PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Feud Over Nominations Escalates; New Voting Districts Deadlock; How To Spend Federal Aid?
In a few short weeks, the Senate, House and Gov. Wolf will face a July 1 deadline to put together a final state budget, including how to spend the extra $7.4 billion (or so) the state gets in federal stimulus aid, but partisan bickering over a proposed regulation to address climate change has now escalated into a full blown Hatfields and McCoys feud and may spill over into other issues.
You’ll recall on April 21, Senate Republicans wrote to Gov. Wolf to advise him they will reject all future nominees to the Public Utility Commission until he withdraws his executive order joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to address carbon pollution from power plants. Read more here.
The PUC has nothing to do with the so-called RGGI regulations proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection. Read more here.
A step like this is rarely done in such a public way, but the fight with Republicans over Gov. Wolf’s renomination of Jennifer Storm for the Office of Victim Advocate earlier in the year demonstrated both sides were up for a public battle. Read more here.
Continuing on the same theme last week, Senate Republicans moved Senate Bill 119 (Pittman-R- Indiana)– which would take away DEP’s authority to regulate carbon pollution from any sources without the approval of the General Assembly– from the Senate Environmental Committee to the full Senate. Read more here. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf vetoed identical legislation last year. Read more here.
We didn’t have to wait long to wait for a response from Gov. Wolf….
Gov. Wolf withdrew his nominations of several cabinet secretaries in response to the Republicans saying, he “will not let its cabinet officials be held hostage by the Senate Republicans’ insistence to halt progress on policy issues that are important to Pennsylvania’s citizens.” Read more here.
The Governor said his nominees can serve the remainder of his administration in an acting capacity, his office adding “the title of ‘acting’ does not impact their ability to do the job in any way.”
Acting Secretaries for the departments of Health, Education, Labor and Industry, State, and Human Services and the Physician General and the Adjutant General were all withdrawn. Read more here.
Media reports also said the Wolf Administration was looking to replace Republicans with expired terms on the State Board of Education, PA Higher Education Assistance Agency and other boards and commissions. Read more here.
John Evans, a former Republican legislator from Erie County, was fired from his job as the PUC’s Small Business Advocate when his term expired April 23, along with eleven other appointees as part of this same review of appointments by the Wolf Administration, according to media reports. Read more here.
Roy Reinard, a PHEAA board member and former Republican legislator from Bucks County, was also among those let go. Read more here.
Other fired appointees included James Biery and Vincent Gastgeb, from the Banking and Securities Commission, and Bradley Franc, a trustee on the University of Pittsburgh board, again according to media reports. Read more here.
In the original fight over PUC nominations, the Public Utility Commission is already down two of five members, and a third member’s term is up in April of 2022. Technically, they can operate with two members, but both would have to agree to any actions.
There has been no word from Republicans in response to this latest move, but you can bet something is coming.
The real Hatfield and McCoy feud lasted over 21 years and only ended after several family members were tried, convicted and hanged for murdering someone in the rival family.
In 1979 the families united for a special week’s long taping of the game show Family Feud where they played for a cash prize and a pig.
Wonder if that would work in this case? The Family Feud part.
Now, about that state budget… Monday we get a monthly revenue report for April, which will give some indication of a trend, but because the due date for taxes was moved to May 15 a huge piece of the puzzle will be missing.
March revenues were up $378 million over estimates bringing the year-to-date revenue up to $1.3 billion over estimates.
Federal COVID Relief Aid
The federal Small Business Administration will begin accepting applications May 3 from restaurants, carters, bars, food and beverage businesses, bakeries, wineries and other hospitality businesses for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Click Here for all the details.
Although federal guidance is not yet available on how the state, counties, local governments and school districts can use the federal American Rescue Plan, they are starting to look at where they might invest it.
Allegheny County is expecting $380 million [Read more here], the Scranton School District is getting $58 million [Read more here], Erie area schools are getting $275 million [Read more here] and Pittsburgh public schools will be receiving $100 million [Read more here].
Click Here to see how much your local government is estimated to receive. Local governments will receive $3.3 billion in Pennsylvania.
Click Here to see how much your school district is estimated to get. Public and private schools will receive $4.5 billion in funding.
Pennsylvania state government will receive $7.4 billion (or so).
