The February 1 PA Environment Digest is now available. Click Here to read this week’s issue.
Sunday, January 31, 2021
PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: $912 Million Relief Package, 21 Day Emergencies, Wolf’s Priorities
[ Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] Bipartisanship accidentally broke out late last week in Harrisburg when the Senate and House and Gov. Wolf worked to move a $912 million COVID-related relief package for businesses, individuals and school districts.
Senate Bill 109 (Pittman-R-Indiana) passed the Senate and was reported out of the House Appropriations Committee putting it in position for a final vote this week.
It didn’t hurt that about $767 million of this proposal comes from the second federal COVID relief bill and $145 million was a loan from the state Workers’ Compensation Security Fund suggested by Gov. Wolf.
The bill contains--
-- $570 million Rental and Utility Assistance Grant Program for individuals;
-- $145 million Hospitality Industry Recovery Program with grants up to $50,000; and
-- $200 million aid to educational institutions.
21 Day Emergencies
However, the week started with a heated partisan fight over Senate Bill 2 (Ward-R- Westmoreland) that would amend the state constitution to limit emergencies declared by the Governor to 21 days, unless extended by a joint resolution passed by a majority of 253 Senate and House members.
Republicans made the bill a referendum on Gov. Wolf’s handling of the COVID pandemic pointing to the impact his decisions had when he closed down businesses and put people out of work.
Democrats argued Republicans did nothing to actually improve the response to the pandemic, but focused on passing legislation to reopen everything when people were dying from COVID and tens of thousands were getting sick.
Yes, it got that pointed and worse. The “debate” resulted in a partisan 28 to 20 vote, Republicans supporting to pass the bill.
House Republicans, also wanting in on the fun, passed their own bill with the 21 day emergency amendment-- House Bill 55 (Grove-R-York)-- and later moved Senate Bill 2 out of Committee and set it up for a possible final vote this week.
If-- when-- approved by the General Assembly, the amendment will go to the voters at the primary election in May, bypassing any action by the Governor to stop it.
House Republicans will continue to put the spotlight on the impact COVID has had on businesses when the House Commerce Committee holds a hearing February 1 to again hear testimony from the taverns, clubs and VFWs on the impact of COVID on their operations.
The Other Amendments
Opposition continues to gather on the Republican constitutional amendment to elect state appellate court judges by voting districts in House Bill 38 (Diamond-R-Lebanon).
Former Republican PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille published an op-ed Friday with Robert C. Heim, the former Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, saying electing judges by districts was taking a bad idea and making it worse. Read more here.
They both promoted the idea of merit selection for judges.
The proposal has been opposed by Democrats, and remains Tabled in the House.
Here are articles, editorials and op-eds from around the state last week on this issue--
-- TribLive Editorial: PA Courts Represent All Pennsylvanians, Not Districts
-- ScrantonT Editorial: Amendment To Elect Judges From Gerrymandered Voting Districts Mocks Separation Of Powers
Taking action on a third constitutional amendment, the House gave final approval to House Bill 14 (Gregory-R-Blair) that would add a provision to create a retroactive two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits. The vote was 187 to 15, another short-lived outbreak of bipartisanship. Read more here.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also reported its version of the same amendment in Senate Bill 8 (Baker-R-Luzerne) out of Committee with bipartisan support. It will be on the Senate Calendar for action this week.
On January 28, Gov. Wolf laid out his 2021 legislative agenda, including a preview of some of his budget initiatives. He will formally unveil his FY 2021-22 budget February 2 -- Groundhog Day-- during a video budget address to the Senate and House. Read more here.
And here are some other things to watch out for in his budget address-- Read more here.
The biggest part of his agenda was a multi-BILLION-dollar workforce development program funded by a severance tax on natural gas.
Although there were no specifics, Wolf said, “Our economic recovery requires a strategic investment in workforce development that addresses these inequities, supports workers most significantly impacted by the pandemic, and focuses on high-quality, well-paying jobs and careers.”
Gov. Wolf has proposed using a natural gas severance tax to fund education and a Restore PA infrastructure initiative in the past and-- like in the movie Groundhog Day-- this proposal too will repeat their reception-- it will be D.O.A. in the Republican House and Senate.
Another major part of his agenda is urging the federal government to invest in Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, including broadband expansion, flood mitigation, contaminant remediation, blight, green infrastructure, transportation projects and support for transit.
