Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons
On the same day that Pennsylvania set another single-day record in COVID-19 infections, Democrats in the Pennsylvania rolled out an ambitious, $4 billion, bond-funded package that they say will deliver immediate relief to the millions of people statewide who have been impacted by the pandemic.
Speaking to journalists during an online news conference, Democrats urged the 50-member chamber’s Republican majority to come to the table early to begin negotiating the contours of the relief plan so that it could hold a vote on it as early as mid-January, just days after the start of the new legislative session.
“Back in March, none of us expected to be at this grave precipice in December,” Sen. Maria Collett, of Montgomery, and a newly elected member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said. “Now, when positivity rates are skyrocketing, hospitals are full, and Pennsylvanians have sacrificed so much, this Legislature must step up. This plan identifies ways to get money into the hands of those who need it most.
In a Twitter post, Democrats outlined how they planned to spend the money, which also would rely on draining the state’s Rainy Day Fund for revenue.
On Friday, the state Health Department reported 11,763 new COVID-19 cases and 169 new fatalities. That brings the total number of cases to 398,600 since the start of the pandemic, and 11,113 deaths, the Health Department said.
Democrats rolled out the relief plan as stimulus talks on Capitol Hill are starting to show new signs of life. With programs set to expire this month, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday that she saw new momentum for an agreement as job growth slowed, CNBC reported.
Senate Democrats said Friday that they could adjust their spending plan if and when an agreement emerges in Washington. But they stressed, the state shouldn’t wait for Congress to act.
“We need to provide relief that matches the urgency of this crisis,” Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, said. “We can’t send the people of Pennsylvania little more than a get-well soon card. We can’t wait for Washington to act.”
Last month, state lawmakers approved, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed, a budget deal that spent down the $1.3 billion balance of Pennsylvania’s federal stimulus funds to backfill state police, corrections officers and public health employees salaries. Majority Republicans balked at using the cash to aid hurting businesses or workers.
Democrats are guaranteed to face a similar uphill slog convincing the debt-averse GOP majority to $4 billion into the red to pay for programs they left out of the stopgap budget just before Thanksgiving. As part of that spending plan, Republicans rejected the idea of borrowing $600 million to pay for road and bridge repairs requested by the Wolf administration.
This week, Pennsylvania Treasurer Joe Torsella stepped up and said his office could provide short-term funding through February, the Capital-Star reported.
On Friday, Democrats said they were convinced that the urgency of the challenge the state now faces, coupled with a willingness to be flexible in the face of future action by Congress, could bring Republicans to the table.
“This caucus is prepared to enter into negotiations right now to be prepared on what the substance of this will look like,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee said. ” … Let’s not wait any longer.”
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