Monday, May 31, 2021

Monday PA Capitol & COVID NewsClips 5.31.21

returns to voting session June 7, 8, 9

House returns to voting session June 7, 8, 9

Click Here for LATEST Updated PA Capitol NewsClips

PA Cap-Star: PA’s Election Code Is In Need Of Changes, But Do Potential Plans Match What Locals Really Need?  

TribLive: An Unsatisfactory Finding Of State Incompetence On Child Sexual Abuse Constitutional Amendment Advertisinig

Spotlight PA: Anxiety Runs High As PA Begins Massive Overhaul Of 60-Year-Old Unemployment Computer System

Robert Swift: State House Hearing Examines School Mental Health Needs

Inquirer: Philly Shootings, Stabbings Continue Despite Holiday Weekend, Weather, Preventative Measures

LancasterOnline: Lancaster County Employers Raising Minimum Pay To $15 In Effort To Fill Chronic Job Openings

PennLive: Will Gov. Wolf Ever Succeed In Raising Minimum Wage?

Guest Essay: Hunger And Food Insecurity Persists In Pennsylvania - Rep. Wheatley

YorkDR Editorial: There Should Be No Such Thing As The Working Poor; Raise PA Minimum Wage Now

CentreDT: Penn State Faculty Want Greater Role In Picking New President

PG: Pittsburgh Public Schools Food Guru Wins National Nutrition Award

Biden Infrastructure Plan

AP: White House Gives Republicans 1 Week To Reach Deal On Infrastructure

The Guardian: Republican U.S. Senator - ‘Real Compromise’ On Infrastructure Bill Possible

Civil Justice

TribLive: A Year After George Floyd’s Murder, Protesters Reflect On What’s Changed

Inquirer: A Year Since Civil Unrest And Ransacked Shops: Some Business Owners Are Fine, Others Still Struggle

Inquirer: Philly Grapples With Statues Of Frank Rizzo, Christopher Columbus, More A Year After Protests

Inquirer: Racial Equity Takes Center Stage In Philly Budget Negotiations

Inquirer: Philly Cops Are Fighting Back 2 Years After Racist Facebook Posts Got Them Fired

WHYY: Philadelphia School Board, Superintendent Vow To Combat Racist Practices In Schools

WHYY: Montgomery County School District, Students, Alumni Work To Change Policy On Police In Schools

WHYY: AARP/Drexel Report Shows Racial Disparities In Seniors’ Health Care In PA

PA's Role In Assault On U.S. Capitol

PennLive: Assault Among New Charges Faced By State College Man In Attack On U.S. Capitol


PennLive: PA End COVID Restrictions On Businesses, Gatherings Today; Masking Order For Those Not Fully Vaccinated Continues

Gov. Wolf: Masking Order Lifts June 28 Or When 70% Fully Vaccinated, Whichever Comes First 

PG: Pennsylvanians Should See More Normalcy In Their Lives As State Lifts Many COVID Restrictions Monday

LancasterOnline Editorial: Republican County Commissioners Ought To Leave Hospital’s Vaccination Policy To Hospital Officials

WHYY: AARP/Drexel Report Shows Racial Disparities In Seniors’ Health Care In PA

Inquirer: As PA Lifts COVID Restrictions, How Will People Reconnect With All their Scars And Losses? 

Other States/National/International 

The Guardian: COVID Summer: Dr. Fauci Warns U.S. Has ‘A Ways To Go’ Despite Lowest Rates In A Year

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Monday - PA Environment & Energy NewsClips 5.31.21 -- Click Here

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FairDistrictsPA: Fix Our Broken Redistricting Process 

[Posted: May 31, 2021]

Sunday, May 30, 2021

May 31 PA Environment Digest Now Available

UPDATED: PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Biden Saves PA Republicans; Vague Emergency Resolution; June 28 Or 70% Whichever Comes First

Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] The Independent Fiscal Office issued its first revenue estimates for FY 2021-22 last week and if it wasn’t clear before it is very clear now-- the Biden Administration’s push to provide state and local governments with money to prop up their budgets has saved Pennsylvania Republicans.

