COVID-19 impact focus of legislators' town hall
About a dozen and a half people came from communities including Greencastle, Waynesboro, Chambersburg and Upper Strasburg for a town hall meeting centered largely on COVID-19 and hosted by state Rep. Paul Schemel and state Sen. Judy Ward Tuesday evening.
They were seated with social distancing at the picnic tables in a pavilion at Antrim Township Community Park and afterward the two Republican lawmakers, who represents parts of Franklin County, donned masks to speak with people individually.
Dean Fulton of Greencastle said he is interested in what's happening at the federal and state level in light of the upcoming presidential election and the coronavirus.
Gary Davis of Greencastle was wondering if, as a school driver for a girl in Adams County, he is considered a frontline worker eligible for the extra $3 an hour just proposed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. The extra pay was not discussed at the meeting, but Ward termed the governor's call to raise money by legalizing recreational marijuana "a non-starter for many of us."
Sara Hollinshead of Greencastle said she and her husband, Jeff, attended the town hall "out of respect for Paul and Judy's competence as we try to sort through fact and fiction concerning the coronavirus."
"It's been a difficult few months, to say the least," Ward said. "It's affected every part of our world."
Responding to questions from the audience, discussion at the meeting included:
*** Elections ***
Bob Thomas of Chambersburg, a former Franklin County commissioner, said there is a lot of talk about voter fraud at the federal level, especially concerning universal mailing of ballots.
He said Franklin County's highest voter turnout was 74%, which raises the question of what happened to the other 26%. They have moved or die, but their voter registration information has not been updated and they could still be mailed ballots if there were a universal mailing, Thomas said.
Schemel said he is confident the mail-in ballot procedure in Pennsylvania is secure, with a two envelope system and signatures required for mail-in ballots. They are checked just like a person's signature is checked when he or she goes to the polls.
Pennsylvania just expand mail-in voting so anyone can request a ballot, not just someone who has a reason for being unable to go to a poll in person.
Lawmakers are looking to "tie up loose ends ... tighten things up" in early September concerning mail-in ballots, such as moving the deadline to apply from seven days to 15 days before an election to align it with the voter registration deadline, Ward said.
*** Budget ***
Because of the uncertainty created by COVID-19, the budget lawmakers approved in June is only for five months, with the exception of school districts, which needed to be funded for the entire year.
"We had no clue and still have no clue about what tax revenues are going to be like," Schemel said, explaining the state receives income and sales taxes. Both are affected by the pandemic, with some businesses rebounding and others not.
The situation was made worse because so many business had to close during the state's "red" phase, Ward said, adding budget talks are going to be difficult.
*** Governor's authority ***
The lawmakers were asked if there are any referendums on the ballot. There are no referendums for the fall, but one to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution and the authority it gives the governor to declare states of emergency could be up for a vote in the primary election next spring.
The governor can declare a 90-day state of emergency and keep extending it by 90-days indefinitely. The proposed amendment would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency only for 21 days, then the Legislature would be involved in whether it is extended.
"At some point the Legislature should be involved," said Schemel, who believes the governor will extend the current state of emergency for another 90 days next week.
Although it is OK under the state Constitution, both lawmakers called the governor's action an "overreach" without input from the general assembly.
*** Unemployment ***
Unemployment has consumed an immense about of time, Schemel said, referring to both to people who need help with legitimate claims in a technologically outdated system and unemployment fraud.
"We still have a few complicated cases from March," Ward said.
Josh Peters, who works in Schemel's Waynesboro office, noted after the meeting that one man brought in 33 unemployment claims with different names that had been mailed to his house. It took involvement by the treasury and labor and industry to resolve the fraud.
Valerie Meyers, interim director of the Greencastle-Antrim Chamber of Commerce, said she's heard from employers who are having trouble getting people to come back to work or apply for work because of the extra $600 a week they are receiving in CARES funding on top of unemployment compensation.
"It was helpful to many people, but detrimental in some regards," Meyers said.
*** Eviction and foreclosure ***
Schemel said the governor also is thinking about renewing the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic.
The early grace period helped tenants, but Ward said she is now getting feedback from landlords who are not being paid.
"For the landlords, it's a business," Ward said.
"Not all tenants are poor and if they're not working they may have received CARES money," observed Pat Fridgen of Greencastle.
*** Other topics ***
Other issues discussed at the meeting include:
n How the pandemic, especially the move toward online learning, has underscored the need to improve broadband service in rural areas.
"It's not like they don't want to pay for service, they can't get it," Ward said about some areas of her district.
n The need for liability protection so schools, businesses, nursing homes, health care facilities and others cannot be sued over COVID-19.
n Help for hotels and restaurants that are struggling due to regulations and limits on capacity.
"Today the governor said he wants to give them compensation," Ward said. "They don't want a handout, they just want to have their businesses going."