The 5 biggest fights as Pa. lawmakers return to challenge governor

Hundreds of people will rally on the state Capitol steps Monday afternoon on the same day Pennsylvania lawmakers return to session.

But their fight outside for economic justice and a window allowing child sex abuse survivors to sue their perpetrators won’t be up for a vote in the Republican-led House or Senate. 

The Legislature has not prioritized giving priest abuse victims a right to sue. The Legislature will likely not respond to calls for a higher minimum salary, paid family and medical leaves, or requests to spend $7billion in American Rescue Plan money. 

The state Senate was mostly consumed with the 2020 presidential election. The House appears to be focused on redistricting legislative seat.

Both chambers are determined to oppose the Wolf administration’s school-mask mandate.

Here’s a look at the key issues to watch as lawmakers return to Harrisburg for their fall session:

2020 investigation in elections

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said his chamber would not be recounting votes in the 2020 presidential election that happened 10 months ago. This directive seemed clear and would be followed, even though it came from the highest-ranking Republican. 

The Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee voted on Wednesday to collect personal information about Pennsylvania’s nearly 9 million registered voters. The requested data includes names and addresses, partial Social Security numbers as well as birthdates, driver license numbers, email addresses, voting histories, and driver’s license numbers. 

Committee Chair Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, said that sensitive information would be used to verify each voter is real — a process that would essentially recount the votes. 

Dush has said that while senators have not disclosed the name of the vendor, there will be rigorous vetting. Corman said “every necessary step will be taken to ensure it is completely secure.” That includes making vendor personnel sign non-disclosure agreements. 

“The Senate has clear authority to conduct this review, and it is our responsibility to take the concerns of our constituents seriously and get the answers they seek,” Corman said.

The investigation was prompted in part by concerns expressed by Republican voters that Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election theft were not supported. However, Democrats are now questioning the fate and integrity of Pennsylvania’s electoral system. 

“Let’s be very clear, this information request is merely another step to undermine democracy, confidence in our elections and to capitulate to Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election,” Gov. Tom Wolf made the statement. 

Sen. Anthony Williams was more succinct calling Republican efforts a “blowtorch on democracy.”

“For the government to have access to your Social Security number should be scary to all of us,” he added.

Jay Costa, D.Allegheny, Senate Minority Leader, stated that Senate Democrats would file a lawsuit Friday to stop the collection and use of sensitive personal information. 

More:Senate Republicans move to collect personal info on every Pa. voter at taxpayers’ expense

Mask mandates to face fight

Edison Elementary School fourth-grader Fiona Glassman, 9, gets in line to begin the first day of school, Aug. 30, 2021, in Erie. Her mother Amy Shumac said Fiona wore her favorite mask for the occasion.

The state Department of Health’s school mask mandate for K-12 students in Pennsylvania continues to roil emotions across the state. The order was signed by Alison Beam, Acting Health Secretary, on August 31. It went into effect September 7.

There have been at least two lawsuits filed to overturn Beam’s order with Corman joining one. 

Republican lawmakers have said they intend on taking action to counter the Wolf administration’s order, but what they can do remains to be seen.

Wolf would veto any legislation that curtails the order. The GOP-controlled Legislature hasn’t shown the ability to get the votes necessary to override him.  

“Over the past week-plus our members have heard from parents, families, and school administrators from across Pennsylvania who are concerned with the Wolf administration’s new statewide mask mandate,” Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, said earlier this month.

“Putting forward a legislative response to that mandate is one of the many things we are likely to address with the additional session days to let them know their voices are being heard in Harrisburg,” He said.  

Previously, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said the masking order “deprives Pennsylvania communities of local control and community self-determination.”  

Benninghoff also alluded to the two constitutional amendments that voters approved in the spring limiting governors’ emergency powers, which were pushed by Republicans after tussling with Wolf over his pandemic restrictions and closures.  

“Unfortunately, the administration has turned a deaf ear to the people of Pennsylvania who passed two constitutional amendments in May that sent a clear message that things need to work differently in this state,” Benninghoff stated.

More:Delta variant in Pa.: How can Gov. Wolf managed to manage the COVID increase after voters stripped him of his power.

Executive power vs. legislative power

Chairman of the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, speaks during a hearing at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021.

The executive power fight overlaps with the mask fight and also stretches beyond it. Republican lawmakers claim that Wolf has abused his authority throughout this pandemic. 

“The governor’s administration should focus more on the education of our children and addressing the long-term consequences of his previous school shutdown and not policing who is and is not wearing a mask,” said House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster. 

The mask fight is an example local control versus state. Benninghoff said that local governments and school boards should take decisions regarding public health, and not the state.

