PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Pandemic Unemployment; Remote Education; Senate Budget Hearings Coming Up
The House budget hearings again re-lived some of the worst days of the pandemic for unemployed workers trying to get benefits and for school students after schools were forced to close.
Department of Labor and Industry Acting Secretary Jennifer Berrier was grilled and slowly roasted for an entire day over the delays in getting unemployment benefits to laid off workers.
Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-Washington) dramatically used her cellphone during the hearing to dial what she said was a Department of Labor and Industry phone number and got a busy signal which she shared through her microphone. “I have been [calling all morning]. I have been for 11 months.” Read more here.
And it wasn’t just Republicans complaining.
Berrier, who took over as Acting Secretary in December, said her agency distributed over $36 billion in unemployment benefits on 5.2 million claims since March 15, 2020– an unprecedented crush. She noted it equaled about 5 percent of Pennsylvania’s total gross domestic product in 2019.
She explained from a standing start, they had 94 percent of their workforce shifted to secure, home-based work platforms to continue their operations within five business days after state office buildings were closed on March 16, 2020. Read more here.
The Department was also caught far behind because a disagreement with the General Assembly over funding had closed three of its regular call centers and furloughed 500 workers. It wasn’t until last year the funding issue was resolved, but the agency remained 220 employees short of its normal trained complement. Read more here.
They still managed to double and then train their customer service staff to respond to 1.1 million calls, 2.2 million emails and about 235,000 online chats. She said today they have 1,760 people supporting the unemployment claims program, including staff from other agencies and contractors.
While acknowledging all the difficulties, Berrier said, “I am incredibly proud of the public servants who have kept these programs – and so much more – running through this pandemic, including the many who have sacrificed their weekends, evenings, and holidays to make certain we meet our mandates and serve those Pennsylvanians most affected by this pandemic.” Read more here.
The House Labor and Industry Committee is holding a followup hearing on the unemployment compensation system with the Department of Labor and Industry on March 10.
Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega told the House Appropriations Committee at another all-day hearing about half the total student population in the state are learning entirely remotely as a result of the pandemic. Read more here.
Many legislators pressed the issue of requiring the reopening of schools, but Ortega said while they have given schools guidance on reopening and are encouraging it, they have no plans at this time to mandate it. Read more here.
At a separate press conference later in the week, Gov. Wolf was asked why he can’t “order” the schools to reopen as he “ordered” them to close. Read more here.
“Closing schools is not the inverse of forcing schools to hold in-person instruction,” said Wolf spokeswoman. “The separate authorities exercised by the governor and Secretary of Health, respectively, have permitted them to close schools. Those authorities do not permit them to force in-person instruction.” Read more here.
On March 3, Gov. Wolf and the legislative Vaccine Task Force announced plans to use the initial allocations of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID vaccine to vaccinate teachers and other school staff which will help ease local school districts into reopening. Read more here.
Note it was Gov. Wolf and the Task Force that made the announcement, again a marked change from the way things worked before.
On other education issues, House Republicans were quick to question the Governor’s proposals for nearly $1.8 billion more for basic education, a switch to put all school funding through the “Fair Funding Formula” and on the proposal to reform the way private charter schools are given taxpayer money and held to academic standards.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that folks have been disproportionately affected and in many ways it has a lot to do with the resources available at the institutions,” Ortega said. Read more here.
“These are funds that are going to not just go to help improve the provision of learning, but…begin to help us make up for some of the loss we’re going to see,” Ortega said. “This is not something that’s just a loss that can be made up in a matter of months. We’re talking about generational loss, which is why we need to think about how investments are going to help our educators address it.” Read more here.
The Senate has yet to take action to confirm Noe Ortega as Secretary since he was named to the post in August, 2020. Read more here.
School District Millions Missing
On March 4, the court-appointed receiver for the Chester Upland School District reported millions of dollars it was due from the state Department of Education were missing as a result of a possible cyberattack. The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office is investigating. Read more here.
The Department of Education said, “This matter does not involve any compromise of PDE systems or data.”
On March 1, the Department of Revenue reported Pennsylvania collected $2.7 billion in General Fund revenue in February, which was $593.9 million, or 28.4 percent, more than anticipated. Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $23.9 billion, which is $901.3 million, or 3.9 percent, above estimate. Read more here.
