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GOP, allies move to break Wolf’s orders

Political Notebook

Local lawmakers in both parties backed efforts this week to roll back Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic orders, even as more counties and businesses tentatively reopen.

A Republican-led push to reverse business closures has drawn support from a handful of elected Democrats, although the effort

hasn’t yet secured enough backing to force Wolf’s hand. While polls show voters broadly support Wolf’s handling of the crisis, lawmakers in less hard-hit counties have grown impatient with shuttered businesses and state-imposed timelines.

On Thursday, the state House voted 115-87 to override Wolf’s veto of a bill that would help reopen car dealerships, lawn and garden equipment centers, barber shops and pet grooming businesses. The vote fell short — even with support from several Democrats, Republican leaders needed more than 20 additional votes to overturn the governor’s veto.

Wolf had defended his color-coded reopening policy and criticized the bill in a veto statement last week.

“Since the beginning of this month, my administration has been gradually transitioning counties from the restrictive red phase to an intermediate yellow phase,” Wolf said. “The decisions to move counties from the red phase to the yellow phase are based on the advice of expert epidemiologists.”

On Thursday, Republican leaders accused him of ignoring the needs of unemployed and furloughed workers.

“The governor, and some members of the House, clearly believe certain workers in our communities are not essential, or life-sustaining,” Majority Leader Bryan Cutler said in a statement shared by the House GOP.

Local Republicans were joined in the vote by Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, who has repeatedly broken with his party while representing a conservative Cambria County district.

Hours after the override attempt failed, Burns broke again with party colleagues in approving a second bill — this one aimed at overturning Wolf’s disaster declaration entirely. Burns joined Republicans in a committee vote Wednesday, moving the bill toward a House vote.

“I hope this gets the governor’s attention, and he begins to work more seriously in collaboration with members of the legislature,” Burns said in a news release. “The governor has so far provided few answers and little transparency.”

Burns said he remained concerned that reversing Wolf’s order could jeopardize federal emergency funding, but noted that GOP colleagues have confirmed the White House would still provide funds.

In addition to moving counties across the state from the red, the most severe, emergency designation to lower threat levels, Wolf has tweaked business orders in recent weeks. Lawmakers are calling for more, however: On Thursday, Burns said he wanted the governor to back curbside service allowed for all businesses.

While Republicans and allies across the aisle cited laid-off workers’ plight for their vote, Democratic leaders noted that they have tried repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — to secure more help for those affected by closures.

After hearing from state Department of Labor and Industry officials about their handling of surging unemployment claims, Democratic lawmakers said the department needs more help to get money in workers’ hands.

“For the last two months and so far without success, Democrats in the minority sought votes to support people who are out of work and those still working,” a House Democratic Caucus statement said. “They tried to increase pay and protections for the thousands of workers doing jobs on the front lines of the pandemic response, including transit workers, grocery store and food service workers, health care workers, police, firefighters and many others.”

Mail voting deadline nears

Despite road bumps and the risk of threats from the president, the state government is pressing on with mail-in primary ballots as a Tuesday deadline approaches.

State officials have pointed to surging interest in mail-in ballots — some 1.6 million voters had applied for them as of last week, according to the Associated Press — and many more could be sent before the June 2 primary. Voters have until Tuesday to request ballots be sent to their homes.

The process hasn’t always gone smoothly. Officials in at least one county have reported multiple ballots being mailed to individual voters, although they cautioned that each ballot includes a barcode that prevents any voter from casting more than one.

State election officers have already warned that results for some races might take days to tally, even with workers beginning the mail-in ballot count at 7 a.m. on election day.

The delays can be blamed in part on a rush of interest in the mail-in ballots, a rush state officials said surpassed their expectations. Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill allowing universal vote-by-mail last fall, months before the coronavirus pandemic forced many voters indoors and prompted officials to close many polling places.

Not everyone is satisfied with the policy, however. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump threatened unspecified federal funding to Michigan in response to the state government’s decision to mail ballot applications to millions of voters.

“This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue secretary of state,” Trump said on Twitter. “I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this voter fraud path!”

Trump later accused Nevada officials of doing the same, again calling the move “illegal.”

While Trump didn’t specify what was illegal about the move, the tweets underscore concerns in some Republican circles about mail-in voting. GOP leaders, including the president, have said mail-in voting tends to benefit Democratic candidates.

Not all Republicans are unified on the point, however. Last week, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah — the former presidential candidate who has clashed with Trump — said his home state uses the system successfully.

“In my state, I’ll bet 90 percent of us vote by mail,” Romney said. “It works very, very well and it’s a very Republican state.”

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