Sunday, December 20, 2020

PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Senate Republican Leader Outlines Priorities; COVID Challenges

Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] Senate Republican Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) outlined her initial priorities for the new legislation session to the PA Manufacturers Association last week.  Read more here.

Three priorities were outlined in the interview, including--

-- Elections: Restoring faith in the democratic election process, including an investigation into the security of voting, the way in which votes were counted and the impact of the Judiciary on the election and subsequent candidate challenges.

-- Disaster Proclamation Approval: Approve for the second time a constitutional amendment to require the Senate and House to approve an extension of a Governor’s disaster emergency proclamation beyond 21 days in response to Gov. Wolf’s extension of the emergency proclamation to deal with the COVID pandemic.

-- Liability Protection: Provide liability protection for businesses, schools districts and medical providers from COVID-related lawsuits, a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Wolf.

There was no mention of a Republican plan to reduce the number of COVID-related deaths, hospitalizations or new cases in the state.

There was no mention of a proposal to provide aid to unemployed individuals, families, health care workers and businesses impacted by the COVID pandemic or a call on Congress to pass a federal COVID aid package.

The Bucks County House Republican delegation Friday did propose a $500 million grant program to aid the hospitality industry.  The funding would come from future federal COVID relief money not yet approved by Congress, they said.  The announcement did not include a call for Congressional action to provide COVID relief.  Read more here.

Republicans in the Senate and House declined to approve aid for small business, workers, renters, mortgage holders when they had $1.3 billion in federal COVID relief sitting in state bank accounts in the last half of the year.  Instead, they used the funds to balance the FY 2020-21 state budget.

Gov. Wolf called for using those funds to help those adversely affected by COVID starting last August.  Read more here.

House Democrats [Read more here] and Senate Democrats [Read more here] took the opportunity last week to remind the public they called for or have proposed aid packages for individuals, families, health care workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic.

Another suggestion by Democratic lawmakers in the Lehigh Valley last week was to allow restaurants and bars to keep the 6 percent state Sales Tax they collect to help offset their financial losses.  Read more here.

Last Monday, Gov. Wolf joined with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in a call on Congress to pass a COVID aid package before the end of the year.  Read more here.

“The situation we are in is dire,” Gov. Wolf said. “In Pennsylvania, the pandemic is far worse now than it was in the spring when we successfully took action to flatten the curve. Our hospitals are now in danger of being overwhelmed by COVID-19, a scenario that would have devastating consequences for our entire health care system if we let it come to pass.”

Coming Cliffs

Last week there was no shortage of articles about a whole series of cliffs we are rushing toward, unless there is action in Harrisburg and/or Washington, D.C. very soon.  They include--

-- Unemployment Benefits: 500,000 Pennsylvania will lose unemployment benefits by December 31 if Congress does not act.  Read more here.

-- Food Assistance: Food Assistance for 634,000 more unemployed Pennsylvanians will run out December 31, if Congress does not act.  Read more hereRead more here.

-- Evictions: New Year’s becomes a countdown to homelessness for 240,000 in Pennsylvania, unless the CDC or Congress extends a moratorium on evictions. Read more here. Read more here.  In fact, Pennsylvania missed the deadline to spend $108 million in rent and mortgage relief CARES funding because the Senate and House did not make needed changes in state law.  The money was reallocated to the Department of Corrections.  Read more here.

-- Aid to Businesses: PA Chambers Of Commerce and Bucks County, among others, urged state lawmakers to pass an aid package for businesses affected by COVID pandemic.  Read more here.  Read more here.

-- Utility Bill Debts: There are 395,439 utility customers who owe just over $500 million on their electric bills and are at risk of having their service terminated, up 15 percent from a year ago.  Read more here. political columnist John Baer summed up the feeling of many last week in an article-- “Government Is Supposed To Work For Us, But It’s Doing A Terrible Job.”

Federal COVID Aid?

Congress gave itself two more days-- until midnight Sunday-- to come to an agreement about additional COVID relief aid before the federal government would shut down.  Read more here.

It was reported lame duck Republican Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Pat Toomey is standing in the way of an aid settlement because of his insistence the Federal Reserve no longer be authorized to provide relief loans to businesses and other organizations.  Read more here.

