In this Update:
Senator Martin’s Education Hearing on School COVID Policy Reveals Ongoing Frustration with State Agencies
As Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, I oversaw a hearing in which testifiers stated that government agencies overseeing schools are slow to respond to COVID-19 questions while providing conflicting guidance on the virus to schools, educators from all levels testified about their ongoing frustrations with the Wolf Administration’s oversight.
The Department of Health and Department of Education declined to participate, citing pending litigation.
A Lancaster County superintendent testified that the current mask orders from the state agencies conflict with the FAQs and emails that the district has received. The director of a career center in Jefferson County testified schools are the target of frustrations from parents as “threats from the government pile on to an already intense situation.”
A child care worker said the communication from the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning has ranged from vague to intimidating, with threats to remove the facility employees if the young children in daycare do not comply.
The Education Committee will continue to press the Wolf Administration for answers. You can view hearing video and written testimony here.
On Wednesday, the Education Committee and the Labor Committee held a joint hearing to discuss the importance of adult education for workforce development at a joint public hearing. During the hearing, the committees heard many success stories of Pennsylvanians who were able to achieve their professional dreams and begin earning family-sustaining wages despite previously struggling.
Senator Martin’s Election Process Improvement Bills Voted Out of Committee
Two of my bills designed to improve Pennsylvania election law were approved on Tuesday by the Senate State Government Committee. Senate Bill 56 requires successful write-in candidates to receive at least the same number of write-in votes as would be required if they had filed signed nomination petitions. This bill would weed out candidates who may lack interest or basic qualifications for office.
Senate Bill 551 amends the Pennsylvania Constitution to eliminate a mandate that requires a separate ballot or a separate column on voting machines when voting for the retention of justices, judges and justices of the peace. This legislation would save taxpayer money by no longer requiring an unneeded second page. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it must pass both the House and the Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions before being put on the ballot for consideration by voters.
Both measures will go to the full Senate for consideration.
Legislative Reapportionment Commission Alters Decision on Counting of Prisoners
The Legislative Reapportionment Commission made an adjustment to an earlier policy change regarding how the residency of prison inmates will be counted when developing new district maps for the state Senate and House of Representatives.
At its Aug. 24 meeting, over Republican objections that the commission was exceeding its authority, the panel voted to adopt a prisoner reallocation proposal that changes the long-standing practice of having state inmates counted where they eat, sleep and live at the time of the census — like every other Pennsylvanian — and instead count them where they resided prior to incarceration for their crimes.
Noting that not all currently incarcerated individuals remain in prison for less than 10 years from the time new district maps are drawn, the decision was altered by majority vote to count state prison inmates with a minimum sentence expiring after April 1, 2030, in the prison in which they reside, not the community from where they came.
Local Elections Officials, Advocates Testify on Bipartisan Election Reform Bill
Local elections officials and members of advocacy groups testified before the Senate State Government Committee regarding Senate Bill 878, a bipartisan election reform bill.
The proposed changes originated from the bipartisan Senate Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform, which was created to make recommendations on how Pennsylvania’s election code could be improved. The committee included members of the Senate from both parties and all regions of Pennsylvania and heard testimony from a variety of stakeholders, including election officials from Pennsylvania and other states around the nation.
The proposed changes include:
The panel heard testimony from the County Commissioners Association, local elections officials Common Cause PA, the Committee of Seventy and the PA League of Women Voters. You can watch the hearing and read testimony here.
Senate Acts to Extend Ida State Disaster Emergency, Access to Recovery Aid
The Senate approved extending the state disaster emergency declared in response to Hurricane Ida until Oct. 27, giving Pennsylvanians more time to apply for recovery assistance.
Gov. Tom Wolf issued a 21-day proclamation declaring the disaster emergency on Aug. 31. Following extended pandemic emergency declarations over the last year, and the governor’s unilateral actions throwing Pennsylvanians out of work, voters in May stripped him of the authority he commandeered to extend emergency declarations without approval of the General Assembly.
Action by the General Assembly to extend the emergency declaration will help communities with their recovery efforts, which are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
The remnants of Hurricane Ida brought historic rainfall to Pennsylvania, causing record flooding and widespread damage in many places. Nearly 400 roads were closed statewide, while downed trees and limbs disrupted utilities and left more than 15 major interstates, roadways and expressways closed.
Senate Votes to Implement Low-Interest Loans to Fire Companies Approved by Voters
The Senate voted to implement aid to Pennsylvania fire departments approved by voters in a May referendum. The bill was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Senate Bill 739 would permit municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies to participate in the Emergency Services Loan Assistance Program, which has been historically limited to volunteer fire companies.
Expanding the assistance program was one of several ballot questions decided by voters in the 2021 Primary Election.
Bill Limiting Firefighter Exposure to PFAS, Safeguarding Environment Approved by Senate
A bill restricting the use of “Class B” firefighting foams containing added per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for training purposes and testing was approved by the Senate. The measure now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Some PFAS linger in the environment and in the human body – they don’t break down and can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.
Senate Bill 302 would restrict the use of foam containing PFAS chemicals beginning July 1, 2022 and direct the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, in consultation with the State Fire Commissioner, to assist firefighting entities with evaluating and determining how to transition to the use of Class B firefighting foam that does not contain a PFAS chemical. The legislation would not impact the continued use of firefighting foams during emergency situations.
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