PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Republican 1% Mandate On Constitutional Changes; Percent Positivity Below 5%; Lobbying Reforms?
Both constitutional amendments giving the Republican-control Senate and House the ultimate authority to determine what happens during an emergency were passed by voters in the Primary Tuesday.
Statewide voter turnout was creeping up to 24 percent as the provisional and mail-in ballots continued to be counted by counties at the end of the week.
There were about 2,100,000 total votes cast for each of the emergency constitutional amendments. Read more here.
But, the margin of victory for the amendments was very close– 89,394 for one and 87,425 votes for the other– as of May 22.
That represents just 1.02 percent of the 8,758,376 registered voters in the state.
One long-time observer said, given the importance of the questions on the ballots, the fact that more voters didn’t turn out was “pathetic.” Read more here.
Now, Senate and House leaders will have to grapple with what their next steps will be.
On Thursday, Gov. Wolf, after consulting with Republican leaders, extended the COVID pandemic emergency that was due to expire because the Senate and House Republicans did not want to jeopardize federal funding or the continuing vaccine rollout by having the declaration expire all at once [sic]. Read more here.
The Senate, House and Gov. Wolf will now have 21 days– until June 10– to determine how they want to proceed from here. The Senate and House are now scheduled to be in voting session six of those days.
Gov. Wolf’s emergency declarations suspended literally hundreds of requirements to expedite the state’s response to the pandemic.
In late April, House Republicans compiled a 139 page list of regulations and requirements suspended [Read more here] which would be immediately reinstated if the COVID emergency declaration ended completely. Read more here.
One regulation Republicans know they want back is the requirement for those getting unemployment benefits to search for work. Read more here.
One waiver Republicans may want to keep is the one allowing patients to seek medical care through telemedicine connections which have become popular during the pandemic. House Republicans held a hearing on the issue April 27. Read more here.
Senate and House Republicans tried to pass legislation authorizing telemedicine for several years prior to the pandemic and finally got something to the Governor’s desk in April 2020, but Gov. Wolf vetoed it because a provision was added by Republicans to restrict access to abortion. Read more here.
So, stay tuned to see if your favorite waived regulation is reinstated or not by the General Assembly.
It’s bound to get… shall we say… very political with the General Assembly involved.
Precautions Lifting Anyway
Most of the COVID-related restrictions on crowd capacity at businesses Republicans complained about are lifting on May 31. Read more here.
The remaining Department of Health order requiring those who are not vaccinated to continue to wear masks until 70 percent of Pennsylvanians are vaccinated [currently 51 percent] is not affected by the changes to the state constitution, although it may be a topic of discussion in this new arrangement of emergency powers.
Other Ballot Questions/Constitutional Amendments
The two other proposed constitutional amendments on the Primary ballot passed easily–
— Prohibiting the denial or abridgement of equality of rights because of race or ethnicity, although Bedford, Clarion, Fulton and Huntingdon counties voted against it; and
— Making municipal fire and emergency medical service companies eligible for loans.
Voters in Pittsburgh approved a ballot question banning no-knock warrants and Allegheny County voters put restrictions on solitary confinement. Read more here.
House/Senate Election Results
Four new members will join the General Assembly as a result of special elections Tuesday–
— Senator-elect Rep. Marty Flynn (D) Senate District 22 — Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe counties
— Senator-elect Chris Gebhard (R) Senate District 48 — Dauphin, Lebanon, York counties
— Rep-elect Leslie Rossi (R) (a.k.a. Trump House lady) — House District 59 — Westmoreland, Somerset counties
— Rep-elect Abby Major (R) (former chief of staff for Rep. Pyle) — House District 60 — Armstrong, Butler, Indiana counties
None of the seats changed parties. Read more here.
There will now be a need for another special election to fill the seat of Rep. Flynn and five Democratic candidates have already come out of the woodwork. Read more here.
Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-Luzerne) won the Republican nomination for a Luzerne County court seat and will face Democratic opponents in November so there may be another House vacancy in the near future. Read more here.
Republican Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson will face Democratic Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin for the open seat on the PA Supreme Court.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Timika Lane will face Republican Megan Sullivan, a Chester County litigator and former prosecutor, for the open seat on the PA Superior Court. Read more here.
Two open seats are at stake on Commonwealth Court in the fall which will involve four candidates– Republican Commonwealth Court Judge Drew Crompton and Stacy Wallace, President of the McKean County Bar Association, and Democratic Common Pleas Court Judge Lori Dumas of Philadelphia and Common Pleas Court Judge David Lee Spurgon of Allegheny County.