Late Saturday, the Associated Press reported there is now a deal with Toomey on the Fed issues he used to block COVID relief.  The compromise and more deals on the nearly $1 trillion aid package will be released later today.  Read more here.

However, the reported deal does not include direct federal aid to states or cities.  Read more here.

There are lots of details to work out, but it looks like things are headed in the right direction for something to happen!

Final PA Election Results?

On December 14, the 20 members of the PA Electoral College cast their votes for Joe Biden for President and Kamala Harris for Vice President, a somewhat anticlimactic end to the Presidential election in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

Not to be forgotten, the PA State Republican Party put out a release the same day saying, at the request of the Trump Campaign, the Trump electors got together and cast a “conditional vote” for Donald Trump in case some court challenge somewhere succeeds.  Read more here.

At least 86 judges of all political backgrounds across the country have rejected Trump Campaign voting fraud claims as baseless [as of December 16].  Read more here.

On December 17, the Department of State certified the election results in the final state race-- incumbent Sen. Jim Brewster (R-Allegheny) beat Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli by 192 votes out of 132,453 cast.  Read more here.

While Senate Democrats welcomed their colleague back for another term, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said Ziccarelli’s last court challenge to the results must be allowed to play out in federal court.  Read more here.

Election ‘Reforms’

There were several articles last week warning about attempts in the coming year to make election “reforms.”

Shira Goodman of the Anti-Defamation League, said the coming “... battle is not just about the 2020 election; it’s about future elections and the ongoing conflict between making it easier and empowering more people to vote and putting up roadblocks to exercising the franchise.”

“Here in Pennsylvania, special committees are already promising to review the 2020 election, take a new look at the law passed just a year ago that established mail-in voting, and propose alleged “election security” measures that have already been rejected – such as voter identification laws. 

“The battle lines are being drawn now between those who want to build on the steady progress to expand the [voting] franchise and those who want to erect new barriers to voting.

“This is not a hypothetical; the danger is very real. At stake is the simple, foundational principle that when more people participate in democratic processes, our democracy is stronger. It’s worth fighting for.”  Read more here.

Another article suggested making it harder for voters to participate is a deliberate political strategy for some to deal with a changing electorate.  Read more here.

Others, including Fair Districts PA, are anticipating efforts to further gerrymander already gerrymandered voting districts designed to keep one party in power over another.

As one article said, Democrats may have won the Presidency, but Republicans retain control of state legislatures-- including in Pennsylvania-- that will draw legislative voting districts.  Read more here.

Vaccines Start Arriving!

The first 97,500 doses of the first COVID vaccine approved for emergency use by the FDA began to ship to 87 Pennsylvania hospitals last Monday with an additional 13,650 doses going directly to Philadelphia.  The first priority of vaccination is healthcare workers.  Read more here.

By Thursday, more than 1,200 workers were vaccinated.  Read more here.

With a second vaccine approved late Friday by the FDA, shipments of that vaccine may start as early as this week to states, but the timing is not certain.  Read more here.

While many healthcare workers have stepped up to be vaccinated, there is a hesitancy among some.  Northampton County announced it will pay each of its nursing home employees $750 to take the vaccine, to help overcome that hesitation.  Read more here.

But, health officials from across the state had the same message as those in Montgomery County-- the vaccine offers hope, but the public must continue to “hunker down” and follow the restrictions.  Read more here.

Challenges To COVID Restrictions

A fresh round of lawsuits were filed in Commonwealth Court and Federal Court last week against Gov. Wolf’s latest COVID restrictions by the Butler Area School District and two indoor water parks.  Read more here.

The suits contend the Governor does not have the legal authority to close entertainment venues, limit indoor capacity and prohibit school extracurricular activities and athletics.

The water parks lawsuit was assigned to the same federal judge that ruled Gov. Wolf’s initial shutdown orders in the Spring were unconstitutional.  That ruling is under appeal.

At least 150 restaurants have received warnings about violating the new ban on indoor dining in the first three days after the order.  Read more here.  The PA Restaurant Association continued its calls for the new restrictions to be reversed.  Read more here.

In Allegheny County, health officials told the public last week to “shun” businesses that don’t comply with COVID restrictions.  Read more here.

