To put it mildly, 2020 was a tremendously challenging and difficult year for elected officials and their respective constituents across the nation.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a multitude of serious issues for area residents and the officials representing them, starting with the obvious major health-related concerns, which eventually impacted the economy, education, employment and much more.
State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, recently reflected on the tumultuous year for the residents of the 50th District, which encompasses all of Greene County and parts of Fayette and Washington counties.
Coal closings and unemployment
Snyder said a major challenge occurred very early in the pandemic, when her office received word coal operations were going to be closed.
“If that had occurred, even temporarily, that would have been extremely detrimental to our communities, so I immediately contacted the governor’s office, the United Mine Workers of America and coal mining company officials and we urged the governor to keep coal operations going,” she said.
“Even if those had been shut down temporarily, that would have been devastating. Thankfully, the governor’s office worked with us and coal mining operations were deemed essential work, keeping thousands of people employed in Greene County.”
Another major issue she felt had to be addressed involved unemployment claims caused by the pandemic.
“No one could have been prepared for the mass amount of unemployment claims after the pandemic forced businesses to close their doors and lay people off … the state Department of Labor and Industry simply cannot keep up with the record number of claims and payments were behind” she said.
“My staff and I have helped nearly 5,000 people get their unemployment benefits owed to them, and have answered questions about new programs aimed to extend benefits, including PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) for self-employed workers and PEUC (Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation) for workers that have exhausted their traditional benefits.”
A topic Snyder has championed for years – improved broadband service – also became an even bigger issue for her in 2020.
“While I have been a constant advocate for better broadband service in rural areas, COVID-19 exacerbated the need for high speed internet in every home,” she said. “As schools shut down and jobs shifted to remote work, many residents in all corners of the district struggled to complete their assignments for school and perform their duties on the job.
Volunteer fire departments and education
Snyder said she is also proud of her efforts in assisting volunteer fire departments struggling throughout the pandemic.
“After desperate cries for help from our local departments, I led the charge to get emergency funding to our volunteer fire companies to make up for their lost revenue using CARES Act money given to the state,” she said.
“That $50 million went to fire departments all across Pennsylvania, which allowed them to keep their doors open and continue to protect our communities,” she continued.
She said because of the closure of casinos, school districts were set to lose $300 million in funding because of lack of revenue from Pennsylvania’s casinos, which prompted her to act.
“In May, I worked to add language into the state’s budget to allocate federal money from the CARES Act to have it included in the state education budget to keep school funding in place and also protect property owners from higher property taxes to fill the gaps,” she said.
One disappointment she encountered in 2020 was a bill designed to help struggling businesses that ultimately did not pass.
“I worked with my colleague, state Rep. Joe Ciresi, and we wrote a bill to give ultra-small businesses the financial assistance they need,” she said. “This one-time grant of $50,000 would go a long way for businesses with less than 25 employees that make less than $3 million in gross revenue.”
She also discussed her frustration with a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
“I was the lead Democrat on a bipartisan bill that would prevent the governor from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative without legislative approval,” she said. “This program is nothing but a tax on carbon emissions that would put coal workers at a disadvantage and would do nothing to protect the environment.”
Snyder said she was able to secure $1.4 million in infrastructure grants across the district.
“This amount was one of the highest announced by any member of the House of Representatives,” she said. “These funds will support projects in every corner of the district to expand water and sewer lines, and reduce the cost of utility bills with additional repairs and upgrades.
She also was proud of her involvement in the continued development of the Wisecarver Recreation Area.
“(That) has been a target of development since I was a Greene County commissioner, and this past fall I was able to secure a second $200,000 grant for the Greene County Department of Recreation to develop the water reservoir into a premiere destination for recreation.”
She also said she was proud to help area seniors get flu shots.
“While our annual Senior Fair was canceled, I teamed up with Cornerstone Care to get flu shots to our area seniors,” she said. “We hosted a drive-thru event at the Jefferson Fire Hall and vaccinated over 50 seniors who otherwise would not have received their annual flu shot.
In 2021 and beyond, Snyder said she will continue to focus on broadband.
“I’m working on legislation to create tax incentives for companies to build out fiber projects in underserved areas, and upgrade the minimum speeds that must be met to be able to advertise as ‘high speed broadband,’” she said.
She also said she continues to working on a bipartisan solution to the property tax burden on homeowners with her colleague, state Rep. Rosemary Brown.
“This legislation would exclude school property taxes on your homestead at 100% and shift the tax burden to a 1.8% increase in the personal income tax,” she said. “This would raise the necessary $8 billion to keep seniors from being taxed out of their homes and allow young couples to purchase new homes without the fear of not affording the tax payments. Rep. Brown and I have again introduced the legislation for this current legislative session.”
Snyder said she is concerned with the state’s efforts to disperse COVID-19 vaccinations to residents.
“Right now, Pennsylvania is only receiving an average of 140,000 vaccines per week to be shared across the entire state. Unfortunately, the state is at the mercy of the allocation of the federal government, which has not prioritized Pennsylvania,” she said.
She said the state Department of Health must make this vaccine accessible to those that cannot sign up using a computer.
“We are doing a disservice to the older population who may not be as tech savvy,” she said. “Places which are only accepting online forms makes it nearly impossible for the people who need this vaccine the most to register to receive it, and I have made that clear to the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She said she feels that the phased process of 1A, 1B, etc. is “as cumbersome and confusing” as the red, yellow, and green model used to reopen our economy by the Department of Health back in the spring.
“All front line workers, first responders, corrections officers, educators, and the elderly should have been vaccinated first,” she said. “And, I believe that every licensed pharmacy, physician’s office, hospital, and medical clinic should have access to administer the vaccine. Expanding access to more locations allows seniors who do not have the ability to easily travel to receive the vaccine.”