Elections, Emergency Powers, And Mapmaking Among The Items On PA Lawmakers’ To-Do List

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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Alison Beam as a doctor. The state’s chief medical officer is Dr. Denise Johnson, who is the Acting Physician General. 

(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania state lawmakers are set to gather for session in Harrisburg Monday. They return from a summer recess that saw the rate of COVID-19 infections surge once again, renewing debate over how state government should respond to the pandemic.

In outlining his caucus’ agenda to reporters this week, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said his chamber is keeping the pandemic in mind.

Benninghoff said he would push members to approve an extension of remote voting rules Monday that have kept the chamber safe. He acknowledged virus variants and “health challenges” of some lawmakers are making it difficult for all 203 of them to gather.

“We felt that it was probably a good tool to keep throughout the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Another priority for House Republicans, Benninghoff said, is to respond to a different type of emergency: flooding from remnants of Hurricane Ida, which tore through Pennsylvania earlier this month and left Philadelphia and other areas ravaged.

Though Gov. Tom Wolf issued an emergency proclamation ahead of the storm at the end of last month, new rules approved by voters last spring require lawmakers to approve any further declaration and the funding that goes with it after three weeks. Wolf also successfully petitioned President Joe Biden’s administration to declare the flooding aftermath a federal emergency, which allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others to get involved.

Though the state House has so far refused to extend Wolf’s pandemic-related declaration, Benninghoff said it will allow flooding-related state aid to continue.

“Disasters can be a big term,” he said. “It doesn’t always have to be a pandemic, as we’ve seen, but it’s my goal that we’re proactively involved with that and have our plans ready regardless of what type of disaster may come before us.”

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission will meet this week as well. Just a few months remain for the five-member body to propose new state legislative district lines in time for next spring’s primary election. Congressional redistricting hearings conducted by the House State Government meeting are set to resume later this month.

House Republicans also plan to restart negotiations on election code changes that were vetoed in June. Much of the discussion likely will focus on voter ID rules, after Gov. Wolf previously said he’d be open to new provisions. Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who has sponsored those changes, reintroduced that legislation on Friday.

Rep. Joanna McClinton (Philadelphia), the House Democratic Leader, earlier this month said her caucus’ priorities are a bit different: she’d prefer that lawmakers figure out how to spend the several billions of dollars in American Rescue Plan money that was set aside when they approved this year’s state budget.

McClinton said she’s open to discussing other topics like election code changes and even state masking orders.

“When we can get together and talk about where there’s common ground, we’re much more productive,” McClinton said.

Republican and Democratic Senate leaders, meanwhile, will be starting a legal battle over subpoenas issued for troves of voter information, including partial social security numbers. GOP senators want access to those records to conduct another investigation of Pennsylvania’s last two elections — despite no evidence existing that would call the results of either into question.

Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), the chamber’s Democratic leader, has said the subpoenas should not be carried out, citing privacy concerns and partisan motivation.

“[Senate Republicans] claim the investigation is about improving elections in Pennsylvania, but let’s be clear…this is about casting unnecessary doubt among voters and undermining our proven electoral system. Plain and simple.”

Senate Republicans also have two bills aimed at limiting the emergency powers of cabinet members such as Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam. Republican caucus spokesman Jason Thompson said senators will also consider new rules to limit lobbyist influence at the state Capitol.

“We are putting the finishing touches on a package of bills that would accomplish that goal and hope to introduce them very soon,” he said.

A pair of state senators has also introduced their own bill to change the state’s election code, outlining rules for how the Department of State gives guidance to counties on administering elections and how counties must set up drop boxes for mail-in ballots.