PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Ping-Pong Continues Between Gov. Wolf, Republicans; Lame Duck Budget?
Twenty-four House Democrats gave Gov. Wolf a big win last week when they stuck by him in a failed House Republican attempt to override the Governor’s veto of House Bill 2787 (Reese-R- Westmoreland) giving school districts sole authority to determine how to handle sports fans during the pandemic. Read more here.
The House was supposed to be off last week, but Republicans pulled members in for one day to vote on the override figuring they had to strike when the iron was hot. But, it apparently wasn’t.
In reality, school districts have the authority now to control sports gatherings and after a federal court decision struck down Gov. Wolf’s COVID gathering limits, they have been increasing the number of fans that can attend sports games. Read more here.
On September 22, Republicans did score a win in court when a federal judge declined Gov. Wolf’s request to have those COVID limits on gatherings remain in place during his appeal of the decision declaring the limits unconstitutional Read more here.
On Thursday, Gov. Wolf called lawmakers to task for not taking action to allocate federal CARES money the state still has to pay front-line workers hazard pay, help provide relief to small businesses and help renters and mortgage holders avoid eviction and foreclosure.
Instead, Gov. Wolf said Republicans were passing legislation trying to “repeal gravity” and make the virus go away.
Senate and House Republicans went on to pass legislation– House Bill 2513 (Everett-R- Lycoming)– September 23 to lift many of the COVID restrictions on restaurants and bars and sent it to the Governor, even though he promised to veto that one too. Read more here.
The bill passed with a veto-proof margin, but apparently those don’t hold up too well when Republicans try to override.
On September 24, Gov. Wolf, as promised, issued his 12th veto of this legislative session when he disapproved House Bill 2025 (Struzzi-R-Indiana) which would require the General Assembly’s approval of any program developed to reduce carbon pollution from power plants or other sources, e.g. the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Regional Transportation and Climate Initiative.
Senate and House Republicans and a few Democrats passed the bill, but not by veto proof margins this time.
On September 24, Gov. Wolf again urged the General Assembly to adopt a series of government and accountability reforms before the end of the session on November 30. Read more here. They include–
— Banning All Gifts To Public Officials;
— Campaign Finance Reform including limits on contributions to candidates and aggregate limits for races, strengthening reporting and disclosure requirements; and
— Complete Disclosure Of Outside Income including the type of work that’s done for that income.
There has been no movement on these proposals this session, but they have a few voting days left.
There was no further action on legislation to make the Election Code fixes counties want in the Senate last week [House Bill 2626 (Moul-R-Adams)], but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any action.
Pennsylvania Republicans began clearing a path to the U.S. Supreme Court to appeal the September 17 PA Supreme Court’s decision extending deadlines for mail-in ballots, making mail-in ballot boxes legal and other measures.
Republicans first asked the PA Supreme Court to stay their own decision to allow an appeal, but on Thursday they refused. That refusal allows them to move on to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read more here.
And then there is the issue of “naked” mail-in ballots, ballots mailed without being put in the secondary security envelopes.
Election officials warned thousands of these ballots could be thrown out and not counted after the PA Supreme Court didn’t clarify those ballots without security envelopes could be counted. Read more here.
That left Democrats, in particular, scampling to make sure people know how to send in ballots corrected. Read more here.
Mail-In Ballot Investigation
The U.S. Department of Justice, FBI and the State Police are investigating the circumstances surrounding military mail-in ballots for the November 3 election being found in a dumpster in Luzerne County.
Nine ballots have been found so far by investigators, seven of which were votes for Trump. The investigation is ongoing. Read more here.
State Republicans have also been thinking about what other options there are with the respect to the Electoral College.
The Atlantic magazine quoted Republican State Chair Lawrence Tabas saying they have talked to the Trump Campaign about an option of appointing their own electors, regardless of the popular vote, to deliver the state to Trump, if the results of the vote are still unclear 35 days after the November 3 election. Read more here.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) was also quoted in the article on the same issue saying the General Assembly would have no choice but to appoint electors, but “We don’t want to go down that road, but we understand where the law takes us, and we’ll follow the law.”
A spokesperson for state Republicans said later the remarks were taken out of context and Tabas was just answering questions about the direct appointment of electors. He did not claim Tabas was misquoted. Read more here.
Republicans were still trying to “fix” the situation Friday. Read more here.
There was a brief glimmer of hope among advocates when legislation reforming the process for drawing Congressional and legislative districts was listed for the Senate State Government Committee last week, but reality soon set in.
Senate Bill 1242 (Killion-R-Delaware), which includes some, but not all the reforms advocates support, was reported out of the Committee, but with a long admonition delivered by Sen. John DiSanto (R-Cumberland), Majority Chair, that major issues still needed to be worked out. Read more here.
Moving the bill probably had more to do with an op-ed appearing on Pennsylvania Capital-Star last week saying Sen. DiSanto was a roadblock on redistricting reform and the fact he’s in a very close race for reelection.
No stone unturned or moved into someone else’s court, as they say.
Lame Duck Budget?
It appears the folks who run the Senate and House will hold off on doing anything about finishing the state budget until after the November 3 election.
