PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: What’s Next For Election Law Changes, Vaccine Hesitancy, Speaker Pro Tempore
The House State Government Committee finished its series of 14 hearings on the 2020 election last week looking at almost every possible aspect of the election process from the perspective of those involved in Pennsylvania, other states and national interest groups. Read more here.
During the course of the hearings, the County Commissioners Association of PA repeated their bipartisan recommendations again and again that they be given more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting, adjust mail-in ballot deadlines and for clear guidance on issues related to ballot dropboxes, so-called naked ballots and other changes. Read more here.
County election officials said they are at a “breaking point” with the existing election law. Read more here.
Whether anyone will listen to these common sense recommendations isn’t clear, or will partisan politics take over? Read more here.
House Minority Leader and Minority Chair of the State Government Committee Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware) said going into the last hearing, “These 14 public hearings staged by the Republican majority over the past three months and at huge taxpayer expense were not at all a ‘deep dive into our election laws of 1937’ but, in fact, were a deep mockery of the hardworking election officials who dutifully carried out our 2020 election.
“Hearing after hearing, Republicans on this committee, aided and abetted by their chairman, repeatedly engaged in questions and false anecdotes that mirrored the poisonous rhetoric that led to the deadly insurrection at our nation’s capital.
“Despite knowing what precipitated January’s deadly rampage, Republicans on the committee insisted on spewing the same lies and rhetoric, even as testifiers from some of Pennsylvania’s reddest counties and experts from some of the reddest states strongly pushed back.” Read more here.
Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Majority Chair of the Committee, said, “Since the first hearing in January, the committee had one task: To review every single aspect of the Pennsylvania’s election process to improve upon it so it is more accessible to legal voters and is held to the highest level of integrity.
“Thursday’s hearing continued the mantra with a truly bipartisan list of testifiers who submitted their thoughts on the current election process and ways in which to improve it. We are the only state in the nation to take on such an extensive review of its election laws.”
“It is unfortunate some of my Democratic colleagues ended our successful hearings with political theatrics, instead of highlighting the several hours of testimony from numerous nonpartisan testifiers about various legislative changes we must make to ensure we have an election process which works for our voters and election officials.
“That was truly a sad moment for all Pennsylvanians who want to see bipartisan fixes to our election system as Pennsylvanians know accessibility and integrity are not mutually exclusive.
“Going forward, we will begin the process of creating real reform, so it is easy to vote and hard to cheat.” Read more here.
Rep. Grove, when asked about the outcome of the November election at the end of the hearings, said– “I personally never doubted Joe Biden or the outcome of the election.” Read more here.
Grove said he expects election legislation to begin moving in late may or early June. Read more here.
House Republican leader Rep. Kerry Benningholf (R-Mifflin) said Friday he is waiting to see what comes out of the House State Government Committee on election law changes before taking a position on any specific changes.
The Senate still has hearings and meetings underway on its side of the Rotunda through its Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform.
In fact, another hearing of the Committee is set for Tuesday on elections in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties. Read more here.
“Easy To Vote And Hard To Cheat”
That “Easy To Vote And Hard To Cheat” line from Rep. Grove comes from a nationwide Republican initiative to get states to adopt what they called “Best Practices for Making It Easier to Vote and Harder To Cheat.” Read more here.
Senate and House Republican leadership circulated these recommendations earlier this month for consideration by members. Read more here.
The report recommends measures like–
— Requiring Voter ID every time someone votes in person and for registering to vote online;
— Tighter restrictions on universal voting by mail;
— Tighter restrictions on voting absentee because it may “decrease voter confidence and the chance for fraud”; and
— More robust signature verification.
Based on this report, a spokesperson for Gov. Wolf’s office said, “In the absence of any credible evidence of widespread voter fraud, voter ID proposals are an effort to disenfranchise voters, plain and simple. The governor will not allow bogus claims of election fraud to be used as a pretext for imposing additional burdens on the right to vote.”
Democratic members have a simple rule for evaluating any changes the Republicans put forward. It was articulated by Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia)– “Does it make it easier for people to vote? Does it make it easier for people to vote? That should be the only test that we utilize when we talk about voting reforms.”
Pennsylvania’s debate over election law changes is taking place against the noisy backdrop of Republican efforts in other states to make voting more difficult in response to false narratives about November election fraud.
And it isn’t just Democrats weighing in, major companies are also opposing voter suppression efforts.
In Pennsylvania, the CEO for Philadelphia-based Merck has taken a leading role in national efforts among big business to oppose Republican voting restrictions. Read more here.
The November election and voting laws have also become a significant part of the race for the open seat on the PA Supreme Court, which played such a major role in sorting through thorny legal issues raised by voting during a pandemic and a deliberate, or not, slowdown in the U.S. Postal Service processing mail-in ballots. Read more here.
