Sunday, February 14, 2021

PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Budget Hearing Season Begins, Election Hearings Continue, New Vaccine Plan

Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] The House Republicans will fire the opening shots at Gov. Wolf’s FY 2021-22 budget proposal this week on several fronts when they start agency-by-agency budget hearings Tuesday.

The Department of State-- which runs Pennsylvania’s elections-- will no doubt get some attention Wednesday, along with the Department of Corrections.

The House Commerce Committee will hold its own hearing Tuesday on a budget-related proposal-- the impact of raising the minimum wage.  Gov. Wolf put out a vigorous defense of his minimum wage proposal last week saying the current minimum wage of $7.25 is “embarrassingly low.”  Read more here

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania-- a legislative agency-- follows up with a hearing Thursday on expanding broadband access in rural Pennsylvania, another part of Gov. Wolf’s budget.

Click Here for the full House schedule.

RCAP Expansion

In response to Gov. Wolf’s proposal to increase the debt ceiling for the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program by $1 billion to pay for asbestos and lead removal and schools and other projects, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) introduced Senate Bill 90 that would REDUCE the existing debt ceiling by $100 million.

Guess we know where that proposal may end up.

2022 Primary Delay?

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said Friday the 2022 Primary Election may have to be delayed because U.S. Census information used to redraw voting districts will not be available until September.  Read more here.

Although not certain, Corman said candidates need to be given enough time to go through the petition process to get their names on the ballot for the May 17, 2022 primary.

When the PA Supreme Court struck down Congressional voting districts in January 2018 because they “clearly, plainly and palpably” violated the state constitution, i.e. were gerrymandered to favor Republicans, the Court issued a new map in late February after the General Assembly failed to act.

The Court also approved a revised nomination petition calendar so the Primary Election could still be held May 15, 2018.  Read more here.

If the U.S. Census information does come out in September, there are eight months until the May Primary to redraw the voting districts, get through some legal challenges and then the nomination petition process.

Pennsylvania will use the same process it has used in the past to redraw congressional, state Senate and House districts that resulted in gerrymandered voting districts favoring Republicans.  

Of course, the Democratic PA Supreme Court will be there to hear appeals.

Nationally, Republicans are hoping their allies in key states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and, of course, Pennsylvania, will deliver Congressional voting districts that will allow them to retake the U.S. House.  Read more here.

The Senate and House State Government Committees have joint hearings scheduled for February 24 on the impact of the delayed U.S. Census counts on redrawing districts.

More Time, Please!

County election officials from Mercer and Sullivan counties both told the House State Government Committee at a hearing Thursday they needed more time to precanvass-- get mail-in ballots ready for counting-- to ensure more timely reporting of election results.  Read more here.

Hope Verelst, Sullivan County Director, made the interesting observation if precanvassing was allowed in the November election the entire discussion of the results would have been very different.

 She said if the results of mail-in balloting would have been reported right away, it would have been clear Biden was ahead from the beginning.  The rest of the time would have been a discussion of whether Trump was going to catch up.

Instead, the walk-in votes were counted first with Trump ahead and then his lead was seen as slipping away after a few days as the mail-in results were counted and reported until Biden finally won by 80,000 votes.

Both county officials also said, in response to repeated questions from Republicans, the checks and balances in the system for physically requesting a mail-in ballot and voting that ballot made it very unlikely someone could fraudulently submit a ballot or vote in-person without getting caught

In fact, there have been several charges filed against Republican voters for doing just that during last year’s elections.

Click Here for copies of testimony from this and previous election hearings by the House State Government Committee.

The Committee is scheduled to hold its next hearing on the 2020 elections February 25 on the topic of voter registration.

Republicans Haven’t Changed

WHYY contacted each of the 76 Republican House and Senate members who signed letters or otherwise advocated for overturning the November election results for President and disenfranchising voters due to what they said were irregularities or fraud to see if they still felt that way.  Read more here.

