The problems facing the commonwealth and requiring action by the state legislature are enormous. Pennsylvania’s August unemployment rate was 10.3% — 2% higher than the national average and nearly double what it was in March. State utilities reported earlier in the summer that 845,000 customers were so behind on their bill payment that if there wasn’t a moratorium on utility shutoffs, their services could have been ended. According to a Census Bureau survey from early September, more than 20% of Pennsylvania households expect loss in income in the upcoming weeks and 25% said they are likely to experience eviction or foreclosure in the coming months.
Beyond the economic consequences of the pandemic, the coronavirus itself is also still very much with us. There were nearly 800 new cases a day in the commonwealth throughout September, and the death toll from the virus has surpassed 8,000.
Since July 16th, the state Senate has met for a grand total of four days. They won’t meet again until October 5th. Their colleagues in the House of Representatives met six times and are scheduled back on September 29th. What were the top priorities of the Republican-held General Assembly in the midst of an unprecedented recession and pandemic?
Not business owners. Lawmakers did not vote on a bill to ensure that business interruption insurance payments are made to business owners who paid premiums and had to close operations due to COVID-19.
Not sick workers. They did not vote on a bill to ensure that workers have paid sick leave statewide.
Not tenants or landlords. They did not vote on any of the Democratic bills proposed in the House to protect rents, homeowners, and small landlords from eviction and foreclosure. They also did not vote on the Senate bill to fix the rental and mortgage assistance program so that money the state received from the CARES Act can get to struggling households, or to appropriate some of these funds to help with utility payments.
Instead, Republicans in both chambers picked a fight with the governor over the crowd size in school sports events. Current state guidelines limit the number of spectators in school sporting events to 25 indoors and 250 outdoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Republican bill, which passed both chambers, would have left the crowd size decision to school districts exclusively. Wolf vetoed the bill, and a veto override effort in the House narrowly failed.
The bill is the latest in the Republican obsession with limiting Gov. Tom Wolf’s powers during an emergency, and a general dismissal of generally accepted scientific guidelines for what it takes to keep us safe. On the agenda for a vote when the senate is back are bills to exempt gun stores from state emergency orders and define shooting ranges, with other parts of the firearm industry, as life sustaining.
COVID-19 and its economic impacts will not disappear overnight. Countries all over the world are seeing a resurgence in cases. If Pennsylvania doesn’t remain vigilant, the state will follow the same path. Republicans in Harrisburg have a choice: win their petty power battle against the governor, or get to work and help Pennsylvanians.