Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA
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HARRISBURG — In 2020, the coronavirus thrust state government into the lives of Pennsylvanians unlike any other time in recent history.
But the nation’s largest full-time legislature — with some of the highest-paid lawmakers — emerged from the year having failed to address some of the public’s most pressing needs, and marred by some in the majority party who sought to undercut the election results, spread misinformation, and fuel hyper-partisan fights.
Only 27 of the 140 bills passed by the legislature and signed by Wolf in 2020 directly addressed problems brought on by the pandemic, according to a Spotlight PA review of the General Assembly’s record. That includes several major budget-related measures, including one that dispersed federal coronavirus relief dollars, but the tally doesn’t include more than a dozen technical appropriations bills.
Instead, the GOP-controlled chambers spent large portions of the spring, summer, and fall challenging Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s expanded powers, which they believed were running dangerously unchecked.
Left on the table were relief measures that had wide bipartisan support. Renters and home owners in the state, for instance, missed out on $108 million in aid because Republican leadership in the Senate failed to advance fixes to a broken state program. That money was rerouted to pad the Department of Corrections budget.
And despite a litany of pleas from counties for more flexibility in administering the state’s new mail voting law, critical changes stalled amidst partisan bickering. That includes one that advocates said would have helped election officials avoid prolonged vote counting that fueled former President Donald Trump’s baseless fraud conspiracies.
Overall, Democrats were the prime sponsor on only 14 bills enacted last year — while Republicans were able to enact 126 of their proposals. That’s in large part due to rules approved at the start of every legislative session that give GOP leadership near-total control over what legislation gets heard, even if bills have wide bipartisan support.
At the same time, Wolf used his veto power to nix a record 19 bills — 15 more than he did in 2019. Of the bills Wolf vetoed in 2020, all but two were sponsored by Republicans.
The majority of those vetoes — 13 — were coronavirus-related, and primarily aimed at opening sectors of the economy ahead of the Wolf administration’s schedule.
“No question, we spent way too much time fighting with the governor about his authority, and it ended up being at the expense of other, more important issues,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) said of the legislature’s approach to law-making in 2020. “We left way too much unfinished business on the table.”
Republican legislative leaders did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. Over the last year, however, they have complained repeatedly that Wolf had turned aloof and autocratic in his decision-making, sidestepping a branch of government that is supposed to provide checks to his executive authority.
They have also been sharply critical of the governor’s handling of nearly every aspect of the pandemic, from business closures and the crush of unemployment compensation requests to the vaccine rollout.
Longtime GOP political strategist Christopher Nicholas said the legislature’s actions weren’t about power or partisanship, but about rightly moving to claw back “the creeping growth of the power of the executive.”
“You had the governor out there making all these decisions by himself,” Nicholas said. “If you are the legislature, you are like, ‘Wait a second, we have to be involved in this somehow.’”
The ‘election backdrop’
In the weeks after the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in Pennsylvania, the legislature approved measures, some at Wolf’s behest, that eased eligibility requirements for unemployment compensation, delayed tax deadlines, and waived testing requirements for schools. All were meant to provide relief at a time when public health officials were still trying to understand the virus and how to contain it.
Lawmakers also approved measures that extended benefit-related protections to police officers, firefighters, and others who had contracted COVID-19, as well as provided grants to emergency medical responders and required they be notified of coronavirus cases in their communities. Other bills extended the time period for obtaining federal clearances for certain professions, and permitted bars and restaurants hit hard by the pandemic to sell cocktails to-go.
But Republicans soon zeroed in on the governor’s broad powers during an emergency and became set on reversing a number of Wolf’s restrictions on business and residents. Although shutdowns were recommended by public health experts, Wolf’s business waiver program, in particular, came under fierce criticism for being secretive and unfair.
One bill, passed by the legislature and later vetoed by Wolf, would have given counties the authority to decide coronavirus mitigation plans for local businesses, among other things. Another resolution struck down by Wolf in July would have eliminated his disaster declaration for COVID-19 altogether.
Other measures that ended with the governor’s veto would have granted waivers for businesses like car dealerships, pet groomers, and garden centers to reopen, and allowed restaurants to increase the percentage of people allowed to sit indoors.
