As the Republican-led state Legislature returns to Harrisburg this week, stripping Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers is the top priority, according to the majority party.
“The clock is ticking, and we need to do away with the disaster declaration,” said Jason Gottesman, spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff. “It’s the No. 1 priority.”
He said he expects both chambers to vote on rescinding Wolf’s disaster authority on Monday or Tuesday.
But it’s not the only key issue awaiting lawmakers upon their return: There is federal stimulus money to decide how to use.
Democrats see the focus on Wolf’s powers as political theater, especially given that Wolf has ended all COVID-19 restrictions except the mask order. The mask mandate will end on June 28 or when 70% of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated — whichever comes first.
Instead, the minority party wants more focus on distributing the $7 billion Pennsylvania received from the American Relief Plan.
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Differing plans on stimulus spending
State Democrats have been calling for action for weeks, putting forth two plans of their own: the Pennsylvania Rescue Plan from House Democrats and the New Deal for PA from Senate Democrats. Both plans include direct benefits to residents by helping schools, workers, businesses, families, renters and landlords.
State Republicans, who haven’t revealed a formal plan of their own, expect the $7 billion will “go to core functions of state government,” Gottesman said.
That’s important, he said, because there was overspending in some departments, and Republicans want to finish the budget by June 30 without any tax increases.
Because of CARES Act funding and previous stimulus money, Pennsylvania has a $3 billion surplus. The $7 billion from the American Rescue Plan gives the state a $10 billion surplus ending into the new fiscal year.
Led by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, all nine congressional Democrats from Pennsylvania last week sent a letter to state House and Senate leaders, urging them to spend the money wisely.
Evans, who previously served in the state House for 36 years and spent two decades as the Democratic chairman of the Appropriations committee, said Pennsylvania never had these resources when he was in state government.
It’s an opportunity to invest in roads and bridges, education equity and families, Evans said.
“What I hope is that my former colleagues, in both parties, don’t miss the opportunity to invest,” he said. “Make big and bold investments that are very beneficial to the people.”
House leadership is in talks with the state Senate and Wolf administration to ensure the federal dollars are utilized effectively, according to Mike Staub, spokesman for House Speaker Bryan Cutler.
“We remain steadfastly committed to helping all Pennsylvanians recover and rebuild from the impacts of the pandemic,” he said. “As the letter states, the federal dollars come with specific requirements on how the funds can be used.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman could not be reached for comment.
Budget talks to soon heat up in Harrisburg
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward believes the $7 billion “should be managed wisely and considered one-time funding, not continued funding, that will help Pennsylvania to get back on track and return to life as we know it,” said her spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright.
Republicans faced pushback from the community in November when they used more than $1 billion in COVID relief money to pay for the state budget and avoid raising taxes. Small business owners, and advocates for health care, housing and social services wanted the money to go to their causes.
At the time, Democrats acquiesced to the majority party to avoid furloughs.
But Democrats want this round of COVID relief money to go to people, projects and public health.
“That’s what the American Rescue Plan was written for, and before we think about using it to plug budget holes, we need to take a hard look at the way our communities have struggled in the last 15 months and make a concerted effort to repair them equitably,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa said.
“I hope that my Republican leadership counterparts agree and adopt the New Deal for PA or at least offer a plan of their own that puts our constituents back on their feet.”
House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton said she wants to be sure the money has the most impact to help families and small businesses fully recover from the pandemic.
“House Democrats have spoken to our people all over the state about their needs and we created the Pennsylvanian Rescue Plan, a detailed proposal to invest this money,” she said. “We’re still waiting to hear if our Republican colleagues have any plan at all. It really is time to start talking about how this federal money helps us meet this state’s most urgent needs at this crucial moment.”
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, voted for the American Rescue Plan and wants to see the money used in Pennsylvania on the people who are still recovering from the scourge of the coronavirus.
He said the state can use American Rescue Plan funds to meet the immediate public health and economic needs of the crisis, deliver assistance to families and businesses, prevent layoffs and budget cuts, provide hazard pay to essential workers and invest in broadband, water and sewer infrastructure.
“These funds are essential for a full and equitable recovery,” Casey said.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, voted against the American Rescue Plan because several municipalities across the country were struggling to find ways to spend all the money they had from previous COVID relief plans, according to his spokesperson Sam Fisher.
But does see some uses for the money in his home state.
“The American Rescue Plan’s additional $350 billion for these same localities is wholly unnecessary and Senator Toomey believes it should be repurposed for actual, physical infrastructure needs,” Fisher said.
Investing in roads, bridges, transit and broadband is not a bad way to spend the $7 billion, according to Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think tank.
“But the state has major needs in health care, education and housing,” he said.
Stier’s reasons are these:
- Pennsylvania ranks 50 out of 50 for public health spending.
- Some universities are merging, and some students leave Pennsylvania because out-of-state tuition is sometimes cheaper than in-state tuition.
- Census data showed, in any given week, 20% of Pennsylvanians are behind on their rent, and it could be up to 30% or 40% at times.
The $7 billion, he said, could help with those problems by:
- Reducing funding gaps at schools with high rates of poverty
- Expanding Medicaid
- Putting more money in risk adjustments so people have lower premiums on the Obamacare exchanges
- Set up more county health departments
- Improve the ratio between higher-education tuition and median income
“And with housing, there’s some dedicated money in the American Rescue Plan,” Stier said, “but it’s unclear if it’s enough.”
Pa. COVID relief:The money is coming, but where is the state’s plan to spend it?
Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.