Only two members responded-- Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon) and Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin), a subcommittee chair on the House State Government Committee. Read more here.

Rep. Heffley said he still believes “something went wrong” and questioned the role of the PA Supreme Court in the process.

Rep. Schemel also thought there were problems, but did acknowledge, “for better or worse,” the state’s electoral process is fair and voters should trust it.

PA’s Role In Assault On U.S. Capitol

At the beginning of last week, Pennsylvania ranked #2 among states in the number of our residents arrested and charged with crimes related to the assault on the U.S. Capitol January 6.  Texas was ahead and New York was tied. Read more here.

During the week, Pennsylvania’s total increased by two, or three, depending on how you’re counting.

A Lancaster man was arrested Tuesday and charged with assaulting police in the siege of the Capitol Building.  Prosecutors said he also named pheasants he shot after Democratic lawmakers.  Read more here.

On Friday, a Beaver County man was arrested for his role in assaulting the U.S. Capitol that allegedly included sitting in House Speaker Pelosi’s chair.  His wife and mother, who accompanied him to Washington, D.C., have not been charged with any crimes.  Read more here.

Prosecutors were led to the Beaver County man through social media posts by his mother.  Read more here.

In a related legal action, a Lebanon County lawyer was indicted Wednesday for threatening to kill Democrats in the U.S. Senate.  Prosecutors said he was arrested on his way to Washington, D.C. on January 21 by Pennsylvania State Police with several firearms and a large amount of ammunition.  Read more here.

Pittsburgh Catholic Bishop David Zubik Friday said his “heart broke’ to see the use of Christian symbols in the mob that carried out the assault on the U.S. Capitol saying they “do not represent American or Christian ideals.”  Read more here.

“The people who ravaged the Capitol, assaulted police officers, proclaimed racist and anti-Semitic slogans, threatened elected officials—do not represent American or Christian ideals.  They show what can happen when we allow anger to rule our hearts.  We need to pray for them.  We also need to pray for us—as a nation.

“At the same time, we—you and I—need to examine our own hearts to make sure we are not harboring anger toward people for being different than we are.  That’s true whether the difference is one of race or political affiliation, ethnicity or lifestyle, faith or economic strata. 

“Moreover, as Christians, as we consider the challenges that we face as a nation and as a global community, our faith in the ever-abiding presence of Jesus must be our guide.  When a message provokes us to vengeance, hatred or derision, we need to go back to the teachings of Jesus and let Him be our guide.”

Click Here to read Bishop Zubik’s complete statement.

House and Senate Democrats Wednesday called for their Republican colleagues to be held accountable for the roles they played in the events leading up to the assault on the U.S. Capitol, in particular Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams) [Read more here], and including those Republicans who signed one of several letters challenging Pennsylvania’s election results.  Read more here.

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) and Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) formally called for an investigation.  Read more here.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro provided a memorandum to the U.S. Senator for their impeachment hearing against former President Trump that outlined the factual evidence behind the 2020 election.  Read more here.

He said President Trump’s fabrications about Pennsylvania’s election were baseless conspiracy theories that undermined democracy and led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.  Read more here. last Sunday reported on how false narratives spread through multiple news and social media channels fueled the assault on the U.S. Capitol. Read more here.

"Experts say it is important to understand the role each played in inciting protesters to sack the Capitol. But no one was surprised events reached a fever pitch after nearly a year of individuals in various sectors-- including the highest levels of government-- stoking the flames of discontent on platforms that allowed a false narrative about the election to flourish and spread."  Read more here.

“Right-wing extremists, white supremacists and others saw it as promoting their agenda. QAnon conspiracy believers saw the fruition of their baseless theories. Groups with grievances ranging from anti-vaccinists to those committed to ending covid-19 restrictions seized upon it. 

“Trump supporters who attended massive rallies, sporting Trump regalia, were primed to believe it. 