These amounts are huge and who gets to decide how this money is spent and how transparent that process will be are critical issues.
Drawing New Voting Districts
After interviews with 37 candidates over two days of hearings last week to fill the fifth seat on the PA Legislative Reapportionment Commission [Read more here], the two Republicans and two Democrats already seated were deadlocked over who to pick. Read more here.
As a result, the decision will now be made by the PA Supreme Court, as they have in almost every decade since the Commission was first convened in 1971. The Court has until May 30 to decide. Read more here.
On April 26, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and 16 PA Democratic voters filed a lawsuit– no doubt the first of many– in Commonwealth Court as a preemptive move asking the Court to put together a schedule the judges will follow if they have to step in and redraw the state’s Congressional voting districts. Read more here.
The lawsuit came the day after the U.S. Census reported– as expected– Pennsylvania will lose one of its 18 Congressional seats. Read more here. And, the political game of musical chairs begins. Read more here.
Advocates for a more transparent, citizen-oriented redistricting process continue to press their case at events around the state. In Bellefonte, Centre County advocates and their dogs “hounded” legislators to do the right thing on redistricting reform. Read more here.
At a Fair Districts PA rally Monday in Harrisburg, Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill), Chair of the Senate State Government Committee, said he will be advancing redistricting reform legislation out of his committee “within the next two months.” Read more here.
Two bills supported by citizen groups are pending. In the Senate Senate Bill 222 (Boscola-D-Lehigh) and in the House– House Bill 22 (Thomas-R- Bucks)– which is in the House State Government Committee.
Senate Rs Aid Business
Senate Republicans took their turn, they said, at aiding businesses to help them recover from the pandemic by moving a series of regulatory and permitting “reform” bills from committee. Read more here. They included–
— Repealing old regulations to make way for new ones, naming a compliance officer, setting up an Office of the Repealer and more: Senate Bill 32 (Phillips-Hill- R-York);
— Requiring legislative approval of economically significant regulations: Senate Bill 520 (DiSanto-R-Dauphin);
— Stop rulemaking and public participation during a declared emergency: Senate Bill 533 (Yaw-R- Lycoming);
— Give the Independent Regulatory Review Authority the power to review and then veto existing regulations: Senate Bill 126 (Brooks-R-Crawford);
— Mandate private contractor review of permit applications: Senate Bill 28 (Phillips-Hill-R- York); and
— Delete the statement of why a regulation is being proposed from rulemakings: Senate Bill 426 (Gordner-R- Columbia).
There are real questions of practicality, cost and constitutionality surrounding many of these proposals as they seek to make a political statement.
As noted, the federal Small Business Administration is opening up another business aid program on May 3. Read more here.
House Republicans are scheduled to take final action this week on their versions of many of these bills. Read more here.
House Republicans also have another initiative that would determine if regulations and requirements suspended by Gov. Wolf during the COVID pandemic should be eliminated for good. Read more here.
They issued a 139-page report showing all the requirements that were suspended as a reference.
New claims for unemployment compensation in Pennsylvania were down slightly last week, but regional March unemployment percentages remain high in many areas. Read more here.
Pittsburgh unemployment remained at 7.5 percent [Read more here], Lehigh Valley was down slightly to 7.4 percent [Read more here], Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was the same at 8.8 percent [Read more here] and Lancaster County was at 5.6 percent [Read more here].
Please Get Vaccinated!
While Gov. Wolf and state health officials last week talked about vaccine “hesitancy” and the steps they were taking to get to underserved populations, local health departments and agencies running vaccine clinics put it more bluntly — “The demand here has really fallen off a cliff.”
While 49 percent of the eligible population in Pennsylvania has at least one shot, there has also been an increase in the number of people skipping the second COVID vaccine shot. Read more here.
Philadelphia reported 3,000 doses of vaccine were set to expire if they couldn’t get them into arms [Read more here]; in the Erie County Health Department reported one vaccine provider made 2,200 calls just to schedule 118 vaccination appointments [Read more here] and as a result, Erie County is ordering fewer doses for this week [Read more here].
Lancaster County is closing its mass vaccination center a month early [Read more here]; Bucks County decided to take walk-ins [Read more here]; and Wellspan Health in Central PA is offering same day appointments [Read more here].
