Sunday, February 28, 2021

PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Re-living Pandemic, New Districts Later, Questions On Ballot Questions

[ Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] 
Members of the House Appropriations Committee continued budget hearings last week re-living the early days of the COVID pandemic with the departments of Health and Community and Economic Development and telling PennDOT what a bad idea it was to put tolls on bridges to fund major construction projects.

Nursing Home Deaths

One repeated line of questioning by Republicans at the House budget hearing with Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam was over whether an early policy of requiring nursing homes to readmit COVID patients for continuing care contributed to increasing the number of cases and deaths at those facilities.

Beam responded by saying the state wanted to ensure that hospitals weren’t overrun and, “to the extent that it could be done safely,” allow nursing home residents to recover in their own homes-- the nursing homes.  Read more here.

The Associated Press reported, “Despite a high number of nursing home deaths in Pennsylvania, no investigation has thus far pointed to the policy as a cause of death or outbreak. Meanwhile, nursing home trade associations in Pennsylvania say they are not aware of a nursing home that was forced to accept a COVID-positive patient against its will, or that the order led to death or an outbreak.”  Read more here.

On Thursday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro and U.S. Attorney Scott Brady announced the first indictment in their investigation of a nursing home in Allegheny County for fraud related to falsifying employee records to show staffing standards were met.  Read more here.

“These crimes put facility residents at risk by only providing a dangerously low amount of nursing staff just before COVID began to surge across the country,” said AG Shapiro. 

As a followup on another nursing home issue, the House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee has a hearing Tuesday on COVID vaccine distribution for older adults and those in long-term care.

Expanding Eligibility For Vaccines

Acting Secretary Beam was also grilled on a variety of issues related to the COVID vaccine rollout.  Read more here.

One of the key issues brought up by House Republicans was why the state expanded eligibility for the vaccine in January to anyone over 65 when there was still a limited supply of vaccine. At the time, only those over 75 were eligible, along with health care workers and residents and staff of nursing homes.  Read more here.

Had she been allowed to answer the question directly, the real answer was on January 12, as the Trump Administration was going out the door, the CDC released new guidelines telling states to expand eligibility to everyone over 65.  They said they would stop holding back millions of doses reserved for second rounds of shots to free up vaccine.  Read more here.

Two days later, it was discovered there were no reserves to release.  Read more here.

Waiver Program

DCED Secretary Dennis Davin was repeatedly asked by House Republicans about the Gov. Wolf’s closure of  “non-life sustaining” businesses and the fairness of the waiver program that went along with it.  Read more here.

Gov. Wolf closed non-life sustaining businesses on March 19, 2020 to slow the spread of COVID, a blunt tool against a virus everyone knew so little about at the time.  Read more here  The same tool was used by other countries to slow the spread and other states, and it worked to prevent the spread of disease and deaths.  

The waiver program was actually an idea suggested by Senate Republicans a few days after the Governor’s order.  Read more here.

The order closing non-life sustaining businesses transitioned into the Red-Yellow-Green three phase reopening plan announced by Gov. Wolf on April 22 based on levels of disease in the counties and other metrics.  Read more here.  On May 1, the Governor announced the first counties to move to the Yellow phase.  Read more here.

Bridge Tolls Bad

Republican lawmakers expressed their opposition to a proposal by PennDOT to put tolls on nine bridges across the state to fund major rebuild projects at the House hearing on the Department of Transportation’s budget.  Read more here.

PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian said before the COVID pandemic PennDOT was forecasting a deficit of $2.5 billion a year for bridge and highway projects and $1.2 billion for public transit costs.  Read more here.

The pandemic reduced revenues from the vehicle fuel taxes even further-- $500 million through January.  

Overall, Secretary Gramian told the Committee PennDOT is doing about $6.9 billion worth of highway and bridge projects when it should be doing $15 billion.

She added that although pleased with the $1.1 billion in federal COVID relief funding received by PennDOT, so far has not made up the difference.

At the end of the hearing, Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne), Minority Chair of the House Transportation Committee, reminded his colleagues lawmakers were the ones that gave the Public-Private Transportation Partnership Board the authority to adopt tolls in 2012 in the way they did.  Read more here.

$800 Million Loss

The state-related universities-- Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln-- told the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday the COVID pandemic resulted in an $800 million loss in revenues, added COVID costs and lost income from investments at the schools.  Read more here.

These four universities received a total of $123.9 million in federal CARES relief funding, of which $54.3 million went for student aid--

-- Penn State: $55 million total, including $27 million for students. Read more here.

-- Temple: $44.2 million, including $15 million for students.  Read more here.

-- Pitt: $21.3 million, including $10.6 million for students.  Read more here.

-- Lincoln: $3.4 million, including $1.7 million for students. Read more here.