“And finally, elected officials--  many who won reelection in the same election that ousted Trump-- began to line up with groups they saw as representing a growing sector of the Republican base.”  Read more here.

Friday, Republican Philadelphia City Election Commissioner Al Schmidt told members of the U.S. Senate “The former POTUS incited supporters to threaten to kill my children and put their 'heads on spikes' because we counted votes cast by eligible voters. They named my children and included my home address in the threats."  Read more here.

Last month Schmidt announced he would not run for reelection in 2023 and insisted that the Pennsylvania vote count was "free and fair," despite the relentless stream of debunked election-related conspiracy theories from the former president. Read more here.

Media outlets continued to report on anti-government extremist groups active in Pennsylvania, noting the state ranks fifth nationally for the most anti-government groups, according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Read more here.

There are at least 36 white nationalist, hate and anti-government groups operating in Pennsylvania, according to these reports.  Read more here.

Items just last week in Pennsylvania: Westmoreland County school district investigates teacher for racist post [Read more here.] Penn State Black Caucus speaks out about recent Zoom bombing Of their event with racist and homophobic slurs [Read more here]. Racist anti-Asian speech surfaces at Montgomery County High School [Read more here.]  Students’ allegations of racism in Adams County High School force difficult conversations [Read more here.]

A national survey released Thursday found that while the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol may have been made up of fringe extremists, politically motivated violence has the support of four in 10 Republicans.  Read more here.

The survey found 39 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement, “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”

The survey also found 27 percent of white evangelicals surveyed subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory, a higher share than any other other faith group. White evangelicals also stand out in supporting the idea violence can be necessary.  Read more here.

Georgia DA’s Wide Net

Fani T. Willis, District Attorney for Fulton County in Georgia, last week announced she is conducting a criminal investigation into election interference in Georgia by former President Trump, his allies and associates.  Read more here.

“Anything that is relevant to attempts to interfere with the Georgia election will be subject to review,” Willis said.  That includes Trump’s phone calls to Georgia officials to find votes and actions by others.  Read more here.

At least two lawyers from Philadelphia were on at least one Trump call to Georgia officials and PA Republican Cong. Scott Perry was involved in a related attempt to replace the then Acting U.S. Attorney General with someone more sympathetic to taking action to overturn the Georgia results.

Willis has pioneered the use of racketeering charges, not just conspiracy charges, against individuals and organizations that use anything from a government agency to that person’s own public office to conduct overt acts for an illegal purpose.  Read more here.


Philadelphia-area lawyer Bruce Castor, one President Trump’s lead impeachment attorneys, mistakenly referred to Georgia election official Brad Raffensperger as Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, when he was talking about Trump's attempts to overturn the Georgia election results.  Read more here. called “Fumble!” and noted it wasn’t a good week for the former Montgomery County district attorney.

Countering Vaccine Rollout Chaos

Responding to the continuing chaos in the COVID vaccine rollout, Gov. Wolf Tuesday announced the creation of a joint Task Force between the Administration and General Assembly to “share vaccine information and communicate issues and solutions expediently on behalf of and to the broader General Assembly.”  Read more here.

This is significant.  It’s the very first time since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, that Gov. Wolf reached out to the General Assembly with any sort of joint arrangement for dealing with any aspect of COVID.

Legislative members of the Task Force include Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), Sen. Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia), Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington) and Rep. Bridget Kosierowski (D-Lackawanna).

Sen. Augment wasted no time announcing his idea to appoint a “vaccine czar” with a military background to coordinate the rollout of COVID vaccinations in the state.  Read more here.

Of course, the chaos, frustration, short supplies of vaccines, crashing appointment software and phone lines, and calls for teachers and others to be put first in line for vaccinations continued last week.

Then there was a report in New York that for $50 a hacker put together some software that checked available vaccine providers for appointments automatically and came up with open appointments for anyone checking.  Read more here.

