[ Because In Politics, Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] Although neither the Senate and House were in voting session last week, Republicans took action to keep legislation to limit emergencies declared by a Governor to 21 days on track for a final vote so it can be on the May Primary election ballot.
21 Day Limit On Emergencies
In an unusual Friday meeting of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Republicans reported out Senate Bill 2 (Ward-R-Westmoreland) that includes the language to limit emergencies and a separate constitutional amendment to prohibit the abridgement of rights due to race and ethnicity-- but not sexual orientation.
Republicans said they were unhappy with the way Gov. Wolf was responding to the COVID pandemic and ignoring the General Assembly and the issues their constituents raised.
They pointed to the Governor shutting down businesses, problems with constituents getting unemployment compensation and issues with the vaccine rollout they said could have gone better, if the General Assembly “had a seat at the table.”
Republicans last year passed several bills to reopen businesses and remove limits on business put in place by Gov. Wolf to deal with the fast-moving COVID pandemic. Wolf vetoed the bills and Republicans could not garner enough votes to override the vetoes.
Other than trying to overturn Gov. Wolf’s actions, Republicans have never put forward a comprehensive plan of their own to limit the deaths and illness caused by COVID-19.
The constitutional amendment-- if passed by voters-- would give the General Assembly unilateral control over whether an emergency declaration lasts for more than 21 days without any checks and balances from the Executive or Judicial branch of government.
Bills containing constitutional amendments are not presented to a Governor for his action.
Senate Democrats pointed out they too have been critical of the way Gov. Wolf has communicated with the General Assembly, but they pointed out 253 members of the General Assembly are not equipped to respond to an emergency or act quickly. They noted Republicans took all of December off.
They also said current law provides a remedy. The General Assembly can-- by two-thirds vote-- override a Governor’s veto of a resolution ending an emergency any time they wished or do the same by passing other legislation to make changes to programs to better respond to the emergency.
The Senate would be in position to pass the bill and move it to the House the week of January 25 when they return.
House Republican leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) said the House will also take a final vote on its bill this week-- House Bill 55 (Grove-R-York)-- authorizing the same amendment, to “restore the people’s voice during times of emergency.” Read more here.
After that dust clears, we’ll see how long it takes the Republicans to decide amongst themselves if the Senate moves the House bill or House moves the Senate bill.
The House also plans to take a final vote on another constitutional amendment in House Bill 14 (Gregory-R-Blair) to open a two-year window for child sexual abuse lawsuits.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider its bill with the same constitutional amendment-- Senate Bill 8 (Baker-R-Luzerne)-- this week.
This constitutional amendment has bipartisan support.
Electing Judges By District
Another Republican constitutional amendment-- this one to require the election of state appellate court judges by voting districts-- House Bill 38 (Diamond-R-Lebanon)-- attracted more opposition last week.
The Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement condemning the proposal to elect judges from over 30 voting districts across the state. Read more here.
“This bill doesn’t allow for more Black justices—that’s just a ruse. It would instead minimize Black voting power in Pennsylvania’s largest and predominantly Black cities to elect only three justices statewide.
“This bill further bars Black and other historically marginalized communities access in the reshaping of our courts system, while predisposing them to perpetual victimhood of our flawed court system.
“We as lawmakers have a real opportunity to reform and racially diversify our courts system by working in tandem with local activists to empower local committees and voters with the tools to make proactive approaches in vetting and electing well-rounded judicial candidates. However, this proposal, H.B. 38, stomps at any attempt of meaningful progress.”
A January 15 letter signed by a diverse group of organizations, including Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, the Women’s Law Project, construction and teacher unions and the PA AFL-CIO also wrote in opposition to the bill. Read more here.
The letter said, “electing appellate judges from districts gerrymandered by the General Assembly will make those judges increasingly beholden to partisan politics instead of the United States Constitution, Pennsylvania Constitution, and the laws of the Commonwealth.”
“Judges are not legislators whose job is to represent a specific community and should not be encouraged to care more or less about a case based on the region from which it arises.”
“Judges should be free of influence from local biases and prejudices – their fidelity is to the law of the entire Commonwealth, and they should not be encouraged to consider how a specific regional judicial district would respond to a certain ruling.”
