PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Biden Saves PA Republicans; Vague Emergency Resolution; Still 70% Vaccination Goal

The Independent Fiscal Office issued its first revenue estimates for FY 2021-22 last week and if it wasn’t clear before it is very clear now– the Biden Administration’s push to provide state and local governments with money to prop up their budgets has saved Pennsylvania Republicans.

            Instead of facing big deficits, Senate and House Republicans, who control the state budget process, will have the happy job of how to spend $3.9 billion in FY 2019-20/FY 2020-21 and $7.3 billion between 2021 and 2024.  Read more here.

            Local governments get $6.2 billion directly and school districts $7.5 billion.  Read more here.

            With just four weeks left to produce a final state budget before the July 1 deadline, Republicans have yet to hold any hearings on how to invest this found money or release a draft proposal of their own on how they plan to invest it.

            With every Senate and House member and every group lobbying the Capitol for their piece of the new federal money pie, there is no shortage of competing proposals for how it should be spent. Read more here.

            And even with all this funding available, some Republicans were still looking to make cuts in some areas of the budget, notably in funding for community-driven environmental projects and environmental protection programs.

            Local governments and school districts have taken a different approach to planning how to invest their federal relief money.

They have been forming advisory groups, holding information sessions to get public feedback and putting straw proposals out for public review, but so far there hasn’t been a peep from Republicans inside the State Capitol.

            Surprises are nice, but $7.3 billion of them may be a bit much.

            The downside of all this federal money, of course, is it will be all gone next year or the year after depending on how it’s spent and the state will be back to the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach to budgeting it has used in the past to cover big deficits instead of dealing with them.

            In fact, while the Independent Fiscal Office report forecasts a 24.3 percent increase in General Fund revenue in FY 2020-21 to $40.111 billion, the FY 2021-22 General Fund revenue estimate is $37.960 billion or a 5.4 percent decrease.  Read more here.

            The IFO discussion of the impact of no more federal COVID money by major source of General Fund revenue is actually very interesting starting on page 16 of their report.  Read more here.

            Business/Individual Federal Aid

            The Independent Fiscal Office report also included better estimates of the federal economic stimulus aid given directly to businesses and individuals in Pennsylvania–

— Business Paycheck Protection: $30.83 billion in 2020-21;

— Healthcare providers: $4.8 billion;

— Higher Education Institutions: $2.6 billion;

— Individual Economic Stimulus Payments: $32.52 billion in 2020-21;

— Child Tax Credit: $3.5 billion initially, another $3.3 billion in advance starting in July;

— Federal Unemployment Payments: $23.82 billion in 2020-2021;

— Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: $10.2 billion in 2020-21;

— LWA & UC Extensions: $5.85 billion in 2020-21; and

— SNAP Benefits: $2.28 billion in 2020-21.

            These payments all get recycled back into the economy when businesses and individuals pay for things they need.

            May Revenue Report Coming

            Next week, the Department of Revenue will release the May state tax revenue report, which should be a big month because of the delay in the due date for taxes to May 17.

            Including April’s collections, state revenue was $1.3 billion over the Governor’s Office revenue estimate for the fiscal year to date.  Read more here.

            Vague Emergency Resolution

            Using their new constitutional authority, House Republicans moved House Resolution 106 (Benninghoff-R-Mifflin) out of the House State Government Committee last week to terminate some of the provisions in Gov. Wolf’s COVID Pandemic emergency declaration, but keep others.

            The resolution also extends the remaining parts of the disaster declaration to October 1, 2021 after it is due to expire entirely on June 10, 2021.

            During the Committee meeting, many Republican members said they would be pushing to do away with the entire emergency declaration.

            Gov. Wolf’s immediate reaction to the resolution was to say again, most of the things listed in the resolution as things they want to terminate are not actually in the disaster proclamation, including occupancy limits, stay at home orders and business closures. Read more here.

            “These actions were taken subsequent to the disaster declaration. The constitutional amendment granted them authority to terminate or extend in whole or in part the disaster declaration, and the specific orders are separate and apart from the proclamation.” said Gov. Wolf.  

Click Here for a copy of the original March 6, 2020 COVID disaster emergency.

            Included in the resolution is a provision reinstating the job search requirement to get Unemployment Benefits that is already set to start again on July 11 [Read more here] and end emergency contracting procedures.

            Republicans left some blanks spots in the resolution to be filled in later, but one of the other issues the resolution has is the vague and confusing language it uses to do away with some parts of the emergency declaration and not others.

