Lebanon County sued Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday over his decision to withhold nearly $13 million in federal coronavirus funding from the county after its commissioners moved it to the “yellow” phase prior to the governor’s approval.
Additionally, state House Republicans are considering “all options” to pressure Wolf to release the funds, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said in a statement Tuesday.
Last week, Wolf confirmed he withheld the federal dollars from the county for defying his order, following through on his May pledge to take that action. At the time, Lebanon, Lancaster and other counties had announced their unilateral plans to move to a less restrictive phase of reopening before receiving Wolf’s permission.
Lancaster County and Lebanon County were the only counties to follow through with their threat to move to “yellow.” However, because Lancaster’s coronavirus funds -- $95 million -- were distributed directly by the federal government to the county, Wolf did not have the option to withhold them. Seven Pennsylvania counties with more than 500,000 residents received their federal disbursement directly, while the Legislature appropriated the rest of the dollars to the other 60 counties.
Lyndsay Kensinger, press secretary for Wolf, said Lebanon’s commissioners put businesses at risk of losing the funding when the county defied his order. She said Wolf’s closure powers stem from the state’s emergency management law.
“The governor did not make a decision to withhold the funding,” Kensinger said. “Lebanon County’s decision to violate the law deemed the county ineligible for CARES funding.”
Lebanon was also the last county to be moved to the “green” phase of Wolf’s reopening plan, and did not officially move to the least restrictive phase of reopening until July 3.
Benninghoff said Wolf “can still do the right thing and release the money on his own.”
“It’s time to remove emotion and politics from the equation; and it’s time for Gov. Wolf to avoid costing Lebanon County and Pennsylvania taxpayers more money in an unnecessary court battle by releasing the money appropriated by the General Assembly—and signed by the governor—to Lebanon County,” said a statement Wednesday from Jason Gottesman, Benninghoff’s spokesperson.
The court battle will play out in the state’s Commonwealth Court. Lebanon County’s solicitor could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lebanon’s congressional representative, U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, said Tuesday he is advocating that the future federal relief package includes a provision to protect funds from “being manipulated in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”
Meuser added Wolf is violating federal guidelines in the coronavirus relief package by withholding the dollars.
“The more than 140,000 residents of Lebanon County have been denied relief funding they are entitled, and we are pursuing every possible course of action to reverse this unlawful decision,” he added.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, joined by the rest of the Pennsylvania’s Republican House members, released a statement on Friday calling on Wolf to release the funds to Lebanon.