Sunday, November 22, 2020

PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Elections, Budgets, Guns, Flags And Face Masks - 11.22.20

[ Because Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] In addition to finishing the FY 2020-21 state budget, Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly continued their brawl over the November election.

Full Year Budget

On November 20, the House and Senate passed and sent to the Governor their version of a completed FY 2020-21 budget in Senate Bill 1350 that adds about $11 billion to the temporary budget they passed in May for a total General Fund budget of $36.5 billion, about four percent above last year.  

The new budget has no new taxes and fills, for the moment, a multibillion deficit caused by the COVID pandemic. Read more here.

The budget is being moved with the support, generally, of Republicans, but not Democrats.

Gov. Wolf indicated he will sign the budget.  Read more here.

The budget deals with the deficit by using more than $3.3 billion in federal COVID pandemic aid to pay for state expenditures and transfers more than $431 million from special funds.

The final budget takes $201,977,000 from a dozen dedicated environmental and energy funds to help balance the state budget, along with another.  These transfers appear in the Fiscal Code bill-- House Bill 2536--  accompanying the budget. Read more here.

The budget ignored requests by Gov. Wolf in August to provide additional aid to small business, restaurants and bars, renters, frontline health care workers and other groups hard hit by the pandemic.  Read more here.

Amicus PA Republicans

Republicans in the House both filed an amicus brief supporting the Trump Campaign’s challenge to Pennsylvania’s election results in federal court [Read more here] (which the Trump folks lost Saturday in what the Associated Press called a “blistering” opinion) and pushed through House Resolution 1100 directing the Legislative Budget And Finance Committee to do a risk-limiting audit of the November election.

They said their audit was needed because of a “litany of inconsistencies” from federal and state court decisions, guidance from the Wolf Administration, not following signature requirements on mail-in ballots and other problems.

Republicans repeatedly said the audit will not change the election result-- as of Saturday Biden was 80,818 votes ahead of Trump.  Read more here.

Democrats said the resolution was not needed because the Department of State was already doing a risk-limiting audit. They also suggested the newly created Election Law Advisory Board be convened to handle this issue.

BTW, counties have until the close of business Monday, November 23 to certify their final vote counts with the Department of State.

Plea For Partnership

Meanwhile, the County Commissioners Association distributed an op-ed last week with another plea for partnership-- not partisanship-- in finding ways to improve the election process.  Read more here.

The Commissioners praised the work of tens of thousands of volunteers who are critical to the running elections in the state.

“We hope you will join us in celebrating our counties’ professionalism, dedication and commitment to the integrity of our elections in the face of unimaginably stressful circumstances.”

“Running elections shouldn’t be a partisan battle, but about making sure that our systems are secure and accurate and that our voters can have confidence that every properly cast vote will count. It is time to put political differences aside and resolve to make meaningful improvements to the Pennsylvania Election Code.”

“As part of this effort, we call upon the Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature to urge the convening of the newly created Election Law Advisory Board, which was created for just this purpose – to collaborate with county governments, the General Assembly, the administration and other stakeholders to study election-related issues and offer recommendations to ensure that elections are fair, secure, and produce timely and accurate results.”

Election Legal Challenges

While the many legal challenges to the Pennsylvania election results continue in the face of the November 23 county vote certification deadline, these developments are worth mentioning.

Late Saturday, the Associated Press reported a decision by the federal court judge in Williamsport to throw out the Trump Campaign lawsuit charging widespread irregularities with mail-in ballots.  Read more here.

Judge Brann ruled Pennsylvania officials can certify election results that currently show Biden winning the state by more than 80,000 votes. He said the Trump campaign presented “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations ... unsupported by evidence.”

“In the United States of America, this cannot justify the disenfranchisement of a single voter, let alone all the voters of its sixth most populated state,” the opinion said. “Our people, laws, and institutions demand more.”

Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey issued a statement shortly after the decision saying, “I congratulate President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on their victory. They are both dedicated public servants and I will be praying for them and for our country.”.  Read more here.

“With today’s decision by Judge Matthew Brann, a longtime conservative Republican whom I know to be a fair and unbiased jurist, to dismiss the Trump campaign’s lawsuit, President Trump has exhausted all plausible legal options to challenge the result of the presidential race in Pennsylvania.”

Trump Campaign lawyers said they were “thankful” the judge made a quick decision so they can get the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Read more here.

The Trump Campaign also filed a fresh lawsuit in federal court to stop the vote certification which one legal media outlet noted  misspells Gov. Wolf’s name.  Read more here.

On another legal front, Republican Congressman Mike Kelly and other Republican officials filed a new lawsuit in state Commonwealth Court Saturday seeking to block vote certification saying the whole system of mail-in balloting is unconstitutional.  Read more here.

Republicans are asking that all 2.6 million mail-in ballots be thrown out.  This is especially ironic because in Pennsylvania Republicans pushed mail-in voting hard, if the number of pieces of political mail in the average Republican voter’s mailbox is any indication.

