PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Want To Chair Reapportionment Commission? State Revenues Up
If you’re looking for a good paying, but temporary job, the Senate and House leadership last week advertised the position of Chair of the PA Legislative Reapportionment Commission is available, if you like drawing maps, working with numbers and can sit through endless, mind-numbing political debates.
The four Caucus leaders already appointed their four members to the five-member Commission– themselves.
The state constitution requires that the chair of the LRC be a citizen of Pennsylvania who does not hold a local, state or federal office to which compensation is attached.
Advocacy groups like Fair Districts PA, the PA League of Women Voters and the Committee of 70 in Philadelphia wanted all members of any redistricting commission to be citizens; but that was not to be.
Although serving as chair of the LRC is not necessarily a full-time commitment, it does require a significant investment of time. Historically, the chair of the LRC has been provided with a small staff for the duration of the Commission’s work.
Previous LRC chairs include former Superior Court Judge Stephen J. McEwen, Jr., in 2011, former Supreme Court Justice Frank J. Montemuro, Jr., in 2001, attorney Robert J. Cindrich in 1991, James O. Freedman, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1981, and Professor A. Leo Levin of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1971.
The leaders indicated that, in addition to those who apply via this process, other qualified individuals may also be considered to chair the Commission.
If the leaders of the four caucuses do not reach agreement on an individual to serve as chair of the LRC, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will make the appointment.
Applications can be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications must be received no later than Friday, April 9, 2021.
For more information on the redistricting process, please visit the PA Legislative Reapportionment Commission website.
March Revenues Up
On April 1, the Department of Revenue reported March state revenues were up $378 million– or 8.5 percent– over estimates bringing the fiscal year-to-date revenue to $1.3 billion or 4.7 percent over estimates. Read more here.
The Independent Fiscal Office, which uses its own revenue projections, reported March revenues were $284.2 million– 6.2 percent– over its estimates and the fiscal-year-to-date revenues are $551.7 million or 2 percent above their estimates. Read more here.
Clearly, March revenue numbers were good news for state budgeteers, along with the train loads of federal COVID relief funding approved by Congress and the Biden Administration.
School Funding’s Day In Court
On April 4, Commonwealth Court issued a long-awaited order setting a September trial date for a major lawsuit against the Commonwealth over the issue of public school funding. Read more here.
Public schools and advocates have long said, and for the last six years have been in litigation over the issue of Pennsylvania’s public school funding laws favoring wealthy school districts, depriving students in poor ones of their constitutional right to a quality education. Read more here.
One expert analysis commissioned by the plaintiffs estimates it could take an additional $4.6 billion each year to ensure adequate funding statewide, unless of course the General Assembly goes with the lowest common denominator. Read more here.
Although the case has a long way to go yet, if the decision goes against the Commonwealth, it could force a major shift in state school funding formulas.
Federal School Relief
On March 29, Gov. Wolf announced Pennsylvania schools are expected to receive $4.9 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Read more here.
$4.5 billion will go to traditional public schools and charter schools and $500 million will be used by the Department of Education to fund interventions that address learning loss, support summer enrichment and comprehensive afterschool programs, and assist schools that do not receive a direct ESSER allocation such as career and technical schools and intermediate units. Read more here.
Teacher Vaccinations Completed
On April 2, Gov. Wolf announced COVID vaccinations for 112,500 teachers and school staff have been completed ahead of schedule, an important step, he said, to reopening classrooms to in-person learning across the state. Read more here.
New COVID Guidance For Schools
On March 30, the departments of Health and Education announced they had revised state guidance for K-12 schools to match CDC guidance, reducing social distancing from six to three feet in many cases, revised criteria for how long schools should remain closed after an outbreak and made other changes. Read more here.
Assessment Appeals Surprise
Allegheny County was bracing for a flood of commercial property reassessment requests as a result of the economic impact of the COVID pandemic, but to their surprise the expected tsunami turned into a gentle wave. They actually had several hundred fewer commercial appeals than last year. Read more here.
The surge came on the residential side where 9,523 residential requests were made, up from 7,864 last year. Read more here.
COVID Restrictions Eased April 4
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.
The official mandate for teleworking ended, but teleworking is still recommended. Read more here.
Of course, Philadelphia and Allegheny County have their own set of precautions in place which are different from the state.
Everyone Vaccine Eligible April 19
The big COVID news last week was the Department of Health announcing a revised schedule of vaccine eligibility–
— April 5: all residents in Phase 1B will be eligible to start scheduling vaccination appointments.
— April 12: all residents in Phase 1C will be eligible to start scheduling vaccination appointments.
— April 19: all residents will be eligible to start scheduling vaccination appointments.
Of course, Philadelphia [Read more here] and Allegheny County have their own schedules for making people eligible for vaccination.
Republican House and Senate members tried to create another issue last week on vaccines saying they oppose so-called Vaccine Passports.
