As both chambers of the General Assembly returned to session this week, Republican leaders on Monday outlined their leading priorities for the fall, with the state’s school mask mandate and expiring COVID-19 waivers topping the list. 

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff briefed reporters on what the GOP fall agenda will look like, and it's no surprise that COVID-19 will still be driving the conversation in Harrisburg.

The GOP leaders revealed plans to extend an emergency declaration in place to help officials respond to storm damage caused by remnants of Hurricane Ida and provided an update on an investigation into the state’s recent elections.

Below are some of the major issues GOP lawmakers will look to address this fall. 


Confronting Wolf’s school mask mandate

Benninghoff and Ward both agreed that the state should give local officials the leeway to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as they see fit. They criticized Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent change of heart on school mask mandates, which led to a statewide requirement that all students, staff and volunteers wear masks when in public and private school buildings.

Benninghoff said he would be discussing ways to roll back Wolf’s mask mandate with members of his caucus this week and stressed the need for local control on COVID-19-related policies. House Speaker Bryan Cutler agreed and said that local officials are more likely to have a better sense of how issues are affecting their communities.

“We've consistently fought for local control because we feel that they're the best informed and the closest to the people in terms of making those decisions,” Cutler said. “We think they're the best situated to do that.”

Ward said to expect her caucus to take action on Wolf’s mask mandate in the near future. “I think it's fair to say you'll likely see our caucus review and take additional actions related to the map and vaccine mandates as part of our fall session,” she said.
 

Extending certain COVID-19 waivers

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wolf administration waived a long list of licensing and occupational regulations to give health care practitioners greater flexibility to treat patients. 

These waivers allowed licensed health care professionals to use telemedicine services, granted nurse practitioners the ability to practice outside of their specialty and also expedited temporary licenses for out-of-state medical professionals. These waivers, along with a number of others, are set to expire at the end of this month. 

Ward, however, said the Senate intends to temporarily extend many of the health care-related waivers this fall, including for telemedicine. 

“We learned a lot about how telemedicine does and does not work, and how it can be used effectively throughout the pandemic,” she told reporters. “Additionally, we can build on the effectiveness of the telemedicine waivers to help address other important issues that confront the commonwealth, including opioids.”
 

Addressing damages from Hurricane Ida

Under new constitutional amendments, the governor must now receive the legislature’s approval in order to extend an active emergency declaration. The new provisions will be put to the test this week when lawmakers look to extend a declaration currently in place to help recovery efforts following damage from the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

“Tropical Storm Ida’s devastating effects were not limited and also hit Pennsylvania,” Benninghoff said, adding that the new constitutional measure “requires us to act swiftly” to extend the declaration.
 

Reversing a new prison gerrymandering policy

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is scheduled to meet this week and Ward is already looking to partially undo a policy adopted by the commission last month. 

She is sponsoring a proposal that, if adopted, would require prisoners scheduled to be incarcerated for the next 10 years to be counted at the facility at which they’re incarcerated, and not at their last-known address, for the purposes of drawing state legislative districts. 

The resolution runs counter to a policy adopted by the commission in August that will require the body to count incarcerated individuals at their last-known home address – a marked shift from the current practice of counting them at state prisons.

Ward said she was “disappointed” in the LRC’s vote to adopt the resolution to end so-called “prison gerrymandering” last month, and said the decision was “functionally and legally flawed.”

“Prisoners are, in fact, physically located in a district where they are incarcerated. This means that they are not only utilizing the facilities, utilities and resources in those districts, they are also utilizing representatives there,” Ward said.
 

The Senate’s election investigation continues

Ward also provided an update on the Senate GOP’s effort to investigate the state’s recent election, stressing that it is not an attempt to relitigate the state’s 2020 presidential election.

“The election audit in Pennsylvania is not about Joe Biden or Donald Trump. It's about the distrust in our election process among voters,” Ward said.

Ward also said she understands concerns about the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee’s vote to subpoena voter records, but said that the Department of State has also allowed third-party access to similar information through the state’s Web API for online voter registration efforts. 

"I agree with the public that asking for a driver's license and the last four digits of a Social Security number is intrusive and overreaching. However, these are not normal circumstances,” Ward said, adding that the committee is asking for “the same information as a third party outside groups have had by accessing the SURE system at the Department of State.”