The Department of Human Services reported less than half of the staff in personal care and assisted living homes it regulates are vaccinated [Read more here]. That rate is less than nursing home staff.
Personal care, assisted living and nursing homes account for a large percentage of COVID-related deaths in Pennsylvania.
An analysis of the vaccination data from the Department of Health through mid-April by the Morning Call found significant disparities among race and ethnicity in those who are fully vaccinated. Read more here.
Statewide, Black people account for 12 percent of the population and Asians account for nearly 4 percent of the population. Yet, state data showed that of those fully vaccinated, only 3 percent were Black and less than 1 percent were Asian. Read more here.
Hispanic and Latinx people account for nearly 8 percent of the population, but just 2 percent of those vaccinated. Read more here.
They pointed out there may be limitations to the Department of Health’s state data because people of an unknown race accounted for 12.6 percent of those fully vaccinated and people of unknown ethnicity were 27 percent of those fully vaccinated. Read more here.
As of May 1, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 5,102,879 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 4,773,293 last week– and 3,493,659 have been given the required two doses– up from 3,136,599 last week.
In response to questions Friday during a visit to an Erie vaccination clinic, Gov. Wolf said he doesn’t think there is anybody who doesn’t want to see COVID restrictions loosened, but, “We want to be safe. We don’t want to do things too quickly.” Read more here.
He and health officials have been pointing out the need to get enough people vaccinated to reach herd immunity, which is at least 60 to 70 percent of the eligible population.
The Department of Health last week did update its guidance for when and where vaccinated people should continue to wear masks and take other precautions, following the CDC change. Read more here.
Business groups and state lawmakers continue to urge the Wolf Administration to loosen restrictions as New Jersey and other states are doing, especially those in border areas like the Lehigh Valley. Read more here.
Philadelphia is easing their restrictions on restaurants and other events starting May 7. Read more here.
COVID % Positivity Drops Another Full Point
As of April 30, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped a full point to 7.6 percent from 8.6 percent last week.
On March 5, the percent positivity was 5.7 percent– anything over 5 percent is bad.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 25,938 on April 24 to 26,253 on May 1. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,131,014 on April 24 to 1,154,105 on May 1.
Colleges and cities across the state are reporting the highest numbers of new COVID infections, while statewide numbers last week were down from the week before, as were hospitalizations. Read more here.
One example is Saint Vincent College in Westmoreland County which went into lockdown because of a surge of COVID cases. Read more here.
The growing trend toward younger COVID patients was highlighted by medical staff in Western Pennsylvania last week as doctors said COVID variants and vaccine hesitancy are now driving the numbers. Read more here.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Westmoreland County Coroner’s Office said COVID deaths caused a 21 percent caseload surge over the last year. Read more here.
The Department of Health reported a data breach at a company– Insight Global– hired to manage contact tracing that potentially exposed the private health information of at least 72,000 people. Read more here.
The company is being required to contact the affected individuals. The Department of Health plans to drop Insight Global once its contract expires in three months. Read more here.
Visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage for this week’s ups and downs.
State-Owned University Mergers
California, Clarion and Edinboro universities would be merged into one school and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield universities would be the other.
The Board established a public comment period on the plan and will be scheduling public hearings and meetings around the state. Read more here.
A final vote could be scheduled in July.
The House Appropriations and Education Committees have a joint hearing scheduled for Tuesday on the merger plan.
Thank God For L&I
Rep. Jeff Wheeland (R-Lycoming) last week found himself a victim of personal ID theft and uttered words that were unfamiliar to many lawmakers– “Thank God I got notice quickly” from the Department of Labor and Industry. Read more here.
It was Labor and Industry that notified Wheeland his application for unemployment compensation was denied, applied for with his stolen ID. Read more here.
He then discovered one of his credit cards was used to make a purchase at the Chester County Prison commissary. Read more here.
At the suggestion of Labor and Industry, he filed a report with the State Police.
The House is in voting session Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. The Senate is taking a break until May 10.
The House has a full slate of committee meetings this week– too many to mention– and is expected to pass its versions of regulatory and permitting reform legislation.
The Senate has no committee hearings or meetings scheduled for this week.
There are only nine campaign fundraisers scheduled for this week by Senate and House members. Read more here.