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With Pa. mired in coronavirus crisis, state lawmakers bicker about business shutdown but find no agreement

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House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) accused Democrats of not being willing to compromise.
Commonwealth Media Services

This story was produced as part of a joint effort among Spotlight PA, LNP Media Group, PennLive, PA Post, and WITF to cover how Pennsylvania state government is responding to the coronavirus. Sign up for Spotlight PA’s newsletter.

HARRISBURG — The same Pennsylvania lawmakers who prided themselves on coming together to make $50 million available to health care systems spent Tuesday sparring over Gov. Tom Wolf’s business shutdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with Republicans pushing a plan to rollback the order and give lawmakers a greater say in how to reopen the economy.

After state House leadership on both sides of the aisle accused one another of playing politics during a crisis, Democrats and Republicans left for the day without considering legislation that would compel the state to adopt federal guidance about what is an essential and nonessential business.

Republicans see the bill as necessary to remove confusion around which businesses are allowed to open and to check the extraordinary powers Wolf was given under a March 6 emergency declaration.

In a letter to the General Assembly, Secretary of Health Rachel Levine warned the proposal would allow a “significant amount of businesses” to reopen.

“In fact, there are very few industries outside of retail (which would also see large exemptions) that wouldn’t be able to make an argument that they could open under this legislation,” Levine wrote. “While the Governor and I are as eager as anyone to begin getting people back to work, doing so prematurely will only increase the spread of the virus, further lengthening associated economic challenges, while also placing more lives at risk.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are on 12-hour call, meaning they could return this week, although that appeared unlikely as of Wednesday afternoon.

The House is scheduled to return April 13. When they do, one top Republican said his caucus may no longer advance legislation from Wolf’s administration to allow for the release of certain state inmates because of a lack of compromise from Democrats. Corrections experts say releases are needed to prevent an outbreak in already crowded facilities. Wolf has so far declined to take the political leap on his own.

Tuesday was the most public sign of the Republican majority’s growing frustration with a secretive waiver process put in place by Wolf’s administration that the GOP says has allowed big-box stores to remain open while forcing small businesses with few employees to shutter.

The Wolf administration created the waiver process so businesses not deemed “life-sustaining” could make the case to reopen. The Department of Community and Economic Development received more than 34,000 requests before the application closed last week, approving at least 5,600. Business owners as well as Republicans said the process was confusing and not transparent.

Several news organizations, including Spotlight PA, have requested copies of the waiver applications and the resulting decisions, which the Wolf administration said it would eventually make available.

Republicans also want to give lawmakers a seat at the decision-making table by creating a task force focused on the state’s faltering economy.

“We have a proposal that will help get us back on track,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said on the floor Tuesday. “This false choice that we can only be healthy or the economy will be destroyed is not true.”

Cutler accused Democrats of not working with the majority party to come up with a compromise.

“Why is it when we offer ideas, when we offer alternatives, and when I invited the other side to do the same there was silence?” Cutler said on the floor.

House Democrats said Republicans are trying to move too quickly, providing critical amendment language over the weekend with handwritten notes and giving only a few minutes notice on what legislation would be considered. Because most Democrats are working remotely, they’re unable to have a say on the legislation without more advanced warning.

The bills Republicans are trying to pass are an effort to “Monday morning quarterback” Wolf’s actions, said Rep. Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery), the minority chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

“The process is beyond problematic,” Bradford said Tuesday evening. “The substance [of the legislation] is insane.”

The divisiveness continued into Wednesday, as several Republican House members shared a social media graphic alleging the Democratic plan to address the pandemic is to “keep people in the unemployment line” and “stop health care workers, businesses and families from volunteering and helping.”

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for Cutler, said the graphic responds to Democratic inaction and misinformation that Republicans are trying to force people back to work.

But Rep. Aaron Bernstine, a Republican from Western Pennsylvania, pushed back against the graphic on Twitter, saying it was “not true or helpful, and it goes against the spirit of working together to solve issues during this pandemic.”

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Photo of Gillian McGoldrick

Gillian McGoldrick