PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Federal COVID Aid Gives State Budget Shot In The Arm; No More Gasoline Tax?
The federal COVID relief bill signed into law by President Biden lifted a huge burden from Senate and House Republicans on how they were going to balance the state’s FY 2020-21 state budget.
While Gov. Wolf praised the Biden Administration and Congress for passing the aid bill, he expressed disappointment Friday that it also dashed almost all hope he would get any of the major budget proposals he outlined in February– not that there was a real chance anyway. Read more here.
Wolf had proposed wiping out the deficit and boosting public school aid by $1.3 billion– about 20 percent– by increasing the state’s personal income tax rate, but restructuring the tax so lower-income households see a tax cut and the burden falls on households earning $84,000 or more. Read more here.
“If the federal government is going to give us $7 billion, I can guarantee the Republicans are going to say, ‘Let’s continue to kick the can down the road,’ and I think that’s unfortunate,” Wolf said. Read more here.
Every Republican member of Congress representing Pennsylvania voted against the aid bill saying, generally, it was too big and should have been targeted. Every Democratic member voted for it. Read more here.
While state-level Republicans are secretly happy the federal money is coming their way. Several members are expressing concerns about how it will be spent– on one time expenses related to COVID or on recurring expenses like they did to balance the FY 2019-20 budget. Read more here.
Republicans never seem to pass on one-time fixes to balance a budget anyway they can.
Pennsylvania had been looking at a $2.5 to $3 billion deficit.
Some of the big ticket support Pennsylvania is expected to receive from the aid package, includes–
— $7 billion (or so) for state government [Read more here]
— $5.8 billion for county [$2.8 billion] and local governments [$3 billion] [Read more here]
— $5.1 billion to K-12 schools [Read more here]
— $1.3 billion to colleges, universities [Read more here]
— $1.28 billion for transit [Read more here]
— $671 million in emergency rental assistance [Read more here]
— $74 million in homelessness assistance [Read more here]
Of course, this aid is in addition to the other things in the package, like stimulus checks to individuals, child care payments, aid to get health insurance, etc.
On March 11, Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie), who two weeks ago introduced bipartisan legislation to legalize adult use of marijuana, announced he would be introducing legislation to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage from $7.25/hour to $10 and provide inflation adjusted increases after that. Read more here.
“I have heard from my constituents and have listened to both sides of the political aisle. It is definitely time that we address the issue and I believe my bill is the most responsible way to approach it,” said Sen. Laughlin. “My legislation increases Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $10 and – based on inflation – would provide for regular increases as appropriate.”
Having a Republican introduce a minimum wage increase is not unheard of. Then Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York), and a former gubernatorial candidate, introduced legislation to increase the minimum wage in 2015, but it never went anywhere.
Vaccine Rollout Continues
On March 12, Gov. Wolf announced everyone in Pennsylvania with a Phase IA priority should have an appointment to be vaccinated by the end of March. Read more here.
Both the Governor and the members of the bipartisan Vaccine Task Force announced plans to use a portion of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to vaccinate law enforcement, correctional staff, grocery workers, firefighters (both career and volunteer), meat processing and agriculture workers. Read more here.
The new challenge facing the Task Force are the goals President Biden announced Thursday to make every adult eligible to receive a vaccine by May 1 and to aim for July 4 as “Independence Day” from COVID, with plenty of qualifiers of course Read more here.
Another optimistic note came from Philadelphia where health officials predicted the city could reach herd immunity by June. Read more here.
Not that everything is going smoothly, of course. Seniors still report being at their “wit’s end” in trying to get appointments [Read more here], there were stronger complaints from counties being “short-changed” in getting vaccines [Read more here. Read more here.], notable successes in mass vaccinations around the state [Read more here] and more good journalism about the COVID pandemic one year later.
Easing Nursing Home Restrictions
On March 12, the departments of Health and Human Services, “strongly encouraged’ long-term care facilities to implement updated CDC guidance on visitors to their facilities. Read more here.
One commentator called it the best news he heard all year. Read more here.
