PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: Republicans, Wolf Go A Few More Rounds; What Budget?

Senate and House Republicans and Gov. Wolf again spared last week over issues like ending the COVID disaster emergency, whether to legalize marijuana, paid sick and family leave, eviction and foreclosure protection and who should decide how high school sports should be held.

            While Gov. Wolf was highlighting items from his fall legislative agenda last week with three major events, House Republicans returned to try, for the first time, to override Gov. Wolf’s veto of House Resolution 836 (Diamond-R-Lebanon) that would end the COVID disaster emergency,

They failed to get the 136 votes needed and lost largely along party lines 118 to 84 (9 Democrats voted in favor) after an hour-long debate.  Read More Here.

            Republicans argued case counts and hospitalizations have fallen to a level that should allow businesses, in particular bars and restaurants, to reopen at full capacity.  Rep. Diamond, sponsor of the resolution and an anti-masker, declared the emergency stage of the pandemic over.

            Democrats responded by saying– tell that to the people who continue to die from COVID and get sick, adding the virus has not disappeared as much as the Republicans hope it would and would also mean the loss of federal disaster aid funds

            They and the Department of Health also pointed out, even if successful, the restrictions Republicans object to would not go away because they were adopted under a separate state law– the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955.

Republicans are likely to try again, timing it for maximum impact before the November 3 election because it plays well in their Republican heavy districts.

Speaking of timing, Gov. Wolf signed another 90 day extension of the COVID disaster emergency the day before Republicans voted on the override.  Read More Here.

Let Schools Decide!

House Republicans did succeed in passing House Bill 2787 (Reese-R-Westmoreland) which gives school districts the authority to decide how to handle athletic competitions and extracurricular activities during the pandemic– this time by a veto proof 155 to 47 vote.

Coincidentally, no doubt, Gov. Wolf issued new guidance to school districts on letting more people attend high school sporting events early on the same day the House voted on House Bill 2787.  Read more here.

Wolf had recommended there be no sports in Pennsylvania and left the issue to local school districts.

The Senate is due to take up the bill this week.

Remarkable Job’

On September 3, in a counter-punch to Pennsylvania Republican efforts to do away with the COVID emergency, President Trump’s COVID response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx visited Pennsylvania, her home state, and had nothing but praise for Pennsylvania’s approach to addressing the pandemic, calling it a “remarkable job.”  Read More Here.

She also had praise for the work being done by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to prevent the spread of the virus.  Read More Here.

A new Quinnipiac Poll out last week found 55 percent approve of Gov. Wolf’s handling of the pandemic [Read More Here], a little higher than the Franklin and Marshall Poll the week before at 52 percent.

Paid Sick Leave

            On August 31, Gov. Wolf’s first major “call on the legislature to.” event was targeted to promoting legislation with Democratic lawmakers to require paid sick and family leave.  Read More Here.

            Gov. Wolf pointed out the pandemic has forced workers to choose between staying at work to get paid or going to work sick or with a child sick.

            He and the Attorney General, Auditor General and State Treasurer, all Democrats, announced they would be adopting family leave for employees shortly.  Read More Here.

            Business groups didn’t like to be required to pay sick and family leave before and now they pointed out COVID is making it much more difficult.

            And Republicans are opposed as a result.

            Evictions & Foreclosures

            On September 1, Gov. Wolf’s second event, urged the General Assembly to protect homeowners from foreclosures and renters from eviction since he said he could not renew his moratorium order which ran out on August 31..

            Activists pointed out that evictions hearings continued in Philadelphia and there were a “flood” of landlord-tenant complaints filed in Lackawanna County and dozens in Luzerne County just during the one day the eviction moratorium was suspended.

            Later on the same day as Wolf’s press event, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control surprised everyone by issuing a nationwide order banning most renter evictions nationwide until the end of the year saying without the moratorium displaced people would go to shelters or become homeless and more likely to catch COVID.  Read More Here.

            Gov. Wolf and advocates still feel the General Assembly needs to act an eviction moratorium and fix rental assistance programs and protect homeowners from foreclosures which the CDC does not address.  These problems won’t go away.  Read More Here.

            Crickets from Republicans on this one.

Legalizing Marijuana

            On September 3, Gov. Wolf and Lt. Gov. Fetterman did a third follow-up on their legislative agenda by calling for the legalization of marijuana with portions of the resulting revenue going to help small businesses impacted by COVID, restorative justice and to help balance the state budget.  Read More Here.

            Both Senate and House Republicans said legalizing marijuana would not be on their agenda.

            COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 7,673 deaths on August 30 to 7,760 on September 6. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 133,504 on August 30 to 139,316 on September 6.

            Unemployment – State

For the week August 23 to August 29, there were 24,883 unemployment claims, down from 27,510 last week. The highest weekly total came March 22 to 28– 374,056.  Read more here.

On September 4, the Department of Labor and Industry said eligible unemployed workers will be getting the extra federal benefit of $300 per week starting September 14.  Read more here.

            What Budget?