Sounds a lot better than what many Pennsylvania seniors are doing now-- letting their kids or strangers on Facebook search a dozen sites one at a time repeatedly for appointments.  Read more here.

On Friday, Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam announced she had issued a new order that has the goal of clarifying the state’s expectations for vaccine providers and at the same time reducing the overall number of providers from 1,700 to what she called the more efficient and bigger 200 to 300 providers.  Read more here.

She again said they would not be looking at a centralized appointment system and would not be changing the CDC priorities for vaccinations for teachers.  The Health Department is still focused on getting everyone in the Priority IA group vaccinated.  Read more here.

The City of Philadelphia, which runs its own program, announced last week it is vaccinating teachers after city-wide protests by teachers over reopening schools there to in-person learning.  Read more here.

As a followup on one of the key issues during the COVID pandemic, the House Democratic Policy Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on the current status of COVID infections and response in long-term care facilities.

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is under fire for a policy adopted early in the pandemic placing COVID patients into nursing homes that many believe increased the number of infections and deaths in those homes.  Read more here.

If you want more details on COVID issues last week, check the weekly COVID NewsClips.

COVID-19 Record Death Toll

The number of new COVID cases per day generally declined again during the week as did the number of deaths.  Total COVID deaths in Pennsylvania passed 23,000.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 22,396 on February 6 to 23,072 deaths on February 13.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 865,604 on February 6 to 892,344 on February 13.

As of February 12, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 8 percent, down from 8.6 percent last week-- anything over 5 percent is bad.  

Again this week, there were only three counties below 5 percent positivity-- Washington at 4.9 percent, Cambria at 4.3 percent and Cameron at 3.6 percent.  

As of February 13, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 1,210,194 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine-- up from 918,210 last week-- and 378,567 have been given the required two doses-- up from 246,390 last week.

Other Pandemic Related Deaths

Two disturbing reports released last week chronicle the impact the COVID pandemic has had on drug-related overdose deaths and gun violence.

A report in the Morning Call found a pandemic-related surge in drug use across Pennsylvania is leading to roughly 13 deaths a day from overdoses, putting the state on track to make 2020 the worst year in recent history for drug deaths, according to the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.  Read more here.

Gov. Wolf Tuesday signed the 13th renewal of his disaster declaration that deals with the opioid and drug overdose crisis.  Read more here.

Temple University published a study Thursday that found the average number of people shot in Philadelphia each week nearly doubled during the first eight months of the pandemic, bolstering claims made by community activists, criminologists and police that COVID-19 is driving the city’s ongoing surge in gun violence.  Read more here.

In fact, on Monday, February 8, seven people, including a 15-year-old, were killed in five separate shootings in Philadelphia.  Read more here.

Health Insurance Sign Ups Reopen Feb. 15

Pennsylvania’s health insurance marketplace-- Pennie-- reopens for enrollments February 15 to May 15 both online and by phone.

Typically, a person estimated to earn less than $51,000 a year – or a family of four estimated to earn less than $105,000 – would likely qualify for financial assistance to lower the cost of your monthly payment and/or out-of-pocket expenses.

PA Supreme Court Endorsements

State Republicans and Democrats endorsed candidates for the open seat on the PA Supreme Court last week.  Read more here.

Kewin Brobson, President Judge of Commonwealth Court, was endorsed by Republicans and Superior Court Judge Maria McLaughlin was endorsed by Democrats.

The open seat is the result of the mandatory retirement of Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican.  Democrats hold a 5 to 2 majority on the Court, so the open seat election won’t change the partisan balance.  Read more here.

