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Partisanship has no place in a pandemic

Now, more than ever, Pennsylvania needs governmental leaders able to work together on evidence-based solutions and data-driven budgets. Instead, unaccountable legislators from gerrymandered districts play partisan games that harm us all.

In mid-March our state legislature passed rules allowing remote voting on pandemic-related emergency measures.

Just a few days later, Speaker Mike Turzai began calling the Pennsylvania House back into session, in person, to consider a blizzard of hastily crafted bills, moving more in just a few weeks than at any point in recent memory.

A handful of the earliest bills were genuinely needed.

Others were designed to undermine the governor’s leadership or push hyper-partisan agendas while the public wasn’t watching.

Partisanship has no place in a pandemic, but the past weeks have made clear that legislative leaders in both houses are willing to put partisan gamesmanship above concern for their members’ health and the health of the people of our state.

Also made clear: Our state is now suffering under the weight of years of poor planning, deferred decisions and irresponsible, partisan-driven legislative activity.

Our public health provisions are among the lowest in the country.

While national funding for state and local preparedness from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was cut by a third between 2003 to 2019, in those same years the PA legislature cut state contributions by half, despite repeated pleas from public health departments in every corner of the state.

Pennsylvania now spends just $14.50 per capita versus the national average of $35. Contact tracing and targeted testing that would help contain the spread of virus and allow safe return to business are far harder in most counties due to years of staff cuts and chronic underfunding.

The pandemic also underscores entrenched deep inequities in Pennsylvania school funding, among the most inequitable in the nation.

Some school districts shifted swiftly to virtual learning while others lost weeks, possibly months.

In parts of rural Pennsylvania, virtual learning is simply not possible given decades of inattention to broadband access.

Bills to equalize access across the state have been introduced with bipartisan sponsorship in both houses since 2003. All died in committee, except one recent senate resolution to study the issue.

That study found that “there were 0 (zero) counties in Pennsylvania where at least 50 percent of the populace received “broadband” connectivity, as defined by the FCC.”

As expected, “connectivity speeds were substantially slower in rural counties than in urban counties.” This reality renders telemedicine, another pandemic necessity, an impossibility in some areas of the state.

Fair Districts PA has been urging voters to connect the dots between issues of concern to us all and the Pennsylvania legislature’s inability to enact good solutions. A six part series has been airing on PCNTV on Sunday afternoons. Episode 5, Roadblocks to Reform, will air this Sunday, May 17, at 2:30 pm, and again on May 24 at 5:30 pm.

As that episode makes clear, the Pennsylvania legislature has an agenda fairness ranking of zero.

The average legislator has no chance at all of impacting legislation.

A few powerful leaders make the rules, draw the district lines, determine the budget, set the schedule and agenda.

Rank and file legislators do as they’re told or suffer the consequences: loss of office staff, loss of campaign funds, loss of choice in committee assignments, districts gerrymandered against them.

The bills Fair Districts PA supports, HB 22 and 23 and SB 1022 and 1023, represent years of discussion, research, advocacy, civic engagement and strong public support.

Creation of an independent commission would be an important first step toward a less divided, more responsive legislature more able to meet the challenges that confront our state.

We urge our legislators to insist these bills be given a vote.

Tune in Sunday to find out more, watch the full series at https://pcntv.com/meet-fair-districts-pa/, or learn more at https://fairdistrictspa.com.

Carol Kuniholm is chair of Fair Districts PA, found online at www.fairdistrictspa.com.

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