In May, they passed and the Governor signed a five-month budget that is due to run out November 30, and so does the legislative session when all bills die.
With a $4 to $5 billion deficit staring lawmakers in the face, no one is anxious to tackle the issue before the election and make constituents mad with the cuts they make, assuming Congress doesn’t come through with a bailout for them.
So, it looks like there will be some sort of “Lame Duck Budget.”
Lawmakers voted out of office or retiring will get to approve a draconian budget and those remaining in office don’t have to face their constituents again for two years and hope they forget what happened.
Best of all worlds….
Nearly seven months after the beginning of the COVID pandemic and the state’s significant budget problems, the General Assembly gave final approval to legislation– House Bill 2487 (Ryan-R-Lebanon)– that would freeze the salaries of Senate and House members, judges and top Executive Branch officials.
The bill would prevent one automatic cost of living increase officials normally would get for the next year saving about $3.1 million.
No word yet on what the Senate and House will do with the $172 million or so surplus in their operating accounts.
COVID Waiver Audit
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said September 23 his audit of DCED’s COVID Business Waiver Program is turning up attempts by lawmakers, lobbyists and other prominent political players to influence the approval of business waivers he said could require further investigation by law enforcement. Read more here.
The York Dispatch quoted DePasquale as saying, “There are a whole bunch of emails from legislators, lobbyists and outside groups weighing in on all of the waiver requests. And we may not be able to have the ability to determine if every single one of those actually changes a waiver from a nay to yea, or vice versa.”
DePasquale is scheduled to release his much-anticipated audit on October 6.
Counties Of Concern
Gov. Wolf last week listed these counties of most concern in terms of growing numbers of COVID cases– Counties with concerning percent-positivity include Centre (12.1 percent), Indiana (11.6 percent), York (7.8 percent), Juniata (7.7 percent), Mercer (6.7 percent), Lebanon (6.1 percent), Berks (6.0 percent), Chester (5.5 percent), Crawford (5.5 percent), and Bedford (5.3 percent). Each of these counties bears watching as the state continues to monitor all available data. Five percent or more is bad. Read more here.
The statewide percent positivity for COVID decreased to 3.8 percent from 4.2 percent last week.
The Department of Health also removed Nevada from the list of states they recommend travelers self-quarantine when they return and added Nebraska and Wisconsins. Read more here.
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,956 on September 19 to 8,103 on September 26. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 149,845 on September 19 to 155,232 on September 26.
Unemployment Drops In August
For the week September 13 to 19, there were 22,762 unemployment claims, up from 21,747 last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056. Read more here.
On September 23, Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed charges against 20 more prison inmates and their accomplices for illegally obtaining $300,000 in unemployment benefits in part of his ongoing investigation. Read more here.
On September 21, the Department of Labor and Industry, amid all its other troubles with getting unemployment benefits to the people who need them, had to stop processing claims for the newly unemployed because of a new wave of fraudulent claims being filed. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf reported on Thursday the agency still has not processed all the unemployment claims that slammed the state starting in mid-March. He said they are down to 2 percent of those claims left, but that’s still thousands of people who have yet to receive a dime in unemployment.
There was no shortage of new polls released on the Presidential race in Pennsylvania last week. And the results were–
— Franklin & Marshall – Biden 48%, Trump 42%
Most of the results are within the margin of error of the respective polls.
If you count up all the stuff the General Assembly needs or at least should do in the next few weeks and compare it to the session days the House and Senate have left, it paints an ugly picture.
Just a few of the items include–
— Fix the Election Code to ensure a smooth and secure vote count November 3;
— Allocate $1 billion (or so) of federal CARES relief money to help small businesses, front-line worker hazard pay and PPE, utility assistance and more;
— Help renters avoid evictions and mortgage holders avoid foreclosure; and
— Finish the state budget that runs out on November 30.
And add a few things Gov. Wolf would like to have–
— Legalizing adult use of marijuana for state revenues;
— Reduce Alcohol Taxes for six months to help the hospitality industry
— Paid Parental Leave;
— Expanding Access to Child Care;
— Banning All Gifts To Public Officials;
— Campaign Finance Reform; and
— Complete Disclosure Of Outside Income.
And mix in issues like redistricting reform and increasing the minimum wage.
The House has exactly seven voting days left, after canceling October 5, 6 and 7 last week. The Senate also has seven voting days left.
Both are scheduled to adjourn the session November 10, but all that will change because they are planning to do some sort of budget after the November 3 election.
What they can’t change is the constitutionally mandated end of the 2019-20 legislative session on November 30 when all legislation dies and members’ terms expire. The terms for new members begin December 1.
Continuing their tag-team approach to lawmaking these days, the House is in voting session September 29 and 30 and October 1 this week. The Senate is off.
The House has a number of Committee meetings set on a variety of bills, but we’ll see what actually moves. Click Here for the full House schedule.
You can check here to see what bills are likely to move on the House Floor.
The Senate isn’t coming back to voting session until October 5, and has only one Committee hearing scheduled so far. Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.
[Posted: Sept. 25, 2020]