            Gov. Wolf’s disaster declaration literally temporarily suspended hundreds of requirements to respond to the COVID pandemic and some of those were catalogued in a 139-page report issued by House Republicans in April.

            The disaster emergency declaration is broken out in a series of short “Whereas” and “Resolved” clauses that are easily referred to.

            But the resolution uses vague language like, “The portion of the disaster emergency declaration requiring Commonwealth agencies to implement emergency assignments without regard to procedures required by other laws pertaining to performance of public work, entering into contracts, incurring of obligations, employment of temporary workers, rental of equipment, purchase of supplies and materials, and expenditures of public funds.”

            And, “The portion of the disaster emergency declaration requiring Commonwealth agencies to implement emergency assignments without regard to procedures required by other laws pertaining to performance of public work….”

            And, “That any portion of the disaster emergency declaration which is not terminated in part shall be extended in part….”

            Now House Republicans may know what they really mean by this language, but it doesn’t square up with the actual disaster proclamation and how it relates specifically to the hundreds of specific regulations and requirements that were suspended? 

            If there was ever a time to be specific– so there isn’t any confusion– it’s when the state responds to a life-threatening emergency situation.

            But, you get vague and confusing legislation all the time when you have 253 members of the Senate and House working on the same thing and each wanting something different, and this is no exception.

            The resolution is on the House Calendar for action when the House returns to voting session June 7.

            The resolution has to be passed by both the Senate and House for it to have the force of law, all by the June 10 expiration of the current COVID emergency declaration.

            If it doesn’t get a final vote, the entire March 6, 2020 COVID pandemic disaster proclamation terminates.

            June 28 Or 70% Vaccinated Whatever Comes First

            Most of the COVID-related restrictions, including crowd capacity at businesses, are being lifted on May 31 across Pennsylvania. Read more here.

On Sunday, Gov. Wolf issued a statement saying the mask order for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals will remain in place until June 28 OR when 70 percent of Pennsylvanians age 18 and older are FULLY vaccinated, WHICHEVER comes FIRST.  Read more here.

Philadelphia is lifting many of its COVID restrictions on June 2, but not all of its requirements.  Read more here.

            Vaccination Effort Slows Further

From May 22 to 29, the number of adults over 18 fully vaccinated in Pennsylvania increased from 51 percent to 53.5 percent.  The previous week– May 15 to May 22– the number increased from 47.8 percent to 51 percent.

Although the Health Department said they weren’t going to start any vaccination lotteries [Read more here], and coupons for frozen ice or booze or cash are being tried in other areas of the state [Read more here], the longer we wait to offer some meaningful incentives, the “behinder” we get.

            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.

Prohibiting Proof Of Vaccinations

Republicans moved legislation out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week to prohibit so-called vaccine passports or other government-required proof of COVID vaccinations, even though no such requirement is planned by the state.

Senate Bill 618 (Phillips-Hill-R-York) would also prohibit school districts from requiring proof of vaccination to use any service, enter any building or for any activity.

This prohibition is more problematic because some school districts have required staff and students to be vaccinated to prevent COVID illnesses and deaths among those they are charged with protecting. Read more here.

Businesses and other entities are free to require proof of vaccination to protect their customers and employees.

The bill is now on the Senate Calendar for action.

            COVID % Positivity Drops Below 4%

As of May 28, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped to 3.8 percent from 4.5 percent last week.

Any number below 5 percent is a good thing.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 27,029 deaths on May 22 to 27,203 on May 29.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,195,013 on May 22 to 1,201,375 on May 29.

            Unemployment System Offline

            The Department of Labor and Industry issued another reminder that its computer system for handling Unemployment Benefits will be offline for an upgrade from May 31 to June 7.  Read more here.

            No claims processing will take place during the offline period, because it will be offline for both the staff of Labor and Industry and the public.

            Labor and Industry has education materials available to help introduce the new online Unemployment Benefits system when service is restored. Read more here.

UC Service Center will keep the phones and email open. They will still take new inquiries from claimants and place them in the queue for when the system comes online.

They will also be able to assist individuals who are experiencing issues and will be able to answer questions about the offline period and the new UC system generally.

            Reapportionment Commission Organizes

            On May 26, the PA Legislative Reapportionment Commission, charged with drawing legislative voting districts based on the new Census, met for the first time to get organized.  Read more here.

In addition to adopting some basic rules of operation, they appointed their first staff– Robert Byer as Chief Counsel, Reynolds Clark as Executive Director and Ann-Marie Sweeney as stenographer. Read more here.

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, who serves as a member of the Commission, proposed they take steps to prevent what she called “prison gerrymandering” by counting inmates at state prisons based on the home residence, not where they are serving time in prison. Read more here.

