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Local Legislators Split on COVID-19 Vote

• Kortz says governor ‘should not have the final say’
• Davis says vote was ‘a waste of taxpayer money’

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
September 23, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Local legislators split Wednesday on an effort to overrule Pennsylvania’s governor and allow school districts to decide whether to permit spectators at athletic events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday vetoed House Bill 2787, which would have allowed local school boards to sidestep the state Health Department and set their own COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

On Wednesday, the state General Assembly voted 130-71 to override Wolf’s veto. The move fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary.

While state Rep. Austin Davis, McKeesport Democrat, called the attempt to override Wolf’s veto “a waste of taxpayer money,” state Rep. Bill Kortz, Dravosburg Democrat, said it was “extremely disappointing” that the vote failed.

House Bill 2787, approved earlier this month by both the state House and Senate, was introduced by state Rep. Mike Reese, Westmoreland County Republican, and co-sponsored by more than 70 legislators, including Kortz.

It would have given local school boards “exclusive authority” for COVID-19 safety protocols at athletic events, including the authority to either permit or limit spectators.

In vetoing the bill, Wolf called it “entirely unnecessary” and said that it did “nothing to promote public health or ensure that our children have a safe learning environment.”

“Local school governing bodies have maintained the authority to decide how extracurricular activities, including school sports, proceed at the local level,” he said.

The state has never told local school districts that they could not have sporting events, Wolf said.

“What took place in the house chamber today was not legislative by any means,” Davis said Wednesday. “It was simply an opportunity to take a jab at the governor and make an already difficult situation worse.”

Many residents have expressed frustration at state guidelines that forbid gatherings of more than 25 people indoors and 250 people outdoors, and limit venues to 50 percent of capacity.

Enforcement of those guidelines is on hold after a federal district judge in Pittsburgh ruled last week the restrictions are unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV, who was appointed by President Trump in 2019, made his decision after business owners, four Republican lawmakers and county commissioners from Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington sued state officials, asking for the guidelines to be overturned.

Stickman based his ruling on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1905 that legal experts said has since been discredited. The state has vowed to appeal the ruling.

Kortz voted Wednesday to override Wolf’s veto. He said he has supported several efforts to relax COVID-19 restrictions and reopen businesses and schools.

“The governor doesn’t know our school district facilities or communities and he should not have the final say on this,” Kortz said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s football, band, cheerleading, cross-country or choir, it’s time we let local officials make local decisions without infringement.”

He called the failure to override the governor’s veto “extremely disappointing.”

“I still believe we can and must support our districts to do what’s right and make their own decisions,” said Kortz, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Davis, who voted to uphold Wolf’s veto, pointed out that the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, which sanctions school sports, had also advised districts to limit spectators at events.

The PIAA’s “Return to Competition” guide, which runs to 25 pages, cites the state Health Department guidelines, which Stayman ruled were unconstitutional.

“County health and PIAA officials stand in unison and agree with the state’s current restrictions because they, too, understand the seriousness of how the virus could spread at a sporting event,” Davis said. “There is no obvious answer or solution to this problem, otherwise we’d already have the proper mandates in place.”

The McKeesport legislator said he believes “there is a middle ground” compromise available and that he is working on a sports-related bill that will address safety as well as the desire of parents and friends to see events in person.

“I’m committed to working with everyone to find a way to compromise on this situation,” Davis said. “It’s my hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle feel the same.”

Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published September 23, 2020.

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