Sunday, April 26, 2020

PA Capitol & COVID-19 Report: Protesters; Red-Yellow-Green Plan; 1.6 Million Out Of Work

Last week started with about 1,000 people-- most not wearing masks or practicing social distancing-- protesting the statewide COVID-19 shutdown and honking their horns in vehicles driving around the Capitol in Harrisburg.
The protesters were asking for the state to be reopened because they believed they could operate their businesses safely following CDC guidelines calling for social distancing and masks.   Read more here.
As promised, Gov. Wolf Monday vetoed the Republican plan to reopen businesses-- Senate Bill 613 (Mensch-R- Montgomery)-- which would have allowed most businesses to open immediately following CDC guidelines.  Read more here.
But, Senate and House Republicans kept up their pressure on the Governor for immediate reopening of businesses by moving a series of bills calling for the reopening of construction, retail, real estate and other businesses.
Two Senate Committees held a joint hearing Monday on the Wolf Administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic where they aired familiar grievances about unnecessary and unfair shutdowns.  Read more here.
House Republicans announced the House Government Oversight Committee would be  investigating how the Wolf Administration handled business closures and waivers as part of COVID-19 response. Read more here.
The Committee in the past has conducted its investigations behind closed doors and only publicly releases information when a final report is produced.  
A disagreement between Senate and House Republicans came out into the open on a key provision the Senate put in Senate Bill 327 (Argall-R-Schuylkill) authorizing county commissioners to lift COVID-19 restrictions on businesses, rather than letting just the Governor do it.
The House took out the county provision and returned the bill to the Senate last week and added a provision prohibiting state agencies from finalizing any new regulations on any issue during the COVID-19 emergency.
In a pointed statement, Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) said he was “extremely disappointed” the House took out the provision saying the “ taken by the House Rules Committee, chaired by the House Majority Leader [fellow Republican Bryan Cutler], was a vote against businesses and employees who want to safely go back to work now.”
Since Sen. Scarnati is President Pro Tempore of the Senate, that provision might see daylight again.
Either way, Gov. Wolf said he would veto this bill.  Democrats in the Senate and House have opposed the bill.
1.6 Million Unemployed
As of April 23, the Department of Labor and Industry reported 1.6 million Pennsylvanians had filed for unemployment since March 15.  Read more here.
Public and lawmaker complaints continue to build over how difficult it is for people to sign up for unemployment, let alone receive their unemployment benefits, because the entire system continues to be overwhelmed.
The Wolf Administration continued their efforts to right the system by throwing hundreds of people at processing claims and answering phones. Read more here.
FYI. The unemployment rate in House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler’s home county of Lancaster is now 19.2 percent.
Death Toll At 1,537
Meanwhile the death toll from COVID-19 virus in Pennsylvania did not increase as fast as last week going from 1,112 on April 19 to 1,537 on April 25. The increase was also not as big because the Department of Health was going back and reconciling some of its data bases which revised the number downward. 
The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 32,284 on April 19 to 40,049 on April 25.
Red-Yellow-Green Plan
On April 22, Gov. Wolf announced his Red-Yellow-Green Plan for reopening parts of the state based on a series of factors, like virus infection rates over two week periods, and on geography defined in part by Department of Health regional office boundaries.
He set an initial target date of May 8 for reopening some areas-- perhaps Northcentral and Northwest parts of Pennsylvania-- if the conditions are met.  Read more here.
He also said private and public construction could resume May 1, a week earlier than previously planned, under new guidelines issued April 23.  Read more here.
Reopening businesses would also have to follow the Worker Protection Guidelines the Department of Health issued on April 15.  Read more here.
Gov. Wolf provided a further explanation of his reopening plan on Saturday that included an example. Read more here.
1,200 Worker Complaints
Into the controversy over whether businesses can safely reopen following COVID-19 mitigation measures came some new numbers last week.
The Department of Health reported it had received more than 1,200 complaints from workers who said their companies are not following the state’s Worker Protection Guidelines.  Read more here.
Some Republicans immediately charged Health’s new online portal for accepting complaints was just an attempt to play “gotcha” with businesses.  Read more here.
