Sunday, June 6, 2021

PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Legislators Sprint To Budget Deadline Awash In Money; Never Ending Election; Ending Emergency?

Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] What a difference 11 weeks makes!  At the beginning of March, Pennsylvania faced a state budget deficit of $2.5 to $3.5 billion by everyone’s estimates [Read more here]; COVID percent positivity was at 5.7 percent, but starting to drop; Gov. Wolf just started easing gathering limits on businesses slightly; and a new Vaccine Task Force was helping get the sluggish vaccination plan moving [Read more here].

Now, thanks to President Biden, PA Republicans have $7.3 billion extra to put into the state budget because of the American Rescue Plan signed into law March 11 and the May state revenue numbers reported last week showed lawmakers an extra $2.9 billion was collected-- a total of $10.2 billion more than they expected with no deficit.

To put this in perspective, the FY 2020-21 General Fund budget totaled $32.1 billion in state funds and $3.4 billion in earlier federal stimulus money.

The Senate and House will begin their sprint to the July 1 deadline to pass a state budget when session begins this week, but Senate and House Republicans have not yet given any hints of a plan for spending the $10.2 billion extra they have.

In addition to plans already offered by Senate and House Democrats, Democrat members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation wrote to Senate and House leaders last week urging them to wisely spend the $7.3 billion in American Rescue Plan money.  Read more here.

The letter said in part, “The pandemic has revealed inequities in many public policy areas, such as K-12 education, higher education, access to housing and health care, and access to jobs and support for small, local businesses—especially in Black and Brown communities. The American Rescue Plan is meant to help the state respond to the immediate crisis in ways that address these long-term inequities.”

There are always many more places to spend money than there is money in any state budget, no matter how much you have.

Let’s not forget things like the $8.1 billion annual shortfall PennDOT faces in highway and bridge funding a joint legislative-Wolf Administration task force is working on [Read more here]. 

In fact, Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Cambria) proposed using $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to temporarily substitute for other funding from the PA Turnpike, enact the Clean Transportation Infrastructure Act-- Senate Bill 435 (Mensch-R-Montgomery)-- and create a 5-year pilot program to require electric vehicles to pay a mileage-based user fee.  Read more here.

There is also the ever increasing cost of human service and Medicaid programs-- pandemic or not-- as well as other basic needs like public education where the Wolf Administration has proposed major reforms dealing with private charter schools that could save over $395 million a year [Read more here].

Pennsylvania also faces a significant backlog in meeting Green Infrastructure needs-- farm conservation, mine reclamation, recreation, land conservation and state park and forest maintenance obligations. Read more here.

On education specifically this week, the Senate Education Committee Monday is expected to move legislation-- Senate Bill 1 (Martin-R-Lancaster)-- which includes a major expansion of financial support for private charter schools and support for other educational options outside of public schools in the form of an expanded EITC tax credit scholarship program, Education Opportunity Accounts and other changes.

The state teachers’ union is already calling it the “largest transfer of taxpayer dollars out of public schools in Pennsylvania history.”  Read more here.

There are plenty more meaty budget issues to resolve and political fights to be had before the July 1 budget deadline.

Mo’ Money

Pennsylvania could be getting even more federal money if discussions now underway for a general infrastructure package [Read more here] and a more specific surface transportation package [Read more here] bear fruit.

May Revenue Details

As expected, May state revenues were up significantly due to moving the tax deadline to May 17 and a healthier than expected economy.

The Department of Revenue reported Pennsylvania collected $3.9 billion in General Fund revenue in May, which was $1.6 billion, or 65.4 percent, more than anticipated as a result of moving the tax deadline to May 17. 

Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $36.6 billion, which is $2.9 billion, or 8.5 percent, above estimate.  Read more here.

Transparency In Name Only

A Spotlight PA series on the accountability of Senate and House lawmakers in spending taxpayer money ended last week with the very obvious conclusion there is “transparency in name only” when it comes to how they spend your money.  Read more here.

While lawmakers demand state agencies account for every dime they spend, legislators fail to apply that same rule to themselves and appear to have no enthusiasm for changing how they operate.

At the same time, Senate and House Republican leadership is enthusiastically going after lobbyists and what they can and can’t do, but are very careful not to touch anything related to the gifts lawmakers get from them or limiting campaign contributions they receive.

Bipartisan legislation announced last week by Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) would take a step toward solving this problem by requiring the chief clerks of the Senate and House to post expense information online. Read more here.

In addition to the extra $10.2 billion in taxpayer money lawmakers have to spend, legislators also have over $200 million in surplus funds in their own operating accounts for the Senate and House. Read more here.

It seems like lawmakers should first look into the mirror when they ask for “transparency” and “accountability,” but don’t hold your breath.

No More Emergency?

Lawmakers have until June 10 to extend or modify the current pandemic emergency declaration, according to the new rules for handling such things, so the issue has to come up for action this week in the House and Senate.

