PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: No $7 Billion Plan; We’ll Take The 5th; Fundraising In The Wild West; ID Changes?
Republicans that run the Senate and House still have not released a plan yet for how they want to spend the $7.4 billion (or so) in federal stimulus money the state government will receive. Read more here.
Beyond statements from House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and others expressing concerns about spending one-time federal stimulus funds to fill recurring holes– which they did to balance the FY 2020-21 state budget– they have said little. Read more here.
A spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus said, “We hope to do that by reopening the economy in a safe manner by reducing red tape and overly burdensome regulations, investing through our tax code, and using best budgeting practices to allow for a responsible spending plan without new taxes.”
That’s the same thing they say every year on the state budget.
Republicans have also not held committee hearings so far on the issue or solicited public input on what will be the biggest budget decision they have to make this year.
As a result some lawmakers say, state residents and businesses are waiting for financial aid they need to help them recover from the pandemic. Read more here.
House Democrats last Wednesday began touring the state talking about their own “Pennsylvania Rescue Plan” that would make investments in helping businesses, public health infrastructure, support for families and workforce development. Read more heref.
Senate Democrats have announced several versions of an economic recovery plan, starting with their CARES 21 Plan earlier in the year. Read more here.
State Revenue Up Or Down
State tax revenues for April were either up slightly for the month or down 6.5 percent from estimates, depending on whose budget numbers you look at.
On May 3, the Department of Revenue reported Pennsylvania collected $4.0 billion in General Fund revenue in April, which was $28.2 million, or 0.7 percent, more than anticipated.
Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $32.7 billion, which is $1.3 billion, or 4.2 percent, above estimate. Read more here.
The Independent Fiscal Office reported General Fund revenue collections were $3.96 billion in April, $277.2 million (-6.5 percent) lower than the monthly projections associated with the IFO revised Official Estimate published in January 2021.
Fiscal-year-to-date (FYTD) General Fund collections are $32.68 billion, which are $274.5 million (0.8 percent) above estimate. Read more here.
More Money For Schools?
Public school superintendents around the state held a series of local press conferences last week to call on the General Assembly to increase K to 12 school funding saying decades of underfunding and now the pandemic have “weakened the fiscal foundation of our schools.” Read more here.
“With students back in the classroom, schools are focusing on getting them back on track. But Pennsylvania ranks 44th in the country in the state’s budget share of education costs, and this affects urban districts, suburban districts, and rural districts alike.
“While federal relief funds are being used for one-time COVID costs, the state must provide enough funding for ongoing schools costs that will be with districts long after the federal stimulus dollars are gone – including special education and career and technical education.
“This will allow districts to keep pace with inflation and give them the ability to invest in our kids and their future.”
Pennsylvania school districts and charter schools will receive an estimated $4.5 billion in one-time federal COVID-related aid from the American Rescue Plan. Click Here to find out how much your district will get.
We’ll Take The 5ths!
Wasting no time, the PA Supreme Court last Monday named former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg as the fifth member of the PA Legislative Reapportionment Commission charged with redrawing legislative voting districts. Read more here.
In separate statements, the four other members of the Commission– Republican and Democratic leaders from each House and Senate caucus– said they were pleased with the appointment. Read more here.
The Commission now waits until the 2020 Census numbers are finalized sometime in August to really begin their work.
Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Chair of the House State Government Committee, called the Governor’s chief of staff Mike Brunelle last week to talk about proposed election law changes. First on the list from Grove was changes to voter ID.
The conversation, reportedly, was a short one. Read more here.
Grove said his Republican members want changes to tighten voter ID requirements. Brunelle said the Governor is opposed and “made it clear that it was not a serious discussion” if voter ID was on the table. Read more here.
In 2014, Pennsylvania’s courts struck down a Republican voter ID law saying its backers failed to demonstrate the need for it and it imposed an unreasonable burden on the right to vote. Read more here.
No county election board, prosecutor or state official has raised a concern over any sort of widespread election fraud in November’s election in Pennsylvania, including in-person voting fraud, including during hearings before the House State Government Committee. Read more here.
With Republican legislatures in other key states enacting changes to voting laws to tighten– most would say restrict– the opportunity and ease of voting– Pennsylvania’s turn is coming up next.
Nomination Feud Continues
Gov. Wolf continues to seek out and fire Republicans on boards and commissions with expired terms in response to the Senate Republican threat two weeks ago to not approve any of his appointments to the Public Utility Commission over a proposal to address climate change (RGGI). Read more here.