$55 Million Loss

On another education issue, Allentown School District reported Wednesday it would have a $55 million deficit in five years if there was no increase in local taxes or state subsidies and without reform of charter school funding costs.  Read more here.

The district pointed out that in the last six years, charter school costs have doubled and are expected to keep going up.

Coincidentally, Gov. Wolf Friday unveiled a bipartisan charter school “accountability plan” to take another run at charter school reforms.  Read more here.

The Department of Educations up for a House budget hearing Monday and this will no doubt be a topic of conversation as well as COVID.

Wrapping Up

The House wraps up its budget hearings this week after hearing from the departments of Education; Labor and Industry where Unemployment Compensation questions will no doubt dominate; Human Services where “out of control costs” are a staple; and ending the hearings Thursday is the Governor’s Budget Secretary.  Here’s the schedule.

The Senate will start its agency-by-agency budget hearings March 8 when we do this all over again.  Here’s the schedule.

FY 2021-22 Budget Testimony/Resources:

Department of Aging

Department of Agriculture

Department of Community & Economic Development

Department of Corrections

Department Of Drug & Alcohol Programs

Department of Environmental Protection

Department of General Services

Department of Health

Department of Revenue

Department of State

Department of Transportation

Independent Fiscal Office

Liquor Control Board

State Police Liquor Enforcement

State-Related Universities-

     -- Penn State University

     -- University of Pittsburgh

     -- Temple University

     -- Lincoln University


Click Here for videos of completed House hearings.  


Click Here for testimony and videos of completed hearings.

Federal Aid Half Done

Early Saturday morning, the U.S. House passed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID/economic relief bill-- a.k.a. American Rescue Plan-- on a party-line vote, Democrats supporting.  Read more here.

While no Republican members of Congress from Pennsylvania supported the bill, state House and Senate Republicans are secretly applauding, because it contains aid for states, local governments, school districts and state programs that will save the lots of headaches putting together the FY 2021-22 state budget.   Read summary of contents here.

But the job is only half done; the U.S. Senate has to vote yet.

The House version contained an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15, but that was only a nod to the importance of the issue for Democrats, because the U.S. Senate parliamentarian has already ruled a minimum wage increase cannot be included in the final aid package and the budget rules governing the adoption of this package.  Read more here.

Redrawing Legislative Voting Districts

The big takeaway from the joint Senate and House hearing last week on the impact of the delay in the 2020 U.S. Census numbers was the obvious-- the process for redrawing legislative and Congressional voting districts in Pennsylvania will be delayed.  Read more here.

The head of the PA Legislative Data Processing Center told lawmakers if the state gets the Census numbers by September 30, then the Center can get the numbers in shape for mapmakers to finish their job in May 2022 , but not in time for the primary election.  Read more here.

At the hearing, Republicans criticized the representative from the U.S. Census for not doing his job in this age of computers.  Sen. Cris Dush (R-Cameron) noted some how they got it done when they were carrying around results on horseback.

Republicans seem to forget the 2020 Census was collected under the Trump Administration and delayed by the COVID pandemic and lawsuits against the Administration for wanting to ask questions about citizenship and not counting everyone in the country.  Read more here.

Opponents of gerrymandering-- like the League of Women Voters, Fair Districts PA, Draw the Lines PA and the Committee of Seventy-- pointed out modern mapping tools allow anyone to draw and redraw voting districts in hours not days or weeks.  Read more here.

They plan to put their own proposed voting district maps before the Legislative Reapportionment Commission enlisting an army of citizen-mappers using tools they plan to put online.

They said the time to prevent the kinds of gerrymandering that occurs in Pennsylvania every 10 years by Republicans is now.

Not bad for a minority party where Republicans have 3,506,337 registered voters and in the state and Democrats have 4,207,190-- 624,315 more.  Read more here.

Republicans Cry Foul!

Senate and House Republicans criticized the Wolf Administration for the way it wrote the constitutional amendment questions to be put on the ballot in May on limiting emergencies declared by governors to 21 days.  Read more here.

They said the question is slanted to scare voters into voting against the measure.

The amendment passed in Senate Bill 2 says emergencies declared by a governor can only last 21 days, unless the Senate and House pass a resolution continuing the emergency.  If they do nothing, the emergency ends.  [They’re good at doing nothing. It's one of their best tools.]

The actual question-- in this case two questions-- put on the ballot are written by the Department of State-- for some obscure reason-- and are not included in the legislation--

-- Question #1: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval? 

-- Question #2: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management? 

  Formal advertisements in newspapers across the state have both the language passed by the General Assembly, the ballot question and a plain language explanation by the Office of Attorney General.

President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) told reporters, “The questions are written in a way to scare voters away. But I trust the voters of Pennsylvania. We are going to take the questions to them and give them the background. We are going to work to educate our constituents on why – no matter how it is worded – this referendum needs to pass. 

