PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Republican-Wolf Battle Goes To Voters; Public Unmasked; Wages Permanently Higher?

On Tuesday, voters will be put squarely in the middle of the political fight between Senate and House Republicans and the Governor over his extended use of disaster emergency declarations to fight the COVID pandemic.

            There are two questions on the ballot related to the issue that would amend the state constitution in different ways. Read more here.

One would allow the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate a disaster emergency declaration by the Governor using a resolution passed by a simple majority of the Senate and House, without presenting it to the Governor to sign or veto.

The second question would limit any disaster emergencies declared by the Governor to not more than 21 days, unless extended by a concurrent resolution passed by majority vote by the Senate and House.

            Currently the General Assembly has the authority to terminate a disaster emergency declared by the Governor at any time by passing a resolution and presenting it to the Governor for his action.

            The problem Republicans had is they could not get enough votes– two-thirds– to override the Governor’s veto of the resolution and therefore want to change the rules of the game in their favor.

            Republicans say they want to end the Governor’s one-sided exercise of authority and are  making this a referendum on how people feel about their businesses being shut down, schools closed and having to wear a mask all the time.

            They don’t mention the actual cause of those mitigation measures was a deadly, life-threatening virus no one had ever seen before.

            Republicans frame the issue as one of power– who has it or should have it– not about public health and safety.

Opponents of the questions ask– do you want to trust your fate during a life-threatening  emergency to 253 bickering, slow moving legislators who by nature want to use every situation they encounter to gain political advantage?  Read more here.

Most times, ignoring a threat and doing what seems popular isn’t the right way to protect public health and keep people alive, as we have seen during this pandemic.

            As the Associated Press reported, this would be the first ballot test of any governor’s emergency authority used during the COVID pandemic. Read more here.

            Regardless of the public vote on the issue of a governor issuing a disaster emergency declaration, the controversy won’t end.

            Gov. Wolf and others have maintained the wording of the constitutional amendments would not preclude the orders issued by the Secretary of Health during the pandemic that put in place the mitigation requirements Republicans complain about in parallel with the Governor’s disaster emergency declarations.

            So, at some point again, the courts will have to sort this all out.

            Click Here to see the original constitutional changes passed by the Republicans in the General Assembly, the wording of the ballot question and the “plain language” explanation of the ballot questions required from the Attorney General.

            Just a reminder, Republicans, Democrats, Independents and members of the Jedi Party– yes there are a few in Pennsylvania– can all vote on the ballot questions even though it’s a Primary.

            Other Constitutional Amendments

            There are two other proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot May 18–

— Prohibiting the denial or abridgement of equality of rights because of race or ethnicity; and

— Making municipal fire and emergency medical service companies eligible for loans.

            Click Here for more background.

            There are also local ballot questions up for a vote, so check your local ballots.

            Special Elections

            Let’s not forget the four special elections coming up on May 18 Primary–

— Senate District 22 — Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe counties

— Senate District 48 — Dauphin, Lebanon, York counties

— House District 59 — Westmoreland, Somerset counties

— House District 60 — Armstrong, Butler, Indiana counties

            The outcomes of these races will not affect the balance of power in the Senate or House and because of the way the voting districts are drawn the winner will likely be of the same political party as the prior member.

Republican Election Law Changes

On Monday, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee, issued a 98-page report summarizing the findings of the Committee’s hearings on the 2020 elections.  Read more here.

The “findings” hint at the changes Republicans may want to make, including–

— Implementing a more robust voter ID requirement;

— Extending polling place requirements, including allowing observers, to anywhere a ballot is cast;

— Increasing uniformity in election guidance, including through the use of statutory clarity to reduce reliance on guidance issued by the Department of State;

— Elimination of the permanent mail-in ballot list, which automatically sends mail ballot applications to voters annually;

— Limiting third-party and outside groups from mailing applications for mail-in ballots or voter registration forms;

— Having post-election audits conducted by an independent entity such as the Auditor General, rather than the Department of State themselves;

— Changing the voter registration deadline from the current 15 days prior to an election to 30 days prior;

— Moving the deadline for requesting a mail-in ballot earlier; and

— Requiring signature verification for mail-in and absentee ballots.