Of course, Republicans are still mad at the PA Supreme Court for ruling against them in their election challenges, and they say so at every opportunity. Read more here.
The cost of failed election challenges brought by Republicans against the 2020 election results paid by taxpayers continues to be a sore point with many around the state. Read more here.
The Scranton Times, for example, wrote last week, “Betraying Pennsylvania Cost $3.4 Million.”
You can be sure anything proposed by Republicans will be looked at very carefully given this backdrop.
The Department of State reported as of last Monday, 587,000 voters had already applied for mail-in ballots for the May 18 primary election and 18,000 for regular absentee ballots. Not nearly the numbers from November, but still big. Read more here.
Nearly 19,000 mail-in ballots have been requested in Luzerne County alone. In November, President Trump carried that county. Read more here.
Voters have until May 11 to request a mail-in or absentee ballot.
U.S. Postal Service delays in handling mail-in ballots last November was also in the news again last week when an audit of one Lehigh Valley mail facility said 32 percent of the mail processed was delayed due to improperly followed procedures and lack of planning. Read more here.
But it was also clear to others in the Lehigh Valley, the Postal Service cut corners, manipulated data or made data hard to find to get a complete picture of what happened. Read more here.
By the end of April, the U.S. Census will release preliminary information on the 2020 Census that will help determine which states win or lose Congressional seats. Read more here.
Pennsylvania already knows we’re going to lose a seat, the 10th consecutive decade the state has lost a seat in Congress, according to the Associated Press. Read more here.
This may mean two incumbents will have to run against each other in a game of musical chairs for the last spot in the delegation.
Who draws those lines and makes those decisions is what redistricting is all about.
David Thornburg, son of the late Gov. Dick Thornburg, is now traveling the state for Draw the Lines PA and the Committee of Seventy trying to focus attention on the issue of redistricting and gerrymandering. Read more here.
He and other citizens groups don’t want politicians to draw their own voting districts, but failing that, they want a more open, transparent and citizen-centric process.
Pandemic Power Struggle
Voters will get to weigh in on whether the authority of a governor to declare a disaster emergency should be limited to 21 days as proposed in constitutional amendments on the May 18 primary election ballot. Read more here.
And a reminder, even though it is a primary election, those voters who aren’t registered Republian or Democratic can still vote on the ballot questions.
Both sides have come out swinging on the issue with Republicans saying the governor has too much unilateral authority to waive laws and regulations and issue directives without the General Assembly being involved.
Actually, the General Assembly can and did pass legislation to end an emergency under existing law, but Republicans have been unable to override the governor’s veto.
Opponents say expecting 253 legislators, playing politics in a life threatening emergency in a timely way, is a stretch. Read more here.
Here are some impacts cited by opponents, if the amendments are passed by voters–
— Op-Ed: Flexible Disaster Emergency Declarations Are Crucial Part Of Response, Recovery Process – PEMA Director
One sign of where Republicans are headed with this was a co-sponsor memo circulated by Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-York) saying she was introducing legislation to “prohibit government restrictions on our freedom of worship and prohibit restrictions on businesses providing their services to the public,” and “that government cannot issue stay at home orders or impose a curfew based on public health concerns (emphasis added).” Read more here.
House Republican leader Rep. Kerry Benningholf (R-Mifflin) said Friday when questioned about the memo– House members get all kinds of memos. It was just a memo.
Vaccines – Come And Get Them!
Anyone 16 years old and older is now eligible to make an appointment to receive a COVID vaccine in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
The same day that announcement was made last week, the Department of Health announced a “pause” in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until the CDC looks at issues related to six individuals who experience blood clots after receiving the vaccine.
One of those cases was in a Pennsylvania woman. Read more here.
That pause was extended into this week. Read more here.
Friday, Gov. Wolf and Pennsylvania health officials raised an alarm about the growing number of unfilled vaccine appointments saying they are early signs that vaccine hesitancy is becoming an issue in the state. Read more here.
They urged residents to get their COVID-19 shots as quickly as possible.
The Department of Health also specifically urged college students to get the COVID vaccine before they go home for summer break. Read more here.
A report Thursday that only 52 percent of staff in Pennsylvania’s nursing homes opted to get vaccinated for COVID [Read more here] also raised alarm bells, since nursing homes residents and staff accounted for 50 percent of more of COVID deaths in the state [Read more here].
The state reported that 80 percent of nursing home residents have been vaccinated. Read more here.
So, get the shot.
As of April 16, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 4,247,515 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 3,847,164 last week– and 2,637,654 have been given the required two doses– up from 2,208,680 last week.
Health Care Poll
A new Muhlenberg College Health Poll in Pennsylvania released last week found 60 percent of those surveyed believe the worst of the COVID pandemic is behind us, but a concern because mask wearing and other precautions will be with us for some time. Read more here.
Thirty-one percent said they do not plan to get the COVID vaccine. Read more here. At the same time, the survey found 71 percent believe immunizations pose little health risk.