On Friday, Wolf wrote to Pennsylvania’s Congressional Delegation asking them to prioritize critical infrastructure, when Congress considers a new aid package. Read more here.
Also on the Governor’s agenda is--
-- Increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $12/hour, with a path to $15/hour;
-- Taking additional steps on criminal justice reform and healthcare reform;
-- Reduce the Corporate Net Income Tax and close the Delaware loophole;
-- Legalize adult-use marijuana as a source of revenue for restorative justice;
-- Govt. Reforms: gift ban, campaign disclosure, lobbyist reform; and
-- Election Reform to speed counting of ballots, same day voter registration, early voting options.
On January 28, the Election Law Advisory Board, the 23-member, bipartisan group charged by law with reviewing how elections are run, met for the first time. Read more here.
The Board includes election officials, local elected leaders and state lawmakers.
The group unanimously elected Montgomery County Commissioner Ken Lawrence, a Democrat to serve as its Chair and Republican Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz as its vice chair.
Amy Cozze, Northampton County’s chief election registrar, reminded other Board members of the toll that disinformation took on Pennsylvania’s local election officials, leading them to quit their jobs in droves last year.
Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon), an outspoken critic of the 2020 elections, said, “I’m glad to be here talking about the nuts and bolts” of election administration.
On the same day, the House State Government Committee held its second of 14 hearings on the 2020 elections featuring county election officials, Snyder County Commissioner Joe Kantz and Jonathan Marks, Deputy Secretary for Elections at the Department of State.
The hearing was focused on the technical problems with the state’s SURE voter registration data system, which will be replaced with a new system in about 18 months. Read more here.
The House State Government Committee is scheduled to hold its third hearing on the 2020 elections February 11. The topic of the hearings was announced as election audits.
$3.9 Million In Taxpayer Money
PA Capital Star reported Sunday, court fights over the 2020 elections have cost taxpayers $3.9 million-- so far. This includes both Republicans, Democrats and the Wolf Administration. Read more here.
A Republican voter in Allegheny County was charged with a felony Friday for casting a ballot in his dead wife’s name. Read more here.
Charges of voting fraud have been brought against three other individuals in Chester [Read more here], Delaware [Read more here] and Luzerne [Read more here] counties stemming from incidents in 2020. Coincidentally, all involved registered Republicans.
PA Role In U.S. Capitol Assault
More criminal actions were taken against Pennsylvania residents last week for their role in the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Friday, two more people were arrested, including one woman from Bucks County who told the FBI she wanted to shoot Speaker Pelosi ‘in the friggin’ brain.” Read more here.
The bat-weiling South Fayette man arrested earlier for his role in the assault was ordered detained pending a trial. Read more here.
Another Allegheny County man arrested last week for his role in the assault told prosecutors he would do it again. Read more here.
On Wednesday, a State College man was charged with being inside the U.S. Capitol during the assault. Read more here.
Others reported their presence during the riot, including the wife of a Republican Dauphin County commissioner who was at the Capitol near where rioters were trying to break windows to gain entry. She said she was carrying a gas mask with her. Read more here.
Last Sunday, PA Republican Congressman Scott Perry confirmed his role in the attempt to replace the acting U.S. Attorney General with another person more sympathetic to overturning the election results. Read more here.
In addition to many other calls for his resignation, PA Senate Democrats Friday wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking them to investigate Cong. Perry’s involvement in “traitorous and seditious acts.” Read more here.
Dominion Voting System filed a lawsuit against Rudy Giuliani over his false claims of voter fraud citing Giuliani’s actions in Pennsylvania and other states. Read more here.
A second U.S. Capitol Police officer died last week from suicide after being involved in defending the Capitol from the assault. Read more here.
It was announced Friday, the U.S. Capitol Police officer who died at the hands of the mob assaulting the U.S. Capitol will lie in state in the Capitol this week. Read more here.
Countering ‘The Big Lies’
The Central Pennsylvania public media group WITF last week took the unprecedented step of announcing to its viewers, listeners and readers that it was taking several actions to counter what they and others have called “the big lies” by Republicans who attempted to overthrow the election results-- that Joe Biden didn’t win Pennsylvania and there was widespread election fraud. Read more here.
“What we didn’t realize was that false claims of voter fraud would be amplified by the president’s allies in Congress, state legislatures, right-wing media and conspiracy theorists on social media.
“What we didn’t realize was a large portion of the electorate would fall for this lie.”
