PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: Senate R Rejection; House Rs Move To Help Business; Last Election Challenge
[ Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] Senate Republicans last week pulled the trigger on a major weapon. On April 21, they wrote a letter to Gov. Wolf to advise him they will reject all future nominees to the Public Utility Commission until he withdraws his executive order joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Read more here.
Just to be clear, the PUC has nothing to do with the RGGI regulation.
There are now two vacancies on the five-member Commission. The term of a second member-- David Sweet-- just ended April 1.
That leaves only three remaining commissioners to do all the work overseeing electric and natural gas distribution companies, telecommunications, hazardous pipelines, motor carriers, rail and water and wastewater facilities.
Last August, Gov. Wolf nominated Haley Book to fill the first Commission vacancy, but the Senate took no action on her nomination by the end of session in December. Read more here.
Book serves as the senior advisor to the Secretary of DEP for energy and climate and joined DEP in December of 2019 and took a major role in developing the proposed RGGI regulations and shepherding them through the adoption process. Read more here.
Since she was nominated, she has taken a low public profile on the initiative.
She was renominated by the Governor for that same PUC vacancy in January of this year.
As of April 27, she will be on day 20 of 25 legislative days of consideration, so the Senate must vote on her by May 24, the 25th session day.
Republicans had a lot of other options to get the Governor’s attention on this issue, like simply voting down Book, withholding funding for the program as part of the budget or again passing legislation to require them to adopt the initiative, but they plainly felt they needed to do something dramatic.
Republicans believe the Wolf Administration doesn’t have the statutory authority to pursue the RGGI regulation and they should be forced to ask the General Assembly for the authority.
The Administration obviously disagrees pointing to state and federal statutes that allow them to regulate air pollutants. In fact, similar programs are in place to control sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide pollution.
Republicans passed legislation last fall to require the Governor to come to the Senate and House for authority for the carbon pollution reduction program, but they could not overcome Gov. Wolf’s veto of the bill. Read more here.
In addition to making their point on RGGI, Republicans may be angling to get greater control of the PUC, hoping for a Republican governor to take over in January of 2023.
However, the term of one of the remaining three PUC Commissioners-- John Coleman-- expires in April of 2022
Practically speaking, it would be hard for the PUC to take action on controversial issues with just two members, if that third position becomes vacant.
The Commission found it difficult to deal with issues like the COVID-related utility shut off moratorium when it had four members over the last year and tie votes prevented action. Ultimately, they were able to come to agreement on a direction after several tries.
By law, a quorum of the Commission is a majority of the members serving, that majority, acting unanimously, is required for any action of the Commission, including the ratification of any orders-- PA Title 66 Section 301.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Gov. Wolf’s spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, as saying the senators were setting a “reckless precedent” by “using an appointment to a critical commission, which serves all Pennsylvanians, as a hostage.” Read more here.
Helping Mine Workers/Power Plant Communities
There were two major announcements last week related to coal mining and coal-fired power plants that directly affect the RGGI issue in Pennsylvania.
On Monday, the leadership of the United Mine Workers made a major announcement-- they would accept President Biden’s plan to move away from coal and other fossil fuels in exchange for a “true energy transition” that includes thousands of jobs in renewable energy and spending on technology to make coal cleaner. Read more here.
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, said ensuring jobs for displaced miners-- including 7,000 coal workers who lost their jobs last year-- is crucial to any infrastructure bill taken up by Congress.
The Union put out a list of specific recommendations for action they called their Transition Initiative. Read more here.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a preliminary $109 million initiative to directly support job creation in communities impacted by changes in the energy economy, funding to support the development of carbon capture technology, finding ways to extract valuable minerals from coal and its related waste streams and more. Read more here.
As part of this effort, DOE’s Loan Programs Office released a factsheet to facilitate access to $8.5 billion in funding for deployment of carbon capture technology to enable low-carbon manufacturing of cement, steel, and other industrial products in addition to power plants. Read more here.
These initiatives were based on the initial report of the White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization.
It was announced jointly by DOE and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
So far, PA Republicans have not proposed a Mine Worker-type transition initiative to support workers and communities to help them grow again.
In Pennsylvania, 19 coal-fired power plants have already closed as a result of competition from natural gas in the last few years, according to the PA Coal Alliance during Senate hearings on RGGI.
-- ScrantonT Editorial: United Mine Workers Get It Exactly Right
People Who Would Be Chair
The four political leaders of the House and Senate on the PA Legislative Reapportionment Commission will hold their first meeting April 26 and 27 to hear testimony from individuals who applied to be Chair of the Commission. Read more here.
While they are “interviewing” these candidates, they have made it clear they reserve the right to pick someone else for the position. If they don’t reach agreement, then the PA Supreme Court will make the appointment no later than May 30.
The U.S. Census is supposed to release its initial 2020 Census information this week, but we already know Pennsylvania is losing at least one Congressional seat.
