Both chambers of the General Assembly are returning to Harrisburg on Monday for an early start to the fall legislative session.
Responding to Gov. Tom Wolf’s school mask mandate will likely be on their agenda, though legislative leaders are stopping short of saying exactly how they plan to respond.
Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, said Friday that lawmakers are still sorting out how they’d like to respond to Wolf’s school mask mandate.
“While we will be discussing a legislative response to the latest unilateral mandate issued by the Wolf administration, the specifics are still coming together.
“Anything we take up will acknowledge our long-standing belief that these decisions should be made by local control and not statewide mandate,” he said.
Other issues that could command attention next week include the expiring disaster emergency declaration relative to Tropical Storm Ida, starting the process of regulatory reform stemming from the waived and/or suspended regulations dating back to the beginning of the pandemic, and taking up issues related to the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic, he said.
The House wasn’t supposed to be in session until later in September but adjusted their voting schedule after Wolf and Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam enacted a statewide mask mandate for teachers, staff and students in schools and day cares.
Wolf has already expressed his opposition to any effort by Republicans who hold the majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly to undo the mask mandate or otherwise limit his administration’s powers to respond to the pandemic.
Wolf has already used his veto pen once this year to spike legislation, Senate Bill 618, which would have barred government agencies from requiring people to get vaccinated to get services.
“We need Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public health and instead encourage people to get vaccinated,” Wolf’s spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said.
Wolf had originally said he’d leave the decision about mask mandates to local school boards but flip-flopped after he said it appeared that many local school boards were being bullied into refusing to enact mask mandates by people opposed to face-covering requirements.
A group of health care providers and child protection advocacy groups released a statement Friday condemning language from mask-mandate critics equating mask mandates with child abuse, saying that the rhetoric diminishes the trauma endured by children who are actually experiencing abuse.
“We understand that, collectively as a society we are under stress and this global pandemic and the needed mitigation strategies have frayed our nerves and patience.
“Clearly, we also are living through a highly politicized period in which discussions and decision-making are not nearly as thoughtful and respectful as they ought to be or that our children rightly deserved,” the groups said in a “consensus statement” provided to the media. “
Cathleen Palm, the founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Reading, said that while parents may disagree about whether their children need to wear face-coverings but that most advocates see face-coverings as a necessary public health measure.
“It’s about public health strategies. It’s about prevention. There’s a reason kids during babies go in car seats. Now, there’s a reason we use seatbelts. There’s a reason we use smoke detectors, they all are tools for keeping kids safe,” Palm said. “That said, you know, people are going to disagree, and parents are going to have differences of opinion as to whether their child does or does not need to be masked, that is for each family to decide, and to continue to make their point, obviously, where they want to make it. But you know, you can’t do that and manipulate abused kids in the process,” she said.
The Health Committee in the state House of Representatives has already voted on a party-line vote, to seek to have the mask mandate order forced to be handled as a regulatory change that would take months to be approved rather than as an order that is already in place.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, said the move to ask for the Joint Committee on Documents to intervene was intended to rein in an overreach of power by Wolf and Beam.
“This letter is not a vote for or against masking, or vaccines or any other mitigation measure. It’s about recognizing a continuing pattern of this administration abusing the delicate balance of power that our Constitution creates which vests the General Assembly with the authority and responsibility to make laws and policies,” he said.
The Joint Committee on Documents could vote on that request, but that meeting isn’t scheduled until Oct. 18, according to information provided by House Republicans.
Most of the members of that committee are also either Democrats or officials appointed by Wolf.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.