Instead of facing big deficits, Senate and House Republicans, who control the state budget process, will have the happy job of how to spend $3.9 billion in FY 2019-20/FY 2020-21 and $7.3 billion between 2021 and 2024.  Read more here.

Local governments get $6.2 billion directly and school districts $7.5 billion.  Read more here.

With just four weeks left to produce a final state budget before the July 1 deadline, Republicans have yet to hold any hearings on how to invest this found money or release a draft proposal of their own on how they plan to invest it.

With every Senate and House member and every group lobbying the Capitol for their piece of the new federal money pie, there is no shortage of competing proposals for how it should be spent. Read more here.

And even with all this funding available, some Republicans were still looking to make cuts in some areas of the budget.

Local governments and school districts have taken a different approach to planning how to invest their federal relief money.

They have been forming advisory groups, holding information sessions to get public feedback and putting straw proposals out for public review, but so far there hasn’t been a peep from Republicans inside the State Capitol.

Surprises are nice, but $7.3 billion of them may be a bit much.

The downside of all this federal money, of course, is it will be all gone next year or the year after depending on how it’s spent and the state will be back to the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach to budgeting it has used in the past to cover big deficits instead of dealing with them.

In fact, while the Independent Fiscal Office report forecasts a 24.3 percent increase in General Fund revenue in FY 2020-21 to $40.111 billion, the FY 2021-22 General Fund revenue estimate is $37.960 billion or a 5.4 percent decrease.  Read more here.

The IFO discussion of the impact of no more federal COVID money by major source of General Fund revenue is actually very interesting starting on page 16 of their report.  Read more here.

Business/Individual Federal Aid

The Independent Fiscal Office report also included better estimates of the federal economic stimulus aid given directly to businesses and individuals in Pennsylvania--

-- Business Paycheck Protection: $30.83 billion in 2020-21;

-- Healthcare providers: $4.8 billion;

-- Higher Education Institutions: $2.6 billion;

-- Individual Economic Stimulus Payments: $32.52 billion in 2020-21;

-- Child Tax Credit: $3.5 billion initially, another $3.3 billion in advance starting in July;

-- Federal Unemployment Payments: $23.82 billion in 2020-2021;

-- Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: $10.2 billion in 2020-21;

-- LWA & UC Extensions: $5.85 billion in 2020-21; and

-- SNAP Benefits: $2.28 billion in 2020-21.

These payments all get recycled back into the economy when businesses and individuals pay for things they need.

May Revenue Report Coming

Next week, the Department of Revenue will release the May state tax revenue report, which should be a big month because of the delay in the due date for taxes to May 17.

Including April’s collections, state revenue was $1.3 billion over the Governor’s Office revenue estimate for the fiscal year to date.  Read more here.

Vague Emergency Resolution

Using their new constitutional authority, House Republicans moved House Resolution 106 (Benninghoff-R-Mifflin) out of the House State Government Committee last week to terminate some of the provisions in Gov. Wolf’s COVID Pandemic emergency declaration, but keep others.

The resolution also extends the remaining parts of the disaster declaration to October 1, 2021 after it is due to expire entirely on June 10, 2021.

During the Committee meeting, many Republican members said they would be pushing to do away with the entire emergency declaration.

Gov. Wolf’s immediate reaction to the resolution was to say again, most of the things listed in the resolution as things they want to terminate are not actually in the disaster proclamation, including occupancy limits, stay at home orders and business closures. Read more here.

“These actions were taken subsequent to the disaster declaration. The constitutional amendment granted them authority to terminate or extend in whole or in part the disaster declaration, and the specific orders are separate and apart from the proclamation.” said Gov. Wolf.   

Click Here for a copy of the original March 6, 2020 COVID disaster emergency.

Included in the resolution is a provision reinstating the job search requirement to get Unemployment Benefits that is already set to start again on July 11 [Read more here] and end emergency contracting procedures.

Republicans left some blanks spots in the resolution to be filled in later, but one of the other issues the resolution has is the vague and confusing language it uses to do away with some parts of the emergency declaration and not others.