Election Law Changes
Officials from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh told the Senate Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform they need more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting and the state needs to provide funding to support running elections, in one case calling it an unfunded mandate from the state. Read more here.
Other changes recommended included making the deadline to register to vote earlier to allow for vetting of voters; an earlier deadline to apply for absentee or mail-in ballots; and set deadlines for courts to rule on challenges that impact ballots.
These are the same kind of changes the PA County Commissioners Association and local election officials have been recommending to the House and Senate for more than a year.
On the House side, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee, which held extensive hearings on the 2020 election, outlined some of the areas his members were looking at changing, but made it clear he has not yet taken a position on any of them.
Expanded photo ID requirements for voters, a formal requirement to match voter signatures for mail-in and in-person voting, putting limits on private grants to support running elections were just some of the changes mentioned.
House Democrats were quick to point out the list from House Republicans did not include giving county officials more time to count mail-in ballots, changing ballot application or registration timelines or for funding county election operations. Read more here.
Much more to come.
House R Survey: Get Out Of The Way
The House Republican Policy Committee chaired by Rep. Martin Causer (R-Cameron) released the results of its invitation to businesses asking them to identify issues, regulations and policies that, if changed, would help them recover from the impact of the pandemic. Read more here.
“This is a 42-page report [961 responses], but I can easily sum up the overriding message in just five words…GET OUT OF THE WAY,” said Rep. Causer.
Among the specific results cited in the report were--
-- 31 percent of respondents indicated the biggest challenge facing their business was Gov. Wolf’s COVID mitigation orders;
-- 32 percent of all respondents suggested the best way to kickstart the economy was for them to be open for business [Note: No businesses are closed due to COVID restrictions.];
-- 30 percent of respondents who shared financial assistance was their greatest request [See below]; and
-- Tax reductions were the most often provided response on what change would have the greatest impact on a business.
With respect to financial support, Pennsylvania’s businesses have so far received direct, taxpayer-funded payments of over $32 billion from the federal government through the Paycheck Protection and other programs to get them through the pandemic, according to the Independent Fiscal Office.
And there is more on the way in other federal COVID aid programs.
Other businesses that have done well are large hospital systems in the state-- like UPMC-- that have increased revenue during the pandemic and got federal aid [Read more here] and pharmaceutical distribution companies [Read more here].
In follow up actions, House Republicans, and six Democrats, passed House Bill 747 (Roae-R-Crawford) that would prohibit the closure of retails stores during a state emergency if they follow government safety guidelines, offer contactless operations and delivery service.
Gov. Wolf has vetoed similar bills like this in the past.
House Republicans also moved legislation out of committee to--
Many of these bills were passed by House Republicans last year, but never saw action in the Senate or Senate Republicans moved their own bills..
There are real questions of practicality, cost and constitutionality surrounding many of these proposals as they seek to make a political statement.
Last Election Court Challenge
The U.S. Supreme Court Monday said it will not hear a case brought by Republicans challenging the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania and directed a lower court to dismiss the case as moot. Read more here.
The case involved the just over 10,000 mail-in ballots received up to three days after the November 3 election day.
The Department of State said it was still decided whether to add the ballots to the final election count. They will not change the outcome of an election contest. Read more here.
Will Plastic Bags Undo Legislative Dealmaking?
A last-minute provision added to the Fiscal Code in 2019 that included many other changes as part of the budget package that year is being challenged in state court saying it violates what is known as the “single subject rule”-- putting only one subject in one bill for consideration by the General Assembly. Read more here.
The specific provision put in place a temporary moratorium on the adoption of plastic bag bans by communities.
The cities of Philadelphia, West Chester and other municipalities filed the lawsuit in March. Read more here.
The PA Supreme Court in the past has invalidated laws for violating the single subject rule, much to the consternation of legislators who love to “Christmas tree” legislation with their favorite bills that might not get through the full legislative process on their own.
In fact, in the case of the preemption of local bans on plastic bags, Gov. Wolf vetoed a standalone bill with those provisions in 2017. Read more here.
Legal scholars point to another provision in law for codifying or compiling the law that could allow legislators to continue to load up bills at budget time. Read more here.
It will be a while before this case works its way through the courts, but the PA Supreme Court will be the last word on this issue too and they have been slowly expanding the application of the single subject rule.
Vaccines - Come And Get Them! Please!
On Thursday, Gov. Wolf acknowledged there has been a sudden drop in demand for COVID vaccines just at the time when supplies have never been better in the state. Read more here.
He said vaccine hesitancy is a major problem and could prevent the state from reaching so-called “herd immunity.” Read more here.
Gov. Wolf said about two weeks after 65 to 70 percent of the state’s population is vaccinated, there could be a relaxation of some COVID restrictions. Read more here.
Currently, just over 46 percent of the eligible population in Pennsylvania has had at least one dose of vaccine as of April 23. Read more here.