More about legal challenges can be found in the weekly PA Capitol NewsClips.

Senate Leadership

Senate Democrats last week held leadership elections and only made two changes in their line up.

Sen. Maria Collett (D-Bucks) was elected Caucus Secretary and Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester) was selected as Policy Committee Chair.

The other leadership remains the same-- Minority Leader: Jay Costa (D-Allegheny); Minority Appropriations Chair: Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia); Minority Whip: Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia); Caucus Chair: Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny).

Still Too Close To Call

Although the Senate Democrats voted on leadership, incumbent Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) still doesn’t know if he won his seat.  As of Friday, he and his Republican opponent were exactly tied with 65,978 votes each.

Thursday, Republicans won a Commonwealth Court order directing Allegheny County not to count 2,349 mail-in ballots.  Read more here.

On Friday, the PA Supreme Court stayed the Commonwealth Court order and will take that challenge to mail-in ballots under review along with others that have been filed.  Read more here.

2 Women Make History

Spotlight PA had an interesting take on the two women elected for the first time to leadership positions in the Senate-- Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland)-- and Rep. Joanna McClinto (D-Philadelphia)-- in the House.

The headline says it all-- “Two Women Just Made History In The PA Legislature, Will That Be The Last Thing They Have In Common?

Voted Down

The Senate took the unusual step of voting down Gov. Wolf’s nomination of incumbent Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm by a bipartisan vote of 32 to 18-- just after it did not honor the Governor’s request to withdraw the nomination from consideration.  Read more here.

Storm characterized the vote as a “political hit job,” organized by outgoing Republican Sen. Joe Scarnati who opposed her outspoken efforts to allow the many victims of clergy child sexual assault to sue the Catholic Church, something Scarnati blocked in the Senate.  

But, Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) also expressed strong feelings against her nomination for her relationship with Black victims of crime in his district.

The Senate did confirm Gov. Wolf’s nomination of Richard Vague to be Secretary of Banking and Securities, unanimously no less.

Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits Can Proceed

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Friday, the PA Supreme Court has ruled lawsuits alleging the coverup of child sexual abuse by clergy in Roman Catholic dioceses across Pennsylvania can proceed in lower courts at the same time the Court is still deliberating on a case that could make or break the legal theory behind the lawsuits.  Read more here.

The Court denied the requests by several Catholic dioceses to have the Court assume jurisdiction in the cases and to stay further proceedings. 

Victims of Catholic clergy child sexual abuse have been seeking justice in the courts for years, but have been denied because of Pennsylvania’s strict statute of limitations laws which restrict whe lawsuits can be filed.

Outgoing Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and others have blocked attempts to change the law, even after a scathing 2018 grand jury report documented systematic coverups of over 1,000 cases of child sexual abuse in Catholic dioceses across the state.  Read more here.

Face Masking

Final House action on the budget and other bills was delayed late Friday after one or more Republican staff went home with COVID symptoms and at least one House Republican member tested positive. 

Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair) announced he had tested positive for COVID earlier in the day Friday [Read more here], which followed an announcement on Wednesday by Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) he tested positive [Read more here]. 

There were frequent mentions by House Democrats all week that Republican members were not wearing their masks on the Floor of the House. In response, at least one Republican member said he couldn’t hear their muffled voices through their masks.

Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) was so concerned by issues related to COVID exposures and Republicans she filed an “unsafe working conditions” complaint with the Department of Health.  Read more here.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said Friday from the rostrum the House was again open for business with members voting from their offices and not on the House Floor because “contact tracing” was underway.”  Read more here.

Contact tracing happens when there are known cases of possible COVID exposure.

More Mitigation Measures

On November 17, the Department of Health took steps to tighten COVID mitigation measures related to mask wearing and travelers coming into the state. Read more here.

In addition, the City of Philadelphia put in place a ban on indoor and outdoor gatherings, indoor dining and other restrictions [Read more here] and Allegheny County issued a stay-at-home order allowing essential trips only and to stop social gatherings [Read more here].

Masks - State

Masks are now required by a new Secretary of Health order in these cirumstances--

-- Masks are required to be worn indoors and outdoors if you are away from your home.

-- When outdoors, a mask must be worn if you are not able to remain physically distant (at least 6 feet away) from someone not in your household the entire time you are outdoors.

-- When indoors, masks will now be required even if you are physically distant from members not in your household. This means that even if you are able to be 6 feet apart, you will need to wear a mask while inside with people other than members of your household. 

-- This order applies to every indoor facility, including homes, retail establishments, gyms, doctors’ offices, public transportation, and anywhere food is prepared, packaged or served.

Travelers - State

An order from the Secretary of Health requires travelers into Pennsylvania must--

-- Have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to entering the Commonwealth.

-- If someone cannot get a test or chooses not to, they must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Pennsylvania.

-- Pennsylvanians visiting other states are required to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to their return to the Commonwealth or to quarantine for 14 days upon return to Pennsylvania.

On Friday, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources issued a similar requirement for out-of-state visitors to Pennsylvania’s state parks.  Read more here.

