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Legislators rage after Wolf makes good on promise to withhold disaster aid from Lebanon County

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks by a closed storefront in Lebanon, Pa., Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said this week that he withheld $12.8 million in federal disaster aid from Lebanon County after its local officials defied his shutdown orders in May.

“Don’t come and say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules,” he told reporters. “There are consequences. These are the consequences.”

Nearly a dozen counties in the central part of the state threatened to lift restrictions ahead of Wolf’s phased reopening plan in May after the administration announced the Pittsburgh metro region would reopen first.

Wolf said counties that forged ahead without the state’s blessing would face serious consequences – forfeiting their share of federal relief funds chief among them. All local leaders, except the Republican commissioners in Lebanon County, backed down.

“I’d think twice about reelecting them,” Wolf said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, argued that the administration can’t withhold funds appropriated by the Legislature. The General Assembly approved $625 million in COVID-19 relief in late May alongside a stopgap budget plan meant to fund state operations through Nov. 30.

“The Governor has instead decided to penalize the citizens of Lebanon County by withholding vital funds that could help with small businesses that have been affected by the pandemic, individuals with mental health or substance use issues, non-profits and first responders in order to punish a few elected officials,” Browne said.

The Wolf administration hasn’t been shy about its frustrations with Lebanon County. It was the last statewide to progress from yellow to green phase after Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said local officials’ politics exacerbated community spread of the virus and made it “impossible” for the Department of Health to recommend lifting economic restrictions in the area. The county officially progressed to the green phase July 5.

House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, agreed that Wolf is only punishing residents and business owners with his out-of-line vindictiveness.

“The Legislature carefully considered the needs of small business owners, nonprofits, local governments, and those suffering from increased mental health and drug addiction issues when creating the county block grant program,” he said. “All citizens of this Commonwealth deserve to be treated equally and should not be subject to petty and punitive outbursts by their governor.”

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