More Liquor Openings
On April 24, the state Liquor Control Board said they would be opening 389 more of their liquor stores for curbside delivery of telephone orders based on their successful initial rollout of the service last week.
The LCB also reported $7.11 million in online sales of spirits April 1 to 23, which exceeded the $5 million in sales reported in all of FY 2018-19.  Read more here.
69% Say Wolf’s Doing It Right
A Fox News Poll released April 22, found 69 percent approved of Gov. Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Read more here.
62 percent of those polled supported Gov. Wolf’s stay at home order and 64 percent said the state should wait to reopen the economy, even if it means the economic crisis lasts longer.
Other polls are showing much the same results.  Read more here.
The same poll found 44 percent of Pennsylvanians approved of the way President Trump was handling the pandemic.
The Fox Poll also had Joe Biden beating Donald Trump 50 to 42 percent.  Read more here.
Overtime Rule
In an item unrelated to COVID-19, the House last week approved a resolution by party line vote-- Republicans supporting-- that would block implementation of Gov. Wolf’s regulations expanding overtime requirements on businesses.  
Since it is a concurrent resolution, it also has to be acted on in the Senate and approved by the Governor, which seems to be unlikely at this point.
Just Mail It In
The Wolf Administration launched a major effort last week to encourage voters to request mail-in ballots for the upcoming June 2 Primary.  Their efforts include mailing 4.2 million postcards to voters reminding them of the mail-in option.
As of April 22, 601,657 voters have requested mail-in ballots-- 462,085 no-excuse mail-ins and 139,572 regular absentee ballots.  Read more here.
May 26 is the deadline to request ballots through the Votes PA website.
Wolf Urged To Withdraw Climate Initiative
And now for something completely different.  Three major things happened last week on the climate issue that also divides House and Senate Republicans from the Wolf Administration.
On April 21, eighteen Senate Republicans wrote to Gov. Wolf asking him to withdraw his October 2019 Executive Order directing DEP to establish a carbon pollution reduction program covering power plants consistent with the northeast states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) saying the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reshaped Pennsylvania’s economy.  Read more here.
Although not a formal response, DEP said in a briefing of two agency advisory committees on the proposal last Thursday, the regulation implementing the program would not be effective immediately and not until 2022.
At the same advisory committee meeting, DEP presented the latest results of modeling on their carbon pollution reduction proposal which found it would reduce carbon emissions by 180 million tons, cause a 3 percent increase in the wholesale price of electricity, and, with or without the program, coal use for generating electricity will decline by more than 80 percent.
However, DEP said an analysis of the broader economic impact of the proposal on Pennsylvania, a key demand of opponents, was not yet available and may not be available until the formal comment period begins on the proposal sometime later this year. 
DEP is required by the Executive Order to present a proposed regulation implementing a carbon reduction program to the Environmental Quality Board in July.  Read more here.
DEP also released an updated Climate Impacts Assessments that projects future effects of climate change on livestock, infrastructure and water quality restoration efforts in the state.
The report said Pennsylvania is likely to see increases in livestock production and rainfall that will both complicate efforts to improve water quality as well as an increase in flooding which will impact critical infrastructure.  Read more here.
What’s Next?
The House is scheduled to be in voting session April 27, 28 and 29 using remote voting rules which limits debate on issues. 
House members are due to vote on a number of bills that would open up other segments of the state’s economy like garden shops, real estate offices and address other Republican concerns about the governor’s COVID-19 response.
The House may also continue to move budget-related legislative vehicles around in anticipation of later “real” action on the budget.
The Senate is scheduled to return to session April 28 and 29, also using remote voting rules.
As noted, there may be more action on Senate Bill 327 (Argall-R-Schuylkill) that would reopen most businesses immediately, if some agreement is reached between Senate and House Republicans, or even if there isn’t.
The Senate also has bills to open up specific segments of business, if it wants to act on them.
But with another month coming to an end and more bad budget news expected on Friday, May 1 with April state revenue numbers, COVID-19 and its fallout will continue to be the center of attention.
[Posted: April 26, 2020]

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