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghof (R-Mifflin) said March 30 he opposed passports, saying ““The idea of so-called vaccine passports is an opening to unfathomable government intrusion into people’s personal lives, particularly their private medical information.
“Those who cannot receive the vaccine due to medical reasons, arbitrary vaccine deployment phases, or personal choice should not be discriminated against, especially as we work toward herd immunity.” Read more here.
Senators Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and Judy Ward (R-Blair) said they would be introducing legislation to prohibit Gov. Wolf from implementing a vaccine passport program, even though he has not proposed one. Read more here.
At least initially, Gov. Wolf didn’t appear to play their game. When first asked he was noncommittal on the issue and then said, “… if that were something that seemed to come from the General Assembly, yeah, I would support that.” Read more here.
Republicans in other states are rushing to oppose vaccine passports. The governor of Florida issued an executive order banning state and local governments and businesses from requiring them. Read more here.
This is another major policy shift for Republicans who consistently said businesses and local government know best how to respond to the COVID pandemic. Read more here.
Big Jump In COVID Percent Positivity, Again
As of April 2, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing the statewide percent positivity made another big jump to 9.4 percent– up from 7.6 percent last week.
On March 5, the percent positivity was 5.7 percent– anything over 5 percent is bad.
The daily number of COVID cases statewide and the number of hospitalizations increased over the last week.
The University of Pittsburgh issued a shelter-in-place order on March 31 for the 29,000 students on its main campus to try to stem the surge in the number of COVID cases there. Read more here.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 24,986 on March 27 to 25,188 on April 3. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,012,299 on March 27 to 1,038,749 on April 3.
As of March 26, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 3,565,943 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 3,068,295 last week– and 1,960,809 have been given the required two doses– up from 1,660,232 last week.
Visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage for this week’s ups and downs.
No Election Law Changes
In spite of repeated pleas by county elections officials over the last year and a half to give them more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting, House State Government Committee Chair Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) confirmed what everyone knew– there will be no changes to election laws in time for the May primary election. Read more here.
He said the intent was never to hit the May primary, but have changes in place for the November general election.
Meanwhile, he and his committee and an election integrity committee in the Senate are holding one hearing after another on different elements of the election process.
Legislation was introduced last week by three House Republicans to ban nonprofit groups from providing grants to counties to help them with the cost of running elections. Read more here.
It’s worth noting the Senate and House do not give counties any funding to run elections, they have to raise the money to do that on their own; and some legislators are apparently fine with not letting them apply for money anywhere else.
The candidates are now set for the special election to fill the state Senate seat in Lackawanna County and the House seat in Armstrong County.
Lackawanna County Commissioner Chris Chermak was picked by Republicans to face Rep. Marty Flynn (D-Lackawanna) on May 18. Read more here.
In Armstrong County, Dr. Frank C. Prazenica Jr., a school director for the Freeport Area School District and president of ARIN Intermediate Unit #28 in Indiana, was nominated by Democrats to face Republican Abby Major, Rep. Pyle’s Chief of Staff. Read more here.
Eviction Moratorium Extended
On March 29, the CDC extended its eviction ban through June 30 as one report came out as a new survey showed nearly one-third of adults in Pennsylvania are living in households that have fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments. Read more here.
And then there’s this– a Philadelphia landlord locked his tenants out of their apartments– despite a judge’s order– and then leaves on a Caribbean cruise. Read more here.
Utility Shut Off Moratorium Ends
The Public Utility Commission’s moratorium on utility shut offs ended on April 1 and it will now be up to customers to take advantage of assistance and payment programs offered by utilities and to see if they qualify for the federal COVID-related utility assistance programs. Read more here.
Statewide there are an estimated 890,000 accounts in danger of termination, according to the PUC and together they owe utilities $856 million. Read more here.
It was 10 years ago last week, the Patriot-News broke the story of Assistant Penn State Football Coach Jerry Sandusky molesting boys he met through his Second Mile youth charity. Read more here.
The tragic fallout from the story continued with the Grand Jury investigation documenting hundreds of cases of child sexual assault in Catholic parishes all across the state and with the present-day failed effort to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year to allow victims to sue their predetors. Read more here.
With Major League Baseball deciding to take the 2021 All-Star Game out of Georgia after Republicans there adopted a major voter suppression law, Senators Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) began lobbying to move the game to Pittsburgh. Read more here.
Having the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh would be at least some consolation for long-suffering Pittsburgh Pirates fans.
The House returns to session April 5 and the Senate April 19, after taking a break for the Easter holiday.
In the House, the House State Government Committee has another in its series of hearings on the 2020 elections which this time focuses on how other states conduct their elections.
The Joint State Government Commission also holds an information meeting on the Department of State’s Election Law Advisory Board.
The House Health Committee has the first of several expected hearings on the issue of abortion
The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to wrap up its hearings on the Governor’s 2021-22 budget request this week