Even when it came to distributing $3.9 billion in coronavirus-related federal relief funds — an area that seemingly could inspire bipartisanship — there were clashes. In the spring, Wolf and the legislature agreed to spend $2.6 billion on a variety of purposes including relief for long-term care facilities, small businesses, and counties that had not received direct federal aid.
But there was disagreement over how to disperse the remaining $1.3 billion, with the governor initially signaling that he preferred to use it for personal protective equipment, child care, and small business loans.
In the end, though, Wolf did not convince GOP leaders to fund his plan, and both sides agreed to use the remaining money to balance the state budget and pay the salaries of state-employed frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said the intense pressure of the looming presidential election colored how elected officials acted in office.
“Everything that happened in Pennsylvania last year had the election backdrop there,” Borick said. “That is the nature of electoral politics — it seeps into governing. And that was all the more true in Pennsylvania in 2020.”
An uncertain future
Not surprisingly, election-related issues were also steeped in partisan divides.
For months, county election officials lobbied for more flexibility in implementing the state’s nascent mail voting law. Ultimately, it was the state Supreme Court — and not the legislature — that greenlighted some of the changes sought by counties, including clarity on using satellite election offices and drop boxes.
That, in turn, infuriated the GOP, which believed the Democratic-controlled high court was usurping the legislature’s authority — and playing politics.
But state lawmakers failed to make a critical change that counties were clamoring for: permission to begin processing mail ballots before Election Day. Had that and other changes with bipartisan support been made, Pennsylvania would have had election results earlier, potentially cutting down on unfounded conspiracy theories of widespread voter fraud fueled by Trump in the aftermath of the election.
Those baseless claims about the presidential outcome contributed to the Jan. 6 deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol, where members of Congress were officially counting the Electoral College votes.
Ultimately, the legislature did not pass an election bill Wolf would sign. A flagship Republican proposal allowing 21 days of pre-canvassing was shortened to three days and banned drop boxes — the latter a non-starter for Democrats.
Meg Snead, Wolf’s policy and planning secretary, said in an interview that 2020 was a year marked by heightened partisan politics. She echoed Costa’s belief that the legislature spent too much time fighting over the governor’s authority — including attempting to reopen the economy before administration officials believed it was safe — and undermining the results of the election.
That “noise,” she said, took away from efforts to raise the minimum wage in Pennsylvania, which the administration believes would have helped counter the economic devastation brought on by the pandemic. Wolf has proposed an increase every year since taking office in 2015, but many Republican leaders have consistently opposed a change, believing it should be set at the federal level.
“We can go round and round on what the legislature did and did not do,” said Snead, “but ultimately it’s incumbent on us now to look to the future.”
That future is uncertain.
When the legislature reconvened last month to launch its new two-year session, it set the tone for a potentially rocky relationship with Wolf, who could be hamstrung by his lame-duck status as he navigates the last two years of his second and final term in the office.
And while Trump lost at the top of the ticket, Republicans performed well across the state, keeping their majority in the Senate and expanding their control of the House while snagging two coveted row offices. Leadership in both chambers saw the wins as an affirmation of their approach to the pandemic.
Among the first bills the GOP advanced was one that would give the legislature the power to end a disaster emergency declared by the governor. The bill does not require Wolf’s signature because it involves amending the state constitution, which means voters will ultimately decide its fate.
Several GOP lawmakers last month also revived efforts to push through a proposal giving the legislature the power to draw districts for electing appellate court judges. As it stands, those judges run statewide, and many Democrats, including Wolf, oppose a change.
And separately, a House committee launched a series of hearings examining the integrity of the 2020 election and the Wolf administration’s role in administering it.
Still, the state Senate in January did pass — unanimously — a $900 million relief package that includes money to help people struggling with rent and utility bills. It also includes $145 million in grants to small businesses, an idea first floated by the governor.
For his part, Wolf remains optimistic.
“I think last year has shown a sort of bitterness that we haven’t been used to in American politics, and Pennsylvania hasn’t been immune from that,” he said recently. “But I think all of us in Harrisburg, regardless of our partisan attachment or how we look at the job, most of us really want to get something done.”