PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: House Moves Bills, Senate Still Organizing; Wolf Presses Aid For Businesses
The House Republicans last week began to move key items on their legislative agenda out of committee, including six proposed amendments to the state constitution, while the Senate was still appointing committee chairs.
Gov. Wolf, and Democratic House and Senate leaders, pressed Republicans for action on a $145 million aid package to businesses affected by COVID he proposed in December.
House Republicans opened their first full week of voting session by moving legislation to make six different changes to the state’s constitution, but only one of the five bills that included the amendments– House Bill 14 (Gregory-R-Blair) to open a two-year window for child sexual abuse lawsuits– was reported out of the House State Government Committee WITHOUT a party-line vote. Read more here.
Especially controversial were the constitutional amendments to elect state appeals court judges by individual voting districts– House Bill 38 (Diamond-R-Lebanon)– and House Bill 55 (Grove-R-York) requiring 253 House and Senate members to agree on approving an extension of a Governor’s emergency proclamation after it was in place 21 days.
A wide variety of groups oppose electing judges by districts, from Fair Districts PA, the PA League of Women Voters, to the state Bar Association, and a broad range of civil and individual rights groups.
It was reported out of committee with a one-vote margin. Read more here.
Republicans and Democrats also clashed on the amendment to require legislative approval to extend an emergency declaration, with Republicans saying they needed to reign in the authority of the Governor based on how he handled the COVID pandemic. Read more here.
Democrats said it would do nothing but politicize responding to an emergency and at worst hamstring the ability of state and local governments to protect the health and safety of the public, while 253 Senate and House members debate whether there is an emergency or not.
If approved by the Senate and House this session, both these amendments– judicial elections and extending emergency declarations– could go to voters as early as the May Primary election because this is the second time they would have passed the General Assembly.
Three other constitutional amendments would put a cap on state government spending– House Bill 71 (Warner-R-Fayette); addressed how surplus tax revenue is handled– House Bill 51 (O’Neal-R-Washington); and adds protections against discrimination for race and ethnicity (but not sexual orientation) as part of House Bill 55 (Grove-R-York).
Reviewing Nov. Election
House Republicans and Democrats both announced plans to review how the November election was conducted, but from much different perspectives.
On January 21, House Republicans scheduled the first of an expected 14 hearings by the House State Government Committee to start their review of the election. The topic of this hearing is advertised as Department of State guidance to counties prior to the election.
A report issued by Majority Committee Chair Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) in late November called the guidance issued by the agency conflicting and confusing for counties which led to differences in how counties held the elections. Read more here.
In a January 14 press conference, House Democrats demanded Republicans in the General Assembly be held accountable for their actions that led up to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Read more here.
On January 19, the House Democratic Policy Committee will hold a “Defending Democracy” hearing to provide a “bipartisan group of testifiers on their 2020 election experience and what legislative action they may need to protect future elections from misinformation campaigns and to continue to maintain election security.” Read more here.
On January 14, the County Commissioners Association of PA released a bipartisan preliminary report and recommendations outlining county priorities for further Election Code reforms, and strongly urged the General Assembly and the Wolf Administration to work together closely with counties to create positive, effective election policy. Read more here.
Cou?nties are renewing their call to allow additional time to pre-canvass mail-in ballots, and to move the deadline for mail-in ballot applications back to 15 days prior to an election in conjunction with the voter registration deadline.
Counties are trying hard to stay out of the hyper partisan crossfire on this issue.
Sometime in March, numbers from the 2020 U.S. Census will kick off what one media article last week called “the definitive political fight of 2021”– re-drawing the voting districts for the House, Senate and members of Congress in Pennsylvania.
Spotlight PA last week did a good tutorial for those interested in how redistricting will play out between a Republican Senate-House appointed Reapportionment Commission, Gov. Wolf and the PA Supreme Court, all of which will have a role in this next political drama. Read more here.
Good government groups like Fair Districts PA, the PA League of Women Voters and others are advocating for a more citizen-centric process for redrawing districts, but that has not yet developed.
Recall in 2018 the Democrat-heavy PA Supreme Court struck down the state’s Republican gerrymandered Congressional district map that favored Republicans and actually redrew the boundaries. The result was an even split– Republican and Democrat in today’s delegation. Read more here.
Pennsylvania is expected to lose one Congressional seat as a result of the Census numbers so that will make the game more interesting.
Much the same fight is likely to happen this year with Republicans controlling the Reapportionment Commission and the Democrats controlling the PA Supreme Court.
That’s one of the other reasons Republicans are pushing hard for a constitutional amendment to elect state appellate court judges by districts– to get their own people on these courts in the long run.
Speaking of elections, the last legislative election from November was declared over– again– last week when Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) was sworn into office after a federal court ruled against mail-in ballot challenges brought by his Republican opponent. Read more here.
House Special Election
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancater) last week set May 18– the Primary Election– as the date for a special election to fill the House seat of the late Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland). Read more here.
$145M Between Friends
On January 14, Gov. Wolf and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House called on Republicans to take action to distribute $145 million they said is waiting to provide state-funded aid to small businesses impacted by COVID. Read more here.
