The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)
This story has been updated to clarify that two Senators did not cast votes on Wednesday’s measure, and to include remarks Corman made in a Wednesday afternoon conference call.
Leaders of Pennsylvania’s state Senate pledged transparency and accountability Wednesday as members passed a new rule that will let them deliberate and vote remotely on legislation.
The new rule, which lawmakers say they will only use to act on legislation related to the COVID-19 outbreak, passed with unanimous support from 48 senators, even though only a skeleton crew attended the 20-minute session in the state Capitol Wednesday.
Nearly half the senators in the 50-member chamber were granted leave, allowing them to cast votes without appearing in the Capitol building. Two members did not vote.
Leaders said they hope they won’t have to use the new policy, but that it would be necessary as lawmakers respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has put Pennsylvania’s schools, retail outlets and public spaces on a shutdown that could last at least two weeks.
“We are in unprecedented times, and unfortunately unprecedented times call for unprecedented reactions,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Wednesday. “With the challenges we face today, we felt it necessary to give ourselves the opportunity to meet remotely.”
Pennsylvania’s 203-member state House passed a similar policy on Monday.
Lawmakers from both chambers say that remote work options will allow them to abide by guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which call on Americans to avoid gatherings of 50 or more people for at least the next eight weeks.
Corman said the Senate is still working out the technology that will support remote session activity and allow members of the press and the public the opportunity to weigh in on the Senate’s proceedings.
“I pledge to be as transparent as possible in this process and give the media opportunity to witness,” Corman said Wednesday. “That is my pledge as we all try to be part of this new normal, and as we operate under the same spirit and guidelines that have always governed us.”
Corman also said that the Senate would not use the remote voting privileges to act on legislation that isn’t directly related to the COVID outbreak.
Lawmakers are drafting legislation related to everything from school instruction laws to small business relief funds in the days since Gov. Tom Wolf announced a two-week shutdown of schools, restaurants and retail outlets across the state.
But he did admit that the outbreak could complicate all aspects of governance, namely the state budget that is due on June 30 and the primary election currently scheduled for April 28.
“We’ll have to take a look at the ability to operate a primary,” Corman said Wednesday. “That may be something we have to come back in … and [discuss].”
Some lawmakers have called on Pennsylvania to conduct all of the April’s voting with mail-in ballots.
But in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, Corman said he would rather see the primary postponed altogether if the state can’t safely accommodate voters at polling places.
“I would rather move the date back than limit people’s ability to come out and vote,” Corman said. “Under the situation we’re in, every hour is different and we need to contemplate what our options are.”
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