House Resolution 106 (Benninghoff-R-Mifflin) is on the House Calendar that would, they say, terminate some, but not all the provisions of the declaration and extend it to October 1, 2021.

Recall that Gov. Wolf said last week most everything Republicans included in the Resolution was NOT part of the emergency declaration itself so it will have limited impact [Read more here], except of course ending the current declaration cold turkey if no action is taken.

And ending the declaration once and for all is what many House and Senate Republicans want.

But, don’t worry, there will still be things to fight over because all the COVID restrictions that are left in place and many other measures used to speed the response to the pandemic are contained in orders issued by the Secretary of Health under separate law.

Vaccinations Slow Even More

From May 29 to June 4, the number of adults over 18 fully vaccinated in Pennsylvania increased from 53.5 percent to 54.7 percent-- a 1.2 percentage point increase, less than half the percentage point increase from the week before and just over a third of what it was two weeks ago.

From May 22 to 29, the number of adults over 18 fully vaccinated increased from 51 percent to 53.5 percent-- a 2.5 percentage point increase.  

From  May 15 to May 22-- the number increased from 47.8 percent to 51 percent-- a 3.2 percentage point increase.

Remember-- 70 percent FULLY vaccinated is still the goal.

Penn State joined the effort to provide financial incentives for students to get vaccinated offering a weekly $1,000 prize [Read more here], but Duquesne University joined the ranks of colleges requiring students to be vaccinated [Read more here].

Find A Vaccine Provider

If you are looking for vaccine providers, the Department of Health inks to the federal vaccine provider map because it has the best information available. Read more here.

Many providers switched to walk-in vaccinations in many parts of the state because demand has been so low.

COVID  Percent Positivity Drops Below 3%

As of June 4, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped to 2.9 percent from 3.8 percent last week.

Any number below 5 percent is a good thing.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 27,203 on May 29 to 27,349 on June 5.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,201,375 on May 29 to 1,205,290 on June 5.

Cross Your Fingers!

The Department of Labor and Industry is promising the computer upgrade to the Unemployment Compensation Claims system will be done and up and running by June 8. 

It’s the first time in 40 years the system has been upgraded, so, what could go wrong?

The agency has been offering a series of online workshops to educate claimants on how the new system will work and put up a NEW Unemployment Compensation System webpage with everything about the new system in one place.

So, as Samuel L. Jackson famously said in Jurassic Park-- “Hold Onto Your Butts!

Never Ending Election

A trip to Arizona last week to see the Republican 2020 election “audit” by PA Republican lawmakers Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams), Sen. Cris Dush (R-Jefferson) and Rep. Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin) triggered a controversial call for an “Arizona-style” 2020 election “audit” in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

The suggestion is also causing differences between Republicans with Sen. David Argal (R-Schuylkill), who famously chaired the “they stole the election” hearing of the PA Senate Republican Policy Committee in Gettysburg starring Rudy Guiliani and the former President by telephone, saying he favors an “audit” as the “best path forward to address the legitimate concerns of the large majority of my constituents.”  Read more here.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) has so far declined to comment on the issue.  Read more here.

On the House side, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee that held 10 hearings on the 2020 election, said House Republicans “...will not be authorizing any further audits on any previous election.”  Read more here.

BTW...Republican leaders in Maricopa County, Arizona where the audit is taking place have called it a “sham,” “political theater” and “a grift disguised as an audit.” Read more here.

The Arizona “audit” has also been called a “clown show,” a “waste of taxpayer money” and an “audit in name only” as well as a study in “disinformation.”  Read more here.

There will no doubt be more on this as the week goes on.

Not Just 2 Changes

The bipartisan PA County Commissioners Association last week again shared their frustration over the lack of progress on making needed changes to the state election law.  Read more here.

They said just two changes would make elections run a whole lot smoother-- giving counties more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting and moving the deadline for mail-in ballot applications back. Read more here.

“It is time to help counties with what they need, right here and right now, to run the smooth and successful elections that our voters expect,” said CCAP president and Butler County commissioner Kevin Boozel. “We have outlined two very simple solutions that would, as our counties have said, address the majority of challenges we have faced in implementing mail-in ballots, and we need the state and the General Assembly to step up to help counties, and to help our voters.”

Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee that held 10 hearings on the 2020 election, had a quick answer-- “I didn’t hold 10 hearings to only do two things. We’re going to have a comprehensive election reform bill.”  Read more here.

Republican Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) was again pushing his idea last week to suspend no-excuse mail-in voting altogether until 2023-- conveniently after the 2022 gubernatorial election. Read more here.

One article summarized the election law changes issue well by saying-- “PA’s Election Code Is In Need Of Changes, But Do Potential Plans Match What Locals Really Need?

