Amid COVID in Capitol, Pa. General Assembly finishes budget with no new taxes, no furloughs — and no new aid

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster

Gov. Tom Wolf is set to sign a $35.5 billion budget passed Friday by the Pennsylvania General Assembly amid close votes, last minute meetings, and lawmakers running home early due to COVID-19 concerns among House lawmakers.

The spending plan passed in a nearly empty Capitol, as the majority of the 203-member House of Representatives were sent home due to at least one presumed positive COVID-19 case in the House Republican caucus.

Even amid the viral road bumps, the House approved the budget 104-97, and the Senate 31-18. It proved a fitting end for a session plagued by partisan fighting over how to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Every Pennsylvanian has had to make sacrifices this year, and state government should be no different,” said House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, in a statement.

The drama started early Friday, as fourth House lawmaker and fifth legislator overall revealed they had tested positive. This  aroused Democratic concern about the conduct of some of their Republican colleagues, who, even through the initial spike, lull, and resurgence of the virus, have refused to wear masks on the House floor.

Lawmakers are required to wear a mask in the Capitol after the first confirmed case among legislators in May, but lawmakers be exempted due to medical conditions.

In response to the new case, Cutler announced that all lawmakers and staff must undergo a temperature check before they enter the House, and more conservative stalwarts donned masks in the building and on the floor.

But then rumors began of new cases, and a Democratic lawmaker filed a Department of Health complaint against her Republican colleagues claiming they created an unsafe work space for legislators staff.

“The pandemic is real, and for people to treat it as though it’s not a serious health challenge we face is unacceptable,” said Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, who filed the complaint.

Asked to leave the floor around 4:30 p.m., House lawmakers instead submitted their votes in writing and left, under previously approved rules. Across the building in the Senate, lawmakers cast their votes over video feed, as they have for most of the last nine months.

House sources told the Capital-Star that they were informed in a closed door meeting Friday afternoon that House human resources staff were actively searching for potential contacts of someone who was displaying COVID-19-like symptoms who was in the Capitol that day.

“There was nobody here who was diagnosed with COVID,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, as he left the building. He declined further comment.

As for the spending plan, it combines federal and state dollars to meet state pension obligations, pay for rising Medicaid costs, and prevent public employee furloughs without raising taxes.

But Democrats opposed the budget because it used $1.3 billion of remaining federal stimulus funds to backfill state police, corrections officers and public health employees salaries, rather than aiding hurting businesses or workers.

“We should take no pleasure in MacGyvering a budget,” said state Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware.

The budget also shifted money from restricted state accounts that support recycling and the state judicial computer system.

Republicans, meanwhile, argued that what appeared to be a 2.2 percent budget cut was actually accounting trickery, such as shifting payments for state retirees’ health care into the future.

The chambers also approved the accompanying fiscal code, an omnibus manual for spending, which included a carve out for Pennsylvania’s waste coal energy industry, a plan to expand ATV trails in Pennsylvania state forests, and a rule limiting what flags can fly on Capitol grounds — a shot at Lt. Gov. John Fetterman — among other things.

Harrisburg GOP to Fetterman: Go fly a kite, not a flag

A number of issues are still unresolved, as well. Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-Chester and chair of the House Transportation Committee, said PennDOT was still missing authorization for $600 million in debt to pay for ongoing construction projects. Without funding, the projects would be suspended.

The budget also flat funds education, leaving schools stuck with new expenses to meet socially distant learning and no new aid.

“It’s a crisis, man! Accept it,” said state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester, of school funding.

The budget now heads to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email that “COVID-19 has left Pennsylvania in a difficult financial situation, and this budget protects against furloughs and deep cuts to critical programs.”

Wolf will also have a smorgasbord of legislation, from gun laws to environmental rollbacks to liability protections, to either sign, veto, or let lapse into law without his signature in the coming weeks.

Lawmakers have expressed hope that more federal money could come to states in the coming months, whether negotiated by outgoing President Donald Trump or incoming President-elect Joe Biden.

Without, tough choices could still be on the agenda come June 2021, when the state’s next budget will be due without the help of one time federal dollars. 

Pa. has to pass a budget soon. Here’s what is on the table