“So, as part of WITF’s commitment to factual reporting, and because many who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have said their goal was to overthrow the U.S. electoral system and government, we will use language in our reporting to show how elected officials’ actions are connected to the election-fraud lie and the insurrection.”
“We are not taking this approach lightly, and will apply it for lawmakers who took at least one of these three actions: signed on to a Texas lawsuit aimed at invalidating Pennsylvania’s election; signed on to a state House or a state Senate letter urging Congressional representatives to object to or delay certification; and voted against certification.
“When using this language, we’ll consider whether the lawmaker has admitted their mistake, and how the language fits into each particular story.”
Whoa! Read more here.
All In For Trump
A Muhlenberg College Poll taken during the height of the election fraud misinformation by President Trump and PA Republicans-- December 8-16-- found two-thirds of Republicans believed those baseless claims and said they do not have confidence in the election results.
Four out of five Democrats and independents were confident in the results. Read more here.
Only about 10,000 Republicans so far statewide have changed their voter registration in response to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Read more here.
On the issue of whether Trump should lead Republicans, PA Republican Congressman Guy Reschenthaler from Western Pennsylvania had a typical response from lawmakers, just hours after the assault on the U.S. Capitol he tweeted that Trump “is the BEST president since Lincoln.” He continues to believe that. Read more here.
But David Thornburgh, son of the former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General, said he doesn’t see much of “the part of [Teddy] Roosevelt, and Eisenower and Lincoln,” in the Republican Party anymore, adding “I felt the Republican Party left me” to pursue “endless flame wars with the opposition.” Read more here.
Republican state lawmakers have been all-in on promoting the voter fraud claims and supporting Trump’s challenge to the election results, in spite of what Politico called the “collapse” of Republicans in the collar counties around Philadelphia that many say gave Biden the election. Read more here.
Republican House and Senate members are pushing more restrictions or elimination of mail-in voting, remaking the state’s court system that gave them so much trouble after the election by having judges elected from gerrymandered voting districts and limiting the authority of the Governor.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist catalogued the transformation of Pennsylvania Republicans last week to “Trumpsylvania” saying, “The Pennsylvania GOP was once an essential part of ‘grandness’ of what used to be called the Grand Old Party. Now it has devolved into an embarrassing and often seditious spectacle.” Read more here.
Here are some articles reviewing the state of Republicans in Pennsylvania from last week for your consideration--
-- The Guardian: State-Level Republican Groups Lead Party’s Drift To Extremism [PA]
-- Tony Norman: Welcome To Trumpsylvania (Formerly Pennsyltucky)
Vaccine Chaos Continues
On January 26, Gov. Wolf said, while there continue to be many “challenges” to implementing the COVID vaccination program in the state due to the limited supply of dozes from the federal government, he wanted to “ensure that the vaccine is provided in a way that is ethical, equitable and efficient.”
By mid-week, the Biden Administration announced they would be increasing the supply of vaccines going to states over the next several weeks, but that does little good if the delivery system is broken. Read more here.
Media coverage across the state last week clearly showed a hodgepodge of approaches to vaccinations, from healthcare institutions sticking with the original priority lists, to places like Delaware County [Read more here], Altoona [Read more here] and the Lehigh Valley [Read more here] who set up their own mass vaccine distribution sites.
Major health systems like UPMC and Penn State Medical, who were listed by the state as vaccine providers in the central part of the state, were not even taking appointments for shots [Read more here].
Meanwhile, a family-run pharmacy in Hershey that was also listed was overrun by calls.
A major controversy broke out in Philadelphia where the city linked up with a nonprofit group to distribute vaccines headed by a 22-year-old CEO who didn’t have appropriate medical credentials or training. Read more here.
Saturday, a deputy health commissioner in Philadelphia resigned as a result of the controversy. Read more here.
With no centralized system for getting appointments for vaccines like some other states have, people are left to scramble for vaccines on their own checking with multiple listed providers for appointments and getting more and more frustrated. Read more here.
Republican leaders in the House [Read more here] and Senate [Read more here] said Gov. Wolf’s top priority should be to get people vaccinated-- and BTW he shouldn’t be taxing the natural gas industry.
Other Republican legislators suggested the PA National Guard should be called out to establish vaccination sites in every county. Read more here.
But it wasn’t just Republicans who were critical, Democratic lawmakers jumped on the Governor as well. Read more here.
