by Walter Brasch
The Institute for Legislative Action of the National Rifle Association (NRA-ILA) gives politicians Defender of Freedom awards. The award, accompanied by a glowing press release, has little to do with freedom; it has everything to do with legislators advancing the NRA agenda.
Usually, the award goes to someone who managed, sometimes against great odds, to ramrod legislation that advances gun rights. However, for 2014 the award should go to someone who not only prostrated himself before the NRA lobby, but in a “two-fer” single-handedly blocked an animal cruelty bill.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Mike Turzai is the House Republican majority leader and chair of the Rules Committee. Both the House and Senate are Republican-controlled; Gov. Tom Corbett is a Republican.
The bill (HB1750) had two parts. The first part would have forbidden slaughtering, butchering, and eating dogs and cats. The second part would have banned pigeon shoots. Pennsylvania is the only state where pigeon shoots are common. Organizers of this blood sport place the birds into cages, and place people with shotguns only about 30 yards away. The spring-loaded cages open, and the pretend sportsmen open fire. The pigeons, many of them stunned, often having been nearly starved, are then blown apart. But first they suffer. More than 70 percent of all birds are wounded, according to data compiled by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). If they fall onto the shooting range, teenagers take the birds, wring their necks or use scissors to cut their heads off, and stuff them into barrels. Even if the birds survive strangulation, they will die from their wounds and from suffocation. If the wounded birds manage to fly outside the shooting range, most will die a lingering and painful death. The juveniles-disguised-as-adults consider the birds litter, and don’t pick them up if they fall outside the shooting range.
Most hunters agree pigeon shoots are animal cruelty and not fair chase hunting. The International Olympic Committee in 1900 called them animal cruelty, declared they weren’t a sport, and banned it from all future Olympics. In 1998, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court called pigeon shoots cruel and “moronic,” and gave Humane Society police officers authority to investigate and cite organizers and participants for animal cruelty. The Hegins Labor Day Committee, which had previously rejected all assistance from the Humane Society to raise funds from alternative events, closed down the nation’s most notorious shoot, and did not appeal the decision. Its actions left the issue of animal cruelty in limbo. With certain politicized DAs not allowing police officers to pursue animal cruelty charges, and leaders of the House and Senate blocking all attempts to bring legislation to the floor, their actions effectively allowed pigeon shoots to continue. Until this month.
Enter the NRA and a few other gun-rights organizations. Passing this bill, they claimed, in an increasing and unjustified paranoid concern, would lead to a “slippery slope” to banning guns. The opposition to pigeon shoots, they claimed, came from radical outside organizations. But, the only radical outside opposition appeared to be from the lunatic fringe of the NRA leadership, which mounted one of its fiercest lobbying campaigns in state history.
On Oct. 15, against fierce NRA opposition, the Republican-led state senate voted, 36–12, to ban pigeon shoots. That threw the bill back to the House.
Re-enter Mike Turzai, one of the most conservative House members. He opposed the bill, and all previous attempts to ban pigeon shoots. On that day, however, at the bottom of the escalator near the House cafeteria, he told former Sen. Roy Afflerbach and retired Humane Society police officer Johnna Seeton the bill would get an up-or-down vote in the rules committee. “He said he couldn’t promise we’d win,” says Seeton, “but we’d get a vote on the bill.” Gov. Corbett had already said if the bill passed the House, he would sign it. But that was not to be.
On Monday, Oct. 20, the last voting day of the session, Turzai didn’t bring the bill to a vote in the Rules Committee. His official spokesman, Steve Miskin, claims nobody called for it, that it wasn’t on the agenda, and that’s why Turzai didn’t call for a vote. However, Rep. Sandra J. Major, Republican caucus chair, had sent a memo to fellow Republicans informing them that bill and several others was on the House agenda. A tweet that day also indicated the bill would come up for a vote.
In the Republican caucus, Rep. John Maher, who had authored the bill and agreed to the amendment on pigeon bans, strongly argued the bill had absolutely no relation to any NRA concerns; it was solely a bill to prevent animal cruelty, Maher argued.
In the subsequent Rules Committee meeting, Turzai announced four bills would be voted upon. He didn’t present HB1750. Miskin falsely claims any representative could have asked for that bill to be voted upon, but none did. Rep. Dan Frankel, a member of the committee and Democratic caucus chair, says Turzai didn’t allow the bill to be discussed in committee. In his 16 years in the Legislature, Frankel said it was common and acceptable practice for committee chairs to determine what did and did not come before the committee for discussion and a vote, and that individual members could not bring a bill for a vote. Some members who wished to vote on HB 1750 may not have pushed Turzai for the vote because they feared he would exercise the Legislature’s dictatorial powers to block their own subsequent legislation. But it was irrelevant; Turzai controlled the calendar.