She pointed out Pennsylvania has 23 state correctional institutions and one motivational boot camp facility located in 19 different counties. The combined population count for these facilities in April was 37,284 people.  Read more here.

In one example, 31 percent of the total population of Forest County is incarcerated in a state prison, but currently counts toward redrawing legislative voting districts in that county.  Read more here.

“This is not a radical idea,” Rep. McClinton said. “In fact 10 other states have already chosen to count their residents in exactly this way, including four of the states that border Pennsylvania. Connecticut adopted the change just last week for this year’s redistricting and we have sufficient time to do the same thing here.”  Read more here.

On the same day, the Senate State Government Committee held the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings on Congressional redistricting, a job that will be like musical chairs because Pennsylvania will go from 18 to 17 Congressional districts. Read more here.

The Committee heard from Harrisburg University on GIS systems and mapping; the Center for Rural Pennsylvania on the rural/urban divide in the state; David Thornburgh from the Committee of Seventy and representatives of Fair Districts PA on a fair and open redistricting process.

            Click Here for a video of the hearing and written testimony.

            Undecided Wins Again!

            “Undecided” won by a mile in a new poll of likely Republican candidates for Governor released by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams) last week.  Read more here.

            A full 49 percent of Republicans were undecided, 19 percent favored Sen. Mastriano and 16 percent Lou Barletta.  The remainder of voters said someone else or “other.”

            The other speculation last week would be on which candidate will hold the “Trump” card in the race which could heavily influence Republican voters in the state. Read more here.

            The former President is likely to also have a big influence on the race for the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

Of course, it’s way too early to make judgments on any of this and political observers like Cook Political Report still rate the Pennsylvania Governor’s race as a toss up. Read more here.

Primary Fallout

The May 18 Primary election still isn’t over in some counties in Pennsylvania.

House Republicans are taking Philadelphia election commissioners to task for counting 1,300 mail-in ballots they say should be thrown out because they do not have a date. They are threatening to start impeachment proceedings to kick them out of office if they count the ballots. Read more here.

The commissioners, both Democrats, say the Republicans are just “playing games.” Read more here.

Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware), Minority Chair of the House State Government Committee, again warned in an op-ed, “Republican politicians in Harrisburg are engaging in a power grab, actively working to suppress the vote and stop regular people from having a say.”  Read more here.

She said Republicans are pushing more voter identification requirements, want to purge legitimate voters from registration rolls and want to impose excessive signature verification on mail-in ballots in an attempt at voter suppression.  Read more here.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) last week said he would be introducing legislation to establish a Bureau of Election Audits within the Auditor General’s Office to conduct “result-confirming audits” of each election in the state within three weeks after an election.  Read more here.

            Some House Republicans renewed their complaints last week about nonprofit groups funded by Mark Zuckerberg and others– giving grants to some counties to help them pay for the extra costs of running elections as a result of the pandemic and handling the deluge of mail-in ballots. Read more here.

            In contrast, county election officials said they had no problems with it because state lawmakers did not provide a dime to pay for these costs and all counties had an equal shot at getting the funds if they wanted them. Read more here.

            In addition to the usual recounts and after-election follow-ups, Luzerne County Council asked the County District Attorney to investigate problems surrounding voting machines in that county mislabeling Republican and Democratic ballots.  Read more here.

            County election officials said a typographical mistake in the heading at the top of the ballots caused the error.  Read more here.

            Lobbyist Reform/But Gifts OK

            House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) followed up on the previous week’s announcement of plans to introduce lobbyist reform legislation by announcing the introduction of eleven bills on lobbyist reform. Read more here.

            Not mentioned again were other reforms applied to lawmakers themselves like not accepting gifts of cash, merchandise, trips or other valuable items from lobbyists.  Read more here.

            The Pennsylvania Capitol-Star editorial cartoon of the week was on the gift issue titled, “Located – Bipartisanship in Harrisburg – There should NOT be a ban on legislators accepting gifts.” Read more here.

            What’s Next?

            The Senate and House do not return to voting session until the week of June 7, after the Memorial Day holiday.

            Both chambers have a light schedule of committee activities.

            The Senate Democratic Policy Committee has a hearing on improving nursing homes in Pennsylvania and the Transportation Committee is again looking at transportation funding issues.

Click Here for Senate Committee schedule.

            The House Labor and Industry Committee has a hearing on workforce development and apprenticeships and training, Urban Affairs has a hearing on blight and the House Democratic Policy Committee has hearings on evictions and affordable housing.

Click Here for House Committee schedule.


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