[ Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] The new year has the potential to see a fundamental reshaping of state government by those who now run the General Assembly.
With solid Republican gains in both the Senate and House, their efforts to curb the emergency authority of the Governor and to politically reshape state appeals courts through constitutional amendments will move full steam ahead.
They will also have the opportunity to redraw their own voting districts for the next 10 years to keep Republicans coming back to the General Assembly.
Here is a preview of four critical issues that will start the new 2021-22 legislative session--
-- Constitutional Amendment Limiting Emergency Authority Of The Governor: Borne out of Republican opposition to Gov. Wolf’s COVID pandemic response, the Senate and House will pass for the second time a constitutional amendment requiring the General Assembly to act to extend a Governor’s emergency declaration beyond 21 days-- Senate Bill 1166 sponsored by now Senate Republican leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland).
Since it’s a constitutional amendment, it would go directly to voters as early as the May Primary election with no action by the Governor required.
This fundamental change would turn every emergency from a flood ,to the opioid crisis, to the pandemic, to civil disturbances into a political football subject to the slow-moving legislative approval process.
-- Constitutional Amendment Electing State Appeals Court Judges By District: Borne out of Republican opposition to election-related decisions by the Democratically-controlled PA Supreme Court, the General Assembly is also set to pass for the second time a constitutional amendment requiring the election of PA Supreme Court, Commonwealth Court and Superior Court judges by individual districts, rather than statewide as is currently done-- House Bill 196 (Diamond-R-Lebanon).
Again, the change would go directly to voters with no action required by the Governor.
Opponents of this fundamental change in the structure of the Judiciary say it gives Republicans the opportunity to gerrymander voting districts like they did with the House, Senate and Congressional districts, but this time to pick judges. Read more here.
-- Redrawing Legislative & Congressional Voting Districts. The finalization of the 2020 Census numbers in 2021 will set off the process to redraw voting districts for the House, Senate and members of Congress.
Pennsylvania is expected to lose at least one Congressional seat. In spite of Republican proposals to reduce the size of the General Assembly, there will also be 50 Senate and 203 House districts to redraw.
Since the General Assembly failed to pass any “citizen reforms” to the redistricting process, the existing rules putting legislators in charge of drawing their own districts is expected to continue.
Good government groups like Fair Districts PA and the PA League of Women Voters are continuing to press for redistricting reform and a change in House and Senate rules to require legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support-- like their redistricting proposals-- to be voted on. Read more here. Read more here.
Senate and House Republicans have also announced plans for inquiries into what went right-- or more importantly what went wrong-- during the November election from their point of view that will yield other changes to the state election process. Read more here.
Some Republicans are already making noises about throwing out the entire “no excuses” mail-in balloting option, for example, and adopting other changes to make it harder for people to vote.
As one headline put it-- “Everybody Wants To Change Pennsylvania Election Law, But Mistrust Is High.”
-- FY 2021-22 State Budget: On or about February 2, Gov. Wolf will lay out his formal FY 2021-22 budget proposal to kick off the state budgeting season.
Ironically, February 2 is also Groundhog Day, and will no doubt see a repeat of a repeat of the budget wrangling we’ve seen in past years as Republicans seek to hold the line on taxes, borrowing and spending and with Gov. Wolf and the Democrats proposing something quite different.
In an op-ed piece on January 1, Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, counseled “fortitude” and “ingenuity” in dealing with the new year’s budget. He projects a $3.5 billion state deficit going into budget discussions for FY 2021-22. Read more here.
He said one-time federal funding support and improved revenues allowed the state to get through the FY 2020-21 budget without raising taxes or resorting to long-term borrowing.
[Reminder: Republicans have used long-term borrowing to balance state budgets in the past, including in 2010 to pay off $4.2 billion in Unemployment Compensation Fund debt to the federal government [Read more here] and in 2017 when they authorized $1.5 billion in borrowing to balance the FY 2017-18 state budget [Read more here].