Judicial/Law Enforcement Issues

Several other items related to judicial and law enforcement issues caught some attention last week, including--

-- Inquirer: Accused Of 6 Murders, Philly Man Spent 25 Years On Death Row, Now His Record Is Cleared

-- KDKA: Pittsburgh Man Wrongly Convicted Of 1976 Killing To Be Freed After 40 Years In Prison

-- Charles Thompson: Wolf Proposes Paying Anyone Wrongly Convicted $50,000 For Every Year Spent In Prison

-- Lt. Gov. Fetterman: Study Confirms Need For Reform Of Life Without Parole Sentences For 2nd Degree Felony Murder

-- WESA: Report: Life Sentences Create Larger, Older, Sicker, More Expensive Prison Population

-- Gov. Wolf: Signs 13 Commutations For People Who Were Sentenced To Life

-- AP: Wolf Takes State Out Of Appeal Of Court Decision Striking Down Victim Rights Amendment

-- MCall: Lehigh Valley Quakers Tackle Systemic Problem Of People Stuck In Jail Because They Can’t Afford $1,000 Bail

-- PennLive: How Innovations Keep PA’s Legal System Running In A Pandemic

-- Sen. Street: Nearly 3 Dozen Lawmakers Write Gov. Wolf Urging Him To Release Prisoners Vulnerable To COVID

-- State Police: State Trooper Among 4 Arrested On Gambling, Prostitution, Other Charges In Lackawanna County

-- PA State Police Announce On-Duty Death Of Trooper Monty Mitchell

-- YorkDR: Lebanon County Commissioners Deny County Children & Youth Agency Ignored Calls On Duncan Child Abuse Case

-- Dept. of Aging: Calls On Legislature To Make Critical Updates To Older Adults Protective Services Act

-- Inquirer: The Philly Election In Common Pleas Court You Never Heard Of With $500 Million In Trusts At Stake

U.S. Senate Race

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman set off a controversy after releasing a U.S. Senate campaign video addressing a 2013 incident when he was mayor of Braddock where he pulled a gun on a Black jogger after hearing gunshots.  Read more here.

The video came two days after he formally announced he was running for U.S. Senate to much statewide media coverage.  Read more here.

Two other candidates entered the U.S. Senate race last week-- former Montgomery County borough council president on the Democratic side [Read more here] and a Republican businessman from West Chester [Read more here].

$53.6 Million In Super Bets

The PA Gaming Control Board reported $53.6 million in wagers were placed on the Super Bowl last weekend, a 74 percent increase over wagers placed on the game last year.  Read more here.

At the same time, some gamblers were complaining they did not have the opportunity to place some kinds of proposition bets related to the game, like the color of the Gatorade dumped over the winning coach’s head or the length of the National Anthem.  Read more here.

25 Percent Off

Dan Greenstein, Chancellor of the state-owed university system, told the Senate and House Education Committees Tuesday it could lower the cost of attending a state system university by 25 percent in five years, if a dramatic restructuring can be achieved.  Read more here.

If restructuring cannot be achieved, he said the state system will need about $250 million more a year to support its operations.

The restructuring includes merging California-Clarion-Edinboro and Mansfield-Lock Haven--Bloomsburg.

He also said the state system was left with about a $210 million hole in its budget, after federal aid, as a result of the COVID pandemic.  Read more here.

Looking For COVID Escape?

People looking for an escape from the stress of the COVID pandemic usually take to the outdoors and wide open spaces and they have in record numbers [Read more here].

The Morning Call, however, has different ideas.

On the same day, they published stories about getting relief from COVID stress at a new BYOB axe-throwing facility opening soon in Allentown [Read more here] or through the healing benefits of learning to knit promoted by a Philadelphia-area scientist who said, “This is what I was put on this earth to do.” [Read more here]

To each their own!

What’s Next?

The Senate returns to voting session the week of February 23.  The House is due back the week of March 15.

In the meantime, the House will begin its agency-by-agency budget hearings February 16 which will continue for 11 days.  Click Here for House schedule.

The Senate has no committee hearings scheduled at this time. The Senate begins budget hearings March 8.   Click Here for Senate schedule.

The PA House Democratic Policy Committees have a joint hearing on racial and gender bias in the state court system set for Friday. Read more here.


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: February 14, 2021]

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