“We will provide voters with the information to make an intelligent decision. I’m confident that once the people learn the real initiative behind the amendment they will vote ‘yes’ in order to restore checks and balances back to Pennsylvania.” 

Just a reminder, these are the same Senate and House Republican leadership that didn’t trust the voters and wanted to overturn the November election results.

Last Election Challenges Thrown Out

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out multiple challenges to Pennsylvania’s November election results on Monday brought by Pennsylvania Republicans.  None of the challenges contained specific allegations or evidence of votes being deliberately cast illegally.  Read more here.

Republican PA Cong. Kelly, Senate and House Republican leaders and other state Republicans had challenged the constitutionality of the entire mail-in voting system and asked for it to be thrown out.  Read more here.

Another Republican challenge asked that 10,000 mail-in ballots that arrived after election day due to Postal Service delays not be counted.  No word on how much it increased Biden’s winning 80,000 vote margin in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

As a result of these decisions, changes or reforms of the voting system in Pennsylvania will be in the hands of the House and Senate and the Wolf Administration.

No changes are likely soon-- even the obvious ones to give counties more time to get mail-in ballots ready for counting-- until after the House and Senate finish their “review” of the 2020 elections.  Read more here.

The current House State Government Committee schedule has the hearings lasting until at least May 5, less than two weeks before the May 18 primary election.  Read more here.

The next Committee elections hearing is Thursday on the voter registration process.

PA’s Role In Assault On U.S. Capitol

Three more Pennsylvanians were arrested last week for their role in the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol

On Wednesday, a Delaware County man involved in storming the Capitol was turned in by his ex-girlfriend after he called her a “moron” for not believing the election was stolen from Trump.  Read more here.

On Thursday, a man and a woman were the latest residents of Bucks County to be arrested. Prosecutors said the man knocked down a police officer when he tried to get around barricades blocking access to the Capitol causing her to lose consciousness.  He reportedly said, "We don't have to hurt you, why are you standing in our way?"   Read more here.

The Harrisburg woman arrested for helping to steal Speaker Peolosi’s laptop during the assault earlier appeared in a video making a Nazi salute, it was reported.  Her lawyer said it was a joke.  Read more here.

The police chief supervising the Lebanon County police officer arrested the previous week for his role in the assault was suspended from his job, pending an investigation of the events surrounding the officer.  Read more here.

Monday, a major article by documented how hate and extremist groups were emboldened into action across last year and Pennsylvania has emerged as a “hotbed” for hate groups and white supremists.  Read more here.

The Governor’s Advisory Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs put out a statement Monday condemning the recent attacks on Asian Pacific Americans in Montgomery County and other communities.  Read more here.

The Inquirer reported Monday a group of retired Philadelphia police officers trying to defeat Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner got major financial backing last year from a Republican donor with a history of using racist language.  Read more here.

Dickinson College in Cumberland County last week announced they are investigating an incident involving an anti-Semitic video reported by a student.  Read more here.

The PA Republican State Committee met Wednesday to discuss whether or not to censure U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey for his vote to convict President Trump for inciting the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, but could not come to an agreement.  Party officials said they would meet again.  Read more here.

So far almost 19,000 Republican voters have left the party since the assault on the Capitol.  Read more here.

The Allentown Morning Call reported former Republican Congressman Charlie Dent from the Lehigh Valley said his email is filling up with messages from Republicans on how they can sign up to be part of a center-right political party inside or outside of the Republicans.  Read more here.

On January 10, right after the assault on the Capitol, Dent had an op-ed in the Financial Times entitled, “How To Rescue The Republican Party From Trump’s Chaos.”

Vaccine Rollout Continues

Pennsylvania’s COVID vaccine rollout picked up a little more momentum last week not only as a result of at least 40,000 more doses being available, but as mass vaccination centers began to open in several areas of the state.  Read more here.

Two major health systems finally stepped up to roll out mass vaccinations-- UPMC [Read more here] and Penn State Health [Read more here].

Gov. Wolf announced COVID vaccinations were completed at 600 nursing homes across the state, but acknowledged the obvious-- there are still major gaps in the program.  Read more here.

Problems getting enough vaccines also forced the cancellation of some clinics giving out second COVID shots, but Acting Secretary of Health Beam said they believe they will have everyone who got a first shot covered for a second shot “within a safe time frame.”  Read more here.

The Senate last week gave final approval to legislation-- House Bill 326 (O’Neal-R- Washington)-- authorizing the PA National Guard to get involved in planning mass vaccination sites across the state and put the bill on Gov. Wolf’s desk Friday.  Read more here.

Although the Department of Health said last week they would stick with the existing priorities for giving out vaccines, Philadelphia the week before and now St. Luke’s Health System in the Lehigh Valley said they would be giving teachers a high priority.  Read more here.