According to Dr. Fauci, to achieve herd immunity against the virus could require between 70 and 90 percent of Americans to get vaccinated. Read more here.
Other interesting survey results included–
— 40 percent approve of Gov. Wolf’s handling of pandemic, 41 percent disapprove;
— 54 percent approve of President Biden’s handling of pandemic, 28 percent disapprove;
— 61 percent believe it’s the responsibility of federal govt. to make sure all Americans have health care coverage, 31 percent not; and
— 49 percent believe people of color have less access to quality health care than white individuals.
Slight Increase Again In COVID Percent Positivity
As of April 16, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing the statewide percent positivity increased slightly to 9.6 percent from 9.5 percent last week, still a significant increase from a month ago.
On March 5, the percent positivity was 5.7 percent– anything over 5 percent is bad.
The daily number of COVID cases statewide, the number of hospitalizations and ICU cases continued to increase over the last week.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 25,402 on April 10 to 25,661 on April 17. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,068,974 on April 10 to 1,103,616 on April 17.
Across the state schools were opening and closing in response to COVID outbreaks and in one case, a significant outbreak in one high school in Lackawanna County was traced to partying by students. Read more here.
Pittsburgh public schools still has a shortage of bus drivers to implement their in-person return to classes. Read more here.
Visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage for this week’s ups and downs.
Speaker Pro Tempore
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) last week tested positive for COVID, but is in quarantine and having only mild symptoms. Read more here.
The House has also canceled session for the week of April 26.
Governor/U.S. Senate/Other Races
The owner of Fat Monn’s Grub in Erie County– Jason Monn– threw his apron into the ring for the Republican nomination for Governor last week saying, “I think it’s time, guys, for the normal people – that’s what I’m going to call us, normal folk, the common folk – to stand up and not be pushed around all the time… to actually take a stand and have us listened to. That’s why I’m doing this. I’m going to do something crazy. Guys, I’m going to run for governor.” Read more here.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman reported raising $3.9 million in the first quarter of 2021 establishing himself as the fundraising leader in the Democratic race for the open U.S. Senate seat. Read more here.
One of his main opponents– Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia)– brought in $374,011.
The conservative leaning Washington Examiner called almost-declared candidate Sean Parnell as “the one to beat” in the Republican race for the open PA U.S. Senate seat last week. Read more here.
Politico has dubbed Pennsylvania’s Republican race for U.S. Senate– the “Super MAGA Trump” Primary. Read more here.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported March unemployment in Pennsylvania fell 0.1 percent to 7.3 percent. Read more here. That is still above the 6 percent national rate in March.
At the same time, payrolls in Pennsylvania expanded in February by 24,000. Read more here.
Where else, but in Pennsylvania, would the announcement by the State Treasurer (Republican) and the Department of Labor and Industry Secretary (Democrat) that they worked together to “recapture” nearly $800 million in unemployment benefits targeted by fraudsters NOT make the news? Read more here.
Treasury and L&I worked together to halt nearly $740 million in improper payments issued to fraudsters. Much of that work was based on information from thousands of honest Pennsylvanians who returned payments they had not requested.
In addition to halting payments through its partnership with the Treasury, L&I’s Internal Audits Division prevented just over $55 million in fraudulent payments from being sent between April 2020 and the end of March 2021.
With all the “trillion” dollar budgets, infrastructure and stimulus programs flying around, maybe $800 million doesn’t seem like much.
Rent, Utility Relief Applications Lagging
There are tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID aid available for people unable to pay their rent and utility bills, but counties are reporting they are getting few applications for the assistance. Read more here.
Residents should contact their county governments for help in applying.
The debate over the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Plan has real implications for Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges, broadband access and on environmental restoration and the state’s budget.
On Monday, the Administration put out state-by-state fact sheets on infrastructure needs, including in Pennsylvania, also covering wastewater, drinking water, energy and more. Read more here.
The Infrastructure Plan also includes proposals for funding abandoned mine reclamation [Read more here] that could generate thousands of jobs and address Pennsylvania’s high priority water quality problems. Read more here.
Gaming Revenue Record
While acknowledging comparing gaming revenues to last year at this time is tricky because casinos were closed, the PA Gaming Control Board said total revenues for gaming in March exceeded $400 million for the first first. Read more here.
The previous high was $320.2 million.
Technically, March revenues this year exceed March of last year by 162 percent, but that wasn’t hard.
March 2021 revenues were 27 percent higher than March 2019.
The House and Senate will be in voting session this week through Wednesday.
Both have very full Committee schedules on topics too numerous to mention.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will finally come to the end of its budget hearings this week. They have three hearings left– PennDOT, the Department of Health and the Governor’s Budget Secretary.
And, of course, there are no fewer than 21 campaign fundraisers scheduled for this week by Senate and House members. Read more here.