Sunday, December 27, 2020

PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Republicans Appoint Committee On Nov. Election; Will The Public Heed COVID Holiday Warnings?

Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] On December 21, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) announced the formation of a Special Committee to conduct what he said would be “an exhaustive review of all aspects of the 2020 general election.”

While state Senate Republicans were making this announcement, Gov. Wolf Wednesday took steps to make $145 million in state funds available to help support businesses adversely affected by the COVID pandemic, in particular to restaurants, bars and gyms.  Read more here.

But, action by the Senate and House is needed to appropriate the funds to get the monies flowing to businesses.

Special Senate Committee

“Nothing is more important than our right to vote as well as ensuring Pennsylvanians’ confidence in our elections,” Sen. Corman said. “Every Senator has heard concerns from constituents about the 2020 election. Far too many residents of Pennsylvania are questioning the validity of their votes or have doubt that the process was conducted fairly, securely and produced accurate results. We must act to ensure integrity is restored to voting through this bipartisan effort.”

Sen. Corman said the Special Committee will focus on:

-- The security of the vote before, during and after Election Day;

-- The accuracy and security of the election process, particularly during the pre-canvassing and canvassing stages;

-- The uniformity of the election processes across the Commonwealth;

-- The impact and role of our judiciary in the election process;

-- The impact and role of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in issuing interpretations, guidance and instructions regarding the election process and the conduct of the election as a whole; and

-- Other election related issues that may come before the Committee.

The Special Committee is to be made up of four Republicans and four Democrats with Sen. Corman serving as an ex-officio member.

Senate Republican members of the Committee include Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Bedford), Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) and Mike Regan (R-Cumberland).

Democratic members will be appointed by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny).

“There are very legitimate and credible issues which need to be resolved after the 2020 election about the security of mail-in ballots and the process of counting votes,” Sen. Corman said. “The Special Committee sets into motion a major legislative initiative that ensures answers to the questions and concerns that are being brought forward from every corner of our Commonwealth.”

This initiative to tighten voting rules is part of Republican efforts across the country to seek restrictions on voting in light of the November election outcome, the Associated Press reported Saturday.  Read more here.

County Election Audits Underway

Spotlight PA reported Wednesday that at least 64 of the 67 counties have already begun the process of auditing the November election to verify their original vote tallies were correct, as was previously announced.  Read more here.

This is part of a county-Department of State effort to conduct only the second statewide “risk-limiting” audit of voting.  Audit results are due January 22.

Voter Fraud Charges

On December 21, the Delaware County District Attorney filed voter fraud charges against an individual who voted by absentee ballot in place of his mother who died more than a decade ago and registered his mother-in-law to vote who died in 2019.  Read more here.

The DA said the individual took these fraudulent actions so he could help reelect Donald Trump President.

“For all the conspiracy theorists out there, this case today does not represent widespread voter fraud. This case was evidence that one person committed voter fraud by casting an improper and illegal ballot,” said DA Jack Stollsteimer.

The announcement marked the third incident of reported voter fraud in Pennsylvania since the election in November.

Chester County prosecutors filed charges a week after the election against a registered Republican who cast two ballots on election day for himself and another in the name of his son.  Read more here.

Before the election in October, a Luzerne County man, who registered as a Republican,  was arrested after investigators say he fraudulently applied for a ballot for his mother who died five years ago. Read more here.

On December 21, outgoing U.S. Attorney General William Barr said again he saw no evidence of widespread voter fraud or the specific need to appoint a special council to look into President Trump’s voter fraud claims.  Read more here.

Republican U.S. Senator Mitt Romney said the President’s call for a special counsel to investigate voting fraud and his flirtation with declaring martial law in battleground states “really sad” and “nutty and loopy.”  Read more here.

Republicans Could Block Senator

Despite the certification of election results by the Pennsylvania Department of State, a majority of the Republicans controlling the state Senate could block the swearing in of Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) until a legal challenge in federal court to votes cast in the race is resolved. Read more here

Senate Republican Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said previously he Secretary of State’s vote certification is a “piece of paper” that doesn’t matter.  Read more here

The federal judge in the case has scheduled final briefs for January 8, but the official swearing in day for Senate and House members is January 5.

The PA Supreme Court has previously upheld the counting of ballots at the center of the dispute.

U.S. Supreme Court In No Hurry

On December 25, Fox News reported the U.S. Supreme Court is apparently in no hurry to hear the latest Trump Campaign challenge to Pennsylvania's election results because it has scheduled a reply date for briefs in the case for January 22, two days after inauguration for President-elect Biden.  Read more here.