[Reminder: The FY 2020-21 budget was balanced with $1.3 billion in one-time federal COVID relief aid, $2 billion in one-time enhanced federal medical and social service payments and $531 million in one-time transfers from a variety of state funds for a total of at least $3.831 billion in one-time budget “enhancements.” Read more here.]
As noted, Sen. Browne projects a $3.5 billion deficit in FY 2021-22 as a starting point for discussions.
Given this deficit, Sen. Browne said, “It is paramount that we identify more efficient and effective ways to allocate state resources, including reducing redundancies, while still delivering critical resources to our citizens.”
At the same time, he said the state should take any savings and redirect them to invest in our education systems and to the care of older Pennsylvanians.
“We must support fiscal policies that promote sustainability as a pathway not only through this public health crisis, but also so Pennsylvania businesses can flourish for the long term and the state’s economy can grow.”
On the other team, Gov. Wolf and Senate Democrats have both proposed major state aid packages to businesses and workers affected by the COVID pandemic.
Senate Democrats proposed a $4 billion aid program in early December based on long-term borrowing. Read more here.
Just before Christmas, Gov. Wolf proposed redirecting $145 million from the Workers’ Compensation Security Fund to aid small businesses impacted by the COVID pandemic. Read more here.
In the December 17 mid-year budget brief, Budget Secretary Jen Swails predicted FY 2020-21 will end with a razor thin $3.7 million budget surplus, but at the same time pointed to five areas of significant budget concerns going forward. Read more here.
Lots more to come on the budget.
Federal COVID Aid
The second major federal COVID aid bill signed into law on December 27 provided more one-time financial support for certain state programs and PennDOT [Read more here], but Gov. Wolf has already said it is not enough to help businesses, individuals and state and local governments recover. Read more here.
Education groups, in particular, have said the latest federal stimulus relief is a promising start, but more must be done to help schools recover from the pandemic costs. Read more here.
Local governments in the Lehigh Valley noted while they squeaked by in their 2020 budgets, the real pain could come in 2021. Read more here.
Sense Of Urgency - Not
Despite the urgent calls for action on these and other issues, the Senate has scheduled a total of only 13 voting session days in the first three months of the year-- four in January, three in February and six in March.
The House has scheduled a total of 16 voting session days in the first three months of the year-- seven in January, three in February and six in March.
Looks like business as usual from here.
Two op-eds in the Erie newspaper over the weekend offered competing views of Republican and Democratic priorities for 2021.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said, “for too many, the loss of loved ones will leave a hole in hearts that will never be filled,” and at the same time “I am sure that nearly all Pennsylvanians can name at least one business near their home that has permanently closed or know friends and family searching for work” as a result of the pandemic.
“However, as we work through the many challenges facing our Commonwealth, one thing that must remain is our fidelity to the Constitution — that beautiful charter that promises all our citizens the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“Unfortunately, in 2020, the extraordinary power grab by some branches of our state government would make William Penn accuse some of tyranny,” a reference to the November elections and Gov. Wolf’s response to the pandemic.
“Regardless of your political leanings, your location or your personal beliefs, the “new normal” of living outside of the Constitution’s requirements should alarm you.”
“In order for us to meet the serious issues facing our people, we have to immediately restore the delicate, but very necessary, balance between our branches of government,” a reference to Republican initiatives to amend the constitution to limit the authority of the Governor in emergencies and fundamentally change how justices on state appeals courts are selected as well as changes to the way elections are conducted.
Gov. Tom Wolf said, “My first priority in the new year is to protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians. The COVID-19 pandemic has cruelly and indiscriminately affected the lives of Pennsylvanians over the past year. It brought financial insecurity along with the stark danger it poses to the public health.”
“My hope is that this year, with all of the tools now available to us, we can truly get the COVID-19 pandemic under control — and get Pennsylvanians back to seeing the things, people, and places they miss so desperately.”
