Many of us were happy to turn the calendar this year and leave 2020 behind. Me included. Just one year ago, COVID-19 was fast becoming a familiar term. By March, the World Health Organization was labeling it a pandemic and our governor reacted by declaring a statewide emergency, implementing mitigation measures that shut down our schools and businesses and put thousands of Pennsylvanians out of work.
While a pandemic presents all public officials with a serious public health dilemma that must be addressed, our governor acted unilaterally to shut down our economy instead of engaging the General Assembly and experts in the field of public health to reach a sound course of action, based on science and sensitive to the needs of Pennsylvania citizens.
Throughout 2020, the Pennsylvania General Assembly pushed back against the governor’s draconian measures that were strangling our economy, killing businesses and devastating families who relied on the income their jobs had once provided.
While he repeatedly reimposed his 90-day state of emergency declaration, constituents called my office desperate for help in securing the unemployment compensation (UC) and stimulus money to which they were entitled. As the UC system computers crashed and phone lines jammed or played endless recordings at the Department of Labor and Industry, frustration and desperation grew and patience frayed.
My colleagues in the General Assembly and I took the only action we could to limit the governor’s power to impose endless states of emergency. We passed legislation to put a question on the May primary election ballot to limit emergency declarations to 21 days without legislative approval. Any constitutional change must go before voters in a referendum. On May 18, Pennsylvania voters will finally have their say ˗ at the voting booth.
In the meantime, the General Assembly remains focused on boosting Pennsylvania’s
vaccine deployment and advancing the state’s COVID-19 recovery. We established a COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force to improve Pennsylvania’s response to the pandemic – at the community level and statewide. The goal of the task force is to get more shots in arms. House Bill 326, which I co-sponsored, was approved unanimously in the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. It would enlist the Pennsylvania National Guard to work with the Department of Health and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to establish community vaccination sites in each region of the state. For more information on vaccine distribution, visit: www.health.pa.gov/Pages/default.aspx or call 1-877-PA-HEALTH (1-877-724-3258).
The annual budget process is now underway. The governor recently presented his budget “wish list,” which would increase state spending by $3 billion, hike the Personal Income Tax by 46% and impose a new tax on Pennsylvania’s energy industry. Rest assured, that proposal was dead on arrival. Now it is up to the state Legislature to determine what expenditures are truly necessary and develop a budget that addresses the core functions of state government and keeps spending under control. For more information, visit www.pahousegop.com.
The Wolf administration recently released a plan to toll nine Pennsylvania bridges, including the South Bridge over the Susquehanna River ˗ an important gateway leading in and out of the city of Harrisburg. The administration contends tolling is necessary to pay for road and bridge improvements. You may recall that the Legislature passed a major transportation infrastructure bill in 2013, which increased the state’s liquid fuel tax and was to have covered our transportation infrastructure needs for decades into the future. While it is essential for our roads and bridges to be safe, I do not support the governor’s tolling plan and will be following it closely.
At the beginning of a new legislative session, there are always changes in leadership and committee positions. As a lifelong resident of Adams County and one who grew up on a farm, I was particularly pleased to be appointed chairman of the House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. I have served on this committee since my election to the House in 2006, and I am honored to be its chairman.
I previously sponsored a landowner liability bill that today gives landowners who permit the use of their land at no charge for outdoor recreation, such as hiking and snowmobiling, to be free from liability if someone gets hurt on their property through no fault of the property owner. Now, the committee is considering a similar bill that would limit liability for farmers who host seasonal activities to supplement their income. The bill has posting requirements and may require participants to sign a waiver. It would not provide protection for blatant negligence.
This year, I am hopeful we will be able to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror and begin to reclaim our former lives. I look forward to a productive legislative session and the important work ahead.