Sunday, June 28, 2020

PA Capitol & COVID-19 Weekly Report: New House R Leadership, Police Reform, Everyone Goes Green, More Gambling?

Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] While other states are starting to roll back their efforts to reopen their economics, Gov. Wolf announced the last county in Pennsylvania would move from Yellow to Green on July 3.
Police reform legislation and expanding gambling in the state were in the minds of the Senate and House last week.

In the House, it was who was going to be the new House Speaker-- it turned out to be  Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), but no one was taking that bet because it was locked in.

Mr. Speaker!

On June 22, Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) was elected the 141st Speaker of the Pennsylvania House, a position that dates back to Benjamin Franklin.

A conservative, Cutler as Majority Leader has allowed votes on bills he did not personally support like hunting on Sunday and allowing mixed drinks to be sold during the pandemic.  He is also known as someone who will hear out others and allow for disagreement, even given his strong views.  Read more here.

Also elected to new Republican leadership positions were Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) as House Majority Leader and Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) as Majority Whip.

Rep. Martin Causer (R-Cameron) was elected as Chair of the Republican Policy Committee, succeeding Rep. Oberlander

This lineup continues the hold Republican conservatives have on House leadership positions.

Police/Law Enforcement Reform

The Senate and House both approved police reform legislation separately which would ban the use of chokeholds and some other restraints used by police, require local police agencies to adopt use of force policies and create a statewide database of records detailing why a law enforcement officer is no longer with a particular police agency.

The Senate passed Senate Bill 1205 (Street-D-Philadelphia) (Senate Fiscal Note & Summary)  and Senate Bill 459 (Costa-D-Allegheny) (Senate Fiscal Note & Summary) and the House passed House Bill 1841 (Readshaw-D-Allegheny) (House Fiscal Note & Summary) and House Bill 1910 (Williams-D-Chester) (House Fiscal Note & Summary).

With a short voting schedule, the House and Senate will have to work out which bills will get to the Governor’s desk.  Read more here.

The Senate could take a vote this week on a probation reform bill-- Senate Bill 14 (Williams-D-Philadelphia) that lawmakers hope will save money by not keeping ex-offenders in a perpetual state of probation, but advocates say the changes don’t go far enough.  Read more here.

One reform bill headed for the Governor’s desk is Senate Bill 637 (DiSanto-R- Cumberland) that would make it easier for ex-offenders to get professional licenses for 29 different job categories and reenter the workforce. Read more here.


The PA Supreme Court recently decided a case under the state Whistleblower Law which said individuals who believe they were fired in retaliation for reporting abuse, discrimination or harassment of another employee do not have to first file a complaint against their employer with the state Human Relations Commission.  Read the decision.

An individual can go directly to court if the action is taken under the Whistleblower Law. Legal experts say the case upends decades of employment law.  Read more here.

Expanded Gambling?

While the Senate failed to vote on expanding gambling terminals to bars, clubs and other venues last week, they will probably be coming back to try again with House Bill 1325 (Ortitay-R- Allegheny) as one possible vehicle.

Republican proponents of the expansion are having a hard time winning over skeptics from their own party, let alone the Democrats, that more gambling was needed in Pennsylvania.

Even with estimates showing it may generate $250 million a year when the state is in dire financial shape due to COVID-19, it has been a hard sell.  Read more here.

A controversy flared Friday when Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) denied multiple media reports he was behind efforts to expand the use of video gaming terminals and that he was promoting the change because of contributions made to support Republican campaigns.

He ended his statement by threatening legal action against the media outlets reporting his connection to expanded gambling.

Spotlight PA responded by saying it stands behind its reporting.  Read more here.

All Green!

On June 26, Gov. Wolf announced Lebanon County will move from Yellow to Green on July 3 making it the last county to move in the least restrictive reopening category.  Read more here.

While Gov. Wolf thinks all of Pennsylvania can go Green, Philadelphia, which has a separate health agency, is delaying moving from Yellow to Green due to an increase in COVID-19 cases. Read more here.

UPDATE: Effective 5:00 p.m. Tuesday Allegheny County Health Department has banned on-premise alcohol consumption, recommends quarantine for travelers due to spike in COVID-19 cases.  Read more here.

At the same time, health officials are keeping a wary eye on COVID-19 case numbers as other states which reopened sooner than Pennsylvania, and are now seeing alarming increases in infection numbers and hospitalizations. Read more here.

In Pennsylvania there are also areas of concern.  In Allegheny County for example which has seen the largest number of new cases since April in the last few days.  Read more here.

Gov. Wolf put out not one but three press releases this week reminding the public, and businesses, that wearing masks is mandatory in Pennsylvania businesses.  Read more here.