However, long-term care facilities are understandably very cautious about returning more to normal after the death and illness that swept through their residents and staff. Read more here.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
As of March 12, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing the statewide percent positivity of 5.7 percent has not changed from last week after a steady decline over the last few months– anything over 5 percent is bad.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 24,317 on March 6 to 24,573 on March 13. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 946,985 cases on March 6 to 964,296 on March 13.
As of March 13, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 2,335,756 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 1,909,291 last week– and 1,200,200 have been given the required two doses– up from 868,149 last week.
On March 12, the Department of Labor and Industry reported January unemployment in Pennsylvania increased 0.2 percent to 7.3 percent, while U.S. unemployment fell four-tenths of a percent to 6.3 percent.
The labor force shrank by about 15,000 and the number of people employed fell by 25,000. Payrolls, however, expanded by almost 36,000 in January. Read more here.
On March 12, after being faced with a barrage of criticism from Republicans and Democrats, the Department of Labor and Industry announced they would be hiring and training at least 500 new customer service representatives to handle resolving unemployment claims full-time. Read more here.
The agency said it was prepared to hire up to 1,000 new staff if that’s what it took to improve claims service.
Although the new Franklin & Marshall Poll released last week didn’t attract much attention, it has some important signals on what voters in Pennsylvania are thinking–
— 36% think state headed in right direction: 57% said so in October 2019
— 69% say they are financially about the same as last year, 11% better
— 17% believe they are worse off, highest number in this poll since March 2011
— 67% support minimum wage increase
— 59% support legalizing use of marijuana
— 74% of Democrats will get COVID vaccine, 36% of Republicans
— 61% disapprove of vote against certifying results of 2020 presidential election
— 86% of Democrats, disapprove of vote, 55% of Independents, 42% of Republicans
— 41% think Biden is doing an excellent or good job: higher than Trump, lower than Obama
— 42% of Republicans support Trump, 38% align with traditional Republicans
Last week saw some new candidates announce they were taking the plunge–
— State Appellate Courts: 8 Democrats, 6 Republicans filed petitions to run for open seats on the PA Supreme Court (1), Superior Court (1) and Commonwealth Court (2). Folks began to realize again how important the PA Supreme Court was last year with all the election challenges.
— Lackawanna Senate Seat: Rep. Kyle Mullins announced he was seeking the Democratic endorsement which put him up against Rep. Marty Flynn for the same seat. Rep. Flynn got the endorsement Saturday. Read more here.
— Lebanon Senate Seat: Former Republican Rep. Ed Krebs announced he plans to run as an Independent [Read more here] and Libertarian Tim McMaster announced he was launching his campaign in the traditionally Republican district. Read more here. On the Democratic side, Dr. Calvin Clements, a veterinarian, was picked Saturday to run for the seat. Read more here.
— Governor? Four-term Republican Rep. Jason Ortitay from Washington County said he’s considering the possibility of running for Governor. Read more here.
— U.S. Senate: Jeff Bartos made it official, he is jumping into the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Read more here.
Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Brian Sims, both Democrats from Philadelphia reported last week they are getting death threats. Read more here.
Rep. Sims, who was the first openly gay member member of the General Assembly, and Rep. Kenyatta, who is running for U.S. Senate and is Black, both said threats and hate mail have increased.
They have both turned over more serious threats to law enforcement.
They’re back! The Senate and House are back in Harrisburg for voting session this week and next and then they break until April 12.
The Senate continues its agency-by-agency budget hearings with the Department of Education and the State System of Higher Education.
The Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform meets for the first time March 15 to hold a hearing on a review of “best practices of election integrity and security from other states.”
The House has a full slate of committee meetings and hearings featuring another House State Government Committee hearing on COVID policy– this time on government telework and another election 2020 hearing, this time on mail-in and absentee ballots.
The House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee also meets on COVID, in this case how the pandemic affected tourism, lodging and attractions in Pennsylvania.
The House Consumer Affairs Committee kicks off the first of two hearings on the state electricity industry and its future with the Public Utility Commission.
The House Environmental Committee has another “Embracing Pennsylvania’s Energy Potential” hearing, this time on hydrogen power and carbon capture.
The House may take steps to do an “emergency” constitutional amendment to get a proposal before voters in May to open a two-year window for victims of child sexual assault to file civil lawsuits. Read more here.