Looming over everyone in Harrisburg is the need to finish the FY 2020-21 state budget, but you would not guess that from how quiet it’s been.

On September 1, the Department of Revenue reported good news– collecting $2.5 billion in General Fund revenue in August, which was $209 million, or 8.9 percent, more than anticipated by the department.

Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $6.7 billion, which is $210.3 million, or 3.3 percent, above estimate.  Read more here.

            The Independent Fiscal Office reported August revenues were $247.7 million over the IFO estimates.  Read more here.         

The Senate has 12 voting days scheduled until the end of the year and the House has 13– which could change obviously– but no one is talking much out loud about how to fill the $5 billion hole in the budget.

They secretly hope the feds will do it, but that’s looking doubtful.  As noted previously, pick you budget nightmare.

New Mini-Casino?

On September 2, the PA Gaming Control Board announced they did have a winner for a new mini-casino license– Ira Lubert– meaning the Board brought in a $10 million bid to state coffers.  Read more here.

The general location of the new mini-casino site was in Centre County the home of Penn State University.  Ira Lubert is a Penn State board member and alumnus and has been involved in developing two other casinos in the state.  Read more here.

            Republican Election Fixes

            On September 2, House Republicans passed their version of election code fixes by a non-veto-proof margin of 112-90– but with a few Democrats– in House Bill 2626 (Everett-R- Lycoming) [House Summary].

It immediately went to the Senate and was reported in and out and then back in the Senate State Government Committee.

            The Senate is due to pass it this week and send it to the Governor who said he will veto the bill as it’s written.  Read more here.

County commissioners and election officials are keeping up the pressure to act on changes in time to deal with the expected deluge of mail-in ballots.  Read more here.

Vote Twice! [Not]

While the General Assembly, Governor and county election officials were wrestling with election law fixes, President Trump flew into Westmoreland County and made Pennsylvania the third state where he urged supporters to both vote by mail and in person– vote twice!  Read more here.

Election officials in North Carolina and Michigan had to scramble after Trump statements on voting twice to say, in fact, deliberately voting twice was illegal.

Poll Position

A new week, new polls on the race for President in Pennsylvania.

A Monmouth Poll in PA released last week had Joe Biden beating Donald Trump 49 to 45 percent.  Read more here.

A Morning Consult PA Poll had Biden leading Trump 49 to 45 percent.  Read more here.

A Quinnipiac Poll had Biden beating Trump 52 to 44 percent with 94 percent of the folks polled saying they made up their minds on the race.  Read more here.

These are roughly the same ranges as the polls released last week for Pennsylvania, but everyone knows the race will tighten.

Climate Of Differences

Another power struggle between Gov. Wolf and Republicans is likely to go another round this week over DEP’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Program for Power Plants that is designed to have Pennsylvania join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) among northeast states.

The House already passed legislation–House Bill 2025 (Struzzi-R-Indiana)–  giving the General Assembly sole authority to approve whether the state adopts Carbon Pollution Reduction Programs.

            The House vote on House Bill 2025 wasn’t the veto-proof margin Republicans were hoping for, but close.

Last week the Senate Environmental Committee reported that bill and its Senate companion– Senate Bill 950 (Pittman-R-Indiana)– to the full Senate which is expected to pass at least the House version this week.

Republicans have argued there are huge economic implications to joining programs like RGGI, especially for their constituents who work at coal-fired power plants.

Gov. Wolf said he will veto the legislation arguing DEP has the authority now to adopt the program by regulation through a long public participation process. 

In addition, proceeds generated by joining RGGI will help workers and communities transition to a clean energy economy, something no other program or proposal has done when 18 other coal-fired power plants were closed due to competition from natural gas.

Other groups say all Republicans just want to do is block any state initiatives on climate change.

            We’ll see who wins this round!

What’s Next?

The House is off, but the Senate returns to voting session September 8 and 9.

As noted, Republicans in the Senate are expected to finish work on the election code fixes, which Gov. Wolf is likely to veto and legislation to give the General Assembly sole authority to join regional carbon pollution reduction programs, which Gov. Wolf is also likely to veto.

This Senate is also likely to pass legislation giving school districts the sole authority to decide how to handle sports during a pandemic, but no word on what Gov. Wolf may do with that one.

Senate Committee meetings and hearings– still being held remotely– are scheduled on a variety of topics– COVID’s impact on the restaurant industry, the Department of Health’s COVID contact tracing app, a study of venue shopping for medical malpractice insurance cases, lifting various COVID precautions, the status of PHFA Mortgage and Rental Assistance programs, eliminating the burdens of state regulations, a review of efforts to set a standard for manganese in water, and a House Bill giving school districts sole authority to decide how to hold athletic competitions.  Click Here for the Senate Committee schedule.

Although the House isn’t in voting session until September 15, but committees still have some activity this week.

Hearings are set on COVID and economic recovery of the retail and industry sectors, sentencing laws and plea bargains, the impact of COVID on nursing homes and on tenant utility billing fairness.   Click Here for the full schedule.

The beat goes on….


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