PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: No In-Person School, No State Money; Election Help Plea – Again

In a major policy shift, House Republicans Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York) announced Wednesday he would work to require school districts, community colleges, technical schools and universities to return to in-person instruction as a condition of receiving state funding.  Read more here.

“Many schools in Pennsylvania have worked hard over the past year to keep their doors open to students while providing a safe learning environment. They should be commended,” said Rep.  Saylor.  “Unfortunately, we continue to see too many special interests and others fighting to keep other schools closed to in-person instruction.

“We appropriate over $16.6 billion from the state’s General Fund to support PreK-12 and higher education. If school districts, technical schools, community colleges or universities do not open their doors to full-time, in-person instruction, working with my colleagues, I will push to ensure the School Code prohibits them from accessing these dollars.”

He said a national study released in December found that K-5 students learned only 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of the reading that grade-level peers would typically have learned by the fall.

The study also found that students could lose on average five to nine months of learning by the end of June 2021. Read more here.

            Republicans in both the House and Senate had previously held strongly to the view the state needed to let counties and other local governments make decisions about when businesses and other local institutions should be open or closed during the pandemic, because only they knew the conditions on the ground.  They repeatedly passed legislation to that effect.

            A spokesperson for the PA Association of School Administrators said Wednesday “ there’s definitely some learning loss out there.  There’s a range of predictions about how severe.”  Read more here.

            About 450 of the 500 school districts in the state now offer at least some in-person education, an increase of 100 districts in the last two months.  Read more here.

            The recent federal COVID stimulus package requires school districts to use at least 20 percent of the money to address learning loss and districts are now in the middle of trying to figure out how they will do that. Read more here.

            School districts are looking at how to use this summer and other methods to get kids back up to speed after 12 months of reduced learning in most places.

            On March 19, the Department of Education announced it would use a nearly $1 million grant to fund research on the impact of the pandemic on school-aged children in the state and offer suggestions for education to ease those problems.  Read more here.

            Starting Over On Child Sexual Abuse

            On March 22, Republicans in the Senate gave up on the effort to pass an emergency constitutional amendment to give victims of child sexual abuse a window to file civil lawsuits against their abusers and decided to start over.  Read more here.

            Republicans simply felt the situation did not constitute an emergency, and again blamed the Wolf Administration for its failure to properly advertise the amendment the General Assembly passed last year.

            Democrats, Attorney General Shapiro and Gov. Wolf were pushing an option to pass a law creating the window, but that approach was opposed by Roman Catholic bishops and insurance companies as well as by Senate Republicans who said it was unconstitutional. Read more here.

            This means it will be at least 2023 before voters will get the chance to vote on an amendment.

            $941 Million Hole

            Over the last year, the pandemic resulted in a 13.7 percent increase in the number of people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program to 3.2 million people that will require an additional $941 million to cover the cost.  Read more here.

            Although Republicans acted surprised, the General Assembly routinely underfunds Medicaid and other social service programs in order to make the budget balance.

            School Pension Fund Investigation

            A report Friday said the FBI is now investigating the $25 million error in reporting investment performance at the state’s school employee’s pension fund in addition to the Fund’s own investigation.  Read more here.

            And in a rare show of bipartisanship in Harrisburg, new Republican State Treasurer Stacy Garrity supported the appointment of her Democratic predecessor Joe Torsella to the Public School Employees Retirement System Board.  Read more here.

            Garrity said in a letter to members of the Senate, “As I work to bring greater transparency to PSERS and for investment choices that will reduce unnecessary fees, eliminate waste and strengthen the fund, I know that Joe will be a strong ally in my efforts.”

            Gov. Wolf nominated Torsella to the position in February, which is subject to Senate confirmation.

            Eliminating School Property Taxes

            Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin), who tried to push through legislation to replace property taxes with increases in the personal income and sale tax, announced legislation– Senate Bill 424— to put a constitutional amendment before voters to eliminate school property taxes and requiring the General Assembly to come up with funding to replace that revenue.  Read more here.

