Gov. Wolf’s veto of House Bill 2787 stands as state House override falls short

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Wednesday, September 23, 2020 | 2:38 PM


To the dismay of many high school sports fans, Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto of House Bill 2787 will stand.

The state House on Wednesday fell short of the two-thirds majority vote needed to override Wolf’s veto with only 130 in favor of the override and 71 opposed. The House had a two-thirds majority when it originally voted to approve the bill three weeks ago, but 24 Democratic members switched their votes, including House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny/Westmoreland.

The bill would have let school districts set their own spectator limits for athletic events outside of the governor’s control. Wolf has reiterated often that his restrictions are crucial to prevent coronavirus spread.

“After discussions with the governor and seeing what’s been going on, it became clear to me that we’ve got to maintain the governor’s flexibility in addressing some issues in case there’s a spike (in cases),” Dermody said, “which could happen.”

The House approved the bill 155-47 on Sept. 2. Allegheny County Democrats Austin Davis, Dan Deasy, Dan Miller and Adam Ravenstahl also voted against the veto Wednesday after earlier supporting the legislation.

“It’s obviously very disappointing,” said state Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, the primary sponsor of the bill. “I’m shocked by the 24 Democrat members of the General Assembly who switched their vote.”

Fall sports season started under a Wolf mandate that limited gatherings to 250 individuals outdoors and 25 indoors. That mandate went away last week when a federal judge ruled those limits unconstitutional, but advocates for House Bill 2787 wanted to guarantee restrictions won’t be reimposed on school districts.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, which is hearing Wolf’s appeal, still could grant him a stay of the earlier court ruling. A decision on the stay could come within days, PIAA general counsel Alan Boynton told the PIAA board Wednesday.

If the court grants a stay, reinstating the restrictions, it could take awhile before the court eventually rules on the merits of the appeal, Boynton said.

The gathering limits prevented many schools from allowing spectators at football games and indoor sports contests.

For now, the state Department of Education is asking schools to voluntarily adhere to the 25- and 250-person limits. Dermody said Wolf is willing to consider changing those numbers.

“We had a good discussion with the governor about trying to work with a percentage of capacity,” Dermody said. “He’s willing to talk about that. That’s an important factor where we can safely increase the capacity both indoors and outdoors.”

The PIAA weeks ago unsuccessfully asked the governor to allow 25% of a facility’s capacity.

The PIAA board met Wednesday and agreed to leave spectator decisions to individual schools. PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said he was surprised by the outcome of Wednesday’s vote but remained optimistic.

“We’re optimistic that we can work with the General Assembly and they can work with the governor’s office,” he said, “and we can get a good, solid solution to assist parents in seeing ball games.”

The House wasn’t scheduled to be in session Wednesday, but representatives were called back to Harrisburg on short notice. Dermody said the hastily called override vote was Republicans “playing politics a few weeks from an election.”

Davis, whose 35th District includes McKeesport, Munhall and Clairton, agreed.

“What took place in the House chamber today was not legislative by any means,” Davis said in a statement. “It was simply an opportunity to take a jab at the governor and make an already difficult situation worse.”

Reese said his party was responding to impassioned calls from constituents.

“The Minority Leader obviously has been there awhile,” Reese said. “He was elected several times. He should know better than anybody, we work for the people back in our districts, not the governor.”

With the governor’s restrictions now merely voluntary, a number of WPIAL schools have decided to allow more than 250 spectators on Friday nights.

Hempfield Area administrators this week agreed to provide every football and volleyball player two spectator tickets apiece, a policy that also applies to cheerleaders and band members. That could put more than 1,000 people in the stands when the Spartans play their next home game Oct. 2.

Hempfield’s stadium capacity is 6,078.

All other fall sports at the school already had been allowed to invite two spectators per participant.

“As all Pennsylvania school districts, I think we’re certainly caught in the middle of a political battle and, unfortunately, it’s our student athletes, and more importantly their parents, who are most impacted in regards to having spectators at our events,” Hempfield superintendent Tammy Wolicki said.

In a letter sent Tuesday to parents, Mars superintendent Mark Gross laid out a detailed plan to allot three football game tickets for every athlete, cheerleader and band member. Visiting teams receive two tickets per player. Girls volleyball players on both the home and visiting teams get two tickets. Soccer players on each team receive four tickets.

Some Pennsylvania districts are going even farther. Altoona’s school board revealed plans to increase football attendance to 33% of capacity, according to reports. That could equal 3,400 spectators at Mansion Park Stadium.

In a statement, Wolf thanked House Democrats for “continuing to stand with me and showing a commitment to working collaboratively to protect the people of Pennsylvania during this ongoing public health crisis.”

He described House Bill 2787 as “superfluous.”

“The bill would have done nothing more than create legislation for something that already exists,” Wolf said. “Instead of wasting time on a veto override attempt on a superfluous bill, the Republican Legislature needs to start taking this pandemic seriously.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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