Two dozen Democrats flip as House fails to override Wolf sports crowd veto

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Republicans are now 0-3 against Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen.

The Pennsylvania House fell five votes short Wednesday of overriding Wolf’s rejection of a bill that would prevent his administration from regulating school sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, the bill would have given the final say on sports, and attendance at sporting events, to the boards managing Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.

The final vote 130-71, fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to override Wolf’s veto. It marked the Republican-controlled chamber’s second failed override attempt in three weeks. Another attempt in May also failed.

“Until more Democrats are willing to stand up for the people of Pennsylvania instead of standing with their political party or their governor, the Commonwealth will remain mired in the governor’s emergency rule,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, in a statement.

Right now, there are no statewide restrictions on the events, after a federal judge in Pittsburgh ruled last week that the Wolf administration’s 25-person indoor and 250 outdoor crowd limits were  unconstitutional. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, said the proposal was to fight for families who wanted to watch a son or daughter play.

“Our ultimate responsibility is to the folks we represent back home,” Reese said during remarks on the House floor Wednesday. “Consider the moms, dads, grandmoms and grandads, brothers and sisters, who just want to watch that loved one compete.”

The bill had originally passed the House 155-47 earlier this month. But on the override, 25 Democrats flipped their vote, and instead backed Wolf. Among the flips were House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.

“[Wolf’s] our governor. He vetoed it, and I’m the Democratic leader,” Dermody told the Capital-Star. “While there’s some trouble with that bill, the governor is taking steps, and I believe school districts are taking steps to alleviate the situation. But I am not going to override the governor’s veto.”

In a statement, Dermody called the attempted override a “misdirected effort when many more serious matters demand attention,” such as hazard pay, election reforms, and health insurance coverage. 

With the federal court ruling, some school districts across the state with large stadiums have already begun to allow crowds numbering in the thousands to football games. But such attendance is still well below peak capacity.

And even before the ruling, local media in Allegheny County reported that crowds were breaking the restrictions.

In vetoing the bill, Wolf argued, as he has during many other vetoes, that the bill would rob the Department of Health of authority to respond to a sudden new outbreak of COVID-19.

Wolf also argued in his veto message that the bill was redundant, and that school boards already had the ability to set their own restrictions and regulations on school sports.

Athletes and parents rally for school sports in Harrisburg

But his red pen still put even some loyal Democrats in tough spots, such as Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny.

Representing parts of the blue Monongahela Valley, Davis’s district is also home to some big football schools, such as Clairton and Steel Valley high schools.

“We trust local school districts to make decisions on how to educate their kids, if they have in person learning or not. And I think this bill maybe reaffirms the governor’s position already,” Davis told the Capital-Star.

The issue of schools sports during COVID-19 was first raised in early August, when Wolf suggested at the tail end of an unrelated press conference that school districts cancel extracurricular sports until January 2021.

The suggestion led to an outcry from some parents as well as Republicans, who saw the policy drop as the peak of Wolf’s at tims opaque and confusing COVID-19 response.

Since the start of football season, there have been multiple examples of student athletes testing positive for the disease. But abandoning the high school sports calendar, including football, remained only a suggestion by Wolf. 

The remarks were still enough to spark Reese’s bill, as well as a rally on the Capitol steps featuring Republican legislative leadership and hundreds of high school athletes.

Many lawmakers, from both parties, also thought the rules inconsistent. For example, an indoor hockey or volleyball game could be limited even as crowds of masked people could shop together at a superstore.

“Many people feel they’ve gotten mixed signals from the governor,” Davis said. 

For example, he said the McKeesport school district had a stadium with a 3,000-spectator capacity. He saw no reason why 1,500 people couldn’t fit in it, socially distanced, and still see their kids play.

Still, in the end, Davis ended up as a “no.”

Even though the override failed, and an appeal by Wolf is pending, the authority to police sports and other extracurriculars is now in school boards’ court. And Reese thinks they are up to the task.

 

With the override’s failure, Wolf has successfully vetoed 11 bills this year. He has never had a veto overridden since taking office in 2015, despite working with a GOP-majority legislature.

The General Assembly has not overridden a gubernatorial veto since 2010. But there have been three attempts in the last year to do so in the House over Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions, including on a bill to reopen a slew of businesses and to end Wolf’s disaster declaration.

So far, about 8,100 Pennsylvanians have died from the disease.