Legislative Bulletin

See All Issues from November 2018 forward​​​​​​​.

 

 
Number 20
September 25, 2020

LEGISLATIVE BULLETIN

An e-newsletter of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania

 

 

 


 

717-526-1010

ELECTION REFORM LITIGATION RULINGS    

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling on Sept. 17 in litigation brought by the state Democratic Party and other plaintiffs addressing several issues that had been the subject of debate regarding the administration of elections. Specifically, the majority opinion held that the Election Code permits county boards of election to accept hand-delivered mail-in ballots at locations other than their office addresses including drop boxes, that voters are not entitled to notice and an opportunity to cure minor defects with mail-in ballots and that a voter's failure to enclose a ballot in a secrecy envelope renders the ballot invalid. The ruling also found that the poll watcher residency requirement, which requires poll watchers to be residents of the county, does not violate the state or federal constitutions.

In response to the state ruling, U.S. District Judge Ranjan lifted the stay in the federal litigation brought by the Trump campaign and other plaintiffs, allowing plaintiffs to file notice describing what claims remain viable, how any of the viable claims have been altered by the state Supreme Court's decision, and specific proposals and timelines for presenting any remaining viable claims to the Court for resolution. In essence, plaintiffs argued that all claims remain viable in some form, and sought to submit an amended complaint. Judge Ranjan has issued an order that motions for summary judgment on the remaining claims the court will hear are due Oct. 1, with final response due Oct. 5. If necessary, the Court will hold an evidentiary hearing on Oct. 13 and 14.

Further, the state Supreme Court ordered that that the state should accept ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. Election Day that arrive up to three days after Election Day. Republican state legislators asked the state to stay the part of the order regarding use of drop boxes and granting the three-day extension while they appeal this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court; that stay was denied on Sept. 24.    

COUNTIES CONTINUE TO SEEK PRE-CANVASSING EXPANSION  

With the General Election quickly approaching, counties continue to seek legislation that would focus on a narrow set of election reforms, specifically expanding the pre-canvass period and extending provisions related to poll worker flexibility.

As expected, during the June primary it took several days in most counties to fully process all of the mail-in ballots because of the sheer volume and the inability to begin the pre-canvass before 7 a.m. on Election Day. Of the nearly 2.9 million votes cast during the June primary, more than 40% were cast by mail-in ballot. However, on Election Day. Counties' first priority is administering a smooth in-person election. This was demonstrated in the Act 35 report provided by the Department of State, in which about 45 of the 67 counties reported starting their pre-canvass period before noon and about half of the counties were still counting ballots more than a week after the primary election.

Allowing counties to begin the pre-canvass process in advance of Election Day would assist them with completing the time-consuming process of preparing ballots to be tabulated on election night. Without an extended pre-canvass period, counties will face very real challenges in providing timely results following the election.

Counties also seek to make permanent a provision in Act 12 of 2020 that would permit poll workers to serve in any precinct in the county, not just the precinct in which they reside. Poll worker recruitment and retention have been a challenge for some time, with those challenges made more difficult by the pandemic, and so this flexibility is critical for counties to be able to place volunteers where they are most needed.

Any provision which is not necessary for the November election, particularly if it may delay the legislative process, should be postponed for further consideration. There has already been a considerable amount of uncertainty related to ongoing litigation, and counties and voters need as few changes as possible from this point forward to make sure they can be implemented smoothly. Thus, the current legislative effort should remain focused on this narrow set of issues, and counties urge the General Assembly and administration to act quickly to give them the best possible chance of delivering timely election results and administering elections as effectively as possible in a highly visible presidential election where significant numbers of mail-in ballots are expected. 

HOUSE COMMITTEE DISCUSSES 911 FUNDING FORMULA 

The House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee held a hearing on Sept. 22 to discuss proposed changes to the 911 funding distribution formula, as recommended by the Funding Subcommittee for the statewide 911 Advisory Board and consideration by the full Board earlier this year.

Jeff Boyle, deputy director for 911 at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), offered an overview of
Act 12 of 2015 and how it changed the way 911 funding was distributed from a competitive funding process to quarterly formula-based distributions. He also explained how the monthly surcharge fee is collected and used, noting that 83% of the revenues are distributed quarterly to public safety answering points (PSAPs), currently using an interim formula based on average wireline and VoIP revenue, as well as reported expenditures, from 2010-2014. Under Act 12, PEMA and the 911 Advisory Board were charged with developing a more permanent formula, leading to the proposal offered by the Board's Funding Subcommittee. Boyle also noted that revenue levels have remained level at $316 million since 2016, and so there is a fixed amount to distribute.

