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Pennsylvania legislature will vote remotely as coronavirus spreads

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The state House on Monday passed temporary rules allowing members to vote remotely to party leaders, though those leaders will still be required to appear in person in the Capitol to formally consider legislation.
DAN GLEITER / PennLive

This story was produced as part of a joint effort between Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group, PennLive, PA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House passed temporary rules Monday allowing members to vote remotely, essentially putting the 203-member body on an indefinite work-from-home policy as cases of the coronavirus continue to increase.

The resolution, meant to deter social contact, allows lawmakers to submit votes to their respective party leaders. Those leaders and committee chairs, however, will still need to come to the Capitol if the legislature wants to formally consider any legislation.

The state Senate already had a system for remote voting in place.

The rules change also dramatically reduces the amount of time required for legislation to move between the two chambers. Under the new rules, it can happen in three hours. Usually, it takes at least several days to get legislation passed and moved to the governor’s desk.

Also, House members are now allowed to send mailers to constituents about COVID-19 during what is usually a “black-out” period in the months leading up to an election.

All of these rules will immediately expire when Gov. Tom Wolf lifts his emergency proclamation.

In the meantime, Republican leaders in the House — in agreement with their Democratic colleagues — are temporarily dropping their legislative priorities to focus on passing bills to help Wolf slow the spread of the coronavirus, said Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster).

Neither the House nor Senate plan to come in Tuesday for session as originally planned, but will operate under a “12-hour call time,” meaning members should be prepared to vote remotely if called upon.

While Wolf has increased emergency powers under the disaster declaration he put in place March 6, the legislature still has a role to play. Straub said lawmakers could soon vote on bills to address concerns around state education testing and to “backfill” what is happening at the federal level, like mandating paid sick leave for those out of work due to mitigation efforts.

Already Monday, many legislators avoided the House floor. The section where Democrats sit was nearly empty as members protested the large group gathering. Only Democratic leadership was present, with many legislators sitting in their offices and voting by proxy.

Republicans sat in close quarters in the chamber with one another.

Rep. Mike Zabel (D., Delaware) claimed members from both sides of the aisle were “mocking” recommendations from the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to limit group gatherings, although he would not name names.

“There’s some people here who don’t think this is a real threat,” he said.

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Photo of Gillian McGoldrick

Gillian McGoldrick