Meanwhile one conservative legislator-- Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler)-- put out a press release last week saying wearing a mask is a personal choice and no one can be forced to wear a mask by the Governor or anyone else.  Read more here.

COVID-19 Death Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 6,423 deaths on June 21 to 6,606 deaths on June 28. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 81,730 on June 21 to 85,496 cases on June 28.


From March 15 to June 25, the total number of unemployment claims were 2,190.224, up from 2,132,891 last week.

Revenue Estimates

Not that anyone paid attention last week, but on June 22, the Independent Fiscal Office released its revised FY 2019-20 revenue estimate projecting a $3.5 billion decrease from its $35.5 billion estimate in June 2019.

$1.5 billion is attributable to the COVID-19 shutdown and $2 billion as the result of moving tax deadlines to July 15, which should be made up in FY 2020-21.

The IFO’s official revenue estimate for FY 2020-21 is now $35.9 billion, an increase of $3.9 billion over the current year.  The estimate represents a decline of $127 million after adjustments for delayed tax due dates.

There is talk in Congress of moving the tax due date from July 15 to September or even December, which would be very bad news for Pennsylvania’s finances.  The state’s due date automatically tracks with the feds.

Click Here for a copy of the IFO revenue estimates.

Grand Jury Report On Shale Gas Industry

On June 25, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a Grand Jury report detailing what he called the “systematic failure by government agencies in overseeing the fracking industry and fulfilling their responsibility to protect Pennsylvanians from the inherent risks of industry operations.”  

The Grand Jury made a series of recommendations including expanding “no-drill zones,” requiring public disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking, regulating all natural gas gathering lines, regulating all sources of air pollution from oil and gas development, having a comprehensive response to health concerns and giving the Attorney General original criminal jurisdiction over unconventional oil and gas companies.

Shapiro gave a very strident and graphic description of what the Grand Jury thought were the failures of the Department of Environmental Protection in particular.  

Shapiro said this is not the last announcement on this issue. Read more here.

State-owned Universities Reform

The Senate and House gave final approval and sent to the Governor House Bill 2171 (Sonney-R-Erie) makes fundamental changes to the authority of the Board governing the 14 state-owned universities to consolidate schools, eliminate programs, turn existing schools into branch campuses of other universities, create new schools, and share back-office services.

While these reforms had been discussed for some time to deal with significant declines in enrollment at the universities, they were made more urgent by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Read more here.

Mail-In Ballots Exceed In-Person Voting

PA Capital-Star reported last week the number of mail-in ballots exceeded the number of in-person votes cast during the June 2 Primary Election in one-third-- 23-- of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

The counties included: Adams, Allegheny, Beaver, Berks, Bucks, Cameron, Centre, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Erie, Forest, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Susquehanna and Westmoreland.

Fireworks Complaints Exploding!

It’s that time of year again-- when municipal officials and police departments across the state face an exploding number of complaints about fireworks being set off at all hours of the day and night.

Complaints have skyrocketed in part because public fireworks displays have been canceled in many areas due to COVID-19 concerns.

Newspapers document “war zones” and call for repeal of the state law that allowed regular folks to buy bigger and louder fireworks-- after paying a hefty tax.  Some areas--  like Philadelphia-- are talking about banning consumer fireworks altogether.

The State Fire Commissioner also put out his annual warnings about handling fireworks and sparklers safely.  Tip number seven-- never use fireworks after consuming alcohol-- and be sure to maintain social distancing.

There has been one reported death due to a fireworks accident in Scranton Saturday.  Read more here.

Sunday Polo/Tennis Is A Go!

Just in case you didn’t think the General Assembly was doing anything useful last week, the Senate gave final approval and sent to the Governor--

-- House Bill 1379 (Rigby-R-Cambria) repealing the 1935 law making it illegal to play polo before 1:00 on Sundays; and

-- House Bill 1405 (Hershey-R-Juniata) repealing the 1935 law making it illegal to play tennis before 1:00 on Sundays.

What’s Next?

The Senate is scheduled to be in voting session June 29 and 30 and then break for the July 4th holiday.

Senate Republican leadership-- so the media says-- hopes to move legislation expanding gambling, but that remains to be seen.

Technically, the House isn’t scheduled to come back to voting session until September 15, but new Speaker Cutler said the House could be in session this week “depending on what bills the Senate did.”

The House Democratic Policy Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on reopening schools, but nothing else is on the calendar for House committees at this point.

The Joint House/Senate Legislative Budget & Finance Committee is scheduled to release two reports, one on broadband deployment mandates [Senate Resolution 48] and a second on the non-economic impacts of single use container bans and fees [Act 20 of 2019].


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

[Posted: June 28, 2020]

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