to test positive. Read more here.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 22,756 claims for unemployment compensation between November 8 -14, down slightly from the previous week. Read more here.
Pittsburgh area lawmakers and service industry workers held a press conference last Wednesday making a plea for direct financial relief for COVID-impacted businesses.
They noted the budget passed last week by the state contained no relief for workers or businesses and they urged Congress to act on federal aid. Read more here.
Much of the current federal aid is due to run out by the end of December.
On Monday, the Department of Labor and Industry issued a warning about a new social media scam on Facebook and other outlets asking for personal details in order to claim a prize linked to unemployment benefits. Read more here.
There are no plans to bring the Senate and House back to voting session on November 30, the last day of the 2019-20 legislative session.
So, all bills will die and committees dissolved to start all over again on January 1.
New members formally start their terms December 1, at least that’s when their first pay period starts, but aren’t sworn in until January 1.
And then we get to do this all over again!