“I know that for many of us, 2020 seemed like a rollercoaster ride we never asked to take — one that kept delivering surprise twists and turns that made it hard to look ahead to the future. But if this year showed us one thing, it is that we can’t take the future for granted.
“We need to lay the groundwork now to build a stronger, more resilient economy — and to give our children the education they will need to succeed within it.
“As we look ahead to 2021, protecting the public health is my first priority — but I am also focused on securing our future by fostering a robust economic recovery and improving our schools.”
“With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccines, we can all carry hope for a brighter future with us into the new year. It will likely still be weeks or months before the vaccines are widely available, and we don’t know how long COVID-19 will continue to be a danger to our communities.
“However, the fact that these vaccines exist, and new doses are being manufactured every day, should give us all a bit of hope — and a reason to stay united in the fight against COVID-19. Every time we take steps to make our daily activities a little bit safer, we are working toward that brighter future — together.”
“Let’s Get Things Straight”
Very much worth noting were comments last week by Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), a Trump supporter and conservative Republican, who took fellow Republicans to task on challenging the election results in light of the facts on the ground.
He called his statement-- “Let’s Get Things Straight.”
“Do I like the fact that the candidate I supported lost – NO. Nevertheless, our system requires that, as a citizen, I respect the laws of this state and country,” he said at the opening.
“To my knowledge, Trump’s lawyers have filed at least 40 lawsuits throughout the United States, including several in Pennsylvania. Thus far, the number of decisions favorable to the Trump claims of fraud and irregularities is zero.
“It cannot go unnoticed that many of the decisions were issued by judges who we would say have a Republican leaning. Some were appointed by Bush, some by Obama and some by Trump but all reached the same conclusion.
“We all recognize a 0-40 record as not being a good performance.
“The overwhelming consensus in those decisions is that there is no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities in the November 3rd election.
“Moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that United States Attorney General and the Director of the FBI, both of whom are Trump appointees, have publicly stated that there is no evidence to support claims of widespread fraud and irregularities.
“Either Trump has the dumbest lawyers on the planet or there really is no proof of widespread fraud or irregularities.”
“Much blame for the Trump loss in Pennsylvania is laid on the mail in ballot provisions of Act 77. My question is if the mail in voting of Act 77 was so bad, why did the Trump organization send out a mail-in ballot application to every registered Republican in the state?
“At first, the Trump organization was against mail-in voting, but halfway through the campaign a flip flop was done and mail-in voting was encouraged. The campaign flip flop clearly caused confusion among voters.”
“Clearly, Republicans did well in the election. Were the elections in all of those races subject to fraud and irregularities? The answer is, no. So, the question is what happened to Trump?
“The short and simple answer is that he did not receive enough votes in what used to be Republican strongholds such as the collar counties around Philadelphia.”
“Many emails and comments I receive simply ignore the fundamental right that voters have in selecting electors and just say that the legislature should ignore that law and name different electors.
“Not only does that suggestion run contrary to the provision of Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution but that suggestion also ignores the ex post facto provisions included in both the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Pennsylvania.”
“Talking about fraud and irregularities is easy. Perhaps it is appropriate to say that talk is cheap. Providing facts under oath in a court setting is a difficult challenge but that is what our rule of law requires. That is what keeps our country civilized.”
PA Republicans Still Want Election Thrown Out
Eight of Pennsylvania’s nine Republican members of Congress said they will be challenging the certification of Pennsylvania’s electors and want to overturn the popular election results when Congress meets January 6 to count electoral votes. Read more here.
Congressmen Meuser, Perry, Smucker, Keller, Joyce, Reschenthaler, Thompson and Kelly want electors favorable to Trump counted instead.
One Luzerne County newspaper-- where Trump won-- last week called the action by the Pennsylvania Congressman “shameful” in an editorial entitled - “Coal To Sore Losers Trying To Reverse Election.”