Spotlight PA reported Tuesday, despite the dramatic increases in COVID-related deaths, hospitalizations and new cases, Republicans are still opposing state mandates and emphasizing “personal responsibility,” Read more here.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said again last week, restaurateurs that defy the COVID restrictions are “only putting themselves,” and their staff at risk and are contributing to the spread of COVID.  Read more here.

A study reported in Nation’s Restaurant News, a trade journal, reported, “On average across metro areas, full-service restaurants, gyms, hotels, cafes, religious organizations, and limited-service restaurants produced the largest predicted increases in infections when reopened,” the study — in collaboration said, “adding that 10 percent of the “point-of-interest” businesses studied accounted for 80 percent of all infections.” Read more here.

Other health professionals pointed out restaurants and bars in Pennsylvania aren’t special or different from the restaurants and bars studied in the available national research studies and those in Pennsylvania. 

A study released Wednesday based on the extensive contact tracing program in South Korea found a high school student was infected with COVID after five minutes of exposure to a contagious person with no symptoms who was sitting 20 feet away in an air conditioned restaurant.  Read more here.

The South Korean study adds to mounting evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted in microscopically small droplets that are released by talking or just breathing, then stay aloft indoors, traveling long distances with the help of air conditioners, fans, or drafts.

On Wednesday, the Wolf Administration put out a list of statements by advocacy groups for schools, seniors, medical professionals and workers from across the state that support the COVID restrictions.  Read more here.

Hospital leaders also weighed in to support the restrictions.  Read more here.

A York Daily Record editorial last week summarized what many people feel about the COVID restrictions-- they are a “bitter cup of holiday cheer, but necessary.

Proud To Protect Pittsburgh!

On Friday, the Allegheny Conference and employers in the Pittsburgh Region released a new campaign to appeal to a sense of community pride to promote the wearing of masks, handwashing, social distancing and supporting local businesses called ‘Proud to Protect Pittsburgh!”

It features a powerful video showing Pittsburgh sports, business, healthcare, arts, academic and other leaders carrying their message-- Stay Strong Pittsburgh!  Nothing Beats Pittsburgh!  Click Here to watch the video.

$35 Million Face Shields

On Saturday, the Associated Press reported Pennsylvania spent $35 million of its initial $110 million earmarked for personal protective equipment on plastic face shields at the beginning of the pandemic.  Read more here.

The state spent $22 million on N95 and other masks for which there was a greater need and were to be used in tandem with the plastic shields.

Officials said the state spent so much money on face shields because that’s what was available amid the-- every state for itself-- rush to find medical equipment in the absence of a national strategy.

Statewide Percent Positivity 15.8%

As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went down slightly to 15.8 percent from 16.2 percent last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.

The 10 counties with the highest percent-positivity include-- Somerset (27.5 percent); Perry (26.1 percent); Bedford (25.3 percent); Juniata (24.8 percent); Fayette (24.6 percent); Clinton (24.3 percent); Crawford (24.1 percent); Huntingdon (24 percent); Mifflin (23.3 percent); and Greene (22.7 percent).

For comparison, Allegheny County is 13.6  percent down from 14.6 percent last week and Philadelphia is 13 percent down from 14.8 percent last week.

Only one county is below the 5 percent threshold at this point-- Sullivan at 4.2 percent.

 See your county’s percent-positivity here.

COVID-19 Record Death Toll

Last week, Pennsylvania hit a new tragic high of 278 deaths in a single day on Wednesday, while the number of new COVID cases hovered between 8,000 and just over 10,000 each day.

The number of hospitalized patients steadily grew during the week from 5,970 on December 14 to 6,147 by December 18, still twice the rate from earlier this Spring when the Wolf Administration said the goal of COVID restrictions then was to prevent medical care facilities from getting overrun.  Read more here.

The number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 12,436 on December 12 to 13,825 on December 19. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 481,118 on December 12 to 548,489 on December 19.

The surge in COVID cases in the state’s prison system led to a call Friday by the State Corrections Officers Association to lock down prisons statewide and stop the transfer of inmates.  Read more here.

In one state prison-- SCI Dallas in Luzerne County-- the Department of Health reported over 1,463 active cases of COVID out of a total inmate population of 1,721.  Read more here.