While the Department of State maintained the Primary election was run successfully [Read more here], there were…. glitches–
— Misprints led to 14,000 mail-in ballots having to be hand tallied in Lancaster County [Read more here];
— Republican ballots were mislabeled as Democratic on screens in Luzerne County [Read more here];
— Misprints on some ballots in Fayette County led to hand counting of votes [Read more here];
— Some polling places in Delaware and York counties ran out of ballots, but were resupplied after a delay [Read more here];
— Centre County ran short of Republican ballots at some polling places [Read more here];
— It took 22 hours for most primary results to be posted on the Westmoreland County website after technical problems [Read more here]; and
— Philadelphia election officials reported a ‘rough morning’ staffing some polls because of a shortage of people to work at the polls [Read more here].
COVID % Positivity Drops Below 5%
As of May 21, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped to 4.5 percent from 5.3 percent last week.
This indicator is now below 5 percent which has been used as an indicator of significant COVID spread.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 26,749 deaths on May 15 to 27,029 deaths on May 22. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,185,132 on May 15 to 1,195,013 on May 22.
Vaccination Effort Plods On
Between April 26 and May 10, Department of Health data shows vaccination requests have dropped 74 percent in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
As of May 21, the Department of Health and the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 51 percent of people 18 and over have been fully vaccinated in Pennsylvania, up from 47.7 percent on May 15. The goal is to get to 70 percent to lift all precautions.
At this pace of vaccinations, it will take another 6 weeks or so to reach the 70 percent mark for those over 18 years old– or the week of July 4– about what Gov. Wolf was aiming for.
With vaccinations slowing down there is concern tens of thousands of doses will soon expire and have to be thrown out. Read more here.
Counties are also not ordering as much fresh vaccine. Lehigh County last week only ordered 100 doses during the early part of the week, for example. Read more here.
Bucks County is hoping $30,000 worth of Rita’s Water Ice coupons will entice people to come in to get vaccinated. Read more here.
BTW… New York state has now joined Ohio in offering a $5 million COVID vaccination lottery incentive. Read more here.
Ohio announced vaccinations for those ages 30 to 74 increased by six percent after weeks of steady decline because of its vaccination lottery prize. Read more here.
Threats To Defund Schools Over Vaccinations
Then there are others who take the view that school districts and businesses should not be requiring anyone to get vaccinated because they think it’s discrimination and “un-American.”
One such controversy erupted in the Cumberland Valley School District, Cumberland County and in the State College School District when they said guests to their high school prom should be vaccinated. Read more here.
Reps. Barb Gleim (R-Cumberland) and Dawn Keefer (R-York) objected to the policy saying the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee “will consider cutting their funding.” Read more here.
Both Gleim and Keefer also don’t want to see schools or colleges require COVID vaccinations– like they do many other kinds of vaccinations– to return to classes in the fall. Read more here.
There was also an increase in incidents last week of parents asking school boards to drop the requirement to wear masks in schools in the Lehigh Valley [Read more here] and Lancaster County [Read more here], in spite of guidance from the CDC to wear masks in Schools [Read more here].
Find A Vaccine Provider
Many providers switched to walk-in vaccinations in many parts of the state because demand has been so low.
Contact Tracing Vendor Fired
The Department of Health Thursday announced it would be firing the company– Insight Global– that exposed private medical information from individuals involved in COVID contact tracing efforts in a data breach. Read more here.
The company’s contract was supposed to expire anyway on July 31, but instead will terminate on June 19.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said his office is also investigating the data breach. Read more here.
Unemployment Benefits/Finding Workers
On Friday, the Department of Labor and Industry reported Pennsylvania’s April unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, up one-tenth of a percentage point from March. Read more here.
The national rate was 6.1 percent in April.
The labor force remained virtually the same in April, at just below 6.34 million. The state hit a record-high labor force of almost 6.6 million just before the pandemic hit.
Payrolls in Pennsylvania slid in April by 4,400, to below 5.67 million.
Pennsylvania has regained about 60 percent of the 1.1 million jobs lost in the pandemic. It hit a record high for payrolls of 6.1 million just before the pandemic hit, according to state figures. Read more here.
Businesses were again trying to fill thousands of positions across the state with Knoebels Amusement Park saying they were short 500 workers [Read more here], Philadelphia restaurants and hotels held another job fair weekend [Read more here] and how businesses are saying a worker shortage is stally recover in Bucks County [Read more here].
The Gaming Board held a hearing Thursday on the proposed mini-casino near Shippensburg, Cumberland County, where opponents came out in force. Read more here.
Seems there is no shortage of people gambling.
Preventing Misuse Of Federal Aid
Thursday, Auditor General Timothy DeFoor urged the General Assembly to enact state-level safeguards to prevent billions of dollars in federal pandemic recovery aid from being misused through fraud or waste. Read more here.
He recommended the General Assembly give him authority and funding– $10 – $12 million–to hire private accounting firms accustomed to performing government audits to keep tabs on the money state and local governments will be receiving. Read more here.
