For many Pennsylvania state lobbyists based in Harrisburg, it’s been over half a year since we were in the rotunda of the majestic Pennsylvania Capitol. COVID-19 has had many of us working remotely since mid-March.
And for those of us lawyer lobbyists who have been in the Capitol building lately, it’s generally quiet in a “late summer non-session week” sort of way. Few are walking the Moravian tiled floors framed by the Italian marble rotunda walls that seem to echo in a real empty, cavernous way.
We all know that many jobs and industries have been adversely impacted by the pandemic in one way or another. And for those of us who continue to have jobs, we feel fortunate. Advocates or lobbyists, like many other workers, have had some of the rules of the game changed during these challenging times.
For us to do our jobs effectively, we’ve had to rely on our computers, phones, and the ability to reach out to those in government remotely (at first) and to a limited degree more recently in person, on occasion, for meetings or even to attend socially distanced political events.
Consistent with the larger world of business, many of our clients – from non-profits and small businesses to large ones as well – have been adversely affected by the working-from-home challenge and the considerable fiscal challenges that come from many industries with workers hurting during these tough economic times.
During this time, we want to express gratitude to those Pennsylvania Commonwealth workers who have taken many phone calls, responded to texts and participated in numerous video conference calls. We realize that many in the General Assembly, and over at the agencies — including Departments of Health, Human Services, State, Community and Economic Development, Education, Labor & Industry, in addition to those in the Governor’s office and other agencies — have spent their waking hours working tirelessly doing their best to ensure that businesses and constituents are equipped as best as possible to work through the challenges of state government during a worldwide pandemic. And let’s face it, it hasn’t been easy to navigate these challenges from one’s home and without all the IT and other capabilities that state government bricks and mortar offices provide.
We at Ridge Policy Group have had the privilege to work with health care clients seeking government assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have benefited from CARES Act funding to ensure that nursing facilities and long term care facilities have personal protective equipment (PPE) that their care providers need to stay safe, and to obtain funding for adequate and regular testing so that residents and staff alike are not infected with this terrible life threatening virus.
And it’s not over; nursing facilities need additional funding for more PPE and testing as they head into the fall and winter. Additionally, efforts were made to obtain grants for frontline workers who were part of a larger group that qualified for hazard pay grants.
We also worked with election voter access and election rights non-profits to ensure that the Election Code has provisions in it that would allow voters to vote safely and securely in the June 2020 primary. And we continue to work with our election focused partners to update the Election Code to make changes that our County Commissioners and their Election Directors require to effectively carry out a safe and secure election in all 67 counties for this November 2020 General Election. This amendatory language to the Election Code would include allowing enough days for pre-canvassing so that election results are received in a timely – and safe and secure – manner.
We are grateful to the legislature for recognizing the importance of updating the Election Code for the primary and are hopeful that the General Assembly and the Governor will act quickly again to enact legislation. After all, County Commissioners — and their nonpartisan election directors — as well advocates who represent voters, are all aligned in reminding us that an adequate number of days is needed for pre-canvassing, to deliver timely election results.
Pennsylvania does not want to become the next Florida butterfly ballot or Iowa Caucuses app. Quick turnaround of the results of the election, done in a safe and secure way, is critical to our country’s democracy this November.
During this pandemic we’ve also worked with grocers to ensure that the Department of Health’s Guidance accurately reflects how stores selling food, medicine and other essential items can safely continue to provide these products to their customers during this pandemic whether it’s by pick up outside their stores or by consumers walking down the store aisles themselves to select what they need to bring home to their families. Grocers too were some of the businesses to receive grants for frontline workers who could receive hazard pay for the valiant efforts to keep our food supply chain chugging along quickly enough to accommodate Pennsylvania families.
In these examples of work that have kept Ridge Policy Group busy during this pandemic, there’s one constant. Those are the state government workers, be they legislators, staff, the Governor’s team, government agency Secretaries or their department staff.
Many of these individuals have been working long hours and working on pandemic related issues without much weekend or evening downtime for themselves and their families. The work has been challenging – the considerable time that these individuals put into striking the right balance between safety and health on one hand and the importance of economic survival on the other is a gang plank that few of these individuals ever thought they’d be walking. And the only thing guaranteed is that not everyone will be happy with whatever outcome is determined to be the best choice.
While it’s easy to be critical of those in public office these days, we need to recognize that the responsibilities that their work entails is not what most of them signed up for, but that likely the majority of them have had their nose to the grindstone since day one of this pandemic. And they continue to make their best efforts to learn medical terms they had never heard before, to learn about supply chains involved in getting products to end users, and to learn about the desperate needs of those newly unemployed who are trying to raise a family.
These decision makers are not necessarily accustomed to making such ongoing critical, life changing decisions overnight. Many government decisions made by the Department of Health, for example, take years to make, especially if regulatory guidance is required.
As to the legislature, with perhaps the exception of a non-controversial resolution, most legislation often takes at least a two-year legislative session to get passed into law unless it’s both a priority for the majority of members in the General Assembly and the Governor – in which case it likely doesn’t have a costly fiscal impact. There’s good reason that the Pennsylvania legislature often requires more than one session to enact costly or controversial legislation. In that length of time, policy ideas are explored in detail and more fully vetted; legislators are educated more on policy aspects and the impact on constituents, and a specific legislative compromise may eventually come together. Of course, the legislative language must move through committees and be passed in identical form in both the House and the Senate to become law. So, it’s no wonder that when this pandemic hit, it was challenging for state government to move forward quickly – and with many working from home.
Nonetheless, in Pennsylvania, we were among the first states to change our legislative rules and move to remote legislative sessions. The changed rules allow for committee hearings and meetings to be streamed online remotely as well.
Remote sessions have allowed many in government and outside government to remain a part of the decision making process. And while there have been technical glitches, and legislators or testifiers have had to be reminded to “unmute” while on Zoom, overall the ease of this transition has been exemplary. Our legislators and legislative staff have been doing yeoman’s work to best represent their constituents and numerous diverse interests. And this has not been easy for any of these workers.
Maybe we can all take a deep breath as we head into the last stretch of this crazy COVID-19 Presidential election year, and just pause for a moment, and appreciate and commend these vigilant state government officials and staff for their tremendous efforts during this time. We thank you.
This post was written for Ridge Policy Group, a top government affairs firm, by Laura Kuller, Government Affairs Counsel.