            The language would reeze the revenue each school district gets from the property tax as of the fiscal year ending in June of 2024 and requires its replacement with state and/or local income and sales taxes.

            A companion bill– House Bill 927— was introduced by Rep. Stambaugh (R-Perry).

            At the earliest, this amendment, if considered, could go to voters in 2023.

            More COVID Restrictions Eased

            On March 22, the Department of Health brought its guidance on what people can and can’t do when vaccinated in line with federal CDC guidance with respect to mask wearing.  Read more here.

            Philadelphia decided it is not yet ready to follow the state and relax restaurant restrictions as COVID cases there rise.  Read more here.

            Vaccine Rollout Continues

            The state’s COVID vaccination program continues to expand in fits and starts as counties open more mass vaccination centers.

            In response to county complaints they are being shortchanged in vaccine distribution by the state, the House passed a bill to let the Philly suburbs run their own mass vaccine clinics.  Read more here.

Meanwhile the Wright Health Center in Scranton was caught requiring patients getting vaccinations to first pay for the cost of an office visit when the vaccinations are supposed to be free. [Read more here]

In response, the state took the Center off their list of vaccine providers [Read more here] and the Health Center agreed to refund all office visit charges [Read more here].

            Visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage for this week’s ups and downs.

            COVID Percent Positivity Jumps Again

Pennsylvania’s percent positivity increased dramatically again last week to 7.6 percent, rising nearly two full percentage points over the last two weeks.

The number of people testing positive passed the 1 million mark last week and the total number of deaths are nearly 25,000.

An expert from UPMC said the upturn is likely due to laxity with masking and social distancing as well as the presence of new variants of the COVID virus. Read more here.

Another expert from Penn State Health said it’s too early to know if Pennsylvania’s upturn is a blip or a trend.  Read more here.

The University of Pittsburgh [Read more here] and Penn State [Read more here] have both seen a recent surge in COVID cases.

As of March 26, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing the statewide percent positivity jumped to 7.6 percent, up 1.1 percent from last week, after a steady decline over the last few months– anything over 5 percent is bad. 

The daily number of COVID cases are also increasing significantly.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 24,774 on March 20 to 24,986 on March 27.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 984,515 on March 20 to 1,012,299 on March 27.

As of March 26, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 3,068,295 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 2,614,522 last week– and 1,660,232 have been given the required two doses– up from 1,428,876 last week.

Rules Suspended During COVID

On March 25, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) and a number of House Republican Committee Chairs sent letters to state agencies asking for an update on regulations and enforcement actions that have been suspended, waived or otherwise changed during the COVID pandemic.  Read more here.

The departments of Environmental Protection and Conservation and Natural Resources were not among the agencies receiving letters.

Health Insurance Sign-Up Extended

The deadline for signing up for health insurance through Pennsylvania’s own insurance exchange– Pennie– has been extended again to August 15 to give residents more time to get coverage and financial assistance to pay for that coverage.  Read more here.

Cabinet Shuffle

On March 23, Human Resources Secretary Teresa Miller announced she would be stepping down from her job as of April 30 to pursue a new opportunity outside Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

The same day, Gov. Wolf nominated Meg Snead, the current Secretary of Policy and Planning, to take over Miller’s position to run one of the state’s largest agencies with major responsibilities related to the COVID pandemic.  Read more here.

On March 26, Gov. Wolf nominated Veronica Degraffenreid to be Secretary of the Commonwealth to be responsible for running elections and overseeing professional licensing boards.  Read more here.

She has been Acting Secretary and served as a special advisor on elections with the agency since February 2020.

            Running For Governor

            The Susquehanna Polling and Research poll on potential Republican candidates for Governor last week apparently got some people thinking seriously about running for governor, even though 60 percent undecided was the most popular candidate.

