Spending CARES Act money, legalizing recreational pot among Wolf’s priorities as lawmakers return for fall session

Written by on August 26, 2020

Spending CARES Act money, legalizing recreational pot among Wolf’s priorities as lawmakers return for fall session

“Repairing the damage of this pandemic is not going to be easy.”

By Sam Dunklau, WITF

August 26, 2020

Gov. Tom Wolf delivers remarks during a press conference at a Middletown child care center on Aug. 25 Photo |  Kate Landis / WITF

Gov. Tom Wolf says he wants to spend $1.3 billion in CARES Act money on things ranging from small business assistance to paid parental leave.

Pennsylvania has already spent $2.6 billion of an original $3.9 billion Congress approved for the state in late March. That money went to nursing homes and eviction prevention efforts, among other things, and provided emergency funding for individual counties.

The state has until Dec. 31 to spend the rest.

According to the US Treasury Department, state governments can only use CARES Act funds for three things:

  • “Necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19);”
  • Whatever was “not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27, 2020 (the date of enactment of the CARES Act) for the State or government;” and
  • Whatever was “incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020, and ends on December 30, 2020.”

With that in mind, Gov. Tom Wolf rolled out a laundry list of spending priorities during a press conference Tuesday.

It includes things like hazard pay for frontline workers, helping low-income families keep the lights on, and temporarily chucking the commonwealth’s alcohol tax to help restaurants and bars buy booze at cost. The governor also wants to use CARES funding to pay for more small-business relief grants.

Wolf said getting these things done is up to the legislature, which is slated to start its fall session next week.

“Repairing the damage of this pandemic is not going to be easy. The legislature can act right now to get us back on track as fast and as quickly as we possibly can, but we’ve got to do it now,” Wolf said.

The governor said his spending priority list is not meant to replace any upcoming budget talks. But in the hopes of providing more money for the state treasury, the governor wants the GOP-controlled legislature to legalize recreational marijuana. Half of the proceeds would go to historically disadvantaged businesses.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Pennsylvania since 2016. But it’s unclear what appetite there is among state lawmakers for approving recreational use. Still, Gov. Wolf argued Pennsylvania needs all the money it can get as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc.

“There was some appetite for it before, and my hope is that with the pandemic and the hit that we’ve taken to revenues that there might be a little more interest in it right now,” Wolf said. “This might be one way to plug a hole.”

Republican House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (Centre County) wasn’t convinced. In a statement, he called Wolf’s approach “disingenuous.”

“Gov. Wolf has spent the last six months turning his back on the people’s representatives in the General Assembly despite our numerous attempts to work with him to fight this pandemic,” Benninghoff said.

“It is disingenuous for this governor to put forward an unaffordable legislative agenda and require taxpayers to bail him out of his unilateral mandates that have devastated their lives and livelihoods.”

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol next week. The House is allowing lawmakers in that chamber to vote remotely, per rule changes enacted in March.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania has received approval to give unemployed workers an extra $300 per week in benefits, following an executive order signed by President Trump.

State governments are hoping for another round of stimulus funding, but so far a bill to do that remains parked in the US Senate.

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