Colleges - State

The Department of Health also issued new recommendations to colleges and universities to require students be tested before going home for Thanksgiving and other mitigation steps.  Read more here.

The same testing requirement and similar recommendations were made by Gov. Wolf and a coalition of six other states in the Northeast-- Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island on Wednesday.  Read more here.

Statewide Percent Positivity 11.1%

As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went up to 11.1 percent from 9.6 percent over the last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.

The 10 counties with the highest percent-positivity include-- Juniata (26.4 percent); Bedford (22.8 percent), Mifflin (22.3 percent); Tioga (21.3 percent); Indiana (17.7 percent); Franklin (17 percent); Fulton (16.8 percent); Clarion (16.6 percent); Erie (15.6 percent) and Cambria (15.3 percent).

For comparison, Allegheny County is 9 percent up from 7.7 percent last week and Philadelphia is 13 percent up from 12.5 percent last week.

There is only one county-- Cameron (1.9 percent)-- that is below the 5 percent threshold at this point.

 See your county’s percent-positivity here.

COVID-19 Death Toll, Record New Cases

New cases of COVID again hit record highs last week to a high of 7,106 on Thursday.

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 9,274 on November 14 to 9,801 on November 21. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 259,938 on November 14 to 302,564 cases on November 21.


On November 20, the Department of Labor and Industry reported Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was down 1.0 percentage point over the month to 7.3 percent in October. The national rate also fell one percentage point from its September level to 6.9 percent. 

Pennsylvania’s civilian labor force decreased 75,000 over the month due to declines in both employment (the number of residents working) and unemployment (those who are jobless and looking for work).  Read more here.

The Department of Labor and Industry did not update its recap of unemployment claims last week.  Read more here.

COVID Liability Limits

As part of the last-minute flurry of legislation, the Senate and House sent Gov. Wolf House Bill 1737 which provides businesses, schools, health care providers and others who follow state and federal COVID health directives with protection from lawsuits for actions they take during the pandemic.  Read more here.

The bill generated so much controversy that the original prime sponsor and other co-sponsors withdrew from the bill.

Republicans generally supported the bill, Democrats were opposed, but it’s not known yet what Gov. Wolf will do.

FYI, the bill started out as a bill to protect land banks from environmental liability.

LCB Extends Waivers

The Liquor Control Board Wednesday extended its waiver of license fees to wineries, breweries and distilleries in an effort to provide some relief to these businesses hit hard by the pandemic.  Read more here.

New PA Healthcare Market Online

Pennsylvania’s new online marketplace for health insurance-- Pennie--  came online this week and is now accepting enrollments.  It is the only place to access financial assistance for getting health insurance in the state.  Read more here.

Gaming Revenue Up

The PA Gaming Control Board reported October revenues were up nearly 13 percent in October or October of 2019.  While slots and table games were down, online gaming generated over $59.7 million in gross revenue and sports wagering was up significantly to $525.8 million.  Read more here.

25% Tuition Reduction?

Could combining state-owned universities reduce student costs by 25 percent?  Leaders of the State System of Higher Education Wednesday said they believe it could.  Read more here.

PASSHE is already studying merging Clarion, Edinboro and California universities in Western Pennsylvania and Bloomsburg, Lock Haven and Mansfield in Northcentral Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

Marijuana Flag

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman last week attracted the ire of Republicans in the General Assembly by flying a pro-legalization of marijuana and pride flags from the balcony of his office in the front of the Capitol Building.

In response, Republicans included a provision in the Fiscal Code bill-- House Bill 2536 (James-R-Venango)--  that accompanied the state budget prohibiting any flags, banners, posters, temporary signage or similar materials outside the Capitol including its alcoves, balconies and windows except for the U.S. flag, state flag or flags authorized by law.  Read more here.

This saga will no doubt continue...

What’s Next?

The Senate and House have adjourned to the call of their respective presiding officers, just in case there is any other legislative business to attend to, for example, overriding more of the Governor’s vetoes.

The Governor has 33 bills on his desk he must decide to sign, veto or let become law without his signature.

Gov. Wolf said he will sign the budget-related bills--  Senate Bill 1350 (Browne-R-Lehigh) - General Fund budget and House Bill 2536 (James-R-Venango) - Fiscal CodeRead more here.

But, he said he will veto three bills-- House Bill 1747 (Dowling-R-Fayette) and House Bill 2440 (Kortz-D-Fayette) dealing with protecting the rights of gun owners to buy, carry and sell guns during a declared emergency and to declare a variety of gun-related industries life-sustaining  and Senate Bill 790 (Scarnati-R-Jefferson) that would roll back environmental protection standards for conventional oil and gas drilling.  Read more here.

In any case, the 2019-20 legislative session ends “sine die” on November 30. All committees dissolve and all bills die and have to start over in January.

New members formally start their terms December 1, at least that’s when their first pay period starts, but aren’t sworn in until January 1.

And then we get to do this all over again!  


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

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[Posted: November 22, 2020]

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