Voters Approve Statewide Ballot Questions
In the primary election, Pennsylvanians approved the nation’s first voter-imposed restrictions on a governor’s authority to issue emergency declarations.
There were four statewide ballot questions on the May 18 primary election slate for Pennsylvania voters, including three that would make changes to the state’s constitution. Two addressed how future state of emergencies will be handled in Pennsylvania. These particular ballot questions were penned by Republican lawmakers and emerged from a long-running feud with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over the extent of the restrictions imposed to preserve public health during the pandemic. Unofficial results indicate that these ballot initiatives were approved.
Other states have enacted laws to limit the length of declared emergencies, as well as a governor’s authority to issue executive orders during such emergencies, but Pennsylvania is the first to have voters decide on putting limits on a governor’s power.
When asked about the results on May 19, Wolf commented, “I think we’ve had a long period to see how the current system works, and I think there was some thought that we could do better. So, I’m looking forward to working with the legislature to figure out how we can make this work.”
Sen. Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) issued a statement regarding the next steps. “Moving forward, the general assembly will operate under the framework established with the recent constitutional changes approved by the voters on Tuesday, and will apply these changes to the governor’s renewal of the emergency declaration as we transition the state out of emergency status without jeopardizing federal dollars and to expedite the vaccine rollout,” Ward said.
Undaunted by the May 18 results, Wolf signed a renewal of the Proclamation of Disaster Emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic on May 20.
Two other ballot initiatives were also unofficially approved. One asked voters to amend the state constitution to specifically prohibit restricting or denying a person’s equal rights on the grounds of race or ethnicity. The other asked voters to authorize permission for paid municipal fire and medical rescue companies to apply for loans from a state program that currently provides funding only for volunteer fire and EMS agencies.
The last time voters rejected a ballot question was in 1993, according to information provided by the state. Since then, voters have approved 19 ballot questions.
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Brobson, McCullough to Vie for Pa. Supreme Court Seat
Republican Kevin Brobson won a three-way contest against Patricia McCullough and Paula A. Patrick for the GOP nomination for an open spot on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In the fall general election, Brobson, who is currently on the Commonwealth Court, will face Democrat Maria McLaughlin, who ran unopposed in the primary. McLaughlin currently serves on the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The seat on the court is open due to the mandatory retirement of Chief Judge Tom Saylor.
In another three-way contest, Timika Lane currently leads Jill Beck and Bryan Neft in the Democratic primary for an open seat on Pennsylvania Superior Court. Republican Megan Sullivan ran unopposed in the primary and will advance to the general election.
Nominees for two vacancies on the Commonwealth Court were also set. The Republican candidates for the two seats were decided before the election was held since there were only two GOP candidates running. They are Drew Crompton, who is a current member of the Court seeking a full 10-year term, and Stacey Marie Wallace. Lori Dumas and David Spurgeon lead in the four-way Democratic contest with Sierra Street and Amanda Green Hawkins.
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No Surprises in House, Senate Special Elections
There were four special elections on the May 18 ballot for open seats in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. There were no surprises: Republicans held onto their three seats while Democrats kept their lone seat.
With nearly 63% of the vote, Republican Chris Gebhard won a four-way race to replace Sen. Dave Arnold for the Lebanon County-based 48th Senatorial District. Arnold died in January from brain cancer. Gebhard defeated Democrat Calvin Clements, former state Rep. Ed Krebs running as an Independent, and Libertarian Tim McMaster.
Democratic state Rep. Marty Flynn took 51% of the vote in another four-way race to fill the 22nd Senatorial District seat in Lackawanna County. Flynn will replace Sen. John Blake, who resigned earlier this year to take a position with U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright. Flynn defeated Republican Chris Chermak, Green Party Marlene Sebastianelli, and Libertarian Nathan Covington.
The Senate has its full complement of 50 members—28 Republicans, 21 Democrats, and 1 Independent.
Republicans held two seats in western Pennsylvania. Republican Leslie Rossi defeated Democrat Mariah Fisher for the 59th House District in Westmoreland County, vacant because of the January death of Rep. Mike Reese. Republican Abby Major prevailed over Democrat Frank Prazenica in the 60th House District. The seat, which covers Armstrong County, is vacant because of the retirement of Rep. Jeff Pyle.