Statewide there were 5,545 inmate and 190 employee COVID positive cases, according to the Department of Health.


On December 18, the Department of Labor and Industry reported Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was down 0.8 percentage points over the month to 6.6 percent in November. Pennsylvania’s rate fell below the U.S. rate (6.7 percent in November) for the first time since May 2015.  Read more here.

Of course, this was before the latest round of COVID restrictions were in place.

The Department of Labor and Industry reported 39,258 claims for unemployment compensation between December 6 and 12, down slightly from last week’s 40,833. Read more here.

Delay Going Back To College

The departments of Health and Education Wednesday urged colleges and universities to delay students going back to campus for the spring semester in the face of surging COVID cases and hospitalizations.  Read more here.

They pointed out crowded campuses have been shown to spread the virus. For example, the number of cases among 19 to 24-year-olds in Northcentral Pennsylvania spiked from 7 percent in April, when students were not on campus, to 69 percent in September, and in the northeast from 6 percent in April to 40 percent in September.

Click Here to read NewsClips from around the state on how colleges and school districts are coping with the COVID outbreaks.

Health Insurance Enrollment

The state’s new Health Insurance Exchange-- extended its deadline for signing up for coverage to December 22 for insurance coverage starting on January 1.

The Wolf Administration began a big push last Monday to get people to sign up.  Read more here.

People can also sign up through January 15, but their coverage will start later.

Mid-Year Budget Brief

Almost no one noticed Thursday when the Governor’s Budget Office put out a series of PPT slides it said was the Mid-Year Budget Briefing.  Read more here.

The overall financial statement included in the presentation said FY 2019-20 ended with a $2.7 billion budget deficit, but they expect FY 2020-21 to end with a $3.7 million budget surplus in a $36.543 billion budget.

The slides also point to some significant “budget concerns” going forward--

-- Uncertainty of further COVID impacts on state revenues (i.e. shutdowns);

-- Unknown potential for additional federal stimulus funding (although it pointedly says no additional federal stimulus was assumed in the FY 2020-21 numbers);

-- Increased costs related to serving seniors and those with disabilities;

-- Replacement of one-time funding sources (read CARES federal funding, special fund transfers); and

-- The Motor License Fund cap on State Police spending.

Click Here for the presentation.

Gaming Revenue Down

The PA Gaming Control Board reported November gaming revenue was down 2.68 percent over November 2019 due to a decrease in retail casino gamblling across the state.  Read more here.

Electronic gaming and sports betting was up significantly over last year, but with video gaming terminals and retail casinos closed in the latest round of COVID restrictions, the next revenue report is also expected to show a decrease.

Child Sexual Abuse Survivors’ Day In Court?

Nearly two and a half years after a 2018 grand jury report documented child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy around the state, Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) said last week she is prioritizing approval of legislation to amend the state constitution to open a two-year retroactive window for survivors to bring civil suits against their offenders.  Read more here.

Really? Again?

Philadelphia radio host Chris Stigall last week launched another transphobic attack on Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine calling her “Cousin It” and the “poor put-upon gender-confused Health Secretary,” among other comments.  Read more here.

An op-ed in the Wednesday Erie News by the Episcopal Bishop of Northwestern PA and Western NY made the best-- and obvious-- observation about these kinds of attacks-- “Scapegoating Dr. Levine Won’t End The Pandemic.”

Bishop Rowe said, “Like millions of other Christians, I believe there is neither Biblical nor theological justification for treating transgender people as anything other than beloved children of God.”

“...[T]he search for a scapegoat is not driven by logic. It is driven by the need to blame a vulnerable person or a vulnerable group for the crisis that besets us, and to absolve ourselves of any responsibility in working toward realistic solutions.

“We have it within ourselves to resist this temptation. I pray that we will.”

Perhaps some Pennsylvania politicians should re-read their Bibles [for a lot of reasons].

What’s Next?

This is Christmas week, so there shouldn’t be much happening-- but you never know-- it is still 2020 after all!

The next official function scheduled in Harrisburg is Senate and House swearing day January 5, so far.


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

Support Local Journalism!

[Posted: December 20, 2020] 

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