Wolf first proposed the $145 million aid package two days before Christmans when the Senate and House were not organized for the new session. The House just named committee members and the Senate committee chairs last week.
House Republicans said in reaction if it wasn’t for Gov. Wolf closing and limiting business operations
[due to COVID]
, they wouldn’t be in the bad shape they are now and added they haven’t heard from the Governor personally on the issue– “Our phone lines are working.” Read more here.
Republicans also said just “cutting checks” wasn’t the answer. Read more here.
On January 12, House Republicans formed a task force to develop an economic recovery plan for the state they said would be heavy on getting rid of regulations they view as holding back businesses. Read more here.
$2.2 Billion Aid To Schools
On January 15, Gov. Wolf announced he will be distributing $2.2 billion in aid to K-12 schools and private charter schools from the latest federal COVID relief package to support food programs, technological improvements and other education services at local schools. Read more here.
The day before this announcement, the PA Association of School Business Officials issued a report projecting a $475 million increase in tuition costs they have to pay to private charter schools as a result of parents seeking alternative ways to educate their children during the pandemic. Read more here.
Biden COVID/Stimulus Plan
On January 14, President-elect Biden unveiled a proposed $1.9 trillion COVID – economic stimulus plan designed to support COVID pandemic response efforts and help the U.S. economy recover. Read more here.
The plan calls for $170 billion in aid to K-12 schools as well as $350 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments, both of which would help ease what will be a very difficult budget year in Pennsylvania’s. Read more here.
Passage of the plan is far from certain, however. Republicans have favored more target aid and outright opposed state and local aid.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) called the package ‘a colossal waste and economically harmful.” Read more here.
Slow Vaccine Distribution
The Department of Health was scrambling last week to find ways to speed up getting COVID vaccines into many more arms.
The scramble was set off on January 12, when the feds suddenly updated their guidance to states to speed vaccinations for people 65 or older with underlying health risks much sooner than originally planned. Read more here.
That set off a chain reaction that resulted in a promise by Gov. Wolf to release yet another revised vaccination plan this week.. He had characterized the state’s response earlier in the week as “phenomenal,” when data clearly showed the state was behind. Read more here.
Locally across the state, hospitals and health departments in the Lehigh Valley, Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other areas began to release plans for expanding vaccinations and locating mass vaccination sites.
The Department of Health launched a plan to allow pharmacies across the state to administer vaccinations [Read more here] and made available a map showing where to find COVID vaccine providers [Read more here].
It is also developing a webpage where people can register for a time and location to get vaccinated [Read more here]. Philadelphia already has a pre-registration webpage for vaccinations. Read more here.
Meanwhile, House Republicans put out a release last Monday saying they did not want elected and appointed state officials to get any special priority for getting the COVID vaccine. Read more here.
Complying Or Not?
On January 12, the Department of Community and Economic Development announced a new COVID Inspection Dashboard which provides the public with the current status of COVID compliance for licensed bars and restaurants in the state. Read more here.
The new webpage is designed to complement the Open & Certified Restaurants webpage that tells the public which eateries have certified themselves as being in compliance with COVID requirements.
Philly Reopening, Some
Restaurants in Philadelphia can now resume indoor dining, but at 25 percent of their approved capacity, but they limit patrons to no more than four people at a table and they all must be from the same household. Read more here.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
The number of cases per day and rate of hospitalizations for COVID generally declined last week, while the number of deaths came close to single-day records several times.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 17,394 on January 8 to 19,188 on January 16. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 703,265 on January 8 to 761,777 on January 16.
Two more House members announced they tested positive for COVID last week– Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery), Minority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin). Both said they are experiencing mild symptoms.
A total of 14 House and Senate members have now tested positive for COVID.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 41,424 claims for unemployment compensation between January 2 and 9, up 2,912 from last week’s 38,512. Read more here.
PA Capitol Security
Reacting to warnings from the FBI about the potential of protests by pro-Trump supporters and extremists around the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, Gov. Wolf closed state buildings and beefed up security at the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg and activated more PA National Guard troops to supplement police forces. Read more here.
Pennsylvania has also provided approximately 2,000 PA National Guard troops supporting security operations in Washington, D.C. surrounding the inauguration.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) announced Friday Senate district and Harrisburg offices would be working remotely from January 16 to 20 and their physical offices would be closed.
Local governments are also taking steps to guard public buildings around the state. Read more here.
So far, four Pennsylvania residents are facing criminal charges from the U.S. Department of Justice for their role on the assault on the U.S. Capitol. Read more here.
The charges include an ex-firefighter from Delaware County who allegedly struck U.S. Capitol Police Officers with a fire extinguisher. Read more here.
For those looking forward to the 2022 elections several news items–
— Daniel J. Hilferty, former CEO of Independent Health Group, said he is exploring the possibility of running for the Republican nomination for Governor. Read more here.
— Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) said he is exploring a run for the U.S. Senate. Read more here.
— Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) is continuing his exploration of a U.S. Senate race by selling “My Dude In Forty Fort” t-shirts to raise campaign money based on the Luzerne County voting fraud case [Read more here].
The House and Senate won’t return to voting session until the week of January 25 in order to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. day on January 18.
For those who are interested: Click Here for the list of House committee members.