The political “blame game” has just gotten started on this issue. Read more here.
Click Here to read media coverage from last week’s battles over vaccinations.
Senate/House Vaccine Hearings
On February 1, the House Health Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the state COVID vaccine distribution system and its “strengths and weaknesses” that should more formally air out more of these issues.
House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) again brought the House Floor to a brief halt Tuesday when she announced there were at least 30 members in the House chamber not wearing masks as a precaution against COVID. Read more here.
A group of conservative House Republicans routinely flaunt the bipartisan policy adopted last summer requiring face coverings on the House Floor during session.
Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon), a frequent violator, said if members are uncomfortable encountering people not wearing masks they can stay in their offices.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
The number of new COVID cases per day began to inch up last week to nearly 10,000 on Friday and the number of deaths were also increasing slightly again. Hospitalizations for COVID generally stayed about the same.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 20,526 on January 23 to 21,602 on January 30. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 799,957 on January 23 to 839,239 on January 30.
As of January 29, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 9.3 percent, down from 10.5 percent last week-- anything over 5 percent is bad.
There are no counties at 5 percent or below. Clarion County is close at 5.3 percent.
As of January 30, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 757,766 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine-- up 240,000 from last week-- and 183,646 have been given the required two doses-- up 76,700 from last week.
Corrections Scraps COVID Data System
On Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced he was scraping his COVID data reporting system calling it, “unacceptable.” This, after weeks of criticism by relatives of prison inmates over the lack of accurate data and notification issues. Read more here.
He said the system will be offline for 30 days while a new system is developed.
There have been COVID outbreaks at at least 24 state correctional facilities and multiple county prisons. Corrections last reported at least 97 inmates have died, while 1,430 inmates and 565 Corrections employees were sick with COVID. Read more here.
An unknown number of Corrections staff have died from COVID, but there were at least four staff deaths at SCI Camp Hill in Cumberland County.
A survey of local officials released last week by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found 53 percent were either satisfied or not dissatisfied, but 47 percent were dissatisfied with the state’s response to the pandemic. Read more here.
Child Care Provider Grants Gone
The $600 grants for childcare workers announced January 20 by Gov. Wolf were reported as exhausted on January 22-- $19.8 million or so. Read more here.
On January 26, Pennsylvania child care providers, advocates and several legislators called on Gov. Wolf to release $302 million in federal aid set aside to support child care and make changes to the way the money is distributed. Read more here.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 26,580 claims for unemployment compensation between January 17 and 23, down 14,844 from just two weeks ago when claims for that week were 41,424. Read more here.
Current Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) appointed former Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) to serve on the PA Gaming Control Board for the next two years with a $145,000 annual salary. Read more here.
The Senate and House have now set the May 18 Primary for special elections to fill the seats of the late Sen. David Arnold (R-Lebanon) and Rep, Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland).
On Friday, Angela Reese announced she was running for the Republican nomination to fill her late husband’s seat. Read more here.
The current makeup of the Senate is 27 Republicans, 21 Democrats and 1 Independent. The House has 112 Republicans and 90 Democrats.
Both seats are expected to stay Republican.
U.S. Senate Race
On Friday, former Trump Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announced he was considering a run for U.S. Senate to replace retiring Pat Toomey in 2022. Read more here.
Two other Southeast PA Republicans are said to be interested in running-- former Congressman Ryan Costello and Jeff Bartos, who ran unsuccessfully for Lt. Governor in 2018.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman reported he has raised over $1 million in his bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. Read more here.
Fetterman has been gaining national attention, the latest being an interview last week on CBS Sunday Morning. Read more here.
He also continued his running battle to hang legalize marijuana and LGBTQ flags from the outside balcony of his office in the PA Capitol building. Read more here.
The House and Senate return to voting session February 1 to finish work on the $912 million COVID relief package, take final action on at least one controversial constitutional amendment and to hear Gov. Wolf’s video budget address February 2.
In addition to the Committee activity already noted, the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee is scheduled to meet February 1 to consider a letter to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission urging them to disapprove DEP’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Program covering power plants. Read more here.
Click Here for full Senate Committee Schedule.
On Sunday morning, the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee canceled a scheduled February 1 informational meeting on the opportunities for natural gas in Pennsylvania’s energy economy. It will no doubt be rescheduled. Read more here.
Click Here for full House Committee Schedule.
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[Posted: January 31, 2021]