Gov. Wolf’s disaster declaration literally temporarily suspended hundreds of requirements to respond to the COVID pandemic and some of those were catalogued in a 139-page report issued by House Republicans in April.

The disaster emergency declaration is broken out in a series of short “Whereas” and “Resolved” clauses that are easily referred to.

But the resolution uses vague language like, “The portion of the disaster emergency declaration requiring Commonwealth agencies to implement emergency assignments without regard to procedures required by other laws pertaining to performance of public work, entering into contracts, incurring of obligations, employment of temporary workers, rental of equipment, purchase of supplies and materials, and expenditures of public funds.”

And, "The portion of the disaster emergency declaration requiring Commonwealth agencies to implement emergency assignments without regard to procedures required by other laws pertaining to performance of public work....”

And, “That any portion of the disaster emergency declaration which is not terminated in part shall be extended in part….”

Now House Republicans may know what they really mean by this language, but it doesn’t square up with the actual disaster proclamation and how it relates specifically to the hundreds of specific regulations and requirements that were suspended?  

If there was ever a time to be specific-- so there isn’t any confusion-- it’s when the state responds to a life-threatening emergency situation.

But, you get vague and confusing legislation all the time when you have 253 members of the Senate and House working on the same thing and each wanting something different, and this is no exception.

The resolution is on the House Calendar for action when the House returns to voting session June 7. 

The resolution has to be passed by both the Senate and House for it to have the force of law, all by the June 10 expiration of the current COVID emergency declaration.

If it doesn’t get a final vote, the entire March 6, 2020 COVID pandemic disaster proclamation terminates.

June 28 Or 70% Vaccinated Whichever Comes First

Most of the COVID-related restrictions, including crowd capacity at businesses, are being lifted on May 31 across Pennsylvania. Read more here.

On Sunday, Gov. Wolf issued a statement saying the mask order for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated individuals will remain in place until June 28 OR when 70 percent of Pennsylvanians age 18 and older are FULLY vaccinated, WHICHEVER comes FIRST.  Read more here.

Philadelphia is lifting many of its COVID restrictions on June 2, but not all of its requirements.  Read more here.

Vaccination Effort Slows Further

From May 22 to 29, the number of adults over 18 fully vaccinated in Pennsylvania increased from 51 percent to 53.5 percent.  The previous week-- May 15 to May 22-- the number increased from 47.8 percent to 51 percent.

Although the Health Department said they weren’t going to start any vaccination lotteries [Read more here], and coupons for frozen ice or booze or cash are being tried in other areas of the state [Read more here], the longer we wait to offer some meaningful incentives, the “behinder” we get.

Find A Vaccine Provider

If you are looking for vaccine providers, the Department of Health now links 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.

Prohibiting Proof Of Vaccinations

Republicans moved legislation out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week to prohibit so-called vaccine passports or other government-required proof of COVID vaccinations, even though no such requirement is planned by the state.

Senate Bill 618 (Phillips-Hill-R-York) would also prohibit school districts from requiring proof of vaccination to use any service, enter any building or for any activity.

This prohibition is more problematic because some school districts have required staff and students to be vaccinated to prevent COVID illnesses and deaths among those they are charged with protecting. Read more here.

Businesses and other entities are free to require proof of vaccination to protect their customers and employees.

The bill is now on the Senate Calendar for action.

COVID % Positivity Drops Below 4%

As of May 28, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped to 3.8 percent from 4.5 percent last week.

Any number below 5 percent is a good thing.

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 27,029 deaths on May 22 to 27,203 on May 29.  The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,195,013 on May 22 to 1,201,375 on May 29.

Unemployment System Offline

The Department of Labor and Industry issued another reminder that its computer system for handling Unemployment Benefits will be offline for an upgrade from May 31 to June 7.  Read more here.

No claims processing will take place during the offline period, because it will be offline for both the staff of Labor and Industry and the public.

Labor and Industry has education materials available to help introduce the new online Unemployment Benefits system when service is restored. Read more here.

UC Service Center will keep the phones and email open. They will still take new inquiries from claimants and place them in the queue for when the system comes online. 