House Bill 38 was reported out of the House State Government Committee with a one vote margin and moved to the House Floor January 13.
The Republican constitutional amendments moving through the House and Senate not only have the attention of Pennsylvanians, but the international press as well.
The Economist Friday had an article about how Pennsylvania Republicans, unhappy with the election results, court decisions and the governor’s handling of the COVID emergency, are looking to change the rules by amending the constitution. Read more here.
Not Rehashing The Election - Republicans
Both the House Republicans and Democrats had hearings on the 2020 elections last week, but they took much different approaches to the issues involved.
House Republicans had their first of 14 planned hearings on the election by the State Government Committee, insisting they were not interested in rehashing the November election results, which, of course, some members did. Read more here.
Republican members kept saying their constituents were confused by the election process and didn’t trust the outcome, pointing to inconsistencies in the way counties held elections and wondered why there weren’t more standard rules all counties had to follow.
At the same time, they complained about guidance sent to counties by the Department of State they said promoted the confusion.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told the Committee misinformation and “lies” spread before, during and after the election contributed significantly to the confusion, not calling out Republicans specifically, but the implication was clear.
She said the same things in an op-ed she wrote that appeared in several newspapers across the state right before the hearing. Read more here.
Boockvar said the Department of State’s guidance-- the topic of the hearing-- was meant to clear up questions the counties asked the agency about the election process or to pass along the results of various court challenges to the process.
She pointed out to members she does not have the legal authority to mandate what counties do in most cases; they have discretion on many parts of the process. She did invite lawmakers to change the law so she could clear up these “inconsistencies.”
One Republican complained about grants some counties got and not others from a nonprofit group to expand access to voter registration and voting in general. He said private groups should not be determining how elections are run.
[Note: A legal challenge brought in federal court on this issue of grants used to expand voter participation by state Republican House members was dismissed before the election. Read more here. The House Republicans said they filed the lawsuit because they did not want progressive candidates to win on November 3. Read more here.]
Secretary Boockvar had to point out that all counties could have applied for the funding, but many decided not to and no county she was aware of was “forced” to agree to any conditions they did not accept.
She added state lawmakers provide no funding to counties to run elections and money they did get in 2020 was through her agency from federal COVID relief funds to help counties cover the significant added costs of running an election during a pandemic.
A Republican lawmaker, himself a former county commissioner, responded by saying counties could always raise taxes to cover the cost.
Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware), Minority Chair of the Committee said after the hearing, “I think it is outrageous that three months after a full county, state and national certification of the election process, after a sickening insurrection culminating in 25,000 troops guarding the democratic heart of our nation during the Presidential inauguration, that PA Republicans are conducting these hearings.
“While the necessity of these hearings was reportedly not to re-litigate the 2020 elections that is exactly what occurred in this first hearing, as member after member on the Republican side re-asked questions that were already provided for on the state website and already decided by the court system, and as they droned on and on for an average of 10 to 15 minutes per member in violation of the agreed upon Committee five-minute rule.
“While there are some voters and some counties in Pennsylvania that will never be happy with the results of this election, the fact of the matter is that it was free, fair, accurate and uniform as declared by Homeland Security officials, the Justice Department, state courts, federal courts, members of Congress and members of the Senate who in a bi-partisan way overwhelming accepted the results of the election despite nefarious objections.
“When this political theatre has finally ended and we begin to contemplate changes to our state election laws, I hope that this Republican majority does not consider changes that would disenfranchise voters.
“There are things that we can and should do to improve the voting process, such as allowing counties to pre-canvass ballots in order to ensure timely results are recorded on Election Day.
“I take my role and responsibility on the State Government Committee seriously and hope that the committee can move beyond these settled issues of the 2020 election and look toward passing legislation to help counties avoid extreme pressure on our next election day while ensuring voters’ ballot access and rights.”
The second of the 14 hearings by the House State Government Committee is set for January 28 on the state’s SURE voter registration database.
Hate Speech, Lies Fueled U.S. Capitol Assault - Democrats
The House Democratic Policy Committee held their second hearing on the 2020 elections on January 21, the same day as the Republicans on the State Government Committee.