            Obviously missing from the list is the number one thing all county election officials asked for during the Committee hearings– more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counties, which now can begin no sooner than 7:00 a.m. on election day.  Read more here.

            Click Here for a copy of the report.

            Recalls Honored

            On another front in the Republican-Wolf political wars, the Senate last week did honor the recall of Gov. Wolf’s nominees for Adjutant General of PA, Secretary of State, Secretary of Education, Secretary of Health, Secretary of Human Services, Secretary of Labor and Industry, the Physician General and the Public Utility Commission.

            Gov. Wolf withdrew the nominations in response to a Senate Republican threat to turn down any of his nominees to the Public Utility Commission over their opposition to his proposal to reduce carbon pollution from power plants compatible with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

            Wolf said the occupants of those positions can serve the remaining days of his administration in an acting capacity without affecting their ability to do their job.

            Expensive Legislators

            Spotlight PA and The Caucus last week did a series of articles– now almost an annual event– on the huge cost to keep members of the Senate and House working– their salaries, per diems that don’t require receipts and reimbursement for meals, mileage and other expenses.  Read more here.

            Typically, it costs taxpayers, they said, a total of $133,219.23 each day the General Assembly is in voting session, not including their salary, health care or pension benefits.  Read more here.

            From 2017 to 2020– these “other expenses” have totaled over $203 million “tucked into an array of expense accounts with little transparency.”   Read more here.

            Of course, this doesn’t count the free meals, trips, perks and campaign contributions House and Senate members receive from lobbyists as part of their jobs.

            While some legislators tout expense transparency, the actual reporting of those expenses lags, the reporting said.  For example, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) hasn’t updated his expense page in six years.  Read more here.

            Sen. Corman said he talked to members of his Caucus about being more careful about reporting expenses, but got “negative feedback.”  Read more here.

            This isn’t a partisan issue.  In fact, three of the top five “big spenders” in the General Assembly, according to the reporting are Democrats– Rep. Chris Sainato (D-Lawrence), Rep. Mark Longietti (D-Mercer) and Rep. Patrick Harkins (D-Erie).  Read more here.

            Here’s the series–

— Spotlight PA: Taxpayers Foot Huge Bill To Run PA’s Full-Time Legislature, But Are Blocked From Many Spending Details

— TribLive/The Caucus: Some PA Lawmakers Tout Expense Transparency, But Their Websites Tell A Different Story

— SpotlightPA: See The PA Lawmakers Who Spent The Most On Food, Lodging, Mileage And More

            Precautions Lifted For Some

            On Thursday, the Department of Health followed the CDC in lifting mask requirements for fully vaccinated individuals, except when they ride public transit, planes, buses and trains or are in hospitals and medical facilities. Read more here.

            They made it clear businesses, schools and other institutions can still maintain the mask requirement, if they want [Read more here], setting off a flurry of announcements that some would and would not lift the mask requirements for customers and students in accordance with the new guidance [Read more here].

            It also renewed a discussion of exactly how they can tell if someone has been vaccinated, especially in the many areas of Pennsylvania that have resisted mask requirements since day one.

            The mask policy change effectively masked Gov. Wolf’s announcement he was increasing the capacity limits for indoor and outdoor events and gatherings on May 17, ahead of the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Read more here.

            The announcement came several days after a group of state Senators had urged the Governor to open up the state before the Memorial Day weekend, not on May 31 as Wolf earlier announced. Read more here.

            Gov. Wolf’s response– the day before he loosened the requirements was — they should be telling people to get vaccinated if they’re interested in getting rid of the mitigation measures sooner.  Read more here.

            Philadelphia announced its reopening plan Tuesday which will lift all COVID restrictions on June 11, except the masking requirement. Read more here.  Philadelphia has not yet decided on whether it will adopt the CDC’s new policy on masking.

