Capitol Notebook

The House advances hand-held cell phone ban, the Speaker erases the vote, and more from the week

by Angela Couloumbis and Cynthia Fernandez |

The House returned to session this week for the first time in 2020, and if the opening week was any indication, it could be a long, bruising year between Republicans who control the chamber and Democrats seeking to snag the majority away in the upcoming election. Here are the highlights from the week:

Cell Phone Ban

House lawmakers were sharply divided over a bill to ban using hand-held cell phones while driving. Though it was approved by a 120-74 vote, there was plenty of frustration, from those concerned about racial profiling to others worried it would weaken existing rules banning texting and driving.

Erasing the Vote

A heated disagreement broke out over House Speaker Mike Turzai’s decision to strike from the record what many thought was an official vote on two separate bills — both sponsored by Republicans — effectively making it seem like there was never a vote on them at all. The move prompted confusion and disbelief from representatives who had voted against the two measures.

One of the bills aimed to keep some violent offenders in prison longer, and the other was an amendment to a bill sponsored by Turzai to provide scholarships to help Harrisburg public school students attend private schools.

Some Democrats believe Turzai made the move when it became clear the vote wasn’t going in Republicans’ favor. Republicans countered that there were lawmakers who wanted to speak on the bill before the vote occurred. The House’s parliamentarian, Clancy Myer, who is the arbiter of such disputes, said, “during the past 40 years, five other Speakers from both political parties have had the vote stricken under similar circumstances.”

Mental Health

Wolf administration officials released preliminary findings by the governor’s Suicide Prevention Task Force. It highlighted eight takeaways gained from more than 800 comments gathered at statewide public listening sessions and submitted online. Key themes included elevating mental health as a public health issue, reducing stigma, and most controversially, introducing a Red Flag law that would allow for firearms to be taken from those at risk of dying by suicide.

Next Week

The House could vote on a bill protecting mothers who have had a child as a result of rape or incest, a measure urging the attorney general to file lawsuits against drug companies complicit in the opioid crisis, a bill expanding the rights of patients receiving mental health care, and a bill to repeal a 100-year-old law meant to prevent “immoral persons” at dance clubs.

We’ll spare you our terrible dance moves.

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg. Have a tip? Contact Cynthia Fernandez at cfernandez@spotlightpa.org.