With lawmaker’s COVID-19 case, the Pa. House makes national headlines for all the wrong reasons – again | Friday Morning Coffee

May 29, 2020 7:35 am

State Rep. Brian Sims’, D-Pa., scathing social media message made national headlines (NBC News screen capture)

Good Friday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

A $25.8 billion budget plan that provides five months’ worth of funding for most of state government, but a full year’s worth of funding to public schools, is on its way to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

Did you notice it? You could be forgiven if you didn’t.

The spending plan cleared the Senate on a 44-6 vote on Thursday, after winning approval on a thinner, 103-99 margin in the House on Tuesday, the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison and Stephen Caruso reported. Fireworks were noticeably absent.

Republicans and Democrats each played their appointed roles in the debate, each raising objections about this component or that of the spending plan. In the absence of made-for-tv press conferences, trillions of electrons died needlessly in the service of a blizzard of emailed press releases.

The efficiency with which the spending plan was passed was the kind of performance that Pennsylvanians should expect of their elected leaders. Faced with a pressing challenge, they rose to it.

The  Legislature’s speedy votes came as America surged past 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, as unemployment claims, both in Pennsylvania and nationwide, climbed ever higher, and as a Black man named George Floyd died after a Minneapolis cop put his knee to Floyd’s neck for eight agonizing minutes, sending the Twin Cities into spasms of violence.

And as if demanding not to be overlooked, a Legislature that threatened to look vaguely statesmanlike in its deliberations over a badly needed stopgap spending plan quickly devolved to type — and in the most needlessly ham-handed way possible, making national news as it did so.

Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin, speaks on the House floor May 14 — his last day in the Capitol before he was diagnosed with COVID-19. (Courtesy of House Republicans)

That happened with the shock news Wednesday night that one state House lawmaker had tested positive for COVID-19 and that two more were self-quarantining after coming into contact with him. And worse.

House Democrats were rightly enraged that they’d apparently been kept in the dark for a week about Rep. Andrew Lewis, R-Dauphin’s diagnosis. For Democrats, it was the embodiment of Republicans failing to take the pandemic seriously.

Taking to social mediaRep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, reflected that anger demanding that House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, resign over the matter. Democrats complained that they should have been made aware of any potential hazard — particularly among lawmakers who might have been immunocompromised, or who were caring for unwell family members.

And then, as Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso, revealed, it turned out that Turzai was in the dark on the matter too, as were other rank-and-file Republicans. That suggests, but far from confirms, that what some believed to be a grand GOP cover-up might have been something far worse, and no less awful: An epic management fail with potentially tragic consequences.

Giving the middle managers at Dunder-Mifflin a run for their money, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler’s office claimed that the Lancaster County Republican was being mindful of both medical privacy rules and CDC requirements in how it shared information regarding Lewis’ condition.

“Private health information is just that — private,” Cutler said to boos from the House floor Thursday, Caruso reported.

Ironically, in an instance of the right hand not knowing what the far-right hand is doing, even as those explanations were being offered, the Capital-Star learned that state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, sent a letter to a member of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation asking for HIPAA rules to be changed to allow for the  identification of individuals infected by COVID-19 to protect public health.

(A letter sent by Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, to a member of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation obtained by the Capital-Star)

And at some point on Thursday night, a male lawmaker in the House referred to another male lawmaker as “a little girl,” the Associated Press’ Marc Levy Tweeted.

Another observed that “I have to believe that if Ben Franklin had COVID-19, he’d tell everyone.”

Were he around today, Franklin, who served as speaker of Pennsylvania’s Colonial Assembly in 1764, and served for years as a representative from Philadelphia, might have modified his famous aphorism about guests and fish.

After three days in Harrisburg this week, the House stank pretty badly.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
As noted above, Stephen Caruso deftly breaks down the ongoing drama in the state House over one member’s COVID-19 diagnosis and the unexpected reaction from state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

Elizabeth Hardison has what you need to know about state lawmakers beefing up a school safety grant fund to pay for masks and gloves in the pandemic.

Pa. college scholarships have been capped again, but there’s good news for online studentsJulia Shanahan reports.

Sixty more Pa. liquor stores are set to reopen in yellow counties on Friday, your humble newsletter author writes. And even with reopening, Pennsylvania jobless claims jumped last week, new federal data show.

The state Department of Human Services has rolled out a new pandemic food assistance program, Correspondent Hannah McDonald reports.

A Pennsylvania corrections officer trainee has been charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Fayette County, our partners at the Herald-Standard of Uniontown report.

Philly schools are prepping to reopen in the fall, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

And our partners at the Pittsburgh Current visit tiny Clairton, Pa., where the mill town is an unlikely distance learning success story.

On our Commentary Page this morning, House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, accuses the Trump White House of leaving minority-owned businesses behind in the rush to reopen. And state Sen. Art Haywood, D-Philadelphia, calls for a just reopening for Black, brown and low-income Pennsylvanians.

Democratic Auditor General candidate Nina Ahmad (Facebook photo)

The Inquirer
 profiles Democratic auditor general candidate Nina Ahmadand her “million dollar bet,” on her campaign.
Pittsburgh City Paper’s Ryan Deto writes that “KDKA radio’s ‘combative’ editorial strategy,” has employees worried about the station’s legacy.
At least 58,000 people have fallen prey to an unemployment scam in the state. That’s far more than previously suspected, PennLive reports.
WaWa clerk in suburban Allentown was threatened after asking a customer to put a mask on, the Morning Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

Pa. businesses are asking for protection from consumer lawsuits in the midst of the pandemic, WHYY-FM reports.
WESA-FM takes a look at the education funding package passed as a part of the budget.
One million Democrats have applied to vote by mail in Pennsylvania, which might explain the dire noises coming out of the White House of late. PoliticsPA has the story.

What Goes On.
Time TBD:
 Daily COVID-19 briefing … maybe. There wasn’t one on Thursday. Might not be one today. And what is time anyway?

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to our old pal Bill Toland, of Pittsburgh, and to veteran Harrisburg GOP strategist Charlie Gerow, both of whom celebrate today. Congrats, gents. Enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s an old favorite from R.E.M to finish out the working weekFrom their sophomore LP ‘Reckoning,’ it’s ‘Little America.’

Friday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
Andre Agassi 
and Steffi Graf are best known for their greatness on the tennis court. But their son, Jaden, may be destined for greatness on the baseball diamond (via

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.