The Independent Fiscal Office reported February state revenues were $509.7 million above its estimates with fiscal year to date revenue up $267.5 million over the IFO estimates. Read more here.
On Saturday, the U.S. Senate final action on the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID aid package which contains changes from the House-passed version. The House must still take a vote to agree with the changes, before it goes to President Biden for his signature.
The bill still contains major funding to plug holes in state and local government budgets created by the pandemic, much to the secret joy of Republicans in Pennsylvania.
One Year Into Pandemic
On March 6, one year ago, Pennsylvania had its first presumed positive COVID-19 cases. Gov. Tom Wolf honored the loss of more than 24,000 Pennsylvanians to the pandemic in the past year and thanked the public for enduring the hardships, caring for one another and taking the necessary steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The governor also assured Pennsylvanians that we are headed toward a brighter future as vaccine production and distribution increases.
As we grieve and reflect on the past year, the governor also encouraged everyone to have hope in the weeks and months ahead. COVID-19 has been tough.
The Governor said Pennsylvanians have proven that together, we are tougher. United, we can defeat the virus.
Some COVID Restrictions Lifted
On March 1, Gov. Wolf announced he was revising COVID mitigation measures to allow more people at indoor events– up to 15 percent capacity and outdoor events– up to 20 percent of occupancy– and eliminating quarantine restrictions for those traveling out-of-state and a negative COVID test. Read more here.
He and other state officials emphasized all other requirements remain in place, including requirements to wear masks.
By Friday, Gov. Wolf’s message was there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” but don’t quit taking mitigation measures before the finish line. Torchered metaphors, but the point was there. Read more here.
Let’s hope it’s not another train….
Federal COVID Warnings
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Fauci warned last week it was “ill-advised” for states to lift mitigation measures prematurely just because COVID cases have plateaued. Read more here.
“Now is not the time to stop wearing a mask,” said the new director at CDC. Read more here.
Europe is now starting to experience another wave of COVID illnesses from several more infectious variants of the original COVID virus. Several countries are now starting to re-impose mitigation measures they just lifted not too long ago. Read more here.
Generally, the United States has followed Europe’s pattern of COVID virus spread.
State Hospitality Industry Aid
On March 2, Gov. Wolf announced counties should start accepting applications– some already have– for up to $50,000 in state aid to bars, restaurants and hospitality businesses impacted by the COVID pandemic. Read more here.
$145 million in aid is available. Read the details here.
On March 3, Gov. Wolf announced he would be releasing $303 million in federal funds to support child care providers across the state starting April 20 from money provided in the December federal aid package. Read more here.
Vaccine Rollout Continues
Following on the heels of the FDA approval of the Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID vaccine last weekend, on March 3, Gov. Wolf and the legislative Vaccine Task Force announced plans to use the initial allocations of J&J vaccine to vaccinate teachers and other school staff. Read more here.
The existing two-shot vaccines are still being used to vaccinate Phase 1A priority individuals.
Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout continued to lurch along with the usual problems getting vaccine appointments, vaccine sites being ready and open with no vaccine to give out [Read more here], mass vaccination sites being sponsored by companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods [Read more here] and Giant Eagle [Read more here] and pharmacy chains opening more locations for vaccinations.
Individual counties who feel short changed in their allocations– which is all of them– are pressuring the Department of Health for their “fair share.” Turns out eleven counties get more than half of all COVID vaccine doses. Read more here.
Elk County– home to Pennsylvania prize elk herds– ranks second the state in the rate of fully vaccinated residents, with Montour County– where Geisinger Health is headquartered– has the highest rate. Read more here.
With thousands of teachers and school employees now considered priorities for vaccines, seniors began to complain last week they “lost their place” in the COVID vaccine pecking order. Read more here.
Meanwhile, nurses at the Camp Hill State Prison were pleading for any vaccine as a major outbreak there continues. Read more here.
A controversy also erupted when the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference had to “clarify” a statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressing “moral concerns” with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it was produced using cells cultivated from a line of cells derived from aborted fetuses. Read more here.
The clarification said they recognized Pennsylvanians have no choice in what vaccine they may be offered– if they’re lucky enough to get one– and it is morally acceptable to receive any of the vaccines. Read more here.