Their hearing, however, was on what they called the “lies and hate speech” that was at the center of the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Shira Goodman, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, pointed out hate crimes have been increasing dramatically in the United States over the last five years with 2018 and 2019 the deadliest years ever, including the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue killings in 2018.
In 2019, Pennsylvania officially reported 41 hate crimes to the FBI. In 2019, the ADL recorded 270 antisemitic incidents in Pennsylvania attributed to known extremist groups or individuals, a 13 percent increase over 2018 and a 150 percent increase over the last five years.
Goodman said leading up to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol many of the extremist groups tracked by ADL were calling for pro-Trump protests and spreading conspiracy theories about the election.
She noted that many of the extremist and militia groups represented in the assault on the U.S. Capitol are operating in Pennsylvania.
“One of the chief sources of the potential longevity of the threat of domestic extremism is President Trump, who has provided extremists the gift of a narrative that will carry them through the next four years: a story about a stolen election, all thanks to the treasonous ‘left’ and mainstream media, who are, as the narrative goes, suppressing the rights and voices of ‘real Americans.’”
-- The Guardian: How The Trump Presidency Emboldened Neo-Nazi And Fascist Groups
Connecting The Dots
Several stories in the media last week outlined the connection between activities by Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers who questioned the election results based on vague or discredited accusations of voting fraud and violations of state election law and the events leading up to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Read more here. Read more here. Read more here.
The argument goes like this.
The trail starts right after the election with constant public statements by a variety of state Republican lawmakers raising “concerns” about election integrity and fraud.
It surfaced formally at a hearing held by the Senate Republican Policy Committee in Gettysburg on November 24 where the Trump Campaign famously outlined its grievances over the election outcome and instances it said were voting fraud or violations of election law. Read more here.
The hearing was held after a string of court losses by the Trump Campaign challenging various aspects of the election in Pennsylvania, many of which were brought up again at the Republican hearing and by state Republicans. Read more here.
In writing, in a letter on December 4 by 64 Republican members of the House and Senate, including leadership, and in another letter by 21 Republican members of the Senate on January 4, Pennsylvania Republicans wrote to members of Congress urging them to challenge the state’s election results saying the election was undermined by actions taken by Gov. Wolf, counties, the state Department of state and others that resulted in election law violations, in their view. Read more here.
On December 10, Congressman Scott Perry (R-York), one of the leaders of the election challenge in the Congressional delegation in Pennsylvania, issued a statement questioning the integrity of the November election pointing specifically to the December 4 letter by Republican House and Senate lawmakers. Read more here.
On December 28, a lone Pennsylvania state Republican-- Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming)-- ran against this current. He issued a statement titled “Let’s Get This Straight” saying--
"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.
“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 [the] 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.” Read more here.
On December 31, eight of the nine Republican members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation released a statement saying they would challenge the state’s election results. Their challenge was based on ammunition supplied to them in letters by Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers. Read more here.
At some point during this time, the New York Times reported late Saturday Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Scott Perry was involved in an effort by President Trump to remove Acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and replace him with Jeffrey Clark, someone Perry knew to be sympathetic to Trump’s efforts to overturn state election results. The effort was not successful. Read more here.
On January 6, the same day of and after the assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters, all eight Republicans in Pennsylvania’s Congressional Delegation voted to challenge Pennsylvania’s election results based in large part on what state Republican lawmakers told them in writing. The effort was not unsuccessful. Read more here.
On January 19, U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate Floor, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people, and they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like." Read more here.
So far, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have arrested and charged nine Pennsylvania residents for their actions in the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, including one woman who allegedly helped to steal Speaker Pelosi’s laptop. Read more here.
For more on the role Pennsylvania played in the assault on the U.S. Capitol, visit the PA Capitol NewsClips webpage for last week.
State Row Officers Sworn In
On January 19, in stark contrast to the goings on in the House and Senate last week, the incumbent Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro and new Republican incoming State Treasurer Stacy Garrity and Auditor General Timothy DeFoor were all sworn in without partisan rancor. Read more here.
Of course, you didn’t read much about it in the media.
Good News, Bad News
On January 21, the Independent Fiscal Office issued its five-year projections of state revenues and expenditures that estimates an FY 2020-21 fiscal year balance of $1.5 billion, largely thanks to significant federal COVID aid, one-time budget transfers and a quicker than expected economic rebound.