They will also be able to assist individuals who are experiencing issues and will be able to answer questions about the offline period and the new UC system generally.

Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits

Advocates and legislators were again lobbying Senate leadership on moving House legislation-- House Bill 951 (Rozzi-D-Buecks)-- to give victims of child sexual abuse the opportunity to file lawsuit against their abusers.  Read more here.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said her position remains the same-- the bill is unconstitutional.

Advocates said,” We’re not going away. We are going to fight.”

In a related action, the Office of Inspector General released a long-awaited report on how the Department of State could have forgotten to advertise the constitutional amendment that would have given victims of child sexual abuse the right to sue. Read more here.

The conclusion was there was no evidence of a deliberate attempt to derail it, it was just a bureaucratic blunder. Read more here.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler last week appointed members to a Select Committee to investigate the Department of State’s failure to advertise the constitutional amendment. Read more here.

On Tuesday, the House passed legislation-- House Bill 1010 (Ortitay (R-Allegheny)-- to transfer the authority for advertising constitutional amendments to a legislative agency.  Read more here.

Guns Without Permits

During the same week with another mass shooting and the gun violence in Philadelphia and other places around the state increasing, House Republicans moved legislation to allow individuals to carry concealed handguns without a permit. Read more here.

Law enforcement groups, including the district attorneys’ association, did not support the bill. Gov. Wolf is likely to veto the bill.

Here’s a sampling of stories about gun violence from around the state last week--

-- TribLive: Peace Rally Held In Penn Hills After 4 Students Die Within Weeks

-- Inquirer: Gun Violence Is Growing; One Philly School Community Says: Enough Is Enough

-- PA Cap-Star: Will Philadelphia See Rise In Gun Violence This Summer?

-- Inquirer: 2 Philly H.S. Students Fatally Shot This Week, One Was 2 Weeks From Graduation

-- PG Editorial: 10 More Dead, Action Needed Now On Gun Control

-- ScrantonT Editorial: Republican Lawmakers Reload Awful Gun Bill

Remembering George Floyd

During the same week communities across the state were remembering George Floyd and his murder, talking about police reform and improving race relations, Republican Reps. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) and Barbara Gleim (R-Cumberland) went in a different direction.

They asked their colleagues to sign on to legislation they plan to introduce banning public school students from analyzing how racial disparities are embedded in U.S. history and society using Critical Race Theory as another social issue conservatives could be against.  Read more here.

This is another case where Pennsylvania Republicans are picking up ideas from Republicans in other states. Sixteen other states have introduced similar bills.  Read more here.

An unbiased, nonpolitical description of Critical Race Theory and its origins is available from the American Bar Association. Read more here.

Here is a sampling of stories about how others were using the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder--

-- LancasterOnline: UPMC Lititz Doctors Take A Knee Against Racism

-- PennLive: UPMC Harrisburg Staff Takes Knee To Honor George Floyd

-- ErieT: Erie’s Police Chief Addresses Changes In Wake Of George Floyd Death

-- WPSU: Central PA’s Black Community Remembers George Floyd One Year Later

-- TribLive: Pittsburghers Rally To Remember George Floyd, Others, 1 Year After Slaying 

-- Tony Norman: Is This The Kind Of Country We Want To Be? [1 Year After George Floyd’s Murder]

-- WHYY: ‘Monumental Leap’: Philly Council Passes Bill Establishing New Police Oversight Board

-- WITF: A Year After George Floyd’s Murder, Black PA Lawmakers Double Down On Push For Police Accountability

-- CourierT: A Year After George Floyd’s Death, Pennsylvanians Are Still Fighting For Change

-- PG: George Floyd’s Murder Pushed Companies To Seek Diverse Hires, But Progress In Achieving Equity Is Slow

-- CourierT: Most Bucks, Montgomery County Police Officers Are White Men, How Can That Change?

