‘Choose Wisely’: Cong’l Dems warn Pa. lawmakers against misusing $7B in stim cash | Friday Morning Coffee

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Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Remember that scene toward the end of the last, good Indiana Jones movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where a wizened knight issues a stern warning as a bunch of Grail-crazed Nazis try to figure out which cup is the real cup that got passed around the table at the Last Supper so they can gain eternal life?

“You must choooseeee wisely,” the knight croaks in sepulchral tones.

Naturally, the chief bad guy (with a little help from a conflicted heroine and some c.1989 special effects) drinks out of the wrong cup and gets the ultimate cosmic comeuppance.

“He chose … poorly …” the knight then croaks, delivering the classic summer blockbuster punchline.

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That scene came leaping to mind as I was putting together this newsletter and a letter, signed by all nine Democratic members of Pennsylvania’s Capitol Hill delegation, fell off the back of a passing truck, and floated gently through my office window.

In it, the Congressional Dems urged the top four legislative leaders in the state House and Senate to wisely spend $7 billion in federal stimulus money authorized under the American Rescue Plan.

“The pandemic has revealed inequities in many public policy areas, such as K-12 education, higher education, access to housing and health care, and access to jobs and support for small, local businesses—especially in Black and Brown communities,” the federal lawmakers wrote.”The American Rescue Plan is meant to help the state respond to the immediate crisis in ways that address these long-term inequities.”

The debate over how to spend the stimulus money, now buttressed by exceptionally vigorous tax collections, is going to be one of the marquee fights of budget season.

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As the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported earlier this week, the state could have as much as $10 billion in hand as the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the Democratic Wolf administration try to get a deal on a spending plan ahead of the June 30 deadline to pass one.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind, as the Capitol Hill Dems remind Pa. lawmakers like the parents about to hand the keys to the Porsche to Tom Cruise in ‘Risky Business,’ there are some rules about how they can and can’t spend the cash.

And yes, I’m riding this ’80s bus as far it’ll take me this morning.

The money can be used to “continue COVID-19 response efforts, to replace revenue lost due to the economic impacts of the pandemic and restore public services to pre-pandemic levels, to mitigate the harm that the crisis has inflicted on households and businesses, provide hazard pay to essential workers and to invest in broadband, water and sewer infrastructure.”

But it can’t be used to “to pay down debts, including the debt created by past tax cuts. The [U.S. Treasury] department correctly notes that such a use does “not directly provide services or aid to citizens,” the federal lawmakers note.

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“Congress has done its part to get Pennsylvanians the help they need. We urge you to forge a state budget that uses the [stimulus] funds in a way that reflects the goals of the law and that meets the needs of Pennsylvania,” the Democratic lawmakers write, practically threatening to turn the Commonwealth around if lawmakers don’t follow instructions.

Legislative Democrats, as Capital-Star staffers Marley Parish and Caruso recently reported, have proposed two spending plans — the “New Deal for Pennsylvania” from Senate Democrats and the “Pennsylvania Rescue Plan” from the House. Both call for investments in infrastructure, schools, and businesses, and prioritize support for parents and frontline workers.

In an email to the Capital-StarSenate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, who received the Congressional Democrats’ missive, said the advice “could not be more correct or timely.”

“Pennsylvania was given more than $7 billion to help us recover from COVID-19, and that money has been sitting, hidden away, waiting for Republican majorities to act,” Costa said. ” … We need to take a hard look at the way our communities have struggled in the last 15 months and make a concerted effort to repair them equitably. I hope that my Republican leadership counterparts agree and adopt the New Deal for PA or at least offer a plan of their own that puts our constituents back on their feet.”

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadlephia, who also got the letter, added that, “We’re still waiting to hear if our Republican colleagues have any plan at all. It really is time to start talking about how this federal money helps us meet this state’s most urgent needs at this crucial moment.“

While he couldn’t offer specifics as this early stage, Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, another recipient, said House Republicans “remain steadfastly committed to helping all Pennsylvanians recover and rebuild from the impacts of the pandemic.

“As the letter states, the federal dollars come with specific requirements on how the funds can be used. We are in discussions with the Senate and the administration to ensure the federal dollars are utilized effectively,” Straub said.

Which brings me, finally, to Curtis Armstrong’s famous exhortation in the 1985 John Cusack cult classic ‘Better off Dead.’ It occurs to me that is as equally applicable to rough skiiing (its original context) as it is to bumpy budget negotiations.

“Go that way,” Armstrong’s amiable stoner sagely intones, as Cusack’s character asks for advice on a tough downhill run. “Really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”

Here’s hoping lawmakers can get out of their own way this budget season and do the most good for the most people.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
The day after a trio of his colleagues visited Arizona’s ongoing presidential election audit, a top Republican in the state Senate says he’s mulling an audit for the Keystone State. House Republicans say they’re not on board, Marley Parish reports, with an assist from Stephen Caruso.

During a virtual forum with constituents on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called for action to get two multi-trillion-dollar proposals being considered by Congress “over the finish line.” Cassie Miller has the details.

Supporters of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which saw its budget slashed in 2020 amid the pandemic, are looking for a $15 million funding boost, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

Experts say it’s time to get rid of the filibuster, Darrell Erlick, of our sibling site, the Daily Montanan reports.

On our Commentary Page this morning, former Democratic state Rep. Tony Payton, of Philadephia, argues the importance of connecting low-income Pennsylvanians to high-speed broadband. And the head of a newly formed think-tank in western Pennsylvania argues for a future beyond shale gas extraction.

En la Estrella-CapitalEl Consejo de Filadelfia revela un plan contra la violencia dirigido a los jóvenes de la ciudad. Y seis universidades del Sistema Estatal de Pa. podrían ser consolidadas. Qué debe uno saber antes de cuatro reuniones públicas.

(Image via The Philadelphia Gay News)

Elsewhere.
A Philadelphia judge has nabbed a six-month suspension for ‘blatant and inexcusable’ behavior on the bench, the Inquirer reports.
Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala is under fire for refusing to do plea deals with a Black attorney who criticized his office as racist, the Post-Gazette reports.
Toxic PFAS chemicals have been found in water supplies across Pennsylvania. PennLive has a searchable database.
Allentown students and their families are getting vaccinated at local clinics, the Morning Call reports.
State regulators have approved a massive expansion of a Luzerne County landfill, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

Days after a cyberattack, the JBS meatpacking plant in Montgomery County is back in business, WHYY-FM reports. 
A key tool that Pittsburgh uses to create affordable housing is about to expire, WESA-FM reports (via WITF-FM).
A petition urges the recall of two Erie-area school directors for homophobia, GoErie reports (paywall).
A local borough council president has launched a Democratic challenge against state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, PoliticsPA reports.
State laws aimed at helping patients to get pricey drugs are falling shortStateline.org reports.
Roll Call goes deep on the maternal mortality crisis facing American Black women.

WolfWatch.
Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out to ex-Ridge administration-aide-turned-Harrisburg-PR guy Steve Aaron, and to longtime Friend O’The BlogRobin Tilley Hull, both of whom celebrate today. Congrats and enjoy the day, folks.

Heavy Rotation.
After making you wade through that sea of 80s references above, it only seems right and proper that we go out this week with a blockbuster playlist of pop classics from 1985.

Friday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina finally pulled one out on Tampa on Thursday night, winning 3-2 in overtimeThe Bolts hold a 2-1 series lead.

And now you’re up to date.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press