The bad news-- totally not a surprise-- is the IFO is projecting a $2.5 billion deficit in FY 2021-22, with a structural deficit of $959 million, barring any more federal COVID aid of course.
Besides increasing costs, all the one-time revenue gimmicks used to balance the FY 2020-21 budget won’t be available in FY 2021-22 like--
-- $3.3 billion+ in federal COVID relief aid;
-- $431 million in special fund transfers; and
-- $100 million from the Rainy Day Fund transfer.
The IFO also expressed a concern the state’s job losses related to the economic downturn and COVID are likely to take longer to make up or never recover.
They pointed out the job losses from the 2008 recession took six years to fully recover and the IFO is projecting the same for the COVID recession.
In fact, Friday, the Department of Labor and Industry reported the labor force and payrolls shrank again in December with the labor force falling by an estimated 15,000. Read more here.
The IFO report added there has also been a dramatic increase in labor productivity as employers made changes to their operations in response to the pandemic. This suggests, they said, a lot of the labor loss will not be made up because of the productivity gains.
Budget Hearings Moving
Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has decided to move state agency budget hearings to later in the year.
Normally, budget hearings are scheduled to start the week after the Governor’s budget address on February 2 and last through March 8.
House Republicans are considering the same change to budget hearings.
It’s likely they are waiting-- hoping-- for action by the federal government on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID/economic stimulus proposal and aid to state and local governments. Read more here.
Gaming Revenues Down 22.24%
The bright spot was revenue from iGaming, sports wagering and fantasy sports contests was up 443 percent over 2019 .
Less revenue means less funding for property tax relief, and local and state projects funded by gaming revenues.
Biden Picks Dr. Levine
On January 19, the Biden Administration announced the selection of Dr. Rachel Levine as the Assistant Secretary of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Read more here.
She will be the first openly transgender federal official to be considered for confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Jeff Pyle (R-Armstrong) apologized Saturday for posting an unflattering photo of Dr. Levine on his Facebook page mocking her appearance after she was named to the post by Biden. Read more here.
On January 22, Gov. Wolf announced he would nominate Alison Bean, his Deputy Chief of Staff, to be Secretary of Health, replacing Dr. Levine.
At the same time, he also named Dr. Wendy Braund interim Physician General, a position formerly also held by Dr. Levine. Read more here.
Having the opportunity to confirm a new Secretary of Health will give Republicans another opportunity to air their grievances over how the Wolf Administration has handled the response to the pandemic.
On January 19, the Department of Health announced a major change to its Vaccine Distribution Plan saying anyone 65 or over could be vaccinated and people 16 to 64 could get the shot if they had other medical conditions like Type 2 diabetes. Read more here.
The changes follow late federal guidance from the Trump Administration. Read more here.
What ensued after the announcement was what more than one news outlet called “chaos” as people in those categories swamped the few available vaccine providers listed on the state website for appointments. Read more here.
An epidemiologist from Duquesne University called the vaccine distribution effort, which is under federal control, a “train wreck in slow motion.” Read more here.
Providers weren’t given a heads up about the change and hospitals in several areas reported there simply wasn’t enough vaccine to go around. Read more here.
The following day the Department of Health asked residents “to be patient.” Read more here.
On January 21, newly inaugurated President Biden signed several executive orders making still more changes to the federal vaccine distribution plans saying, “Help is on the way.” Read more here.
The Department of Health and others are trying to figure out what those changes will mean.
Meanwhile, the chorus of frustration created by the latest changes to the state’s vaccine plan is increasing.
On January 19, House Republican leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Mifflin) asked Gov. Wolf for a briefing on COVID vaccine deployment. Read more here.
On January 22, state Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) released a statement saying, “Pennsylvanians are confused and anxious to receive a vaccine, and they deserve clearer communication and more concrete answers.” Read more here.
Gov. Wolf said in response his newly-nominated acting Secretary of Health’s immediate focus will be on distribution of the vaccine. Read more here.
Click Here to see if you are eligible for a COVID vaccination and nearby local providers.
For more on what happened, visit this week’s COVID NewsClips webpage.
Child Care Worker Grants
On January 20, Gov. Wolf announced one-time grants of $600 for child care workers are available to licensed child care providers as a result of federal COVID relief funding.
