PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Legislature Begins Fall Session; Quick Election Fixes?
The House kicks off the fall voting session on Tuesday with plenty of issues on their plate– finishing the FY 2020-21 state budget, election law fixes, how to spend $1.3 billion in federal COVID-19 aid money and more.
On August 25, Gov. Wolf laid out his fall agenda calling on the Senate and House to pass multiple proposals on COVID-19 relief, protections for workers and families, additional aid to small business, adopting tougher ethical standards for members of the General Assembly, campaign finance reform and changes to the election law to make sure the November election goes smoothly. Read more here.
One of the more interesting proposals Gov. Wolf is pushing is legalizing recreational marijuana to fund the small business elements of his legislative agenda.
Two days later, Gov. Wolf doubled down on the election law changes at a separate press conference on election law reforms. Read more here.
In a third major announcement, Gov. Wolf punted the issue of extending protections from evictions and foreclosures to the General Assembly saying he did not believe he had the legal authority to extend his own eviction and foreclosure moratorium passed August 31. Read more here.
House Republicans immediately complained Gov. Wolf spent the last six months turning his back on members of the General Assembly and now he expects them “to bail him out of his unilateral mandates that have devastated their lives and livelihoods.” Read more here.
Senate Republicans had much the same reaction saying, “For more than six months, the Governor has lorded over Pennsylvania through Executive Order and today he wants to dictate to the legislature through a press release.” Read more here.
The House has 15 voting days scheduled in September, October and one day in November and the Senate has 12, including one day in November. Technically, all bills die on November 30 at the end of the 2019-20 legislative session.
Although Gov. Wolf no doubt enjoyed politically dumping almost every tough issue he could think of on the Republican House and Senate to box them in before election day, the three things that absolutely need to get done are election law fixes, finishing the state budget and spending that $1.3 billion in federal COVID-19 money.
37,000 Mail-In Ballots Rejected
An analysis released by NPR on August 27 found more than 37,000 mail-in ballots were rejected in Pennsylvania’s primary election due to errors made by voters such as mailing ballots late, signatures not matching those on file (with no opportunity to correct) or just missing signatures. Read more here.
Keep in mind, the margin of votes between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 was just 44,000 votes.
The FBI reported last week there was no evidence supporting President Trump’s warning about mail-in ballot fraud. Read more here.
The Trump campaign’s federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania on the same issue was put on hold by a federal judge last week, in part, due to lack of fraud evidence. Read more here.
Plots Continue To Curtail Governor’s Power
Republicans in the Senate and House haven’t given up trying to limit Gov. Wolf’s emergency powers.
After being denied by veto and court rulings and having to wait until next year to pass a constitutional amendment for the second time to limit the Governor’s authority, some Republicans think they found other ways.
First, House Republicans may vote this week on whether to override the Governor’s veto of House Resolution 836 (Diamond-R-Lebanon) that would have terminated the Governor’s COVID-19 emergency declaration. Read more here.
To make the two-thirds vote needed to override, Republicans would need 25 Democrats to vote with them. Only 12 voted for the original resolution.
On August 24, Reps. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) and Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), and Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Adams), claimed lawmakers can completely “suspend” the state’s Emergency Management Services Code, if they simply gather signatures from a majority of their colleagues using Article 1, Section 12 of the state Constitution. Read more here.
At least one constitutional scholar is dubious, pointing to the recent PA Supreme Court’s ruling finding the legislature lacks the power to Act unilaterally to end emergencies. Read more here.
Besides, suspending the Emergency Services Code would impact all emergency actions taken under the act, including for floods and other natural disasters meaning Pennsylvania could not qualify for federal disaster aid.
Municipalities Could Lose 40% Of Revenue?
While Congress is still debating whether to provide additional aid to state and local governments to make up for revenues lost as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, the PA Municipal League and other local government groups passed their case for aid last week Read more here.
Based on a National League of Cities projection in May that Pennsylvania municipalities could lose up to 40 percent of their annual revenue, the PA Municipal League said that would amount to $6 billion in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
In a July estimate of local revenue loss by municipalities, counties and school districts, the Independent Fiscal Office estimated the income and property taxes losses could range from $359 million to $469 million. Read more here.
Then add the loss of transit funding and gaming revenue for local projects, the numbers they are talking about would only add to the estimated $5 billion hole the state has in its FY 2020-21 budget, if Congressional help isn’t forthcoming.
Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation is split along party lines– no surprise– on the issue of providing more aid, with Republicans saying things like there’s “no such things as a free lunch,” while Democrats opine existing funds aren’t “nearly enough given the severity of the losses these jurisdictions face.” Read more here.