Speaking of priorities, Geisinger, a major health system in Central PA, announced it had allowed employee family members to skip the COVID vaccine line to get vaccinated against Department of Health guidelines .  Read more here.

It was the second system with a similar practice.  A hospital in the University of Pennsylvania Health System also did the same thing.  Read more here.

A variety of groups in Pittsburgh [Read more here], Philadelphia [Read more here], Central PA [Read more here] and other areas are working actively to make sure underserved and minority communities have access to vaccinations.

Read this week’s COVID NewsClips for much more on the vaccine rollout.

Health System “Profits”

UPMC, a major statewide nonprofit health system, Friday reported record revenues of $23.1 billion in 2020, resulting in a “profit” of about $1 billion.  Read more here.

Interesting note-- UPMC received over $1.1 billion in federal CARES Act aid in 2020 to shore up its finances, one of the largest amounts in the United States.  Read more here.

On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny), who is running against current Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in the May Democratic primary, said he would renew Pittsburgh’s legal challenge to UPMC’s nonprofit status in an attempt to collect more city and school district taxes.  Read more here.

At the other end of the state, Tower Health replaced its CEO after sustaining big losses in its Philadelphia and suburban hospitals.  Read more here.

COVID-19 Record Death Toll

COVID numbers were down again last week, led by another drop in statewide percent positivity from 6.5 percent to 6.3 percent.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 23,570 on February 20 to 24,000 deaths on February 27.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 911,591 cases on February 20 to 929,697 cases on February 27.

As of February 26, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard was showing a statewide percent positivity of 6.3 percent, down dramatically from 6.5 percent last week-- anything over 5 percent is bad.  

There were 20 counties below 5 percent positivity, up from last week’s 17.

As of February 26, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 1,576,984 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine-- up from 1,387,443 last week-- and 649,020 have been given the required two doses-- up from 479,797 last week.

One Year Later

USA Today and the Erie Times published a series of articles last week marking the one year into the COVID pandemic--

-- ErieT/USA Today: A Year Of COVID: 2 Weeks To Flatten The Curve Became 365 Days Of Frustration In PA  

-- ErieT/USA Today: One Year Later: PA Hospitals Deal With COVID On Many Fronts

-- ErieT/USA Today: Lessons Learned: Erie Area Colleges May Embrace Some COVID-Caused Changes When Virus Wanes

Bipartisan Weed

On Wednesday, Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) broke ranks with other Republicans and joined Sen. Shaif Street (D-Philadelphia) to announce they are sponsoring legislation to legalize the use of marijuana by adults and to expunge the record of previous offenders.  Read more here.

The Senators said it was time, citing shifting public attitudes, the potential gain from a new crop for farmers, a fresh start for those with a possession arrest on their record, and revenue from taxing weed will help the state’s bottomline.

The people that actually run the House and Senate, look at it a bit differently.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) has called legalization “utterly irresponsible.” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said it is “reckless and irresponsible.”  Read more here.

Law Enforcement

Following up on issues related to civil justice, published a three-article series last week on how the State Police are addressing the changing role of policing--

-- PennLive: Amid Policing Backlash, PA State Police Struggle To Evolve: ‘This Is A Crisis’

-- PennLive: Milton Hershey School Students Playing Key Role To Improve State Policing Across PA

-- PennLive: PA State Police Program To Improve Minority Relations Results In Better Policing Of Police Protests

On Friday, Philadelphia officials and state lawmakers who represent the city joined local activists outside the Olney Transportation Center Friday to give an update on the Feb. 17 mass shooting there and demand Republicans in the General Assembly adopt tighter gun laws.  Read more here.

On February 17, eight people ages 17 to 70 were shot at the Center in North Philadelphia.  Read more here.

$100,000 Club did their annual data run listing the number of state employees earning $100,000 or more and found there were 11,337, up 1,586 from last year.  Read more here.

The highest paid employee?  James Grossman, Chief Investment Officer for the Public School Employees Retirement system at $478,490.

What’s Next?

The Senate and House are due back in Harrisburg for voting session the week of March 15.

As noted, the House wraps up its agency-by-agency budget hearings this week and has other hearings scheduled on issues related to COVID vaccinations, voter registration, county mental health and other services, among others.

Click Here for House schedule.

The Senate so far has one joint hearing by the Education and Health and Human Services Committees on education during the COVID pandemic set for Wednesday.

 Click Here for Senate schedule.

Related Articles - Budget:

-- House Budget Hearing Fails To Address A Single Critical Budget Issue Faced By DEP Or DCNR

-- DEP Budget Testimony: DEP Works Through The Pandemic, Public Demands Action To Address Climate Change

-- The Facts In Response To Republican ‘Takeaways’ From DEP Budget Hearing

-- Agriculture Budget Testimony: Conservation And Stewardship Remain Hallmarks Of PA Agriculture


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: February 28, 2021]

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