Wolf, legislative GOP not talking as $145M relief plan for small businesses languishes

By: - January 14, 2021 5:16 pm

Wolf addresses reporters during a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

While it’s a new year, relationships between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican General Assembly haven’t seemed any less frayed.

That was clear Thursday, when Wolf gave an update on his plan to allocate $145 million in extra money from a state insurance fund to help small businesses struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wolf first identified the spare dollars at a press conference two days before Christmas. Three weeks on, he said it was legislative Republicans’ turn to get help to ailing entrepreneurs.

“Republican leaders have not made any moves to get that money out of the General Fund and into the hand of businesses that need it,” Wolf said.

The Pennsylvania House considered its first legislation of the year this week, advancing six constitutional amendments — including a proposal to reduce Wolf’s power amid the pandemic.

But they did not hold a vote on moving excess cash out of the state worker’s compensation security fund, which Wolf identified as $145 million over its statutory minimum.

Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, told the Capital-Star that the leader was willing to work with Wolf on the proposal, but that the governor had not reached out to talk.

“We’re not going to negotiate with [Wolf] via a press conference,” Gottesman said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, is “on my speed dial,” Wolf said. “So is the Speaker [Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster]. So is the majority leader in the House and the Senate.”

Regardless of their conversations or lack thereof, state Republicans have expressed some skepticism about direct payments to businesses amid the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis.

“It’s not just about government at any level cutting checks,” Benninghoff said at the press conference Tuesday. “Those are temporary.”

Benninghoff and House Republicans instead said they were creating a task force to search for solutions for getting people back to work. They had no concrete ideas yet, but floated modifying or repealing some state regulations as a start. 

Wolf suspended some rules during the pandemic, but House Republicans did not specify which regulatory exemptions they wanted to make permanent.

The governor and the General Assembly have had a testy relationship since the start of pandemic, when Wolf unilaterally ordered businesses to close and people to stay in doors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Since then, Wolf has vetoed 19 bills, many of which would have reopened swaths of industries. Four subsequent override attempts failed. 

All of this back and forth has taken place against the backdrop of a fall and then sudden resurgence to new highs of COVID-19 cases — and deaths.

Depending on the size of the checks, Wolf’s plan could potentially provide tens of thousands of businesses with a few thousand dollars worth of assistance.

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, called for the General Assembly to take up the issue when it returns to session on Jan. 25, and complete it before budget hearings begin in February.

“We can offset some of the economic damage that has been done to our local businesses in every corner of the commonwealth,” McClinton said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.