Senate session cut short by House lawmaker’s COVID-19 diagnosis

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

Pennsylvania’s state Senate cut short its schedule in Harrisburg this week, leaving the Capitol on Tuesday after two days of lawmaking.

The 50-member chamber canceled its Wednesday committee meetings and floor action after a state representative’s COVID-19 diagnosis scrambled the House voting schedule last week, according to Senate Republican spokeswoman Jenn Kocher.

The news that Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday forced House leaders to cancel their session activity in the middle of the day while they rushed to sanitize facilities and conduct contact tracing.

That delayed action on bills that the Senate planned to consider this week, Kocher said.

One of the bills that the House left in limbo was a measure amending parts of Pennsylvania’s housing assistance program, which has been plagued with problems since it launched in July with $150 million in federal funding.

The House was slated to vote on the proposal Thursday. Its likely approval would have allowed the Senate to consider it this week before sending it to Gov. Tom Wolf.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Sue Helm, R-Dauphin, contained many of the fixes that advocates say are necessary to help landlords, lenders and tenants who have fallen behind on rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic. It streamlined the application process for people seeking assistance and raised the maximum allowance for payouts.

The assistance program technically expired on Sept. 30. But Wolf issued an executive order on Monday to extend its deadline through Nov. 4, giving housing agencies more time to receive and process applications.

Wolf’s order does not change the terms of the program, however – that job rests with the General Assembly, which is not due back in Harrisburg until Oct. 19.

Legislative leaders can call lawmakers back to Harrisburg on short notice next week. But under their current schedules, the House and Senate are also running up against a deadline to amend Pennsylvania’s election code ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

County election officials have appealed to the General Assembly since the spring to give them more time to prepare mail-in ballots for counting on Election Day.

Wolf last month pledged to veto Republican-authored bills that gave counties more time to count mail-in ballots and voters less time to request them. Kocher said Tuesday that conversations about the election code “are continuing in the hopes that we can find common ground.”

The Senate did vote unanimously Tuesday to send the House a bill enhancing criminal penalties for child pornography charges.

The measure was sponsored by state Sen. Dave Arnold, R-Lebanon, a former county prosecutor who was elected to the Senate after his predecessor, former Sen. Mike Folmer, was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography last year.

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