Auditor General: Business waiver program flawed

business waiver

Last spring’s business waiver program was flawed and subjective, according to a top Pennsylvania official. The Center Square, an online publication covering news coming out of Harrisburg, shares this story with Franklin County Free Press.

by Todd DeFeo, The Center Square contributor

More than 500 Pennsylvania businesses that appealed Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close amid the COVID-19 pandemic received decisions from the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED) that later changed.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called the waiver request process “subjective.” It created “significant confusion among business owners,” he said in a news release.

Paid advertisement

DePasquale is calling on Wolf “to provide details on its communication with legislators and lobbyists about waiver requests,” he said.

“This was not a level playing field for businesses across Pennsylvania”

…. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

On March 19, Wolf ordered most businesses to close to slow COVID-19; and DCED handled more than 43,380 requests appealing the governor’s COVID-19 closure order. DePasquale said it seems the guidelines changed during the process, prompting some business owners to take their complaints to legislators.

business waiver
The Capitol Theatre and Jasmine’s Beauty Salon in downtown Chambersburg are two of the many small businesses that had to close in mid-March. (FCFP photo)

‘A subjective process’

DePasquale called the waiver process “a subjective process built on shifting sands of changing guidance;” leading to significant confusion among business owners.

“To be clear, our analysis is this was not a level playing field for businesses across Pennsylvania,” DePasquale said. “Some smaller businesses may not have used the correct buzzwords in their waiver justification, or they just didn’t ask their. … legislator for assistance to get a waiver.”

Audit findings included:

  • 171 applications were changed from “No” to “Yes”
  • 151 were changed from “No” to “Not Required”
  • 73 were changed from “Yes” to “No”
  • 48 were changed from “Not Required” to “No”

The audit revealed at least 101 businesses that received changing responses submitted more than one application; at least one company filed eight waiver requests, while another submitted 10.

The waiver process appeared to be inconsistent. Responses depended on who at DCED handled the request. Businesses using some “buzzwords” – such as “life-sustaining” or “PPE,” an acronym for personal protective equipment — had a better chance of securing a waiver.

DePasquale said his review remaiNO ns ongoing.

DCED: ‘No outside influence’

Casey Smith, communications director for DCED, said in a statement that the agency “did not make waiver decisions based upon pre-determinations or pressure from the governor’s office or other outside influences.”

“The exemption process demonstrated our commitment to Pennsylvania’s businesses,” she said. The purpose was to ensure that businesses offering life-sustaining services were able to remain operational, Smith said.

NFIB: Governor is responsible

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said the governor is responsible for the program’s shortcomings.

“This travesty falls directly at the feet of our Governor,” NFIB’s Pennsylvania director Gordon Denlinger said. He said NFIB learned DECD had no say in what factors were used to determine what was “life-sustaining.”

“This damning report begs the question; how do all the small businesses hurt by this unfair program recoup their losses and regain their trust in Gov. Wolf’s leadership,” he said

The governor stacked “the deck against mom-and-pop businesses simply looking to continue operating safely,” Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, said.

“The toll on lives and livelihoods from this administration’s handling of COVID-19 continues to mount,” she said in a statement. “Sadly, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Wolf administration’s non-transparent, go-it-alone approach to managing this virus has done severe harm to Pennsylvania.”

Paid advertisement