Last week, Wolf fired all the remaining members of the Charter School Appeals Board which left no members on the board to hear appeals of disputes between school districts and private charter schools over payment and other issues. Read more here.
Republicans have consistently supported private charter schools as an option what they said are failing public schools and Gov. Wolf has supported public schools– and their teacher unions– and proposed major reforms to hold cyber and charter schools more accountable for their performance.
Gov. Wolf has also formally requested the recall of his nominations for Acting Secretaries for the departments of Health, Education, Labor and Industry, State, and Human Services and the Physician General and the Adjutant General.
To complete the action, the Senate has to formally vote to “honor” the recalls by Gov. Wolf and it will be interesting to see if they do that when the Senate returns to session this week.
The Senate Executive Nominations Calendar, which tracks gubernatorial appointments in the Senate, still lists all the Acting Secretaries with a notation– “Recall.”
It’s worth noting during the controversy over the nomination of Jennifer Storm as Victims Advocate, Gov. Wolf issued a request for recall, but that request was not honored by Senate Republicans who went on to vote her nomination down. Read more here.
Republicans on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee Tuesday also took action related to the RGGI proposal by voting to again send a letter to the members of the interstate Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative expressing their view Pennsylvania does not have the statutory authority to be part of their initiative to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Read more here.
The Department of Environmental Protection last week moved ahead with the proposal by issuing a draft final version of the regulation to reduce carbon pollution from power plants consistent with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative ahead of two advisory committee meetings on the proposal. Read more here.
DEP also issued an updated Climate Impact Assessment saying Pennsylvania will experience a 5.9 degree increase in temperatures by midcentury and increased precipitation and storm events, if steps aren’t taken to address climate change. Read more here.
On May 4, Gov. Wolf announced, in coordination of the COVID Vaccine Joint Legislative Task Force, COVID mitigation orders– except for masking– will be lifted on Memorial Day, May 31 at 12:01 a.m. Read more here.
This means the restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining and events would go away.
Gov. Wolf said the current order requiring Pennsylvanians to wear masks will be lifted when 70 percent of Pennsylvanians age 18 and older are fully vaccinated.
As of May 8, 44.1 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians were fully vaccinated.
Face coverings are required to be worn indoors and outdoors if you are away from your home. In accordance with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, fully vaccinated Pennsylvanians are not required to wear a mask during certain activities.
Allegheny County said they will follow the state’s lead on lifting the COVID restrictions. Read more here.
No word yet on what Philadelphia will do.
On Friday, a group of Republican Senators and Sen. Boscola (D-Lehigh), wrote to Gov. Wolf asking him to move the effective date of relaxing restrictions to the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend rather than at the end. Read more here.
COVID % Positivity Drops Another Full Point
As of May 7, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped another full point to 6.6 percent from 7.6 percent last week.
On March 5, the percent positivity was 5.7 percent– anything over 5 percent is bad.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 26,253 on May 1 to 26,532 on May 8. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,154,105 on May 1 to 1,172,288 on May 8.
73% Haven’t Returned To In-Person School
A stunning statistic from the Philadelphia School District last week– 73 percent of those students eligible to return to in-person classroom instruction are staying home. Of students in Grades 10 to 12– 82 percent of those students are staying home. Read more here.
In numbers that means 25,550 students are staying home out of the over 35,000 eligible.
The Philly school superintendent also reported only 55 percent of school district staff have been vaccinated. Read more here.
At the other extreme, a controversy erupted in one Lancaster County school district where parents are wondering why their children are still wearing masks when they go to school. Read more here.
To see more about last week’s ups and downs, visit the weekly COVID NewsClips webpage
Pace Of PA Vaccinations Falters
Reaching the goal of 70 percent of Pennsylvanians fully vaccinated may be a struggle. Read more here. As of May 7, 44.1 percent of Pennsylvanians age 18 and older are fully vaccinated.
Recent polls found 45 percent of Republicans in Pennsylvania have no interest in vaccination and about the same percent of Evangelical Christians. Read more here.
Vaccine providers in several areas of the state say demand for vaccinations is “disappearing.” Read more here.
As of May 2, Pennsylvania led the nation in the plunge of first COVID vaccine doses, dropping off 93 percent from a month earlier. Read more here.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said Wednesday she is encouraging her constituents to get the COVID vaccine shot as a way to “get back to normal,” but added it’s still a matter of personal choice. Read more here.