Meanwhile, at Vice President Mike Pence’s request, a federal judge Friday dismissed another Republican lawsuit aimed at giving Pence the power to overturn the election results and award the election to Trump. Read more here.
Gov. Dick Thornburgh
On December 31, the family of former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who made integrity and efficiency the hallmarks of his public service as a governor, U.S. attorney general and under-secretary-general of the United Nations, announced he had died peacefully of natural causes in Pittsburgh. He was 88. Read more here.
He was widely praised by Republicans and Democrats for his leadership on state and federal issues.
Former Gov. Tom Ridge spoke for many when he said, “His public service was a model of integrity and character that anyone seeking office would be wise to follow. A remarkable public servant and an even better man.”
Some COVID Restrictions Lifted
On December 30, Gov. Wolf announced he would be temporarily lifting some COVID restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms, schools and other indoor and outdoor venues on January 4. Read more here.
Businesses would still be subject to capacity limits, mask requirements and gathering limits.
Win On COVID Restrictions
Gov. Wolf chalked up another win in a court challenge by restaurant owners to the temporary COVID restrictions that expire on January 4, so the win was temporary. Read more here.
What made it interesting was it was Commonwealth Court Judge J. Andrew Crompton who made the ruling, is a former staffer to Senate Republican Joe Scarnati who was appointed by Gov. Wolf to fill that position.
Judge Crompton did invite the restaurant owners to reinstate their case, if the Governor imposes further restrictions.
He said going forward, if state officials seek to impose new restrictions they need to “clarify which data, if any, supports allowing retail businesses to remain open to the public, albeit at limited capacity, while bars and restaurants are subject to an indoor dining closure.”
Last week lawmakers and Gov. Wolf continued to skirmish over whether to continue to prosecute restaurants and bars that defied the temporary COVID restrictions. Read more here.
There were also articles around the state about how new restaurants were opening up during the pandemic, in particular, in Lancaster County where the local paper reported the opening of 47 new restaurants during 2020 and the closing of 27 [Read more here], in Pittsburgh were the “20 Best New Restaurants” were called out [Read more here] and in the Harrisburg area where the “11 Best Restaurants” that opened during the pandemic [Read more here].
On Wednesday, the Department of Health unveiled a new Vaccine Data Dashboard showing the number of COVID vaccines administered by county and by demographic category.
As of Friday, there were 125,901 doses of COVID vaccine administered in Pennsylvania.
Statewide Percent Positivity 15%
As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went down very slightly to 15 percent from 15.1 percent last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.
The 10 counties with the highest percent-positivity include-- Perry (27.2 percent); Adams (26.4 percent); Clearfield (26.2 percent); Schuylkill (25.5 percent); Columbia (24.5 percent); Armstrong (24.4 percent); Wayne (23.9 percent); Montour (23.4 percent); Huntingdon (22.8 percent); and Greene (22.3 percent).
For comparison, Allegheny County is 11.2 percent, down from 12.4 percent last week and Philadelphia is 12.1 percent up from 11.3 percent last week.
There were NO counties at or below the 5 percent threshold last week-- Sullivan was at 7.6 percent, up from 6 percent last week.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania reported the highest single day total of deaths so far this fall-- 319. The previous high was 278 deaths. And Monday, the death toll from COVID passed the 15,000 mark.
The number of new COVID cases hovered between 3,779 and just over 9,200 each day from December 28 to January 2.
The number of hospitalized patients hovered between 5,600 and just over 6,000, which is still double the hospitalization peak in the Spring.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 14,883 on December 26 to 16,239 on January 2. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 605,141 on December 26 to 657,292 on January 2.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 38,279 claims for unemployment compensation between December 20 and 26, down 9,026 from last week’s 47,305. Read more here.
On December 28, the Department of Labor and Industry reported the additional federal unemployment aid approved in the latest COVID stimulus package may not start actually getting to the 509,000 Pennsylvania unemployed for several weeks, as a result of the delay in signing the legislation and considering the process used by the U.S. Department of Labor to issue guidelines on spending the money. Read more here.