Republican Cong. Mike Kelly (R-Erie) filed yet another lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court last week that seeks to permanently take away the right of Pennsylvanians to use no-excuse mail-in ballots to vote, hopefully in time for the upcoming May Primary election. Read more here.

The lawsuit uses many of the same arguments in previous lawsuits that he lost before the PA Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court.

White House Lunch

Continuing his efforts to challenge Pennsylvania’s election results, Spotlight PA reported President Trump invited Republican members of the state Senate to lunch at the White House on December 23. Read more here.

At least one Senator planned to attend-- Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin)-- who organized a hearing on the election in Gettysburg the day before Thanksgiving making baseless charges of voter fraud in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

In his previous trip for lunch at the White House, Sen. Mastriano tested positive for COVID. Read more here.  

Ironically, the same day as the December 23 luncheon at the White House, the Inquirer published an article-- “What To Know Before Visiting Some Who’s Recovered From COVID.” President Trump and many White House staff have been sick with or tested positive for COVID.

State Aid For Businesses?

On December 23, Gov. Wolf took steps to make $145 million in state funds available to help support businesses adversely affected by the COVID pandemic.  Read more here.

“Business owners and employees have worked hard to protect their customers and their communities during this pandemic, and I thank all of those who have prioritized health and safety despite the hardship of the past several months,” Gov Wolf said. “Our business owners and workers have been forced to make sacrifices because of COVID-19 and they need and deserve our support.”

The Senate and House must now act to formally appropriate the money before it could actually be distributed.

House Republican leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) said in response to the Governor’s action-- 

“There is only one reason why restaurants and small businesses are shut down, suffering and facing permanent closure, and that reason is the governor. The backbone of our state and local economy, restaurants and small businesses, have been unfairly targeted by his administration, and have been pleading for months for relief from his mandates.

“Hearing those cries, the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus has taken the lead in advocating that Pennsylvania’s small businesses, restaurants and workers get the relief and commonsense support they desperately need.

“Throughout the pandemic, House Republican have tried to bring commonsense to Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response, stood up for small businesses, and worked to undo the harm caused by Gov. Wolf’s economic shutdowns and restrictions.

“Going alone is not what is best for Pennsylvanians. We need to work together, and I encourage Gov. Wolf to work with us on relief plans and join us in focusing on long-term solutions that keep Pennsylvanians working and businesses and restaurants operating safely.”

He did not say if Republicans would bring the proposal up for a vote.

Senate and House Republicans have yet to propose any plan to proactively protect the public from the spread of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. They have focused their energy on trying to get rid of the restrictions put in place by the Governor.

Federal Aid In Limbo

 [Update: President Trump signed the federal spending and COVID relief bills late on Sunday.]

On December 22, the Republican Chair of the state Senate Appropriations Committee Pat Browne (R-Lehigh) said President Trump should sign the COVID stimulus package passed by Congress to provide aid to “those in need in our communities.”  Read more here.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “Though he said he would have preferred direct relief for state and local governments be included in the package, Mr. Browne said “what they did do will have positive effects on our revenue capacity” — as the state is set to face an anticipated $3 billion budget hole come June, based on estimates.”

Both Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia), the Minority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, [Read more here] and Gov. Wolf issued statements urging President Trump to sign the legislation [Read more here], although both said additional aid will be necessary.

The COVID relief bill would provide funding for COVID vaccinations, $410 million in aid to PennDOT [Read more here], make needed changes to the existing PPP business aid program and extend unemployment programs [Read more here], assuming President Trump signs the bill.

But, on December 22, before leaving Washington to play golf in Florida, President Trump threw a wrench into efforts to provide more COVID relief by heavily criticizing both the COVID bill and the bill to fund the entire federal government.  Read more here.

As of late Saturday, he still had not signed the bills and a special pandemic unemployment benefit program ended. The federal government is also set to shutdown at the close of business on December 28 and other aid programs are set to expire at the end of the year if President Trump does not approve the bills.  Read more hereRead more here.

The President has three options on the bills-- sign them, veto them or take no action which would result in a “pocket veto.”  Read more here.

What’s At Stake

Unless there is action in Harrisburg and/or Washington, D.C. very soon on COVID relief, here’s what’s at stake--

-- 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.

Stay tuned….

COVID Restrictions Stay, Extended

On December 23, a federal judge refused a plea by two midstate restaurants and a Hershey trade association to block Gov. Wolf’s December 10 temporary ban on indoor dining at restaurants and bars.  Read more here.

