HARRISBURG -- The General Assembly has sent the governor an $11 billion plan to fund state operations through June, along with a measure to temporarily protect hospitals, businesses and schools from COVID-related lawsuits.
Lawmakers tapped $1.3 billion in unused stimulus funds, another $2 billion in federal Medicaid funds and $500 million from reserve and special accounts to balance the budget without raising taxes.
The budget measure passed the state House 104-97. Seventeen Republicans in the House voted against the plan while 13 Democrats in the House supported it. The Democrats who supported the budget measure were almost all those in leadership positions or retiring lawmakers. The measure was approved in the Senate by a 31-18 vote.
The final House vote took place remotely as House officials dealt with an outbreak of coronavirus. State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair County, announced Friday that he had tested positive for COVID-19. It wasn’t immediately clear how many other lawmakers were isolating or quarantining due to exposure to coronavirus. House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, said that the session was being held remotely to allow for contact tracing.
Cutler said through this spending plan, the state is making “sacrifices” by reducing spending and avoiding tax increases and borrowing.
By leaning on the federal dollars, the state’s plan is poised to implement $35.5 million in spending, including the spending approved in June and the additional spending approved by the General Assembly on Friday. But some lawmakers balked at the move to use one-time sources of funding instead of reducing spending, arguing that it will set the state up for more difficult budget negotiations in June.
“I voted no on the budget because it spends too much which means that we will be in really bad shape for the 2021-2022 budget. The budget literally spends 99.99% of projected revenue so there is only less than $4 million of wiggle room,” said state Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County.
State Rep. David Rowe, R-Union County, also voted against the plan, saying the measure is “kicking the can down the road” by using the stimulus funding to plug the budget shortfall.
“At a time when Pennsylvanians across the commonwealth are tightening their belts, the state government should follow suit and be a true check on the governor’s irresponsible spending habits that will sooner than later come back to bite taxpayers,” Rowe said.
In the Senate, state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, said the budget should have provided more funding for schools. The short-term budget passed in June flat-funded schools while providing a full 12 months of funding. Dinniman said flat-funding schools isn’t good enough because of the increased costs they’ve been forced to deal with due to the pandemic.
“We’re in a crisis,” he said.
Along with the budget, lawmakers also approved a measure that would provide liability protection from COVID-related lawsuits to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and businesses. The measure, on its way to the governor, would provide liability protection throughout the governor’s pandemic emergency declaration.
House Bill 1737 passed 104-98, with all Democrats voting against it and five Republicans voting against it.
The measure passed in the Senate on Thursday by a 29-20 vote, with two Democrats — Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, and Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia — joining with all the Republicans to vote in favor of the bill.
Democrats who opposed the measure said that it will provide too much cover for businesses.
The legislation began as a bill aimed at combating blight authored by state Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny County.
Davis said he demanded that his name be taken off the bill when it was amended in the Senate to add the liability protection.
“This is nothing more than a giveaway to special interests,” he said.
State Rep. Rob Matzie, D-Beaver County, said that the measure would make it difficult for families to sue nursing homes at fault in COVID-related deaths.
“Bills like these still make me shake my head,” he said.
Supporters of the bill said it’s aimed at providing cover for those entities that are following the state’s health guidelines.
“This is an opportunity to help those people who’ve been following the rules,” said state Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Adams County.
Gov. Tom Wolf hasn’t indicated whether he intends to sign the legislation.
Matzie said he hopes “Wolf will do his duty and veto” the bill.
The Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) and other groups representing entities that would get liability protection under the legislation are urging Wolf to sign the bill.
“We are urging Governor Wolf to sign, understanding that school districts are not asking for broad tort reform,” said Annette Stevenson, a PSBA spokeswoman. “Nor are they looking for a permanent change to the state’s sovereign immunity law, but rather what they need is a temporary grant of immunity for actual or potential COVID-19 exposure in the school setting, including district-provided transportation,” she said.
Adam Marles, president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, which represents nursing homes, said the liability protection is needed.
“Long-term care providers must have the support of their state government at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is surging and still an immense challenge,” Marles said. “We call on Gov. Tom Wolf to sign this desperately needed legislation. Doing so will allow facilities to ignore frivolous lawsuits and focus on what’s important – fighting this pandemic and saving lives,” he said.