            COVID % Positivity Drops 1.3 Points Nears 5%

As of May 14, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped another 1.3 percentage points to 5.3 percent from 6.6 percent last week.

On March 5, the percent positivity was 5.7 percent, the previous low– anything over 5 percent is bad. 

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 26,532 on May 8 to 26,749 deaths on May 15.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,172,288 on May 8 to  1,185,132 on May 15.

            Pace Of PA Vaccinations Falters

As of May 15, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 47.7 percent of people 18 and over have been fully vaccinated in Pennsylvania. The goal is to get to 70 percent to lift all precautions.

            The approval last week of the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 to 15 years old will add another 750,000 people eligible for the vaccine in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

            As of May 14, 4,091,982 people have been fully vaccinated, up from 3,774,492 last week.  5,442,682 people have been partially vaccinated, up from 5,266,745 last week.

            A new poll released Friday found 25 percent of those surveyed in Pennsylvania say they probably or definitely won’t get vaccinated.  Read more here.

Hesitancy is higher in rural communities, particularly in the southcentral region of the state – with over one-third of respondents saying they do not want the shot.  Read more here.

Survey results also show young people are more likely to say they will pass on the vaccine. Nearly one-third of respondents between ages 18 and 34 said they don’t want to get the shot, compared to 13 percent of those 65 and older.  Read more here.

$1 Million Prize

            While there have been creative incentives to get people to get vaccinated in Pennsylvania, like free sports tickets, none matches the $1 million weekly prize drawing Ohio has set up last week called “Ohio Vax-A-Million.”  Read more here.

            Interestingly, winners will be selected from the state’s voter registration database.

            Find A Vaccine Provider

If you are looking for vaccine providers, the Department of Health now links to the federal vaccine provider map because it has the best information available. Read more here.

Many providers switched to walk-in vaccinations in many parts of the state because demand has been so low.

Contact Tracing Data Investigation

Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced last week he has opened a criminal investigation into the medical information data breach by the state’s contact tracing firm uncovered the previous week. Read more here.

Members of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee were frustrated last week when they tried to hold a hearing on the data breach issue and the Department of Health declined to attend, citing pending litigation.  Read more here.

Federal Assistance Available

Different combinations of agencies last week were encouraging people to apply for federal assistance to help them with rent, paying energy bills and even Internet access. Here’s a quick rundown–

— Dept. Of Human Services: Urges Pennsylvanians Having Trouble Paying Rent To Apply For Federal Assistance Today

— DHS, L&I, Education: Encourage Pennsylvanians To Apply For Assistance With Internet Bills, Electronic Devices

— Dept. Of Human Services: Distribution Of $1 Billion In EBT Benefits To Eligible School-Age Children Begins

— Gov. Wolf: Awards Millions Of Dollars In Pandemic Relief To Restaurants, Hospitality Industry; Counties Have Funding Available

            Eviction Ban Remains In Effect

            On Friday, a federal court issued a stay of an earlier order overturning the CDC’s eviction ban, so the ban remains in effect while the case works its way through the courts. Read more here.

            Congress and the Biden Administration have extended the ban by legislation which is slated to expire on June 30.

            The City of Philadelphia has also extended its eviction ban last week until June 30. Read more here.

How To Spend Federal Aid Got Less Murky

On Monday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced the launch of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, established by the American Rescue Plan, to provide $350 billion in emergency funding for state, local, territorial, and Tribal governments.  Read more here.

Treasury also released details on the ways funds can be used to respond to acute pandemic-response needs, fill revenue shortfalls among state and local governments, and support the communities and populations hardest-hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

Pennsylvania state government will receive about $7.4 billion (or so) and local governments will get about $3.3 billion.

The broad categories include–

— Support public health expenditures;

— Address negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency;

— Aid the communities and populations hardest hit by the crisis;

— Provide premium pay for essential workers; and

— Invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

            These new rules should help get discussions about how to spend the state’s share going.