            Former Congressman Lou Barletta [Read more here], Congressman Dan Meuser [Read more here] and former Republican U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain from Philadelphia [Read more here] all announced they were looking at the job.

            Unemployment, Same

On Friday, the Department of Labor and Industry reported Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was unchanged over the month, remaining at 7.3 percent in February. The U.S. rate declined one-tenth of a percentage point from January to 6.2 percent.

The Commonwealth’s unemployment rate was 2.3 percentage points above its February 2020 level while the national rate was up 2.7 points over the year.

Pennsylvania’s civilian labor force – the estimated number of residents working or looking for work – increased 35,000 over the month due mostly to a gain in employment of 30,000. 

Pennsylvania’s total nonfarm jobs were up 16,600 over the month to 5,656,700 in February, the ninth gain in the past 10 months. Jobs increased in 8 of the 11 industry supersectors with the largest volume gain in leisure & hospitality (+12,800). 

            Same Unemployment Claims Problems

A report on March 25, said a year after record high unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many laid off workers say it remains close to impossible to reach the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and problems with unemployment benefits remain unresolved.  Read more here.

There are more than 41,000 cases waiting for resolution, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.  Read more here.

Department officials say the average hold time for callers was 43 minutes last week. But advocates say that’s only if someone manages to break through the constant busy signal.  Read more here.

Help With Elections

County election officials again asked for changes to the election law to help implement the mail-in voting program by changing deadlines and clearing up vague provisions in the law before the Senate Election integrity Commission.  Read more here.

With the May election just weeks away, officials said more than 400,000 voters have again opted to vote by mail, rather than the 3 million mail-in ballots in November, but the workload is still significant.

County election officials asked again for more time ahead of election day to prepare mail-in ballots for counting and they want to advance the deadline for voters to request mail-in ballots from counties.

Lawmakers have not committed to making any fixes to the law in time for even the November election with Republicans and Democrats each having their own priorities.  Read more here.

Republicans in Pennsylvania have already introduced legislation to eliminate no-excuses mail-in voting entirely, part of a nationwide movement to restrict how and when voters can vote.  Read more here.

Real Weapons

Gov. Wolf, Attorney General Shapiro, state lawmakers, CeaseFirePA again called on the General Assembly to pass measures to reduce gun violence after more mass killings in Georgia and Colorado.  Read more here.

Advocates want action on three proposals–

— Allowing for extreme risk protection orders to temporarily remove guns from those who want to harm themselves.

— Requiring that stolen and missing firearms be reported within 72 hours.

— Closing gaps in the state’s background check system to prevent the purchase of military-style rifles from private, non-licensed sellers.  Read more here.

Weaponizing Safe2Say App

A Bucks County school superintendent said last week Pennsylvania’s Safe2Say Something Program and app that encourages teachers, students and parents to report if someone may be a threat to themselves and others has been “weaponized” with tips forcing schools into lockdown or closures. Read more here.

Part of the issue, according to Quakertown police, is tips are coming from the so-called darknet or through the Tor network meaning they are difficult to trace and determine if they are authentic.  Read more here.

Of the 23,745 tips reported during the 2019-20 school year, 3,608 were for bullying/cyber bullying; 2,576 were on suicide/suicide ideation; and 2,139 on cutting/self-harm.  Read more here.

The Safe2Say Program is administered by the state Attorney General.

New Liquor Chair

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) appointed Rep. Carl Metzgar (R-Bedford) as Majority Chair of the House Liquor Committee in place of Rep. Jeff Pyle (R-Armstrong), who retired last week.  Read more here.

            What’s Next?

            The House returns to session April 5 and the Senate April 19, after taking a break for the Easter holiday.

            The Senate has no standing committee meetings on the schedule at this time for this week.

             Click Here for Senate Committee schedule.

In the House,  the House State Government Committee has two hearings planned, one of PPE procurement, storage and distribution and a second on election integrity and accessibility.

Click Here for House Committee schedule.


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