PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Budget Address, $912 Million In Relief On The Way; Ending Emergencies Goes To Voters
A $912 million relief package for business, individuals and school districts, fueled by federal funding, cleared the General Assembly in a bipartisan flurry and was signed into law immediately Friday by Gov. Wolf.
The two other major events last week– final passage of a constitutional amendment to limit declared emergencies to 21 days and the Governor’s budget address– both degenerated into a cloud of partisan bickering.
The relief package in Senate Bill 109 (Pittman-R-Indiana) would use about $767 million federal COVID relief and $145 million loaned from the state Workers’ Compensation Security Fund to fund several relief programs–
— $570 million Rental and Utility Assistance Grant Program for individuals;
— $145 million Hospitality Industry Recovery Program with grants up to $50,000; and
— $200 million aid to educational institutions.
The House added a provision to the bill to specifically exempt income received from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and individual stimulus checks from the state’s Personal Income Tax.
The new Rental And Utility Assistance Grant Program which defines “utility” as all home energy providers would be allocated to counties as block grants.
The state Department Human Services will develop the eligibility requirements and application process for the new program.
The legislation also creates a $145 million Hospitality Industry Recovery Program allocated to all 67 counties to be administered by local economic development agencies. There is a cap of $50,000 on the grants awarded under this program.
The program is funded by a $145 million loan from the state Workers’ Compensation Security Fund that must be paid back by July 2029, hopefully with additional federal COVID relief funds.
The bill also allocates $200 million to the Department of Education– $150 million for non-public school aid and $47 million for career and technical centers, intermediate units and charter schools for the deaf and blind and approved private schools.
Just after the final vote was taken on Senate Bill 109 in Harrisburg, the U.S. House Representatives in Washington, D.C. took final action on a budget reconciliation resolution that clears the way for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID economic stimulus package to be considered by Congress. Read more here.
Biden’s plan, if finalized by Congress, would provide $170 billion in aid to K-12 schools as well as $350 million in emergency funding for state and local governments. Read more here.
Republicans in Harrisburg are secretly praying for Biden to succeed. That money would fill some big holes in Pennsylvania’s FY 2021-20 state budget, like it did last year.
In a snow-delayed video budget address Wednesday, Gov. Wolf outlined an ambitious FY 2021-22 budget proposal that he said would–
— Cut or keep taxes the same for 67 percent of Pennsylvanians, while increasing the tax rate from 3.07 percent to 4.49 percent;
— Invest an additional $1.5 billion in public education;
— Invest $3 billion over 10 years in workforce development funded by a new severance tax on natural gas;
— Expand the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program by $1 billion to fund the removal of lead and asbestos from schools and for other capital projects;
— Legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults, resulting in revenue for the state;
— Impose a $168 million service fee on local governments served by the State Police;
— Establish a new Energy Communities Trust Fund to support workers and communities dislocated by the closure of power plants from revenue generated by a Carbon Pollution Reduction Program covering power plants (RGGI);
— Reduce the Corporate Net Income Tax, eliminate the “Delaware Loophole” and institute combined reporting; and
— Increase the minimum wage to $15/hour by July 2027.
Both Senate and House Republicans said they would work with the Governor, as always, to put together a balanced budget– and in the next breath said his proposal was D.O.A.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said, “This proposed budget shows the disdain Governor Wolf and his Democrat allies have for middle-class families and the small businesses that employ them. Calling this a tax cut is laughable and an affront to small employers and other Pennsylvanians who have struggled to stay afloat under the Wolf Administration’s misguided, arbitrary and authoritarian edicts.” Read more here.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said, “While I respectfully disagree with many of these proposals, including raising income taxes and full legalization of marijuana, my deepest concerns are related to the actual administration of our government.
“I cannot – nor will our citizens – tolerate the quiet dismissal of the open mismanagement that has occurred in our executive agencies.
“Almost a year ago, the Department of Community and Economic Development instituted a business waiver program for employers shut down by the governor’s executive order. The program, by all accounts and measures, was a failure.
“The Department of Health took the lead on COVID-19 testing. Headlines from statewide media said gaps in the system led to a ‘systemic failure to collect critical data.’
“The shutdown forced millions of Pennsylvanians out of work, but when they sought out unemployment compensation, money they had paid into the system themselves, the Department of Labor’s system failed.
“Just this week, we learned that the Department of the State failed in its most basic duty – to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment intended to help victims of childhood sexual abuse, delaying this important reform that was years in the making.
“Finally, Pennsylvania ranks 44th in the nation in vaccine distribution. More than 40% of the vaccines our Commonwealth has received have failed to make it into people’s arms.
“There can be no greater goal of state government at this moment than to ensure our people have access to the vaccine. If it is not our top priority, then the pandemic and all that is associated with it will continue. Ensuring vaccines are available and reaching Pennsylvanians is the most important role leaders of today have ever faced.”
