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More Pa. counties calling for all-mail primary election

But Pa. legislature, governor not yet ready to issue mandate

  • Emily Previti/PA Post
The Pennsylvania state flag flies at half-staff atop the capitol building on Oct. 31, 2018.

 Tom Downing / WITF

The Pennsylvania state flag flies at half-staff atop the capitol building on Oct. 31, 2018.

Typically, I file my taxes in January and wrap up holiday shopping as early as August. For those who haven’t spreadsheeted 75 percent of their lives and organized much of the remaining 25 percent with multiple Google calendars, here’s a reminder that state and federal filing deadlines have been extended until July 15. Happy Tax Day! —Emily Previti, staff writer
The Pennsylvania state flag flies at half-mast atop the capitol building on Oct. 31, 2018.

Tom Downing / WITF

The Pennsylvania state flag flies at half-staff atop the capitol building on Oct. 31, 2018. (Tom Downing/WITF)

A bill laying out how Pennsylvania would reopen for business passed the state House of Representatives late yesterday nearly along party lines. State Rep. Joseph Hohenstein (D-Philadelphia) protested that the bill puts “profit above people.” But Majority Leader Brian Cutler (R-Lancaster) said the state needs a plan, given “the possibility that coronavirus will be a threat for months or years,” PA Post’s Ed Mahon writes. Senate Bill 613 now goes to Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf says he opposes the measure, but wouldn’t commit to vetoing it when Ed asked the question during a call with reporters Tuesday.

I asked Gov. Wolf about his plan for dealing with the June 2 presidential primary. Some smaller counties have said for quite a while that virus fears will make it impossible to staff polling places. To avoid that problem, they want an all-mail election. Now, with no end in sight for coronavirus restrictions, the most populous jurisdictions are saying the same, as we mentioned in yesterday’s edition.

“I have not decided what it would take for me to say we’re actually at the point where we ought to do it, but it is something that we are discussing,” Wolf said.

Pa.’s Department of State, however, sees notable challenges to an all-mail election, including “accessibility to registered voters with disabilities and ensuring registration lists are accurate so that ballots are mailed to the correct addresses,” spokeswoman Wanda Murren wrote in an email.

House Republicans “would be disappointed” if Wolf issued an executive order mandating an all-mail election, according to spokesman Mike Straub, who didn’t respond to follow-up questions about whether the GOP would challenge unilateral moves by Wolf on this issue.

Republicans don’t “see all-mail as necessary,” given state law was changed last fall to allow every registered voter to apply for a mailed ballot without an excuse. GOP legislators want to “see how this expansion plays out before changing [the law] again,” Straub wrote in an email.

The Associated Press says voters are already taking advantage of the reforms passed last fall: “Pennsylvania counties have processed about 283,000 absentee and mail-in ballots for the June primary, and requests from Democrats are three times more common than from Republicans, state elections officials said Tuesday.”

Workers, employers struggle to obtain aid

Jacqueline Dormer / Republican-Herald via AP

In this Tuesday, March 17, 2020, photo, a lone shopping cart sits in an empty parking lot near a shopping mall closed due to coronavirus concerns in Pottsville, Pa. In Pennsylvania last week, 12,200 people filed for unemployment insurance. In just a single day this week, that number exploded beyond 50,000. In neighboring Ohio, 48,460 people filed for unemployment Sunday and Monday, compared to less than 1,900 over the same period the week before. It’s the same story in state after state, as millions of displaced Americans lose their jobs amid the widening shutdowns to contain the coronavirus. (Jacqueline Dormer/Republican-Herald via AP)

So far, Pa.’s legislators aren’t spending a lot of energy debating whether to delay the June 2 primary until later in the summer or going all-mail, given their focus on the legislation to reopen businesses closed as part of the effort to curtail the spread of coronavirus in the state.

Since the economic shutdown started in mid-March, more than 1.3 million Pennsylvanians have filed for unemployment benefits, according to the most recent update from the state Department of Labor & Industry.

Many of those newly unemployed continue to struggle to access financial assistance.

Jim Redcay, the Lancaster County woodworker mentioned in Monday’s Context, says he still hasn’t received the personal ID number required to finish filing for unemployment benefits.

The state mails PINs to filers after they initiate a claim, which Redcay did nearly one month ago (he’s not the only one I’ve heard from who’s been waiting that long). That’s far longer than the two or three weeks L&I said claimants should expect to wait as the department struggles to accommodate historic filing levels.

But state officials say the mailroom backlog was cleared as of Monday. So, now, filers shouldn’t wait more than seven days to get their PINs by mail, according to Susan Dickinson, L&I director of the office of unemployment compensation benefits policy.

The department also confirmed it will have the benefit application portal for self-employed workers online within two weeks.

[It seems unlikely that Redcay’s employer would reopen if the GOP legislature passes SB613, which would reopen only certain construction projects. But he might if lawmakers adopt a different House measure that would restart all building projects. Ed Mahon details the differences and the debate over construction during the coronavirus in this explainer.]

In the meantime, some gig workers, sole proprietors and small businesses have applied for a share of the $376 billion in Small Business Administration funding  included in the CARES Act.

WITF’s Smart Talk discussed the issue — in particular, the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program — with local public and banking officials Tuesday morning. And WESA produced this story about African-American business owners struggling to get aid from the federal programs.

Later, I followed up with the Pennsylvania Bankers Association because I heard from a few self-proprietors who said they’d been having trouble applying. One said her longtime bank outright rejected her PPP application. Another says it’s been weeks without a word on his dual request for disaster relief and EIDL advance.

But it turns out local banks didn’t get federal guidance until midmorning Tuesday, and the banking association is reviewing next steps, according to association spokeswoman Sara Hocker.

Coronavirus stories from around the state: 

Coronavirus national/world headlines: 

Working from home:

  • Read: Why the office dress code should never come back, from The Atlantic

  • Watch: How to sit properly while working from your couch, according to Prana Functional Manual Therapy of Lancaster

  • Listen: Performers tell the Wall Street Journal how they’re creating and sharing their work during the pandemic

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