While everyone else is hoping to get vaccinated, Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) said he was pushing legislation– House Bill 262— to allow employees to refuse to be vaccinated or to have medical testing. He also opposed masks and other COVID mitigation measures. Read more here.
The House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee is holding a hearing March 10 on COVID vaccine distribution to seniors and long-term care facilities.
Read this week’s COVID NewsClips for much more on the vaccine rollout.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
As of March 5, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 5.7 percent, down from 6.3 percent from last week– anything over 5 percent is bad.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 24,000 deaths on February 27 to 24,317 on March 6. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 929,697 cases on February 27 to 946,985 cases on March 6.
As of February 26, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 1,909,291 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine– up from 1,576,984 last week– and 868,149 have been given the required two doses– up from 649,020 last week.
Nursing Home Investigation
On March 1, House Republicans announced they will be starting an investigation of the Wolf Administration’s handling of nursing homes and other senior and long-term care facilities during the COVID pandemic because no one else took them up on their suggestion to investigate. Read more here.
The House Government Oversight Committee is supposed to be handling the investigation, but on Tuesday the House State Government Committee Chair Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) announced his Committee will be holding its own hearings on COVID pandemic policies. Read more here.
The first House State Government Committee hearing is March 9 on the lack of government transparency and right-to-know requests during the pandemic.
Redrawing Voting Districts
Efforts by Fair Districts PA to ensure legislative and Congressional voting districts are drawn fair and squire without being gerrymandered have now focused on pushing the Senate and House to pass Senate Bill 222 (Boscola-D-Lehigh) and its companion House Bill 22 (Thomas-R-Bucks)
The Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act would open the redistricting process to public hearings, make all data publicly available, give citizens the ability to submit their own plans the redistricting panel must review and more. Read more here.
Fair Districts PA is hoping to have the Senate and House pass the bills by the time they break for summer recess in June to allow plenty of time for implementation Read more here.
Previous efforts to actually put citizens in charge of the redistricting process failed the last two sessions.
Chief Justice Transition
On Monday, PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (R) said he will hand over his responsibilities of running the Court to the next senior Justice Max Baer (D) on April 1, but remain on the bench until his full mandatory retirement at the end of the year. Read more here.
At 73, Justice Baer is also approaching his mandatory retirement at age 75. The Court is currently controlled by Democrats 5-2.
U.S. Senate Race
Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) announced last week he is considering a run for the Democratic nomination for the open U.S. Senate seat. Read more here.
He would join his House colleague Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in the contest which was already dubbed the “Very Progressive” Primary. Read more here.
On Tuesday, CNN rated Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat most likely to flip from Republican to Democratic. Read more here.
Rebuke Not Censure
By four votes, the PA State Republican Committee approved a statement to “strongly rebuke” Sen. Pat Toomey for voting to convict President Trump of inciting the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Read more here.
Adams and York County Republican Committees have already voted to censure Toomey and more are considering similar actions.
The vote really has no effect on Toomey who already said he wasn’t running in 2022, but is seen by many observers as an indicator of who Pennsylvania Republicans stand behind.
Must Be Nice
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) appointed Frances ‘Fran’ Regan to serve a two year term on the Gaming Control Board at an annual salary of $145,000. Fran Regan is the wife of Republican Sen. Mike Regan (R-Cumberland). Read more here.
Last month new House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) appointed the newly-retired Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) to the Gaming Control Board. Read more here.
The Senate and House are due back in Harrisburg for voting session the week of March 15.
This week the Senate begins its round of agency-by-agency budget hearings and if history is any guide, you will Senate members ask the very same questions their House colleagues did.
One addition to the schedule, is a Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee information meeting on deployment of carbon dioxide management technologies on March 10.
The House State Government Committee has its next hearing on the 2020 elections March 10 which will focus on voting machine certification and operation. It has a second hearing March 9 that will kick off a new series on the Wolf Administration’s response to the COVID pandemic.
Other hearings are scheduled on “Rebuilding the Economy in Southwester PA,” the state of childcare in Pennsylvania, an analysis of Pennsylvania’s financial security, the vaccine rollout and seniors, and the impact of raising the minimum wage.
The House Democratic Policy Committee has hearings scheduled on the impact of COVID on communities of color and on a “progressive infrastructure budget.”