PHFA Mortgage Assistance
On Thursday, the PA Housing Finance Agency reported more than 2,600 homeowners got help with their mortgage payments totaling $10.1 million through a federally-funded CARES assistance program in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
A total of $25 million in mortgage assistance was available.
Pandemic Impacts On Colleges
On December 28, the New York Times did a major piece on how the COVID pandemic has impacted state-owned universities like Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Read more here.
The article outlines concerns by students on cost and program availability, faculty and administration issues, enrollment trends before the pandemic and more recent efforts to consolidate schools in the State System of Higher Education.
A good read.
CDL Licenses Extended
On December 30, the Department of Transportation announced the expiration dates for commercial driver licenses and commercial learner's permits will be extended for Pennsylvania residents in response to statewide COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Read more here.
2020 Year In Review
The annual year in review articles continued last week. Here’s a selection for those who want to relive 2020--
-- Jan Murphy: 21 Ways PA’s Lawmakers Changed Your Life In 2021 And Beyond
-- Deb Erdley: Voters Saw Presidential Campaign Like No Other In 2020
-- Stories Of The Year: Western PA Became A Focal Point In The Election
-- Top Stories Of 2020: Schools Balance Health And Education As COVID Surges
-- Cap-Star: 2020 In Review: Protests That Swept Pennsylvania
-- Cap-Star: Top 10 Most Read Stories Of 2020
-- PLS Reporter: Harrisburg Highlights: Reviewing The Top Headlines Of 2020
-- PLS Reporter: Pennsylvania Newsmakers In 2020
-- Op-Ed: New Year’s Resolutions For Pennsylvania Legislators - PA League Of Women Voters
-- Editorial: Some Light Amid Darkness Of Awful Year
-- Editorial: Goodbye To 2020
-- Editorial: The Scary Year That Was 2020
-- Editorial: 2021 Resolution - Learn Lessons From 2020
Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella, who was convicted of taking his share of $2.8 million in bribes to send juveniles to a local for-profit detention center, last week asked for compassionate release from a federal prison due to the COVID pandemic. He is serving a 28-year prison sentence. Read more here.
The headline of one of two editorials in Luzerne County newspapers had it right-- “Judge Who Showed Little Compassion Has Nerve To Seek It.”
The other editorial said, “Compassion rarely was on the docket in former Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella’s courtroom, where he denied hundreds of teenagers their civil rights and routinely marched them off to detention.” Read more here.
Competing PA Voting Fraud Reward Entries
There are now at least two competing entries from Pennsylvania to claim the million reward offered by the Republican Lt. Governor of Texas for evidence of voting fraud in the November election.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, again pressed his Texas counterpart on his standing request to pay him a $3 million reward for fraud in three documented cases in Pennsylvania. The fact they all involve Republicans is just an interesting sidenote. Read more here.
Last week, the former director of elections in Luzerne County, Shelby Watchilla, said she might pursue the reward based on a case her office uncovered that led to a criminal investigation and the arrest of a voter on felony charges. Read more here.
Stay tuned to see who the winner is or if the Texas Lt. Governor takes back his reward offer!
On January 5 the Senate and House will convene at high noon to begin the 2021-22 legislative session and swear in new members.
In the Senate, watch to see if there is a Republican challenge to seating Sen. Jim Brewster (R-Allegheny) whose reelection is still tied up in a court challenge by his Republican opponent Nicole Ziccarelli. Read more here.
In the House, Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said he would be swearing in members in groups, not all at once, as a nod to COVID precautions. That still didn’t sit well with some Democratic members who wanted Republicans who routinely don’t wear masks to be sworn in last and separately from all other members.
The Senate also announced its voting session days through June last week. The House had previously announced its schedule through December--
[Posted: January 3, 2021]