Pa. Democrats say House speaker struck failed GOP votes from the record

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, addresses the House chamber after taking the oath of office Tuesday Jan. 1, 2019 in Harrisburg. (Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo)

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, addresses the House chamber after taking the oath of office Tuesday Jan. 1, 2019 in Harrisburg. (Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo)

In the state House’s first session week of the new year, the chamber took two different votes that Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) quickly ordered to be struck from the record — an unusual move that prompted vocal concern from Democrats.

Some said they believe Turzai did it because he was unhappy with the outcomes, an allegation he rejected.

Both incidents involved contentious, GOP-sponsored bills.

The first, on Monday, was HB 1852, part of a package aimed at keeping violent people in prison longer. It would require judges to give consecutive sentences to those convicted of violent crimes against multiple people, instead of having the option to serve the time concurrently.

Many opponents, like Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery), said they believe the measure, and bills like it, “do not make our communities safer, do not reduce recidivism, cost the taxpayers billions of dollars, destroy families and communities and disproportionately affect poor people and people of color.”

Representative Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery), who sponsored the bill, said a number of people in his own caucus also came out against the bill because they believe automatically extending prison sentences makes the criminal justice system too expensive.

Stephens said his goal is to get people convicted of violence off the streets and into jail for “a long time.”

“Until criminals understand that that’s what’s going to happen to them, they’re going to keep shooting,” he said.

Several Democrats said that after votes were taken, the House’s tally board clearly showed that the bill had failed.

“The vote was there, it was lost,” said freshman member Mike Zabel (D-Delaware). “It was something like 98 nays. It hung there, [Turzai] said, ‘I think some people want to reconsider their votes,’ that didn’t happen, and then he just said, ‘We’re going over the bill.’”

“Now I’m new,” Zabel added. “I’m not a master of the rules and all that. But it seems to me that once a vote is cast, it’s final.”

The second struck vote on Tuesday was similar.

Turzai had called up an amendment to his own bill, HB 1800. The underlying measure would create a grant program allowing students in Harrisburg’s struggling school district to use scholarships — funded partly by the district and partly by the state — to attend private schools elsewhere. The amendment would have changed the structure of the program.

After members voted on the amendment and the tally was taken, showing the amendment had failed, Turzai had it removed from the record.

This time, House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody confronted him on the floor, requesting an explanation for both canceled votes.

Turzai, who waited until the session ended to respond, said the issue was about speaking time.

“At the time, the prime sponsor of the amendment should have been recognized,” he said. “He was not. We struck it at the time for him to be recognized. That’s all I have to say.”

House Minority Whip Jordan Harris noted that in both cases, when Turzai struck votes, the prime sponsor never spoke on the floor.

“I can only give you my ruling and why we made the decision, and it’s on the record,” Turzai responded, before adjourning the chamber for the day.

A spokesman for Turzai clarified that his comment applied to both struck votes, but declined to elaborate on the speaker’s reasoning.

House rules do not specifically say whether the speaker can strike votes from the record — just that once voting has started, it “shall not be interrupted” unless the validity of a member’s vote is in question, or if a voting button malfunctions. The rules also say that the speaker must close the vote after no more than 10 minutes.

Stephens said that before Turzai struck the vote on his criminal justice bill, he had been deliberating on whether he wanted to comment.

“I don’t think anything happened that was extraordinary,” he said.

His bill was removed from the House’s planned calendar for the rest of the week — something Stephens said did come as a surprise.

He said he’s still fairly confident it can get the votes needed to pass.

Democrats, however, saw the struck vote as a sign that Stephens’ consecutive sentencing bill, as well as a companion measure that would reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for a list of violent crimes, might be doomed.

“What we saw there were Democrats and a handful of Republicans who get criminal justice reform and do not believe in reinstating mandatory minimum sentencing,” said Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny). “The speaker, hopefully, learned a lesson about that yesterday, and will not bring bills like those to the floor again.”

As for the struck votes?

Bill Patton, a spokesman for Dermody, said House Democrats are letting it go — for now.

“Doing it twice on the first two session days of the new year is leading some to wonder if it will now be more common,” he said. “We don’t yet have any indication that it will be.”

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