HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf would be required to map out a path for businesses to follow to reopen following federal safety guidelines under legislation that passed the state House on Tuesday by a 107-95 partisan vote.
The legislation comes after weeks of controversy over how the state has determined which businesses are exempt from the non-essential business closing and 1.3 million people were forced to file for unemployment.
The measure now goes to the Senate, which could vote on it as soon as today.
The House also voted to send Wolf legislation that would create emergency rules allowing local governments to meet by phone or videoconference.
The legislation focusing on relaxing the state’s business shutdown generated much more controversy and debate. Democrats in the state House blasted the plan, and Wolf declined to say whether he would sign the legislation. Wolf said he thinks everyone agrees that the state should try to find a way to reopen the state economy without allowing coronavirus cases to spike.
House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, said that if the legislation passes in the Senate, Wolf’s plan wouldn’t be required for up to 17 days. Wolf has 10 days to decide if he wants to veto the legislation and the proposal gives the governor seven days to roll out the plan.
The legislation comes as Wolf has already announced plans to consider how to reopen the economy by coordinating with neighboring states.
Wolf told reporters though that the state needs to be cautious about the timing of relaxing the mitigation efforts.
“If we don’t do this at the right time, the economy is going to be worse than it is now,” Wolf said. “All of us have to figure out the right cadence, what is the right way to do this.”
Under Senate Bill 613, businesses would be allowed to reopen if they can meet the safety requirements spelled out in the mitigation plan Wolf would be required to produce.
“Here is the ultimate irony, there are lawmakers who won’t come to the capitol due to concerns about the coronavirus but they will vote by proxy to force workers to return to non-essential businesses,” said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage. “That is not fair and that is not right.”
Republicans countered that the state’s move to shut down businesses statewide has caused devastating impact that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, said the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has had dramatic impact even in homes where no one may have had symptoms of coronavirus itself.
“They are sick and losing sleep at night because they don’t know how they are going to make it through next week without an income,” Metcalfe said.
In a twist, most lawmakers returned to the Capitol Tuesday for the votes. Republicans were worried Democrats, in a bid to stop the bills, wouldn’t agree to allow the measures to be voted on remotely. As a result, despite special rules allowing remote-voting 116 of the 202 members of the state House – including 90 Republicans – came to the Capitol to vote in-person, many of them wearing masks to try to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
For comparison, on April 6, only 81 members – 54 Republicans and 27 Democrats – traveled to the Capitol as most lawmakers voted remotely, according to information provided by Mike Straub, a spokesman for Cutler.
State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, said the push to pass the legislation came at the urging of rank-and-file Republican lawmakers who pushed leaders to allow the vote to take place.
“There was a hue and cry” from lawmakers who wanted to take up the legislation and convinced legislative leaders to bring the measure up for a vote, Everett said.
State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County, said all lawmakers want people to be able to get back to work, but that the proposal is unsafe.
“Republicans in Harrisburg forced this vote in an act of pure political gamesmanship,” Burns said. “Their efforts to undermine the medical experts, just to score points with political donors, would put workers in jeopardy and nullify the efforts and sacrifices already made to contain COVID-19.”
A second bill, including legislation to allow online car sales and to remote-voting at local governments, Senate Bill 841 passed 202-0. The proposal allows local governments to meet without having a quorum of members physically present, similar to the rules put in place by the General Assembly that allow the Legislature to conduct business while social-distancing.
The changes for local governments create special issues though because while the General Assembly doesn’t allow public comment during floor voting, local governments do provide access for citizen input, said Erik Arneson, executive director of the Office of Open Records.
The remote-voting provision for local governments expires once the coronavirus disaster declaration is over. As a result, open government advocates have recommended that local governments postpone votes on routine business until they can operate under normal open-meeting rules, he said.
“However, a lot of ordinary business has built-in deadlines – things like paying bills, purchasing necessary supplies, renewing contracts, certain zoning decisions,” Arneson said. “So, of course some ordinary business must continue.”
Under the emergency open-meeting rules, local governments would be required to allow citizens to comment either by email or through the normal mail if the public can’t comment directly during the meeting.
Arneson said that if the public isn’t allowed to speak during the meeting, people ought to be given the opportunity to weigh in before approving measures and have their comments read during the meeting.
“There’s no such thing as public participation after the fact – to meet the requirements of the Sunshine Act during this emergency (both currently and if SB 841 is enacted), agencies absolutely must provide some reasonable method for the public to participate either during the meeting or, at an absolute minimum, prior to the meeting,” he said.
The same legislation would also allow notaries to work remotely, a move that will allow online car sales to be completed.
State Rep. Lynda Schlegel-Culver, R-Northumberland County, voted remotely last week but came to the Capitol on Tuesday. She said that allowing notaries was something that the legislature needed to tackle.
“We need to get that done,” she said Tuesday morning.
Senate Bill 841 now goes to the governor.