Click Here for a fact sheet on allowable uses for the funds.

Click Here for an updated list of funding provided by county.

Click Here for the Interim Final Rule.

Visit the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds webpage for all the details.

            Unemployment Benefits/Finding Workers

            Friday, the Department of Labor and Industry announced a state extended unemployment benefits program would be ending, but unemployed individuals could still apply for extended federal unemployment benefits. Read more here.

            Demonstrations were again held in several parts of the state trying to draw attention to the fact there are still thousands of Pennsylvanians waiting for jobless benefits from the state’s still overwhelmed UC system. Read more here.

            With the temporary shutdown and upgrade of the state’s online UC webpage looming on May 30– now planned for eight days– the Department of Labor and Industry announced a series of webinars designed to help walk recipients through how to use the new system when it comes online. Read more here.

            Republican lawmakers again pushed for restoring the requirement those getting unemployment benefits search for work, but have stopped short so far, of proposing to end the state’s participation in the extended federal unemployment benefit programs as other Republican-run states have done. Read more here.

Stories continue to pile up in the media across the state about businesses having a difficult time trying to find people to work, particularly in the hospitality industry. Read more here.

            Amazon began offering a sign-on bonus of $1,000 for vaccinated workers [Read more here], Wawa and Sheetz gave employees a $2/hour increase in pay, plus $800 in incentive pay to stay on the job [Read more here] and McDonalds held a region-wide job fair trying to attract workers with sign-on bonuses, paid time off, paid sick leave, college tuition reimbursement and healthcare benefits [Read more here].

Wages Permanently Higher?

A research brief released by the Independent Fiscal Office Monday reflects what is happening on the ground in Pennsylvania’s economy .Read more here.

The report concludes it is likely the pandemic and subsequent federal benefits have permanently raised wages for lower-wage workers in Pennsylvania because they will not go back to work at the same pay they got before.

Pennsylvanians received an estimated $78 billion in direct federal aid between April 2020 and April 2021, not including the billions more that went to businesses, state and local governments, school districts and others.

As a result, many former workers in lower wage positions now receive more funds for not working than if they returned to their former place of employment for the same prior wage. This includes individuals in the food service, retail trade, healthcare-social assistance and other sectors.

“Regardless of the scenario, it is likely that the pandemic and federal response has permanently raised wages for lower-wage workers by some amount.

“Given that, many employers would be less sensitive to a higher minimum wage relative to the situation prior to the pandemic.

“That result occurs because wages for lower-wage workers are higher than they would have been and therefore closer to any proposed higher minimum wage, and also due to the fact that many employers have already streamlined operations to reduce labor costs.”

Click Here for a copy of the report.

            Another U.S. Senate Candidate

            For those who are keeping score, the announcement by Sean Parnell last week he is running for the Republican nomination for the open U.S. Senate seat makes him the fifth candidate in that primary race. Read more here.

            Just to keep things even, the Democrats are winning with six candidates… so far.

            Parnell– a Trump loyalist– narrowly lost a Congressional seat to Cong. Conor Lamb last year.

            Parnell was quickly endorsed in a guest essay by Republican PA Congressmen Reschenthaler and Kelly who also challenged the results of the November election. Read more here.

            Well Wishes

            Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) announced last week she was diagnosed with breast cancer in December and has been undergoing treatment for the disease.  She also has plans to undergo a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.  Read more here.

            What’s Next?

            Senate and House members are focused on the Primary Election this week and aren’t in voting session, but both return the week of May 24 and then take off for Memorial Day.

            The Senate has only two committee meetings scheduled– both by the Democratic Policy Committee on state-owned universities and OSHA protections for public employees.

Click Here for Senate Committee schedule.

            The House Republican Policy Committee has a hearing set on “rebounding from COVID” and the House Democratic Policy Committee also has a hearing on state-owned universities.

Click Here for House Committee schedule.

            Even with the election going on there are still five campaign fundraisers scheduled for this week by Senate and House members and caucus campaign committees.  Read more here.


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