CCAP Executive Director Lisa Schaefer highlighted in her
testimony to the committee the role of counties in provision of services, and noted that the factors on which the interim formula is based are widely understood to be inequitable for long-term use. The Funding Subcommittee considered numerous factors in developing its proposal for a new formula, with a goal of making sure those factors were simple, based on objective data and could not be subject to manipulation. Ultimately, the subcommittee recommended a formula based on 3% equal distribution, 97.5% population and 2.5% population density. Because overall revenues are not simultaneously increasing, any changes to the formula mean that some counties would see increases in their allocations while others would see decreases, and so the subcommittee also proposed to use part of the state's funds for competitive incentive grants to offset 100% of any decrease to counties in 2021, and 50% in 2022. Schaefer noted that new formula was developed with serious thought and deliberation with a wide variety of geographic and demographic representation, and that the only way to change the formula - regardless of what factors are ultimately chosen and in what proportion - in a way that benefits everyone is to simultaneously increase the total amount of funding available to share. With the sunset of the 911 statute approaching in early 2024, she urged the General Assembly to begin discussions now on the funding mechanism that will also be up for renewal and consideration. 

ASSESSMENT REFORM TASK FORCE BILL ADVANCES 

House Bill 1034 (Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming) advanced out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Sept. 21 to bring it a step closer to the Governor's desk; this bill would improve proper and timely submission of building permits to county assessment offices by offering counties additional options to follow up with municipalities and third party agencies when they believe such submission is not occurring. Information on building permits is used by counties to understand when improvements to property may be occurring, allowing that information to be captured by the assessment office to assure each property is fully and fairly valued. When the value of improvements is not captured, the burden falls on other taxpayers whose value is accurate. The bill also authorizes counties to require all persons making substantial improvements to submit a county improvement certification to achieve the same goal. House Bill 1034 is a product of the Local Government Commission's Assessment Reform Task Force, and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

SENATE APPROVES DATA PRIVACY MEASURE

On Sept. 22, the Senate unanimously approved SB 487 (Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie), a bill updating the state's Breach of Personal Information Act. CCAP has been working with collaboratively with state officials and stakeholders to develop comprehensive language that matches industry security standards over the past several years, and to clarify terminology used in the legislation. As the bill continues to the House for further consideration, counties recommend consideration of further changes, similar to language in HB 1181 (former CCAP member Rep. Jonathan Fritz, R-Wayne), to further cybersecurity efforts across the commonwealth.

CCAP also supports language to create a Cybersecurity Coordination Board, like the one proposed in
HB 2009 (Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia), to further these collaborative efforts and help support the prevention and response to possible data breaches. Counties are committed to their responsibility to protect information and want to implement the best possible cybersecurity standards and appreciate the opportunity to have representation on the board.

REVENUE OFFICIALS FORECAST STATE FISCAL FUTURE

On Sept. 16, the House Finance Committee met to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown on tax revenue. Department of Revenue Secretary Daniel Hassel and Deputy Secretary Amy Gill testified, explaining the current revenue situation the COVID-19 pandemic has created and offering forecasts for the coming fiscal years. Gill noted it will likely take several years for state tax revenue collections to exceed the level reached during FY 2018-2019. While state revenue collections came in above expectations during the first two months of the current fiscal year, those collections are attributed to the extension of state tax filing deadlines from April to mid-July because of COVID-19. With the pandemic still looming, Gill cautioned that revenue projections may still be variable and unknown.


The General Assembly and administration must complete work on the FY 2020-2021 state budget this fall, as funding has only been approved for the first five months of the fiscal year.

NEW BROADBAND STUDY MAKES RECOMMENDATIONS

The Joint State Government Commission recently released a study examining ways to bring broadband access to unserved and underserved areas in largely rural areas of the state. Authorized under SR 47 of 2019, sponsored by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York), the study outlines a plan for closing the digital divide in the commonwealth.

With COVID-19 exposing further vulnerabilities in the state's broadband landscape, the study recommends creation of an independent state broadband authority to be the lead agency on broadband development in neglected areas, administer state funds and give priority to projects focused on connecting the last mile. Other recommendations include requiring providers to offer a level of minimum service at a uniform rate for lower-income subscribers and giving providers incentives to meet service objectives in areas where the market has not been able to.

The study also highlights potential funding avenues, but does not recommend a single defined revenue source. The advisory committee did, however, suggest that appropriations be provided in the state budget for the existing Governor's Office of Broadband Initiatives until it could be folded into the authority. Initiatives under this study are suggested to be coupled with other legislative initiatives currently being considered by the General Assembly. The full report can be found on the Joint State Government Commission
website.

U.S. HOUSE ADVANCES BILL TO AVERT FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

On Sept. 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bi-partisan proposal to fund the federal government through Dec. 11, hoping to avoid a shutdown on Sept. 30, the last day of the current federal fiscal year. The continuing resolution, or CR, would add nearly $8 billion to nutrition assistance for hungry schoolchildren and families as well as an infusion of money into a farm bailout program. The bill does not include broader coronavirus relief measures, although in earlier negotiations  there was some speculation that could be included in the stopgap spending bill. The bill must still be approved by the Senate and signed by President Trump before the last day of the 2020 fiscal year to keep the government open.