-- WHYY: Philly Businesses Still Rebounding From Civil Unrest And Pandemic

-- Guest Essay: Hope Is Hard To Come By A Year After George Floyd’s Murder, But It Starts With Discipline For Police Wrongdoing

Casinos Have Losing Hand

Pennsylvania’s casino operations lost the initial round of their court challenge to the State Lottery’s online games in Commonwealth Court last week, but they will no doubt appeal. Read more here.

The casinos argued they were the only entities that could offer casino-style games online in the state. The iLottery games brought in $900 million in this fiscal year.  Read more here.

The “horses or students” debate continues in the media-- if not at the Capitol-- on whether to use money from the horse racing industry subsidy generated by casino slot machines to support scholarships for students going to state-owned universities.  Read more here.

The case by anti-horse racing folks was bolstered last week after an inspection of Parx Racing facilities in Bucks County by the Horse Racing Commission found “significant” contraband, possibly including medications used to boost the performance of horses. Read more here.

On the good news side of things, someone bought a Mega Million jackpot ticket at a 7-Eleven in Bucks County last week and won $516 million. Read more here.

School Pension Fund Phony Numbers

According to a report Sunday, an error in an April 2015 number used to calculate investment returns for the PA School Employees Pension Fund led to a $64 million boost in the Fund’s earnings that didn’t actually happen.  Read more here.

The error was part of a general issue raised board member, now former State Treasurer Joe Torsella when he questioned why the Fund staff was going back years to reenter numbers and improve the performance of some Fund investments using unaudited numbers.  Read more here.

The error is the subject of both an internal investigation and outside law enforcement agencies.

Reapportionment Commission Organizes

On May 26, the PA Legislative Reapportionment Commission, charged with drawing legislative voting districts based on the new Census, met for the first time to get organized.  Read more here.

In addition to adopting some basic rules of operation, they appointed their first staff-- Robert Byer as Chief Counsel, Reynolds Clark as Executive Director and Ann-Marie Sweeney as stenographer. Read more here.

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, who serves as a member of the Commission, proposed they take steps to prevent what she called “prison gerrymandering” by counting inmates at state prisons based on the home residence, not where they are serving time in prison. Read more here.

She pointed out Pennsylvania has 23 state correctional institutions and one motivational boot camp facility located in 19 different counties. The combined population count for these facilities in April was 37,284 people.  Read more here.

In one example, 31 percent of the total population of Forest County is incarcerated in a state prison, but currently counts toward redrawing legislative voting districts in that county.  Read more here.

“This is not a radical idea,” Rep. McClinton said. “In fact 10 other states have already chosen to count their residents in exactly this way, including four of the states that border Pennsylvania. Connecticut adopted the change just last week for this year’s redistricting and we have sufficient time to do the same thing here.”  Read more here.

On the same day, the Senate State Government Committee held the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings on Congressional redistricting, a job that will be like musical chairs because Pennsylvania will go from 18 to 17 Congressional districts. Read more here.

The Committee heard from Harrisburg University on GIS systems and mapping; the Center for Rural Pennsylvania on the rural/urban divide in the state; David Thornburgh from the Committee of Seventy and representatives of Fair Districts PA on a fair and open redistricting process.

Click Here for a video of the hearing and written testimony.

Undecided Wins Again!

“Undecided” won by a mile in a new poll of likely Republican candidates for Governor released by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams) last week.  Read more here.

A full 49 percent of Republicans were undecided, 19 percent favored Sen. Mastriano and 16 percent Lou Barletta.  The remainder of voters said someone else or “other.”

The other speculation last week would be on which candidate will hold the “Trump” card in the race which could heavily influence Republican voters in the state. Read more here.

The former President is likely to also have a big influence on the race for the open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.  Read more here.

Of course, it’s way too early to make judgments on any of this and political observers like Cook Political Report still rate the Pennsylvania Governor’s race as a toss up. Read more here.

Primary Fallout

The May 18 Primary election still isn’t over in some counties in Pennsylvania.

House Republicans are taking Philadelphia election commissioners to task for counting 1,300 mail-in ballots they say should be thrown out because they do not have a date. They are threatening to start impeachment proceedings to kick them out of office if they count the ballots. Read more here.

The commissioners, both Democrats, say the Republicans are just “playing games.” Read more here.

Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware), Minority Chair of the House State Government Committee, again warned in an op-ed, “Republican politicians in Harrisburg are engaging in a power grab, actively working to suppress the vote and stop regular people from having a say.”  Read more here.

She said Republicans are pushing more voter identification requirements, want to purge legitimate voters from registration rolls and want to impose excessive signature verification on mail-in ballots in an attempt at voter suppression.  Read more here.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) last week said he would be introducing legislation to establish a Bureau of Election Audits within the Auditor General’s Office to conduct “result-confirming audits” of each election in the state within three weeks after an election.  Read more here.

Some House Republicans renewed their complaints last week about nonprofit groups funded by Mark Zuckerberg and others-- giving grants to some counties to help them pay for the extra costs of running elections as a result of the pandemic and handling the deluge of mail-in ballots. Read more here.

In contrast, county election officials said they had no problems with it because state lawmakers did not provide a dime to pay for these costs and all counties had an equal shot at getting the funds if they wanted them. Read more here.

In addition to the usual recounts and after-election follow-ups, Luzerne County Council asked the County District Attorney to investigate problems surrounding voting machines in that county mislabeling Republican and Democratic ballots.  Read more here.

County election officials said a typographical mistake in the heading at the top of the ballots caused the error.  Read more here.

PA’s Role In Assault On U.S. Capitol

New video surfaced last week that appears to show Republican Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams) much closer to the clashes with U.S. Capitol Police than his prior public statements admitted. Read more here.

In one, he is visible standing on the Capitol lawn with his wife. In another, Mastriano appears poised to stroll past police barricades as rioters push past them.

In a statement, Sen. Mastriano did not dispute where the videos showed him to be, but said, “Even disingenuous internet sleuths know that police lines did shift throughout the course of the day. I followed those lines as they existed.”   Read more here.

Mastriano also used his campaign funds to charter buses to carry protestors to the January 6 rally that turned into an insurrection. Read more here.

The Dauphin County woman accused of stealing Speaker Pelosi’s computer was granted a partial release from home detention this week as she awaits her trial. Read more here.

Gov. Tom Ridge and a bipartisan group of former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretaries last week urged the U.S. Senate to put politics aside and support appointing a commission to investigate the assault on the U.S. Capitol January 6.  Read more here.

U.S. Senate Republicans ended up blocking the bill forming the commission.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senator Pat Toomey missed the vote, but said later he would have voted for it. Read more here.

After saying he didn’t want to re-litigate the 2020 election Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sean Parnell said he now supports an audit of November’s election results in Pennsylvania. Read more here.

A Pennsylvania company involved in the Republican audit of November election results in Arizona dropped out of the audit because they said it was taking longer than expected. Read more here.

Republican Congressman Lloyd Smuck from Lancaster was fined $5,000 for bypassing the security installed at the U.S. House after the assault on the Capitol. His office said he would appeal the fine. Read more here.

Lobbyist Reform/But Gifts OK

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) followed up on the previous week’s announcement of plans to introduce lobbyist reform legislation by announcing the introduction of eleven bills on lobbyist reform. Read more here.

Not mentioned again were other reforms applied to lawmakers themselves like not accepting gifts of cash, merchandise, trips or other valuable items from lobbyists.  Read more here.

The Pennsylvania Capitol-Star editorial cartoon of the week was on the gift issue titled, “Located - Bipartisanship in Harrisburg - There should NOT be a ban on legislators accepting gifts.” Read more here.

What’s Next?

The Senate and House do not return to voting session until the week of June 7, after the Memorial Day holiday.

Both chambers have a light schedule of committee activities.

The Senate Democratic Policy Committee has a hearing on improving nursing homes in Pennsylvania and the Transportation Committee is again looking at transportation funding issues.

Click Here for Senate Committee schedule.

The House Labor and Industry Committee has a hearing on workforce development and apprenticeships and training, Urban Affairs has a hearing on blight and the House Democratic Policy Committee has hearings on evictions and affordable housing.

Click Here for House Committee schedule.


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: May 30, 2021]