When HB 1750 didn’t come up, Frankel says the committee members “believed it would come up in the second committee meeting” scheduled later that day, especially since it was on the agenda. However, Turzai cancelled that second meeting, blocking the bill from being discussed and voted upon in both Committee and on the House floor.
“I expected it to come up, and expected it would pass,” says Frankel. If so, there was a strong possibility the full House would have passed the bill. “A solid majority of Democrats supported it,” Frankel says; there were enough Republican votes to give the bill at least a slim victory.
Steve Miskin, when pressed, insisted Turzai wasn’t going to run a bill “that was not vetted,” even though the bill was discussed extensively inside and outside of Republican caucus meetings. Miskin also claimed Turzai never discussed with his staff the bill or why he blocked members from voting on it.
“Decent and compassionate legislators who wanted to do the right thing didn’t even get a chance to vote on this bill,” says Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president. For 25 years, Prescott has led the fight against pigeon shoots. It is a fight joined by the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and numerous other groups.
The last free-standing vote in the House to ban pigeon shoots occurred in 1994. Although the vote was 99–93 to ban the shoots, a majority of 102 votes was required. Later bills were scuttled, usually by leadership of both political parties, most of them afraid of the suspected wrath of the NRA.Turzai, by his action, says Prescott, “proves he continues to support barbaric practices and not humane legislation.”
Turzai refuses to say why he didn’t bring the bill for a vote. There are some possibilities.
Speaker of the House Sam Smith had written a constituent he had “heard from many across the state [who felt] that the amendment on pigeon shoots could be used as a gateway to ban all forms of hunting.” This, of course, is the NRA voice that Smith heard. More than three-fourths of all Pennsylvanians want to see an end to pigeon shoots, according to a statewide survey by the independent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Co. About four-fifths of all residents say the practice is animal cruelty.
Turzai, Smith, and certain members of the House probably didn’t want to see the bill come up for a vote because if the Rules Committee and the House agreed with the NRA and voted against the bill, with its two parts, they could be accused of voting for continued animal cruelty. If they voted for the bill, they would receive retribution from the gun-rights lobby two weeks before the election. Turzai has no fear of losing the election. For the second consecutive election he is running unopposed. However, for Turzai and many others, not voting on the bill wasn’t a matter of conscience but a reality of trying to maintain an “A” rating from the NRA.
Smith had said a vote on the bill “is not likely to be acted on before the end of the current legislative session.” Thus, even if Turzai wanted to bring the bill to a vote in the Rules Committee, Smith, with almost absolute power in the House, would have kept it from being voted upon by the full House.
The Rules committee and the House had no problem approving at least one controversial bill. HB 80 was originally a bill that would penalize those who steal secondary metals (including copper) from construction sites. Late in the last day of the session, the House approved vague language in the amended bill to allow the NRA and any other organization to sue local municipalities that enact ordinances that establish greater restrictions upon firearms background checks and ownership than that of the state. The new law also restricts local municipalities from creating and enforcing ordinances that require residents to report lost or stolen firearms.
The day after HB 1750 didn’t come up for a vote, Turzai apparently recanted. In his office, Seeton says he now told her and Sen. Afflerbach he never promised it would get a vote, but that “I’ll help you to get the vote to the House floor.” The House reconvenes for one day, Nov. 12; it’s the last day of the two-year session; no votes are expected.
Turzai is one of the Republican leaders who during the 2012 election year pushed for Voter ID in Pennsylvania. He forcefully declared several times there was significant voter fraud and that the new rules would prevent voter fraud. In court, however, Republican state officials reluctantly denied there was a history of voter fraud or that the absence of voter ID would allow fraud to occur. An additional truth came out at a Republican State Committee meeting, Turzai had said that Voter ID requirements would “allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” thus acknowledging that the strict requirements would disenfranchise primarily the poor and some minorities, who typically vote for Democrats, and the elderly, giving Romney an edge in the presidential election and Corbett an edge in the gubernatorial election. Commonwealth Court judge Robert Simpson, in his ruling against forced Voter ID, called Turzai's comments ”disturbing” and partisan.
Turzai boasts an “A+” rating from the NRA Political Victory Fund, and high ratings from numerous far-right conservative organizations. His record on the environment, social justice, and human rights has earned him grades of “F.” His report card should also show grades of “F” for truth, credibility, courage, and ability to recognize and prevent animal cruelty. But at least he’ll be qualified to get the NRA-ILA award for defending animal cruelty.
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist who has covered politics and government more than 40 years. He is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor; multimedia writer-producer, and author of 20 books. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]