Stay tuned for which budget nightmare our state and federal lawmakers pick.
Schools Adapting To Reopening Challenges
As school districts reopened last week, the challenges of COVID-19 are forcing last minute changes and adjustments all over the state, even as they report staff and students testing positive for the virus.
Many schools are playing fall sports and many aren’t.
Of course, the only policies that really count are the ones used in the schools your kids go to.
Click Here and look under Schools Districts to see a collection of NewsClips from around the state on school reopenings.
And there will be more reopenings this week.
For colleges it’s much the same. Lots of warnings to students about following COVID-19 procedures and schools weren’t hesitant about driving that point home as the University of Pittsburgh barred eight students from campus for violations and Penn State suspended fraternities for violations.
Click Here and look under Colleges to see a collection of NewsClips from around the state on reopenings.
Other COVID Actions
Other related COVID-19 actions by state government last week included–
COVID-19 Death Toll
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,578 on August 23 to 7,673 deaths on August 30. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 129,048 on August 23 to 133,504 on August 30.
Unemployment – State
For the week August 16 to August 122, there were 27,510 25,584 unemployment claims, up 1,926 from last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056. Read more here.
On August 25, the Department of Labor & Industry announced Pennsylvania will get nearly $1.5 billion to provide an extra $300 per week to eligible unemployed workers through the temporary federal Lost Wages Assistance Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Read more here.
The timing of the initial $300 payment has not been finalized [Read more here]. It’s also not the full $600/week payment from the feds that ended July 31, but could be revived in the next COVID-19 relief package considered in Congress.
Two new voter polls released last week tried to gauge the mood of Pennsylvania voters, both taken, obviously, before the Republican Convention last week.
A new CNBC/Change Research Poll had Joe Biden beating Donald Trump 49 to 46 percent.
A more comprehensive Franklin and Marshall Poll had Biden beating Trump 49 to 42 percent, but that was down slightly from July when Biden had 50 percent and Trump 41 percent.
Among the other findings in the F&M Poll were–
–– Wolf: 54 percent have favorable opinion of Gov. Wolf, up from 52 percent in July
— Voting: 62 percent expected to cast votes in person, 31 percent by mail
— Direction US: 27 percent feel the United States is headed in the right direction, down from 38 percent in January
— Better Off: 23 percent said they are financially better off, down from 31 percent in January
— Issues: 31 percent believe COVID-19 most important problem facing state, followed by government/politicians at 18 percent and unemployment, personal finances at 12 percent
— Pandemic: Voters said PA managed pandemic better (52 percent) or the same (27 percent) as other states.
And then there was the AP-NORC national poll which said 75 percent of voters believe the U.S. is on the wrong path, which was a downer.
Pennsylvanians looked wildly optimistic with 46 percent saying in the new F&M Poll they believed the Commonwealth was heading in the right direction, 40 percent in the wrong direction.
But even that was down from 57 percent (right) in October of last year and 31 percent (wrong).
Chief Justice Under Probe
On August 26, Republican PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor said he received an informal letter of inquiry from the board that investigates wrongdoing by judges about allegations he improperly interfered in disciplinary matters involving former Justice Cynthia Baldwin.
Baldwin was recently reprimanded for her actions as Penn State’s top lawyer in representing university administrators nearly a decade ago before a grand jury that was investigating Jerry Sandusky for child sexual abuse. Read more here.
On August 25, the U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh and Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced an estimated 10,000 state, county and federal prison inmates applied for and in many cases received unemployment during the initial rush of unemployment claims caused by the pandemic.
The estimated amount of the fraud as a result of inmate applications in Pennsylvania they said approaches $750 million. Charges were filed against 33 people so far. Read more here.
In a report on August 27, West Chester ranked #31 out of 447 cities in the U.S. and Canada in reporting UFO sightings per 100,000 people since 1914..
Followingly on the list in Pennsylvania were York (#77), Harrisburg (#83), State College (#100), Lancaster (#116), Erie (#145, Reading (#159), Pittsburgh (#206), Allentown (#238) and Philadelphia (#436). Read more here.
Residents of Pennsylvania filed more than 358 reports of UFO during the first half of 2020. Read more here.
Draw your own conclusions.
The House will be in voting session on September 1 and 2. Up first is an attempt to override Gov. Wolf’s veto of House Resolution 836 (Diamond-R-Lebanon) that would end the COVID-19 disaster emergency and run at election law fixes.
The House has a moderate schedule of committee meetings this week. Click Here for the full schedule.
The Senate is set to come back on September 8..
This week’s committee activity includes a Senate Urban Affairs & Housing Committee hearing on the impact of the pandemic on housing and a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a report on the impact of venues for medical professional liability actions. Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.