State extends pandemic rent, mortgage protections

Political Notebook

With one day until his prior order was set to expire, Gov. Tom Wolf announced another pause on evictions and foreclosures across the state on Thursday.

Wolf’s executive order extends the moratorium to Aug. 31, providing temporary relief for those unable to pay their mortgages and rents amid high unemployment and the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision could affect millions of Pennsylvanians, especially those at risk of eviction when rent comes due. As of a 2017 federal survey, one-third of Blair County residents — more than 14,000 people — rented, and many more make monthly mortgage payments.

“I am taking this action to help families know they will have a roof over their heads and a place to live while all of us fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wolf said in a statement accompanying the order.

Cities, counties and states across the country have moved to protect renters and homeowners during the pandemic, which has caused historic unemployment. While activists in many cities have called for a total halt to rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic, Wolf’s order still requires residents to make payments if they can.

Federal aid, including one-time cash payments and expanded unemployment payments, has helped stem a potential wave of evictions and foreclosures — at least temporarily. That assistance is set to expire, leaving Congress to debate a continuation or replacement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has suggested future aid should only go to lower-income families, citing $40,000 as a potential household cutoff. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this week that unemployment assistance should be cut below a recipients’ work income.

Law enforcement bill reaches governor

A bill by a Bedford County lawmaker to ramp up punishments for inmates who assault prison staff is set for Wolf’s desk, with some significant changes that also could protect those in their custody.

House Bill 256 by state Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Somerset, easily passed the House and Senate over the past two weeks, clearing the way for Wolf’s signature. The bill makes it a first-degree felony for correctional inmates to assault staff.

When he first proposed the bill, Metzgar cited thousands of attacks on prison staff in recent years as evidence that officers are being “targeted” for attack.

Last month, lawmakers combined Metzgar’s bill with another proposal by state Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, to protect prisoners from sexual assault by police officers and other law enforcement officials.

The bill ends officers’ ability to claim that a person in their custody consented to a sexual encounter — a defense they can legally claim now.

“This is another victory for Pennsylvanians who took to the streets across our commonwealth demanding real police accountability,” Rabb said this week.

While criminal justice reform advocates supported Rabb’s bill, some — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania — said the combination isn’t enough.

“The trade off for this common sense reform that prohibits officers from assaulting or raping people in their custody, is to lower the legal standard for assault against other law enforcement officers — corrections officers — in order to ensure incarcerated people are excessively punished,” ACLU representatives said in a document opposing the bill.

Pa. swings

toward Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s chances in Pennsylvania continue to look strong, polls and analysts say, as the former vice president ramps up his campaign in the state.

Biden unveiled an economic plan Thursday in a stop near Scranton, the same day Vice President Mike Pence swung through Pennsylvania.

While the state is considered a must-win for both campaigns, analysts and professional prognosticators are now giving Biden the edge.

On Wednesday, the Cook Political Report moved Pennsylvania from a toss-up to the “leans Democratic” category — part of a powerful Biden victory they predict nationwide. Days earlier, Politico moved the state similarly from a toss-up to a Democratic edge.

It’s not just analysts who foresee a Biden victory here: Pollsters, too, are predicting a blue Pennsylvania.

This week, lesser-known pollsters, the Trafalgar Group, polled 1,062 voters and gave Biden a 5-point lead in the state with a less than 3-point margin of error. The group was one of few to correctly predict President Donald Trump’s win here in 2016, news website PoliticsPA noted.

Reps fight climate group plan

Local lawmakers were among those who voted this week to shoot down Wolf’s latest climate initiative.

The House voted 130-71 on Wednesday to stop Wolf from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate group aimed at capping emissions to stem climate change. The initiative limits emissions over time, requiring polluters to pay for the ability to put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Lawmakers defended Pennsylvania’s energy industry, especially politically powerful coal and natural gas producers who have struggled in recent years. Many said Wolf is overstepping his constitutional bounds by joining the initiative without legislative approval.

“His intent to unilaterally enter Pennsylvania into a multi-state cooperative that would negatively impact local jobs and hard-working families’ livelihoods is reason enough to send him this bill as a reminder of the limits of his authority,” state Reps. Tommy Sankey, R-Osceola Mills, and Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, said in a joint statement.

Local representatives in both parties backed the bill. Sankey signed on as a cosponsor, alongside state Reps. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, Rep. Louis C. Schmitt, R-Altoona, Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, and Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown.

Some Democrats joined their GOP colleagues in supporting the bill to stop Wolf, although they fell short of a majority that could overturn a potential veto. The bill has yet to reach a Senate vote.


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