“The executive branch’s failures must end. People were promised and rightfully expect a government that works.” Read more here.
One article compared the politicians talking past each other on the budget to a popular book– The Governor Is From Venus, The Republican Legislature Is From Mars.
January Revenues Down
On February 1, the Department of Revenue reported Pennsylvania collected $2.7 billion in General Fund revenue in January, which was $162.4 million, or 5.8 percent, less than anticipated. Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $21.2 billion, which is $307.4 million, or 1.5 percent, above estimate. Read more here.
Lawmakers and the Governor had been touting better than expected revenues to fill budget holes, but January’s report was obviously not encouraging.
House, Senate Surplus Up!
On February 2, House and Senate members on the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission unanimously approved an audit showing in FY 2019-20 the cost of running the House and Senate increased by more than $30 million and they somehow managed to add $28 million to their own operating surplus.
Their surplus now stands at over $200 million.
News media added, “while the state government’s budget deficit ballooned and many residents struggled to pay bills during the pandemic.” Read more here.
Ending Emergencies By Doing Nothing
Senate Bill 2 (Ward-R- Westmoreland) with the constitutional amendment that terminates emergencies declared by the Governor to 21 days unless extended by the General Assembly, was given final approval by the Senate and House and will now go to voters at the May 18 primary election.
Republicans again made the bill a referendum on Gov. Wolf’s handling of the COVID pandemic pointing to the impact his decisions had when he closed down businesses and put people out of work.
They said this amendment is the cure to “unchecked” executive power, but the cure is giving the General Assembly exclusive authority to end a Governor’s emergency in 21 days– by doing nothing.
An emergency can only continue, if the Senate and House act to extend it. If they do nothing, it ends.
Democrats again argued if this provision was in place last year, Republicans would have ended the COVID emergency just when new infections and deaths were starting to surge taking away countermeasures that proved effective at slowing the pandemic.
They also pointed out the amendment, technically, does not affect orders issued by the Secretary of Health, which in almost all cases paralleled orders issued by the Governor under his state of emergency.
Republicans responded by saying they hoped the Senate would ask questions about that issue when Gov. Wolf’s new Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam comes before the Senate for her confirmation hearing.
Well, now the voters get to decide.
Guess it will be nice when all emergencies can last just 21 days, because 253 members of the Senate and House find it difficult to agree on anything in a reasonable period of time, let alone things they haven’t seen before and they don’t understand.
Secretary Of State Resigns
The real shocker last week though was the resignation of Kathy Boockvar, Secretary of State, not over election issues, but the failure of her agency to properly advertise a proposed constitutional amendment passed by the General Assembly last year. Read more here.
The amendment would have opened a two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits against their attackers. The amendment was the result of a 2018 state grand jury report on clergy child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The Senate and House were set to pass the amendment the second time just this month that would have sent it to voters at the May primary election when news came of the mistake by the Department of State.
Boockvar resigned, taking responsibility for the mistake by her agency.
Rather than start over, Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued a statement acknowledging the mistake as “shameful,” but adding he thought a constitutional amendment wasn’t needed in the first place and urged the General Assembly to pass a statute opening a window for lawsuits. Read more here.
House Republicans are exploring the idea of passing an “emergency” constitutional amendment using a procedure only used a few times before and then only to respond to major natural disasters to try to get the amendment on the ballot this year. Read more here.
Emergency amendments must be approved by a two-thirds vote.
Senate Republicans aren’t so sure this constitutes an “emergency,” but are discussing the idea with the House.
Audit Confirms Accurate Vote Count
On her last day as Secretary of State, Kathy Boockvar announced the completion of the statewide risk-limiting audit of the November election which “provided strong evidence of the accuracy of the count of votes cast” in the presidential race. Read more here.
Sixty-three participating counties reviewed a statistical sample of over 45,000 randomly selected ballots from the November 3, 2020, General Election. The results of the sample mirrored the reported presidential election results across the participating counties within a fraction of a percentage point, providing confirmation of the accuracy of the vote count.?
“The Lebanon County Bureau of Elections completed a RLA for the presidential electors’ race from the November 3 General Election. The RLA was a great tool that reinforced that the results of the presidential race were done accurately and securely,” said Michael Anderson, Director of Lebanon County Bureau of Elections. “The process allowed for members of all interested parties to be involved in the process by reviewing a random sample of ballots in a nonpartisan fashion. As the Director of Elections here in Lebanon County, I believe the RLA is another important tool that demonstrates to the public that the results are accurate and provides another important measure in keeping the process open, safe, and transparent.”
