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State Lawmakers United On COVID Relief, But Split On Limiting Governor's Emergency Powers

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Laurence Kesterson
/
AP
Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, left, talks with incoming House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, on the House floor before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are sworn-in at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

Pennsylvania will send out nearly $1 billion in relief to renters, homeowners, schools and businesses that are reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Most of the $912 million is federal relief money. It will go to rental and mortgage assistance programs, colleges and universities, and small businesses like restaurants.

Here’s a rough breakdown of that measure:

  • Each county may apply for a share of $569.8 million in new Rental and Utility Assistance grants. Tenants and homeowners, as well as landlords and mortgagers, can then qualify for a share of the money if they meet certain criteria.
  • A $145 million transfer from the Workers Compensation Security Fund to fund hospitality business grants of up to $50,000 each. Gov. Tom Wolf has been requesting this as pressure for more direct business assistance has mounted from organizations like the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association.
  • More than $150 million for private schools.
  • More than $47 million in other emergency educational grants, including: $14 million to community colleges, $5 million for Pa. State System of Higher Education schools, $20 million for “area career and technical schools,” and more than $8 million for “chartered schools for the education of the deaf or the blind and… private residential rehabilitative institutions.”

The House and Senate approved the proposal unanimously — after months of negotiations and calls to send more direct aid to those who are struggling to pay bills.
State Sen. John Kane (D-Delaware County) spoke to them directly before the Senate voted.

“To all the people I’ve talked to who are hurting, who are struggling to make ends meet and put food on their tables: I want to tell you, help is on the way,” he said.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, who supported an objection to the state’s electoral college vote despite a free and fair election, says many Pennsylvanians have been waiting a long time for more help.

“Especially those with rental problems and/or landlords that are providing assistance and/or forgiveness for the last 10 months for their tenants,” Benninghoff said. “These have been tough times for everybody and we’ve all got to pitch in. That’s what we’re trying to do to the best of our ability.”

Wolf signed the legislation Friday, which sends the nearly $1 billion in funding out immediately.

“Business owners and employees have worked hard to protect their customers and their communities during this pandemic,” Wolf said in a statement. “But the pandemic has been hard on businesses, and they need and deserve our support.”

Separately, state lawmakers approved allowing voters in the May primary to decide whether to limit a governor’s emergency declarations to three weeks instead of three months. Friday’s vote was 116 to 86 in the House, and was cast straight down party lines.

Supporters like state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York County), who also supported the move to object to Pa.’s electoral college vote despite no significant evidence of voter fraud, said that limit would give the legislature more say in how to deal with long-lasting emergencies.

“This is not unique for this state,” Grove said after listing multiple states where limiting a governor’s disaster authority is being tried. “This is about us, the legislative branch. This is about retaining our power within our constitutional boundaries.”

In a statement, Senate Republican leadership rebuked arguments that limiting the governor’s emergency power would jeopardize federal emergency funding. The statement did not offer legal evidence to support that claim.

Opponents like state Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware County) call it an unfair “power grab.”

“Some forms of government want to seize power from other forms of government, but the people are being ignored,” Davidson said.

Read more from our partners, WITF.