Republican PA Congressman John Joyce, a physician, released a video endorsing the COVID vaccines as safe and encouraged residents in his district to get vaccinated. Read more here.
Gov. Wolf and Penn State Football coach James Franklin last week encouraged students and football fans to get the COVID vaccine saying, “The more people who are vaccinated, the better chance we have to get back to 107,000 at Beaver Stadium.”
Republican Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams), however, has been sharing anti-vaxxer information on his Facebook page, including false claims that vaccines kill and cause autism. Read more here.
Sen. Mastriano also wants to block employers from forcing their workers to get the COVID vaccine. Read more here.
Republican Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) falsely called the COVID vaccine “poison” in a social media post and vowed not to get vaccinated. Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-York) introduced legislation– House Bill 1225— that would ban businesses or sports venues from requiring proof of vaccination. Read more here.
House Republicans last week also advanced legislation– House Bill 958 (Zimmerman-R- Lancaster)– out of committee that could punish doctors for refusing to see children whose parents reject the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention childhood vaccinations standards. Read more here.
As of May 7, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 3,774,492 people have been fully vaccinated, up from 3,136,599 last week. 5,266,745 people have been partially vaccinated, up from 4,773,293 last week.
Find A Vaccine Provider
If you are looking for vaccine providers, the Department of Health dropped their own map and 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.
There were protests in Pittsburgh [Read more here], Philadelphia [Read more here] and other places around Pennsylvania last week by unemployed workers who still have not received their unemployment benefits.
Advocates said there are still hundreds of thousands of backlogged claims. Read more here.
The Department of Labor and Industry Thursday announced 230 more customer service reps will start answering calls about unemployment claims starting May 10. Read more here.
At the same time, the agency also said the planned eight day outage for their online unemployment benefit claim system upgrade will start May 30. They had planned for a 10 outage. Read more here.
There were multiple, continuing reports last week from businesses having problems filling available jobs in the hospitality industry [Read more here], manufacturing [Read more here] and other businesses [Read more here].
Republican lawmakers say the problem is the suspension of the requirement unemployed workers show they are searching for work and the extra $300/week in unemployment benefits paid by the federal government. Read more here.
To underscore their point, Republicans last week moved House Bill 406 (Cox-R- Berks) out of the House Labor and Industry Committee and onto the full House for action. The bill would reinstate the job search requirement.
Republicans in other states, including the Governor of Montana, have pulled their states out of the federal program providing the extra unemployment benefit because of labor shortages. Read more here.
No word on what the Wolf Administration will do yet, even as they move to lift most COVID restrictions Memorial Day weekend. Read more here.
Help With Rent/Utility Bills
On Wednesday, another federal judge struck down the eviction moratorium put in place by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help prevent the spread of COVID during the pandemic. Read more here.
While the decision will be appealed, the order remains in effect, and advocates say renters are being put in a very precarious position. Read more here.
Friday, the Department of Human Services reminded Pennsylvanians who need assistance paying utility bills and rent they can apply for help through the federally-funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Read more here.
Fundraising Wild West
While many people know Senate and House members often hold political fundraisers in Florida, take trips to California wine country and have sometimes unusual themes for their private getaways, a report last week about a fundraiser in Arizona got some attention.
Spotlight PA noted it was fitting a political fundraiser for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) was being held in Arizona because Pennsylvania is known as the “wild west” of campaign finance. Read more here.
They pointed out that Sen. Corman announced plans to introduce some reform legislation to stop lobbying firms from running political campaigns, but guess who organized the Arizona trip? Yes three political firms that lobby and organize campaigns. Read more here.
The $5,000 a ticket fundraiser is planned for a PGA golf course.
Click Here for an education on campaign finance in Pennsylvania and why the rules are so hard to change– candidates get addicted to the money, campaigns are expensive and they like warm places.
The Senate is in voting session this week, but the House is off. Both the Senate and House return to session the week of May 24 and will be in session– except for Memorial Day week– every week through June 30 thereafter.
The Senate has a full slate of committee meetings and hearings this week that will touch on a wide variety of issues from education, COVID-related bills, the contact tracing data breach, two hearings related to energy issues and on broadband deployment.
Click Here for Senate Committee schedule.
The House has several hearings planned, mostly by House Democrats.
Click Here for House Committee schedule.
There are only eight campaign fundraisers scheduled for this week by Senate and House members. Read more here.
Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Political NewsClips
Click Here For PA Coronavirus NewsClips
Click Here For A Week’s Worth Of Environment & Energy NewsClips