“Pennsylvania’s risk-limiting audit pilot of the November election is another pivotal step forward in the Commonwealth’s ongoing efforts to ensure that voting is safe and secure,” said Liz Howard, senior counsel, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “We’re proud to partner with state and local election officials to help them implement the gold standard of post-election audits to protect voter confidence in the integrity of our elections.”?
On February 11, the House State Government Committee is scheduled to hold its third hearing on how elections were run in 2020, this time focusing on the results of election audits by the Department of State, county election officials and the Auditor General.
Vaccine Rollout Chaos Continues
Frustrations with the “free-for-all” surrounding the federal and state rollout of COVID vaccines spilled out at House and Senate hearings last week. Read more here.
Although COVID vaccine is going to more than 1,000 providers statewide, demand for shots has overwhelmed the available supplies. In addition, the Department of Health said some providers are holding back vaccines so they can give people their second shots, something they aren’t supposed to do.
In a three hour grilling of Acting Health Secretary Allison Beam, House members expressed concern that people who aren’t eligible for vaccines at this point are getting them, ahead of nursing home residents, those over 65 and those under 65 with health problems that make them more vulnerable to COVID.
One pharmacy owner at the hearing said they have to take people at their word when they come in for a shot, except for their age.
One bright spot was with the Lehigh Valley Health Network which testified they have operated mass vaccination sites administering 25,000 shots per week. Read more here.
In other areas of the state, like Central Pennsylvania, major health systems like UPMC and Penn State Health haven’t even started.
The Department of Health threw cold water on the idea of establishing a single point of contact to set up appointments for vaccinations saying it faced many technical hurdles. Read more here.
The controversy over vaccinations in Philadelphia continued last week at hearings held by City Council. At the current rate of vaccine distribution there, all the adults in the city will not be vaccinated until March 2022. Read more here.
In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Health Department opened a phone system for vaccine appointments, but it was quickly shut down by hackers that somehow managed to intercept some of the calls to the 2-1-1 line. Read more here.
On February 8, the House Democratic Policy Committee has a hearing scheduled on the COVID vaccine rollout.
Read the week’s news on vaccines on the COVID Weekly NewsClips webpage.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
The number of new COVID cases per day generally declined during the week as did the number of deaths.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 21,602 on January 30 to 865,604 on February 6. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 839,239 on January 30 to 22,396 on February 6.
As of February 5, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 8.6 percent down from 9.3 percent– anything over 5 percent is bad.
For the first time this year, three counties were below 5 percent positivity– Elk at 4.1 percent, Union at 3.7 percent and Warren at 3.4 percent.
As of February 5, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 918,210 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up 160,444 from last week– and 246,390 have been given the required two doses– up 62,744 from last week.
On Wednesday, the Tribune Review confirmed a federal grand jury is investigating the Brighton Rehabilitation nursing home in Beaver County, the site of one of the deadliest COVID outbreaks where at least 76 residents and a housekeeper died. Read more here.
An Allegheny County judge ruled Wednesday the Crack’d Egg restaurant in Brentwood must follow county and state COVID restrictions or close immediately. The owner of the restaurant said she would never back down and keep her business closed while appealing the decision. Read more here.
Health Insurance Sign-ups Reopen
Regional unemployment around Pennsylvania in December varied considerably, according to reports last week.
All In The Family
LancasterOnline reported last week the sons of the Senate’s two top leaders– Senate Majority leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) and Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny)– are registered lobbyists for the same firm in Harrisburg. Read more here.
Both Mike Ward and Anthony Costa work for the lobbying firm Cameron Companies which has dozens of clients ranging from companies like 3M, to health insurance and health care companies and the snack delivery outfit goPuff.
Both Senators said they follow all the rules on ethics and take other steps to avoid conflicts.
U.S. Senate Race
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman filed a formal statement of his candidacy for a possible U.S. Senate run, saying he raised too much money– $1.4 million– to stay with just an exploratory committee. Read more here.
On the Republican side, Kiron Skinner, a former Trump Administration foreign policy advisor and now a Carnegie Mellon University professor, said Friday she is considering the U.S. Senate seat. Read more here.
The Senate returns to voting session the week of February 23, but the House is not due back until the week of March 15.
Both the Senate and House released their budget hearing schedules last week.
The House will kick off first on February 16 for 11 days of agency by agency hearings. Senate budget hearings start March 8 and will last 10 days. Click Here for the complete schedule.
In the House, the State Government Committee will hold its third hearing on the 2020 elections; the House and Senate Education and Appropriations Committees have a joint hearing scheduled on the State System of Higher Education; and the House Democratic Policy Committee has a hearing on vaccine rollout and a joining hearing with the Senate Democratic Policy Committee on maternal health during the pandemic.
The legislative Center for Rural Pennsylvania has a hearing scheduled on the opioid crisis during the COVID pandemic.