Republicans claim Wolf and Beam ignore 52% of primary voters who voted to limit the governor’s executive power in emergency situations. 

House Republicans have asked the Commonwealth Joint Committee on Documents, a regulatory oversight panel, to rule that school mask order is unlawful.

Experts in legal law have indicated that the school mask mandate is likely attract lawsuits. However, they are expected to fail. 

“We’ve seen litigation now for months,” Eric Feldman is a professor of medical ethics, health policy, and law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. He stated this earlier in the month. 

“Most of it has failed, not just in progressive states with judges appointed by liberals, but also with judges appointed by former President Trump.”

More:Pa. Republicans to put voter ID on ballot after Gov. Wolf vetoed voting reform bill

Abortion debate continues in Pa.

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pa., Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

Republicans introduced four anti-abortion bills during the last session. 

The Democratic Governor promised a veto. They have been blocked by Tom Wolf. 

One of the bills he vowed to veto during the last legislative session mirrors a Texas law that was given a green light Sept. 1 by the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court allowed the law to proceed, which blocks abortions at six weeks gestation before many women know they’re pregnant. The law bans abortions for women who are raped but allows abortions if the pregnancy is harmful to the mother’s health.

Pennsylvania Republicans claim their legislation saves lives. Democrats say it hurts women. 

“It’s devastating and enraging to see the US Supreme Court’s refusal to block Texas’s 6 week abortion ban, especially when similar legislation has been introduced in PA,” state Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, said in a statement two weeks ago.

Less than 12 hours after the high court allowed the Texas law to proceed, a Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker introduced a new rule that would require pain control for an unborn fetus. 

Rep. Tim Bonner (R-Mercer) stated that his legislation would require pain medication to the fetus before any abortion performed after 12 week gestation. 

“Regardless of where we stand on the issue of abortion, surely we all share the compassion that no form of life should be extinguished through a painful process when the pain can otherwise be relieved,” He stated this in a memo to colleagues looking for co-sponsors.

More:SCOTUS decision on Texas abortion law emboldens Pa. GOP, energizes Dems running for office

Redistricting

The Pennsylvania Capitol is shown in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. Republicans in Pennsylvania's state Senate are preparing to test how far they can go in pursuing what the GOP calls a

Pennsylvania’s redistricting process will kick into gear next week with a public hearing by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, which is tasked with drawing new state House and Senate district maps.  

The LRC will meet in Hearing Room 1 of the North Office Building, Harrisburg, from 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

In the House, state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, the chairman of the House State Government Committee, has several more regional hearings scheduled in October to collect testimony about the Legislature’s upcoming work on drawing new congressional district maps.  

The five hearings are Oct. 12th in Tioga County and York County, October 13th in York County, October 18th in Luzerne County. Oct. 19th in Bucks County, and Oct. 20th in Philadelphia. Hearing details are available at paredistricting.com/hearingschedule.

The 2018 state Supreme Court overturned the congressional map because it unfairly favors Republicans. It then implemented its own map after the GOP-led Legislature, Wolf, couldn’t agree on one.

The new district maps resulted in the state’s U.S. House delegation going from 13 Republicans and five Democrats to nine each following the 2018 election.  

Pennsylvania, however, will lose a congressional seat based on the latest Census data. Early speculation suggested that the potential targets could be districts in the north-central region or western Pennsylvania.  

Wolf announced on Sept. 13 that he would create a six-member Pennsylvania Redistricting Advisory Council, to help him review any congressional map approved or rejected by the Legislature.  

Wolf also unveiled a redistricting website where the public can submit proposed maps and comments.  

“We must bring more fairness and transparency to the redistricting process so every Pennsylvanian is assured their voice is heard,” Wolf stated in a statement. “I have long believed that gerrymandering is wrong, and politicians should not use the redistricting process to choose their own voters.”  

Carol Kuniholm, the co-founder and chairwoman of Fair Districts PA, a non-partisan redistricting reform group, said the council’s creation was “good news” and sent the message that Wolf is paying close attention to what Republicans are doing.  

GOP lawmakers, she said, will be “carefully, carefully, crafting a map” that Wolf will accept while also keeping Republicans happy because they want to avoid involving the state Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a majority, in a reprise of 2018.  

Kuniholm stated that redistricting is being tracked by more people than ever before, using technology, data, and tools that were not available in the past.

“That’s the biggest safeguard,” She spoke of the increased attention. “They will not get away with anything.”

More:Census in Pa.: What the latest figures mean for legislative and congressional seats

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capital Bureau. You can reach her at 717-480-1783, or via Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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