COVID-19 Record Death Toll
The number of new COVID cases per day and rate of hospitalizations for COVID generally declined last week. While the number of deaths per day also declined, but remains high, the state reported a total of 20,526 deaths since the pandemic began.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 19,188 on January 16 to 20,526 on January 23. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 761,777 on January 16 to 799,957 on January 23.
As of January 22, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard is showing a statewide percent positivity of 10.5 percent-- anything over 5 percent is bad.
There are no counties at 5 percent or below. Centre County is at 6.6 percent.
As of January 23, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 519,991 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine and 106,541 have been given the required two doses.
Two more legislators last week announced they tested positive for COVID-- Rep. Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne) and Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R-Bucks). Both said they are experiencing mild symptoms.
A total of 16 House and Senate members have now tested positive for COVID.
The Department of Labor and Industry reported 32,921 claims for unemployment compensation between January 10 and 16, down from last week’s 41,424. Read more here.
On January 22, the Department of Labor and Industry reported December’s unemployment rate fell by 0.1 percent in December to 6.7 percent. But, the labor force shrank by another 15,000 jobs and payrolls fell by almost 38,000. Read more here.
The Department also reported it was beginning to make supplemental federal COVID unemployment benefit payments to claimants under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. Read more here.
In Memoriam: Patrick Solano
On Saturday, sad news came that Pat Solano passed away at the age of 95 in Luzerne County. Read more here.
Pat was called the 51st Senator, the ambassador to Northeast Pennsylvania and during his career served in various capacities for nine different Governors, Republican and Democrat.
He was respected, admired and loved for his ability to bridge differences and get things done that benefitted his native Northeast PA, and the entire state.
He was a gentleman, and treated everyone with respect. Now they would call it “old school.”
These are qualities that are in short supply in today’s politics.
He served in several positions in the Department of General Services, where he was in charge of state-funded building projects, and the Department of Environmental Resources.
But during the Ridge and Schweiker administrations he was Special Counselor to the Governor and worked on many issues, but was of critical help to the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as they started their new directions in 1995.
A veteran of World War II, Pat was drafted into the military after graduating from Pittston Township High School and flew 23 bombing missions over Germany. Read more here.
Gov. Tom Ridge said of his passing, “Pat somehow survived dozens of bombing runs over Europe, Won two Bronze Stars, and then counseled governors over half a century.
“Pat embodied the Greatest Generation-- a life of honor and service in which he always put others first. He will be deeply missed, but his legacy will be felt here in his beloved Pennsylvania-- and around the world-- forever.”
Read These Remembrances:
The House and Senate return to voting session January 25 and will also be in session the week of February 1 to hear Gov. Wolf’s FY 2021-22 budget address.
In the House, final votes are expected on constitutional amendments related to limiting the Governor’s authority to declare an emergency to 21 days-- House Bill 55 (Grove-R-York-- and House Bill 14 (Gregory-R-Blair) establishing a window for child sexual abuse lawsuits.
House Republicans are also expected to hold a Caucus election Monday for the position of Caucus Chair to replace the late Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland).
The House has a full slate of committee meetings, many of them just to organize for the session, but a good number are moving legislation.
Notably, the House Commerce Committee has a hearing on the “current struggles of the restaurant industry,” and the House Labor and Industry Committee has a hearing on the status of the unemployment compensation system.
On January 28, the House State Government Committee has its second of 14 planned hearings on the 2020 elections and the Joint State Government Commission has an information meeting on the PA Election Law Advisory Board, which is reviewing the 2020 elections.
The Senate, of course, doesn’t advertise much about what it plans to do, but it will fast track a final vote on Senate Bill 2 (Ward-R-Westmoreland) limiting a Governor’s emergency declarations to 21 days.
Senate Republicans last week finished naming their members to all standing committees, so the Senate is now ready for business. Click Here for committee members.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up its version of an amendment to the state constitution opening a window for child sexual abuse lawsuits-- Senate Bill 8 (Baker-R-Luzerne) and other bills.
The Senate Transportation Committee has a hearing on a proposal by PennDOT to toll more bridges which has proven controversial with Republicans.
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[Posted: January 24, 2021]