Medical professionals are stepping up efforts to convince Republicans, in particular, to get vaccinated, pointing to a recent Muhlenberg College poll showing 50 percent of Republicans surveyed said they won’t get the vaccine. Read more here.
This compares to 14 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Independent voters. Read more here.
Among all respondents to the poll, 31 percent said they would not take the shot.
A growing list of colleges and universities are requiring students returning in the fall to be vaccinated, last week including Lehigh [Read more here], Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania [Read more here].
As of April 24, the PA COVID Vaccine Dashboard shows 4,773,293 people have been given one dose of a COVID vaccine-- up from 4,247,515 last week-- and 3,136,599 have been given the required two doses-- up from 2,637,654 last week.
COVID % Positivity Drops Full Point
As of April 23, the Department of Health’s COVID Monitoring System Dashboard reported the statewide percent positivity dropped a full point to 8.6 percent from 9.6 percent last week.
On March 5, the percent positivity was 5.7 percent-- anything over 5 percent is bad.
The daily number of COVID cases statewide declined slightly, but the number of hospitalizations and ICU cases continued to be a concern.
The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 25,661 on April 17 to 25,938 on April 24. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 1,103,616 on April 17 to 1,131,014 on April 24.
While there was no change in COVID precautions statewide, the City of Philadelphia decided to allow bar seating again because their cases have been on the decline. Read more here.
Visit the Weekly COVID NewsClips webpage for this week’s ups and downs.
Traffic Deaths Up
PennDOT reported there were 1,129 traffic-related deaths in Pennsylvania during 2020, the second lowest on record. Read more here.
That seems to be good news until you see the number for 2019-- 1,059.
So how could traffic deaths go up in 2020 during the COVID pandemic when there was a 20 percent drop in road traffic?
PennDOT had no explanation. Read more here.
Child Sexual Abuse Lawsuits
The full Senate may vote as early as this week on House Bill 951 (Rozzi-D-Berks) that would give victims of child sexual abuse a window to file lawsuits against their abusers.
The 11 to 3 vote to move the bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week came as a surprise as did the support for the measure by President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre). Read more here.
This issue has split the Senate Republican leadership with Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) and Sen. John Gordner (R-Columbia) opposed to the measure because they believe a law creating the window is unconstitutional. Read more here.
They support an amendment to the constitution to do the same thing, but that effort was botched when the Department of State failed to properly advertise an amendment the General Assembly passed last year.
Even if the bill does become law, it will be challenged in court, to which Sen. Corman replied, “I’m prepared to allow the lawyers to have their day.” Read more here.
Violent crime and gun violence appeared in the headlines at both ends of the state last week, but were pretty much lost in the verdict of the George Floyd murder case.
On Monday, public safety officials in the City of Pittsburgh reported the number of homicides so far in 2021 were up an astounding 80 percent and non-fatal shootings were up 90 percent. Read more here. Read more here.
One community advocate said people are hurting because of the coronavirus pandemic, loss of a job and the harsh economic and racial disparities that are present in today’s world. Read more here.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, in the middle of his reelection campaign, said, “We are not going to solve this by just putting more police officers on the streets. This is solved by giving people opportunity that they do not have right now.” Read more here.
On Friday, Gov. Wolf, Attorney General Shapiro, joined other state and local leaders in Philadelphia to again call for coordinated action to reduce gun violence in the city and across the state. Read more here.
Wolf again called on the General Assembly to pass common sense gun safety and control laws. Read more here.
Item: Wednesday a lone gunman went on a shooting spree in the Lehigh Valley that left a Wawa customer and the gunman dead and another person wounded. He bought the handgun legally under current law. Read more here.
Item: The Philadelphia Inquirer asked in an editorial-- “How Much Money Will It Take For Philly Police To Stop Having To Apologize?”
Business Tax Deadline
In the better late than never category, the General Assembly last week gave final approval to legislation-- House Bill 766 (Greiner-R-Lancaster)-- and Gov. Wolf signed it into law moving the corporate tax filing deadline to May 17, 2021 to match the federal government.
It only took the General Assembly just over seven weeks to get this very simple bill passed starting on March 3.
School Pension Rates Increase
Over 94,000 public school employees will see their pension contribution rates increase starting July 1 as a result of the continuing drama over a mistake in calculating investment results by the PA Public School Employees Retirement System. Read more here.
The Retirement System also took steps to move aside the former Chief Investment Officer and install a new person to oversee its investments. Read more here.
The Senate will be in voting session this week Tuesday and Wednesday and then take a break until May 10.
The House canceled session this week and is not scheduled to return until May 3.
The Senate has a very full committee meeting schedule on issues too numerous to mention.
For what is now a non-voting week, the House has a good number of committee hearings and information meetings on a variety of topics.
And, of course, there are 15 campaign fundraisers scheduled for this week by Senate and House members. Read more here.
[Posted: April 25, 2021]
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