Carbon Wars - The Fight

And on another political front, Senate Republicans are holding fast to their position that they will not confirm any of the Governor’s nominations to the Public Utility Commission-- completely unrelated to the fight over carbon pollution-- until Gov. Wolf withdraws his proposal to reduce carbon pollution from power plants consistent with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Read more here.

In response, Gov. Wolf earlier withdrew his nominees for the PUC, Health, Education, Labor and Industry, State, Human Services, the Adjutant General and the Physician General and has not resubmitted any in their place.  You can check the Executive Nominations Calendar yourself.

House Republicans, following their Senate colleagues, will move legislation-- House Bill 637 (Struzzi-R-Indiana)-- out of committee Tuesday to take away DEP’s authority to adopt carbon pollution reduction programs covering power plants or from any other source.  Read more here.

A companion bill-- Senate Bill 119 (Pittman-R-Indiana)-- is already in the Senate Appropriations Committee and may move to the full Senate as well.

Gov. Wolf vetoed identical legislation last September, so Republicans must be hoping for a different result but doing the same thing.  Read more here.

[Note: There are only four conventional coal-fired power plants left online in Pennsylvania that don’t have plans to retire or convert to other fuels. Nineteen have already closed or converted to other fuels long before this legislation or the RGGI regulation was proposed.  Read more here.]

DEP continues down the path of putting the final regulation setting up its carbon pollution reduction program covering power plants in front of the Environmental Quality Board for a vote in July.

Four DEP advisory committees voted to recommend DEP move ahead with the final regulation last month, in contrast to negative recommendations from many of these same committees on the original version of the regulation. Read more here.

Last week, Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D-Chester) announced plans to introduce legislation to invest the estimated $300 million in proceeds generated from the carbon reduction program in efforts to help communities and workers during the transition to clean energy, environmental justice areas and other initiatives to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. Read more here.

So, stay tuned for more on this issue as well.

Carbon Wars - Markets Speak

The energy markets spoke again last week on which energy generation sources it prefers through the PJM Interconnection power auction to assure electric power supplies across 13 states and the District of Columbia, including Pennsylvania. Read more here.

Coal-fired power plants were the biggest losers in the auction market clearing 8,175 MW less power than during the last auction.

Nuclear power (carbon free) was a big winner with natural gas (less carbon) coming in second. Solar and wind energy generation (carbon free) also picked up more of the power market as well. Read more here.

The overall cost of electricity dropped by $4.4 billion since the last auction-- from $140/MW-day to $50/MW-day. Read more here.

Competition with, first, natural gas to generate electricity has driven 19 coal-fired power plants out of operation in Pennsylvania-- before the RGGI regulation was even thought of.  Read more here.  

There are only four conventional coal-fired power plants left online in Pennsylvania that don’t have plans to retire or convert to other fuels. Read more here.

Projections show the remaining coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania will also close, due to competition with natural gas and increasingly renewables, with or without the RGGI rule.

Natural gas-fired power plants are also finding themselves under more competitive pressure from renewables. 

Vistra Corp-- a major developer of natural gas power plants in Pennsylvania and elsewhere-- announced two weeks ago it will not build any more natural gas plants and instead invest in solar energy farms. Read more here.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported last week energy consumption from all sources decreased a record 7 percent in 2020 for all fuels-- except for renewable energy which increased 2 percent. Read more here.

Petroleum consumption decreased 13 percent, natural gas decreased 2 percent, coal decreased 19 percent, and nuclear electric power decreased 2 percent.

Allegheny County Pleas

Allegheny County DA Stephen A. Zappala Jr. (Democrat) created a huge controversy in Pittsburgh by sending an email to all his deputy prosecutors forbidding them from offering any plea deals to clients of well-known Black attorney Milton Raiford who he said called his office “systematically racist.”  Read more here.

The action prompted calls for his resignation [Read more here], a county judge to reject three plea agreements until Zappala rescinded the policy [Read more here], other calls to rescind the policy by state legislators [Read more here] and calls for the action to be reviewed by the PA Supreme Court as an ethics violation  [Read more here].

On Thursday, Zappala doubled down on his decision to prohibit plea offers from the attorney. Read more here.

What’s Next?

The Senate and House return to voting session this week and for the next four weeks or until the state budget is done.

Both chambers have a heavy schedule of committee activities and some major issues teed up for action.

As noted, the Senate has major legislation on education policy up for consideration in the Senate Education Committee Monday along with a hearing on games of skill and how they are regulated.

Click Here for Senate Committee schedule.

The House is set for action on the resolution to end or partially end the pandemic emergency declaration, abortion-related issues, taking away DEP’s authority to adopt carbon pollution reduction programs and more..

Click Here for House Committee schedule.

Given everything lawmakers have going on in June, one long-time political observer suggested-- tongue firmly in cheek--  making June “PA Legislature Appreciation Month.”  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

[Posted: June 6, 2021] 

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