PA Capitol & COVID-19 Report: First Steps Toward Reopening; Revenues Take $395 Million Hit; Records Subpoena
Gov. Wolf took the first tentative steps toward a general lifting of some shutdown restrictions in 24 counties last week amid a flurry of legislation passed by Republicans to open specific businesses and a subpoena for DCED business waiver records.
On May 1, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the reopening of 24 counties in the northwest and northcentral regions of the state, moving them from red to yellow beginning at 12:01 a.m., Friday, May 8.
The 24 counties that will move from red to yellow on May 8 are: Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lycoming, McKean, Mercer, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union, Venango, and Warren.
As regions or counties move into the yellow phase, some restrictions on work and social interaction will ease while others, such as closures of schools, gyms, and other indoor recreation centers, hair and nail salons, as well as limitations around large gatherings, remain in place.
On Monday, May 4, the administration will release guidance for businesses permitted to reopen on May 8 in these 24 counties.
All businesses not specifically mentioned as restricted from reopening may reopen if they follow the forthcoming guidance. Read more here.
Other COVID-19 Actions
Among the other coronavirus-related actions taken last week were–
The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 1,550 on April 26 to 2,444 on May 3. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 41,165 on April 26 to 49,165 on May 3.
As of May 1, a total of 1,671,667 Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment since the COVID-19 outbreak in March. 53,883 filed for unemployment between April 26 and 29.
Pennsylvanians are still experiencing significant problems actually getting their unemployment checks. Read more here.
On April 30, the Department of Labor and Industry offered tips on getting unemployment compensation benefits quicker. Read more here.
$385 Million Hit To Revenues
On May 1, the Department of Revenue reported Pennsylvania collected $2.2 billion in General Fund revenue in April, which was $2.2 billion, or 49.7 percent, less than anticipated, primarily because of the shift in the due dates for taxes from April to July.
Revenue estimated $395.3 million of the April shortfall is due to reduced economic activity during the pandemic.
The majority of the remaining $1.7 billion will be made up when those tax payments occur in the next fiscal year.
Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $27.5 billion, which is $2.2 billion, or 7.4 percent, below estimate. Read more here.
The Turnpike Commission reported last week toll revenues were down 50 percent putting in jeopardy the $450 million the Turnpike provides to PennDOT to fund public transit. Read more here.
According to The Daily Item, State Lottery sales are down about 25 percent since mid-March because about 30 percent of the Lottery network’s retailers are closed. March sales were off by $155 million compared to March of last year. On a brighter note, online Lottery play is up by 30 percent. Read more here.
The horse racing industry last week appealed to Gov. Wolf to reopen racing before money runs out to care for and train race horses. Horse racing is the basis for much of the casino gaming industry in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
Schools Face $1 Billion Loss
The PA Association of School Business Officers reported last week the state’s 500 school districts face a projected loss of as much as $1 billion in revenue– about 5 percent– as a result of the economic slowdown. Read more here.
At the same time, House Republicans– specifically House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster)– are pursuing legislation that would force school boards to freeze property taxes for one year. Read more here.
School districts in Lancaster County alone, where Rep. Cutler is from, said they would lose $46 million in local revenue next year. Read more here.
The legislation– House Bill 1776 (Cox-R-Berks)– moved out of the House State Government Committee on April 27 and was tabled.
Both the PA School Boards Association [schools] and PA State Education Association [teachers] announced their opposition to the legislation. Read more here.
On April 30, the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee voted– Republicans supporting– to issue a subpoena to the Wolf Administration to produce documents they had requested from DCED on the business waiver process used from March 19 to April 3 at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown.
The subpoena directed the agency to produce the documents by May 8. DCED Secretary Dennis Davin said they would provide the information, but declined to provide a timeframe. Read more here
This action is part of the ongoing effort by Republicans to paint the short-lived business waiver program as unfair and arbitrary, while Republicans in the Senate and House passed legislation that randomly reopened this or that segment of the business community based on political pressure of interest groups.
Audit Of Waiver Program
Meanwhile on April 20, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced he would be doing an audit of the business waiver process, based on a request from Senate Republicans.
“Some business owners complained that the department’s waiver process was too slow and not transparent enough,” DePasquale said. “My audit is intended to help make sure that the waiver process is managed more smoothly should it be necessary to use it again in the future.”
More than 40,000 businesses sought a waiver from the governor’s closure order through a process managed by DCED.
“I’m pleased that Governor Wolf agrees that performing this audit is both appropriate and necessary,” DePasquale said. “I’m also pleased that DCED Secretary Dennis Davin has pledged to fully cooperate with my audit team.” Read more here.
Democrat DePasquale is running for Congress against Republican Scott Perry in Central Pennsylvania.
Protesters Back Again
Hundreds of anti-shutdown protesters and several legislators were back in Harrisburg again May 1 urging Gov. Wolf to lift the shutdown saying businesses can safely reopen following CDC guidelines. Very few protestors themselves wore masks or practiced social distancing as required by CDC guidelines. Read more here.
Former Gov. Tom Ridge wrote an op-ed in USA Today critical of gun-toting anti-shutdown protesters calling them “selfish” and saying they dishonor America’s Veterans adding in a Democracy we don’t make policy out of a barrel of a gun. Listen to more here.
Voting Machine Challenge Unplugged
On April 30, a federal judge dismissed an effort by the Green Party to decertify voting machines used by Philadelphia, Northampton and several other counties calling the lawsuit “daft,” “ill-considered,” and “pointless.” [Tell me what you really think!] Read more here.
Although dodging that issue so far, counties across the state are struggling to find enough masks, gloves and other equipment to protect poll workers and the public from COVID-19 in time for the June 2 Primary. Read more here.
Counties are also taking steps to consolidate polling places in response to an expected shortage of poll workers due to virus concerns. Many poll workers tend to be older. Fewer polling places also means some advocates are worried about the potential of dienfraching voters. Read more here.
Still other counties are concerned about being overwhelmed by requests for mail-in and absentee ballots, particularly if the state requires an all-mail-in Primary election. Over 880,000 voters have requested to vote by mail so far. Read more here.
In yet another twist, Luzerne County announced last week it would use paper ballots instead of the new touchscreen voting machines for the June 2 election. They also plan to reduce the number of polling places from 144 to 58. Read more here.
Luzerne County just bought the new voting machines in December for $3.62 million. Read more here.
Little League Canceled
Little League officials in Williamsport announced they will be cancelling this year’s August World Series and postponing their 75th anniversary of the tournament until 2022.
It was the first time the World Series was canceled in its history and will be a significant blow to the region’s economy. Read more here.
The Senate decided to cancel voting session for May 4, 5 and 6, but the House will still be in session those days.
In addition to moving bills to reopen businesses here and there, the House will again be moving budget bills to get them in position for later “real” votes.
There is some speculation there may be an early vote on a General Fund budget using last year’s budget as a template.
Of course, that would be wildly out of balance by anyone’s measure given the revenue declines reported last week.