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Ryan Brown

A group of state senators proposed a slate of bills last week to offer hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-backed gifts, tax breaks and zero-interest loans to private businesses affected by pandemic shutdowns.

Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, spearheaded the effort, which would offer substantial financial breaks for businesses. As of Thursday, the five bills in the package were undergoing edits, but Aument described them in broad terms last month.

One bill would require the state treasury to offer zero-interest loans up to $500 million total to businesses that closed during earlier pandemic orders. Others would let businesses carry forward financial losses to offset years’ worth of future taxable earnings, while others would let them write off some taxes or avoid license fees.

One of Aument’s bills would allow businesses to donate money to those that had closed, in exchange for tax credits up to $500 million. Augment compared the plan to the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit – which effectively cuts out tax payments and instead directs them to scholarships, some at private institutions.

“Over the last nine months, our restaurants, bars and small businesses have done everything possible to keep their customers safe and doors open,” Aument said in a memo on Dec. 18, blaming Gov. Tom Wolf for pandemic-related closures. “They have followed every suggestion and restriction imposed on them by the Wolf administration.”

Most of Wolf’s pandemic orders ended months ago after lawmakers pushed to stop them, but Aument said businesses have since “gone above and beyond” by installing plastic shields and regularly cleaning surfaces.

The bills have at least a dozen GOP cosponsors, including Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington.

Wolf shuts down GOP map

Wolf moved one step closer to a showdown with lawmakers this week, challenging House Republicans’ preferred congressional map in a fight that could determine the balance of power in Washington.

In a letter sent to legislative leaders last week, the governor rejected the U.S. House map submitted by GOP legislators, suggesting they made last-minute changes to help tip the scales toward their party. The state must pass a congressional map reflecting population changes in time for 2022 elections.

“(The) people of Pennsylvania are looking for a fair election map drawn in an open and honest way,” Wolf said in the letter. “They neither want nor deserve a map drawn by self-serving politicians looking to feather their own nests along with those of their political friends.”

In a detailed list of his objections, Wolf said changes to the original GOP map – submitted by Amanda Holt, a private citizen from Lehigh County – skewed districts and diluted some communities’ voting power.

Where the 17 congressional districts in the original map were identical in size, he said, a revised version varies them by as many as 9,000 residents – a difference he said may be unconstitutional.

Wolf put his opposition in harsh terms, calling the GOP map “highly skewed” and describing acting House State Government Committee Chairman Rep. Seth Grove, R-York’s behavior “disgraceful.”

Meanwhile, in a tweet last week, Grove described the affair as “unnecessary drama.”

China bills show growing rivalry

Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation has joined the intensifying legal and public-relations battle pitting Washington against China.

Lawmakers proposed a raft of sanctions, resolutions and condemnations against the Chinese government in recent months. The latest is a new law that would ban many imports from the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, where U.S. officials claim the government employs forced labor.

This week, Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, cosponsored a resolution promoting ties with Taiwan – mainland China’s longtime rival – and a bill that would toughen trade rules against Chinese-subsidized development in other nations.

And last month, Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, submitted a resolution he said would protect members of Falun Gong, a Chinese religious movement, from purported organ harvesting by their government. Last summer, Perry proposed a bill to designate the country’s ruling Communist Party an international criminal group.

As China’s economy grows and its foreign policy becomes more assertive, lawmakers in both parties appear poised to target its government further.

“If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in December, “we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights any place in the world.”

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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