Philadelphia had its own victory in federal court December 23 when a judge said the City can refuse to issue parade permits during a pandemic.  Read more here.

On December 22, the Philadelphia Health Department extended its ban on indoor dining and high-risk indoor activities until January 15. Read more here.

Although Philadelphia’s famous New Year’s Day Mummers Parade has been canceled, several thousand people say they are planning to join a Mummer march on January 1 now billed as a protest.  Read more here.

Doctors, nurses and medical professionals continued their pleas to the public last week to stay home for Christmas and New Year’s and mask up in public to prevent a huge surge in COVID cases like happened after Thanksgiving.  Read more here.

Over the next two weeks or so we’ll see if it worked.

Check out this week’s COVID NewsClips for more about what happened.

Statewide Percent Positivity 15.1%

As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went down slightly to 15.1 percent from 15.8 percent last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.

The 10 counties with the highest percent-positivity include--  Perry (33.1 percent); Adams (26.2 percent); Schuylkill (25.8 percent); Fayette (24.5 percent); Somerset (22.5 percent); Columbia (22.3 percent); Montour (22.3 percent); Huntingdon (22.2 percent); Crawford (22.1 percent); and Wayne (22 percent).

For comparison, Allegheny County is 12.4 percent, down from 13.6  percent last week and Philadelphia is 11.3 percent, down from 13 percent last week.

There were NO counties at or below the 5 percent threshold last week-- Sullivan was at 6 percent.

 See your county’s percent-positivity here.

COVID-19 Record Death Toll

On Christmas Eve, Pennsylvania reported the second highest single day total of deaths so far in the COVID pandemic-- 276.  The previous high was 278 deaths.   

The number of new COVID cases hovered between 7,200 and just over 9,605 each day from December 21 to December 26..

The number of hospitalized patients went down during the week from 6,074 on December 21 to 5,925 on December 26, which is still nearly double the hospitalization peak in the Spring.  Read more here.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 13,825 on December 19 to 14,883 on December 26. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 548,489 on December 19 to 605,141.


The Department of Labor and Industry reported 47,305 claims for unemployment compensation between December 13 and 19, up 8,047 from last week’s 39,258. Read more here.

This report covers the first week of Gov. Wolf’s December 10 order prohibiting indoor dining at restaurants and bars, closing gyms and theaters and suspending extracurricular activities at schools until January 4.

Court Elections Next Battlefield?

The Associated Press reported on another front in the battles between Republicans and Democrats in Pennsylvania, this one over who controls the now Democratic-majority PA Supreme Court and other state appeals courts.  Read more here.

As early as the May Primary, voters may be asked if they want to elect judges to the state appellate courts-- Supreme Court, Commonwealth Court and Superior Court-- by geographic districts, rather than running statewide.

Republicans believe this will give them an edge in getting more of their members on these courts.  Opponents say this just opens another arena for gerrymandering by Republicans.

A companion AP article looked at the openings coming up on state courts and what that could mean.  Read more here.

Republicans were unhappy with the decisions made by the PA Supreme Court and with a Republican retiring on that court in 2021 they view it as critical they retain that seat.

Year End Court Decisions

The PA Supreme Court issued several court decisions last week of note.  Here’s a quick summary--

-- AP: PA Supreme Court Alters Police Rules For Warrantless Vehicle Searches

-- AP: PA Supreme Court Upholds 6-Figure Legal Costs Over Open Records Request Deemed To Be Handled In Bad Faith By Dept. Of Corrections 

-- PA Supreme Court: Doctors Cannot Be Sued For Failing To Commit Western Psych Shooter

2020 Year In Review

The annual year in review articles started to appear last week.  Here’s a selection so far for those who want to relive 2020--

-- AP: Pennsylvania 2020: Pandemic, Protests And The Presidency

-- John Baer: PA’s Political Highlights And (Far More) Lowlights From 2020, A Year Like No Other

-- Katie Meyer: History Will Remember 2020, Here’s 4 Ways It Will Shape PA Politics Moving Forward

-- 2020 Was An Ugly Year In Harrisburg, Don’t Expect 2021 To Be Much Better

-- AP-Marc Levy: Presidential Election Hostilities May Fuel Fight Over Courts In PA

-- Dennis Owens: 2020 Elections Were A Win For Women Everywhere

-- Top Stories Of 2020: Protests Drive New Conservation About Policing, Racial Justice In PA

-- As Lehigh Valley’s Year Of COVID Comes To Close, Sun Peeks Thru The Clouds

What’s Next?

This is New Year’s 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

[December 27, 2020]

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