COVID-19 in Pa.: Wolf, lawmakers struggle for common ground on pandemic relief

The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

In a day of fiery rhetoric, the Pennsylvania General Assembly advanced a second wave of legislation to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for its eventual aftermath.

“I think Pennsylvanians will respond and do what is necessary in order to bend the curve. They will sacrifice a great deal,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said Tuesday. “But what I don’t think we should ask them to do is sacrifice without a plan on how we’re going to get back to normal.”

Some of the measures, such as authorizing remote local government meetings, were relatively uncontroversial. 

Others raised alarm bells for the Democratic Wolf administration, whose legislative allies charged that Republicans were usurping executive authority. Other initiatives, such as reducing prison populations, still haven’t moved despite the administration’s hope for cooperation.

But with the Senate not slated to return to Harrisburg until later this month, it’s unclear when any of the bills could land on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. 

Business closings 

A top Republican concern was Wolf’s March 19 mandate ordering the shutdown of all non-”life-sustaining” businesses. 

The order was strict and early, and allies have argued that it’s helped contain the spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, the state has documented more than 14,500 cases in all 67 counties.

Whole industries, such as construction have shut down, while business owners and lawmakers have said that administration-issued waivers allowing some businesses to stay open are inconsistent.

Meanwhile, the Wolf administrator has refused to release the list of waiver applicants, a move Cutler said might relieve GOP concerns.

David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, a trade group, said that as it’s currently designed, Wolf’s list of “life-sustaining” businesses didn’t take complex industrial supply chains into account.

For example, a business that makes critical machine components for a company that builds medical devices may be deemed non-essential, Taylor told the Capital-Star, even if the device manufacturer needs replacement parts.

“The rule should be, anything that touches anything essential [is] waived,” Taylor said.

On Tuesday, a House panel passed a proposal to align mandatory business closings with federal guidelines. That came over the strong protests of the Wolf administration.

“The decision to shutter non-life sustaining businesses that support families across this commonwealth was a painful one, but before we can save livelihoods, we need to save lives,” said Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine in a letter sent to the General Assembly Monday.

Prisons

On Monday, House Republicans said they would “provide options” to the Wolf administration, which signaled it wanted to follow the lead of other states and reduce state prison populations, hopefully averting a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 behind bars.

But by the end of day Tuesday, no such legislation had advanced out of the chamber.

The Wolf administration and House Republicans have traded draft proposals over the past few days. Late last week, the Department of Corrections unveiled a plan for the temporary transfer of inmates guilty of non-violent offenses, who are late in their sentences. 

COVID-19 in Pa.: Draft plan to reduce prison pop. includes limited eligibility, gives veto to prosecutors

The proposal would allow these individuals to get parole from the supposed safety of home or community confinement. 

House Republicans countered with a proposal that would have released a maximum of 450 prisoners out of a system with 48,000 inmates — a fraction of the 12,000 prisoners that Corrections officials have estimated are vulnerable to the coronavirus.

In a Tuesday press call, Cutler said that the GOP offered its counterproposal because Republicans had “lots of unanswered questions of the executive’s ability to handle the prison changes and release.”

The delay may force Wolf’s hand. He has previously indicated he wants to work with the General Assembly on prison releases. In a letter to lawmakers Monday, Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said that prison releases should start by April 10, with or without legislative approval.

The House is currently on 12-hour call, and could return on short notice to pass legislation. But further details were not available. 

“If [the administration] chose to go it alone, as they did the waiver process, it would likely verify the concerns members had,” Cutler said.

Task force tussle

A separate proposal, passed by the House Tuesday, establishing a task force to help Pennsylvania “rebuild and rise” from the pandemic “as efficiently as possible,” sparked a partisan firestorm in the House.

The Republican-authored legislation, which now awaits a vote in the Senate, requires the governor and certain executive branch agency heads to notify legislative leaders within one day of suspending, waiving or modifying any state laws or regulations during an emergency. 

It also creates a COVID-19 response task force that includes appointed members from the executive branch, General Assembly and the judiciary. 

The task force would not have the power to create laws or appropriate money. But it could request information from state agencies, recommend recovery actions to Wolf, the General Assembly and the state judiciary. It would be required to compile a report with a comprehensive study of the state’s response to COVID-19. 

The bill, which cleared the House on a party line 108-93 vote, allows the task force to receive feedback from businesses and nonprofits on the state’s response and recovery plan. But correspondence to the task force is exempt from the state’s Right to Know law, unless it comes from registered lobbyists.

House Democrats on Tuesday said the legislation undercut Wolf’s executive powers and tied his hands at a time when he should be focused on responding to the unprecedented pandemic. 

“The Republicans’ primary motivation, seemingly, is to undermine and handcuff the Governor by taking away valuable resources and time with an unnecessary bureaucratic task force, while also pushing to have many more businesses reopened,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said in a Monday email to his fellow Democrats.

Democrats also charged that the task force’s membership would favor Republicans. 

The legislation calls for appointment powers to be split among the branches of government, with the governor, the top Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court each making appointments. 

But since the chief justice is a Republican, and both chambers of the Legislature are under Republican control, the composition of the 23-member board could skew toward the GOP.

The task force measure passed the House on a party-line vote Tuesday and awaits committee action in the Senate, which is not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until April 20, according to Jenn Kocher, a Senate Republican spokeswoman.

Lyndsay Kensinger, a Wolf spokesperson, added that the governor will review the bill if it reaches his desk.

The upper chamber did advance its own measures this week. In an omnibus bill passed Tuesday, it unanimously approved allowing local governments to meet remotely and to delay tax collection; requiring schools to continue to pay contractors for services they may not render; and mandating a legislative study the cost of the pandemic to hospitals and healthcare providers.

But the House did not pass the measures. The chamber still stands ready to come back and pass new measures as needed, Cutler said.