Pennsylvania will receive a total of about $55 billion in federal COVID relief aid, according to the state’s Independent Fiscal Office. Approximately $7.3 billion in direct aid to the state and $6.2 billion to local governments will come from the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
DeFoor noted that a lack of such safeguards in a previous federal loan program designed to help employers, the Paycheck Protection Program, led to hundreds of millions of dollars being lost to potential fraud, according to federal prosecutors.
Meanwhile more and more groups are putting in their bids to get a chunk of federal aid going to the state, including nursing homes [Read more here], conservation and environmental groups [Read more here] and many others [Read more here].
The state, local governments and school districts have a long way to go to figure out how to invest all that federal American Rescue Plan funding.
School Pension Fund Board Should Resign
Thursday, the PA Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers called on most of the trustees on the PA School Employees Retirement Fund to resign. Read more here.
Since the beginning of the year, the fund has been caught up in controversy involving an overstatement of investment results and other incidents now being investigated by the FBI and other law enforcement.
Charter School Reform
The day after the election, Gov. Wolf made appearances in Northeast [Read more here] and Southeast [ Read more here] Pennsylvania to promote the bipartisan private charter school reform plan he and others say will save public school districts $395 million a year and bring more accountability to charter schools.
Perhaps he was also trying to divert attention from the election results.
Delay Suggested In State University Mergers
At a hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Monday, Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) and other members suggested a delay in the merger of six of the 14 schools making up the state-owned university system. Read more here.
Brewster, a graduate of California University– one of the six schools to be consolidated, said there are too many unresolved questions about course delivery and impact on surrounding communities and faculty to move ahead so quickly.
State System Chancellor of Higher Education Daniel Greenstein told the panel, “We can make this all go away with a $150 million annual incremental [appropriation] on top of the $477 million” the state system gets now. Read more here.
Lobbying But Not Legislator Reform
The top Republicans in the Senate and House– Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) and House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lanaster) proposed a series of changes to laws related to lobbyists. Read more here.
The package also includes measures to limit the influence of lobbyists by prohibiting campaign consultants from being registered lobbyists or engaging in lobbying elected officials for two years.
The bills would also prohibit lobbyists from receiving or paying referral payments to another individual, lobbying firm or campaign consultant – essentially preventing kick-backs from one firm or individual to another.
In order to promote greater openness and transparency, the package would include measures to require lobbyists to disclose more information, including any client conflicts and equity they may hold in any entity they are representing.
In addition, campaign consultants would also be required to register with the Department of State.
The proposal, however, does not include a ban on giving lawmakers cash and other gifts, limits on campaign contributions, reporting outside income and disclosure of campaign contributions made by parties seeking state contracts. Read more here.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) is co-sponsor of a bill– Senate Bill 401 (Baker-R-Luzerne)– that would ban legislators from accepting cash gifts or anything of value from those seeking to influence them. Read more here.
The executive branch has had a gift ban in place since Gov. Wolf took office in 2015.
Gifts To Lawmakers Drop During Pandemic
State lawmakers filed reports with the State Ethics Commission this month showing they accepted fewer gifts, cash, trips and hospitality from lobbyists, businesses and other groups during 2020 as a result of the pandemic– there were fewer sunny places to go and restaurants were closed. Read more here.
The few gifts that were reported were largely before the shutdown last March.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) received just over $8,500 to attend conferences and $3,828 to attend the PA Bar Association mid-year meeting in the Bahamas in late January of last year. Read more here.
Candidates For Governor Multiplying
Announcements by Republicans about seeking the party’s nomination for governor bloomed like Spring flowers last week.
Among the people announcing were–
— Lou Barletta: former Congressman, mayor, candidate for U.S. Senate and Trump supporter [Read more here];
— Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams): said President Trump asked him to run for Governor [Read more here], although a spokesperson for Trump later in the week said he made no endorsements yet [Read more here];
— Jason Richey: A Pittsburgh attorney with no prior political experience Read more here; and
— Dr. Nche Zama: A heart surgeon from Monroe County [Read more here]
Others announcing they were toying with the idea included–
— Congressman Dan Meuser: from Luzerne County said he’s considering entering the race for governor [Read more here].
— Bill McSwain, a former U.S. Attorney from Philadelphia [Read more here]; and
— Congressman Mike Kelly from Erie County who filled several lawsuits to throw out Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting system. Read more here.
The Senate and House are back in session this week for three days and then take off until after the Memorial Day holiday.
Both chambers have a full schedule of committee meetings and hearings.
Senate committees are due to take up regulatory and permitting “reform” bills, utility scale solar energy development, a new manufacturing tax credit incentive program, congressional redistricting, legislation to further define essential businesses during an emergency and more.
The House will hold another hearing on the unemployment compensation system, broadband deployment, acquisition of public water and wastewater systems by private companies and mental health services to secondary school students.
The House also will consider several bills related to abortions, “enouraging” workers to go back to work, allowing parents to decide on repeating grades for students impacted by COVID closures and more.
And of course the real business of Senate and House members– there are 20 campaign fundraisers scheduled for this week. Read more here.