Legislature set to finish a troubled September without solving its two biggest problems

(Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

When Pennsylvania state lawmakers returned to Harrisburg from summer recess in early September, they were met with a series of grim warnings. 

Affordable housing advocates forecast a wave of evictions this winter if lawmakers failed to amend a housing assistance program, which had disbursed barely any of its funding less than a month before it was set to expire.

County election officials, meanwhile, appealed to legislators to tweak the state’s election code. They warned that thousands of voters could be disenfranchised, and election results delayed, if the state didn’t adopt new rules for counting mail-in ballots.

But the General Assembly is poised to finish the month without delivering decisive fixes to either problem.

The state Senate left Harrisburg Tuesday without approving legislation to amend a statewide rental and mortgage assistance program, which was designed to funnel federal relief funds to tenants and homeowners who fell behind on housing payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The upper chamber is not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until Oct. 5 – almost a week after the program expires on Sept. 30.

Funded with $150 million in federal CARES Act money, the housing assistance effort has been plagued with problems since Gov. Tom Wolf signed it into law in June. 

Housing advocates told the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee at a Sept. 9 hearing that it had spent barely 3 percent of its budget in the two months since it had taken effect. 

They urged the Legislature to raise the allowance for assistance, extend the application deadline, and streamline the application process to get cash to more tenants.

A state House committee unanimously approved a bill last week that contained many of those changes. But the House lawmakers did not act quickly enough to send the legislation to the Senate for its final session days in September. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, told the Capital-Star Tuesday the Senate was close to approving its own remedy. 

He said there was a bipartisan commitment to spend the $150 million on its intended purpose. Lawmakers were held up, however, by a “fundamental disagreement” over how much aid it should provide to individual tenants. 

“The intention of it was rental assistance, not rental forgiveness,” Browne said. “We’re getting there … It’s something we’re trying to work through.”

Browne said any unspent funds in the program budget will be divided among Pennsylvania’s counties, which will be permitted to allocate it under guidelines that govern federal community block grants.

Those rules would allow counties to use the money for housing assistance, Browne said. But they’d also have discretion to use the funds for other purposes, which is why he’d prefer to resolve the programs in the legislature.

The General Assembly also stalled this month on bills changing the state’s election code, despite hearing from local officials as recently as Monday that unresolved issues with mail-in ballots could delay results of the presidential election on Nov. 3.

Wolf had said this month he would veto proposals that emerged from the House and Senate, which afford voters less time to request mail-in ballots and counties more time to process them ahead of Election Day. 

Republican lawmakers were negotiating details of an election reform package with Wolf’s office as recently as last week. 

But Jenn Kocher, a spokeswoman for the Senate Republican caucus, said those talks were rendered “moot” by a recent state Supreme Court ruling, which ordered counties to count mail-in ballots they received up until Nov. 6.

“What impetus would the governor have to negotiate with us now that he has what he wants?” Kocher said Tuesday, the same day Republican lawmakers moved to appeal the ruling. 

That Supreme Court decision, however, didn’t resolve a key concern among election officials: the fact that Election Day results could be delayed unless the legislature grants them more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting before Nov. 3.

Kocher said the Senate still has time to amend the state’s election code next month.

Democratic lawmakers said last-minute changes to the election code wouldn’t jeopardize the results of the Nov. 3 election, but could invite confusion from voters – especially since counties are already sending out mail-in ballots.

“I think it’s extremely irresponsible to be in the third week of September and to have not cleared the air,” Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, said. “What it’s created is a tremendous amount of confusion … the rules may not be clarified until the middle of October, when the vote has already started.”