Republicans maintain a 113-91 majority in the state House.
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A Look at the Week of May 24
House and Senate lawmakers are in voting session the week of May 24. Activity in the General Assembly is picking up as lawmakers begin finalizing a new state budget for fiscal year 2021-2022 that begins July 1. Gov. Wolf has proposed a $37.8 billion spending plan. That plan, which calls for a nearly $3 billion tax increase, received a muted reception at best by many state lawmakers.
The House Finance Committee convenes a voting meeting on May 26. Committee members will consider House Bill 1059 (Estimated Payment Threshold for Personal Income Tax), House Bill 1230 (provides for political subdivision and volunteer service use of tax-free motor fuels), House Bill 1303 (Integrity and Transparency in the Administration of Tax Credit and Tax Benefit Programs), and Senate Bill 74 (Pediatric Cancer Research Tax Credit).
The House Labor and Industry Subcommittee on Workers Compensation and Worker Protection convenes a two-part hearing on Thursday. In the morning, the subcommittee will meet to discuss the Uniform Construction Code; the afternoon session will cover public sector worker safety.
The Senate State Government Committee holds a public hearing on congressional redistricting, while the Senate Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee has a public hearing on government barriers to manufacturing growth in Pennsylvania.
Read a complete list of House and Senate committee meetings and hearings scheduled for this week.
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New Proposal Would Fund Hospital Grant Program
Pennsylvania will receive $7.3 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) enacted by Congress earlier this year. How that funding will be spent will be the subject of intense debate as lawmakers form a state budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. While the U.S. Treasury has put some restrictions on the use of the funds, these dollars can be used to respond to or mitigate COVID-19 and its economic impact.
A group of lawmakers is proposing setting aside $650 million from ARPA’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to support grants for the hospital community to restore Pennsylvania’s health care workforce, strengthen public health infrastructures, and improve access to care. The Health Care Heroes and Public Health Preparedness Act, contained in Senate Bill 642 (not yet introduced) and House Bill 1359, would create defined award criteria and determine the appropriate administrative agency for distributing grant funding. Funds would be distributed based on demonstrated need until depleted. In addition, the legislation would ensure that funds could not be used to reimburse expenses or losses that have been fully reimbursed from other sources.
In addition to the Heroes Act, state Senate Democrats have proposed their New Deal for Pennsylvania. The plan calls for investing $6.15 billion of ARPA funds on jobs, opportunity, and equity. “These funds give us a unique opportunity to not only plug the holes created by the past year, but to also set us on a trajectory that will prevent such devastation from happening again,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny).
House Democrats proposed the Pennsylvania Rescue Plan. Democratic lawmakers say their plan will help Pennsylvanians recover and reimagine a better future after COVID-19. Check out the details here.
These proposals will be rolled into the give-and-take negotiations on a state spending plan that lawmakers will likely consider sometime next month.
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DeFoor Calls for State-Level Safeguards of Federal COVID Relief Funding
Auditor General Timothy DeFoor urged the Pennsylvania General Assembly to enact state-level safeguards to prevent billions of dollars in federal pandemic recovery aid from being misused through fraud or waste.
Pennsylvania will receive about $55 billion in federal COVID relief aid, according to the state’s Independent Fiscal Office. About $7.3 billion in direct aid to the state and $6.2 billion to local governments will come from the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
“Pennsylvanians are relying on us to make sure their money is being spent to help communities recover from the economic disaster caused by COVID,” DeFoor said. “We need transparency, oversight, and accountability for this massive amount of funding – up front, not after the fact.”
DeFoor noted that a lack of such safeguards in the federal Paycheck Protection Program led to hundreds of millions of dollars being lost to potential fraud, according to federal prosecutors.
DeFoor said ARPA did provide dedicated funding for inspectors general and other fraud fighters working at the federal level, but their work is focused on funds that have already been disbursed.
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IFO to Update State Revenue Estimates
The Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) will release an updated revenue estimate for fiscal year (FY) 2020-2021 and an initial revenue estimate for FY 2021-2022, which begins July 1. The briefing is scheduled for May 26, beginning at 1:00 p.m.
The briefing is open to the public, and submitted questions will be addressed at the end of the presentation.
The report will also be posted to the IFO website when the presentation concludes.
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