‘Our fingers have been crossed’: Hopes for voting, housing reforms go unanswered by General Assembly

The state Capitol rotunda. Source: WikiMedia Commons

In their final days of lawmaking before the Nov. 3 General Election, the Republican-controlled General Assembly failed this week to deliver decisive fixes to problems plaguing Pennsylvania’s housing market and election offices, bucking months of pressure from advocates and local officials. 

Lawmakers left Harrisburg Wednesday evening without changing the state election code, which county officials said was necessary to allow a swift vote count in two weeks.

They also failed to approve long-sought changes to a rental assistance program, which advocates now fear will reach its Nov. 4 expiration date without reaching thousands of needy Pennsylvanians. 

The votes lawmakers did hold this week are among the last scheduled for the 2019-2020 legislative session, which ends Nov. 30.

These final session days are usually hectic, marked by fast-moving exchange between the House and Senate. And many of the bills leaders prioritize are sponsored by vulnerable lawmakers facing tough reelections, who can tout new legislative victories as they return to their districts for a final push of campaigning.

This year was no different. Republicans hope to retain control of both the House and Senate after the Nov. 3 election, but Democrats hope to win enough seats to flip at least one chamber. 

Some of the proposals lawmakers passed this week include:

  • A bill allowing the state to automatically expunge the record of someone who was fully acquitted of a crime, or was granted a full pardon. Currently, these individuals still carry a record of the charges, and petition a court to remove the charges – a process that can cost hundreds of dollars.
  • A bill that requires sexually violent offenders who are denied parole to wait three years before they apply again. Proponents of the bill, including the state Victim Advocate, say it will spare victims the trauma of reliving a crime in parole hearings, which require input from victims whose offenders are up for release.
  • A bill to allow rural electric cooperatives to build broadband infrastructure anywhere they can build electric infrastructure. Private internet companies also gain the same access if agreed to by the cooperative.
  • A bill that requires hospitals and long-term care facilities to notify coroners of any death that may be related to COVID-19, so that the coroner can conduct an investigation and report statistics to the state Department of Health.

These bills will now go to Wolf, who must decide whether to sign, veto, or let the proposals lapse into law without his signature. 

County election officials were hopeful that lawmakers would use their final days in Harrisburg to pass a reform they’ve been seeking since April: a change to state election code to let them open mail-in ballots and prepare them for counting ahead of election day. 

Pennsylvania is one of just four states where election officials can’t open mail-in ballots before an election. Election officials have warned that will lead to a days-long vote count in the Nov. 3 general election, when more than 3 million Pennsylvanians are expected to vote by mail. 

Republicans who control the General Assembly proposed bills this summer that gave counties more time to process mail-in ballots but voters less time to request them. 

The proposal also would have eliminated ballot drop of boxes and the remote voting offices some counties have set up, while allowing out-of-county poll watchers.

But Wolf said he would veto any proposal that limited access to mail-in voting during the pandemic. 

Talks between Republican leaders and Wolf dissolved this week, leaving counties without a fix just two weeks before the election. 

“It’s extremely disappointing,” Jeff Greenburg, a former Mercer County, Pa. election director, told the Capital-Star this week. “I feel that the moment was just too big for our state government, which couldn’t approve something as simple as an administrative decision.”

Housing advocates and tenants, meanwhile, were hopeful that the Legislature would act this fall to approve critical changes to a state housing assistance program, which was designed to keep money flowing from tenants to landlords during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Funded by $150 million in federal stimulus money, the program provided tenants who lost income during the pandemic with up to $750 a month in rental assistance.

However, the program rules led many landlords to reject the rental aid, as it required them to waive any unpaid rent over $750 a month. The median rent in Pennsylvania is more than $900. 

As a result, the fund has only distributed about $10 million in aid, or about 7 percent of its budget so far.

Wolf initially said the legislature had sole power to fix the program, but then announced a series of executive orders this fall to tweak it.

They included extending the program’s deadline until Nov. 4, and allowing tenants and landlords to enter repayment agreements to settle any debt that remained after maxing out the assistance limit.

But Wolf still called on lawmakers to approve a bill that codified those changes and increased monthly aid to renters. The legislation was caught in limbo earlier this month, when the House cancelled votes after a Republican lawmaker tested positive for COVID-19.

The Republican-controlled House passed the bill Monday in a unanimous vote. But GOP leaders in the Senate did not advance it this week, arguing that Wolf’s changes had fixed the program’s major issues.

Housing advocates who help tenants apply for assistance, however, say that Wolf’s executive actions helped some tenants, but didn’t resolve lingering problems that kept many from getting aid. 

“Our fingers have been crossed the whole time that the legislature would enact the changes that it discussed in the last month and half,” Matthew Rich, a housing attorney and tenant advocate at MidPenn Legal Services in Harrisburg, said. “I certainly understand there’s a lot on their plates… but it is unfortunate.”

Rich pointed out that while Wolf made it easier for tenants and landlords to reach repayment plans, he did not unilaterally increase the amount of aid that tenants could receive – a fix he said is essential to prevent renters from falling into debt. 

Rich and other housing advocates expect the program will expire on Nov. 4 without reaching many of the tenants it was intended to help. 

“This program is well intentioned, it just isn’t going to come to fruition the way we hoped it would,” Rich said. 

The House and Senate are still expected to return to Harrisburg after the Nov. 3 election to vote during their lame duck session.

There’s nothing that stops the General Assembly from adopting far-reaching proposals after the election, when lawmakers who have lost or not sought new terms can still have a say on policy. But typically, their agenda is limited.  

The main item this year will likely be tackling a multi-billion dollar budget deficit due to lost revenues during the pandemic.

The deadline for a new fiscal plan is Nov. 30. The governor’s budget office has also approved a $2.5 billion line of credit to cover commonwealth expenses over the coming months as needed.

Lawmakers also have to decide how to appropriate $1 billion in leftover federal stimulus money, which must be spent by the end of the year or return to the federal government.

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