In new normal, Pa. House and Senate lawmakers vote remotely to send COVID-19 relief bills to Wolf’s desk

Senate minority leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and majority leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, on the Senate floor on March 25. More than half the Senate convened remotely for the session, where lawmakers passed legislation granting emergency relief to help hospitals, workers and schools cope with the COVID pandemic. Photo by Doug Gross, Senate Republican Photographer.

Calling out votes via video chat and swapping bills all afternoon, Pennsylvania state lawmakers on Wednesday sent four pieces of legislation to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk that will provide financial and regulatory relief to schools, election officials and workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All the measures passed unanimously in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. The majority of lawmakers cast votes and deliberated on bills remotely to avoid overcrowding the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

At least 114 lawmakers  — 66 Democrats, and 48 Republicans — applied to vote remotely in the Pennsylvania House, according to caucus’ spokespeople for both parties.

Ten members of the Senate — including leaders of the Republican and Democratic caucuses and a handful of Republican senators — attended the session in Harrisburg, while the remainder cast votes and debated legislation remotely.

Wolf, a Democrat, has already indicated that he will sign most of the measures, which move Pennsylvania’s primary to June 2; provide $50 million in aid to hospitals; waive instructional requirements for schools, and prepare the state’s unemployment system for a potential influx of federal dollars.

Emergency fund

Announced earlier this week, the Legislature approved $50 million in emergency spending Wednesday. It will allow hospitals, nursing homes and emergency medical services to “acquire medical equipment and supplies for health care entities to meet urgent patient and staff needs to address surge demand.”

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Andy Carter, president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said earlier this week that he was looking for “an extraordinary amount to match the size of the surge [in treatment that] we’ll be providing.”

Primary election postponed

Wolf promised in a Wednesday afternoon press conference to sign the bill moving Pennsylvania’s primary election from April 28 to June 2.

The bill also will allow county election boards to move poll workers outside of their home precincts, consolidate polling places, and allow establishments that sell alcohol to host polling places.

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Under the rules, lawmakers said, counties would have extra options while holding the delayed vote. 

One permanent change will let election boards open and process — but not count — mail-in or absentee ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day. Election results might be delayed, county officials warned, without some lead time to process a potential wave of mailed ballots.

In a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said legislative leaders landed on the June 2 date after consulting with the governor’s office.

But he admitted that he didn’t know if the Wolf administration had confidence that the election could proceed that day, and implied the date could be postponed based on evolving public health needs.

Education

Lawmakers also took steps on Wednesday to relax instructional requirements for Pennsylvania schools, which are closed until at least April 6 under orders from Wolf. 

Wolf has not pledged to sign the education bill, saying in that  Wednesday afternoon press conference that he would review the changes when it arrived on his desk. 

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The legislation, which has the support of the largest teachers union in the state, guarantees that educators, bus drivers, and other school employees won’t take a hit to their salaries or pension benefits while schools are out of session. 

It also waives the requirement that schools provide 180 days of instruction each year.

In a call with reporters on Wednesday, state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera admitted that the new provisions come with some hazards, since nothing in state law requires schools to provide instruction when their facilities are closed. 

If the COVID-19 pandemic shutters schools through June, districts could conceivably decline to offer any online learning to their students, Rivera confirmed.  

Education advocates worry some districts may take that approach to avoid legal liability. 

Federal education law requires schools to provide an equitable education for students with disabilities. But as WHYY-FM reported last week, some schools fear they won’t have the resources to deliver an equitable online curriculum.

Advocates are also skeptical that Pennsylvania schools can provide online education to students who can’t access the internet at home. 

State education officials have been vague about the share of Pennsylvania students that have reliable internet access, even though Rivera confirmed Wednesday that the Education Department collects annual data on the state’s so-called digital divide.

In remarks he delivered via video conference Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, said that up to half of students in Philadelphia lack reliable internet access at home.

Administrators in the state’s most populous city have already purchased thousands of laptop computers to deliver lessons to students during the COVID-19 shutdown. 

The Education Department has strongly urged all schools in the Commonwealth to offer remote instruction. Rivera said state officials will use “the power of the pulpit” to influence those that don’t.

Unemployment

The Legislature also eased eligibility requirements for workers applying for unemployment benefits if they lost their job due to the coronavirus or public health decrees to contain the pandemic.

Employers will not be penalized for unemployment claims against them due to the pandemic, as well. The changes will expire on January 1, 2021.

The state’s unemployment system is reportedly being crushed with applicants who have already lost their job due to coronavirus-related business closures. 

The state reported 50,000 applications alone last Monday, before Wolf ordered non-”life-sustaining” businesses to close. Updated numbers will be released by the federal government Thursday.

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The department added in a press call last week that its phones were understaffed to meet Wolf’s order to keep non-essential state workers working remotely.

The bill also pre-authorizes the state Department of Labor and Industry to take advantage of federal funding to expand unemployment benefits, whether by paying idle gig workers or extending payments past the usual 26 weeks.

Congressional leaders reached an agreement with the White House Wednesday on a $2 trillion stimulus deal.