Speaker Mike Turzai announced his retirement Thursday. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
By Emily Skopov
This week, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, along with dozens of his fellow Republicans, introduced legislation(HB2400) that they claim will help Pennsylvania’s economy by immediately putting all members of the construction industry back to work.
In reality, this bill is, at best, lazy, sloppy and shortsighted policy design. And at worst, it is reckless, irresponsible and dangerous political gambling with nothing short of Pennsylvanians’ lives.
As millions of people across the Commonwealth (as well as the nation and the world) worry about how to continue living as well as how to earn a living, this was an opportunity for thoughtful, well-informed, collaborative and compassionate leadership from our elected officials.
But instead, during a historic health crisis that has made even the smallest of daily routines dangerous, the Speaker proposed legislation that consists of one sentence.
Turzai and many of his fellow Republicans argue that other states have allowed certain operations to continue, and therefore we should too. While it is true that other states have allowed, to varying degrees, continued activity in the construction sector, they’ve taken a far different approach than what’s currently on offer at our state Capitol.
Even a cursory review of the policies in numerous states turns up detailed plans and protocols, clear mandates and parameters for oversight and compliance, some including rigorous testing, training and the distribution of personal protective equipment to each and every worker, and significant penalties for those who fail to comply.
In other words, these are clearly policies that were the result of thorough, extensive, educated efforts that took great pains to acknowledge, address and mitigate the size and scope of multiple risks.
The kinds of legislation passed in these states recognized the certainty of tragic consequences if strict adherence and stakeholder buy-in could not be achieved. The people of Pennsylvania deserve nothing less, yet less is exactly what they’ve become accustomed to.
The current partisan division on this legislation is not surprising, given this legislature’s almost non-existent record on bipartisanship. But as leadership’s job is to set the tone, the blame for this particularly unconscionable and truly life-threatening partisanship can be laid squarely at the feet of leaders such as Speaker Turzai.
A better version of HB 2400 is still out there, waiting to be written. One that protects our economy while simultaneously protecting our workers, our families and our communities.
Crafting such legislation should include bringing all stakeholders to the table – representatives from the medical, healthcare, and construction industries — along with our first responders and the labor unions who represent the men and women who would be putting their lives on the line to do this work.
We should not only want them to have a voice, we should demand it, as those who work in these fields are the ones on whose expertise we must rely at a time when even the smallest mistake can result in a catastrophe of incalculable magnitude.
And yet, the brief text of Speaker Turzai’s legislation makes not even the barest, token mention of something as common sense as instructions for safe implementation, possible paths to a structured phasing in, piloting a proof of concept, frameworks for monitoring or enforcement of the federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines to which it nominally refers.
A more cynical, and sadly justified, view is that Speaker Turzai, looking for the quick win of a shortsighted, can-kicking policy, (as he has consistently done while ensuring the least productive legislature in Pennsylvania’s history through his chronic obstructionism), took five minutes during a critical election year to craft a frankly ridiculous paragraph that would position him and his caucus as the only ones who truly care about the economy, knowing full well this offensively insubstantial piece of policy would never pass.
At a time when thousands of people are dying daily from this new disease, Turzai’s strategy still relies on finding ways to blame Democrats for what ultimately are his failures.
In so doing, he shows continued contempt for Pennsylvanians that he believes are too ignorant to see his actions for what they are, and ensures that his continued prioritization of partisanship over people will quite literally be a death sentence for many.
Pennsylvania’s economy must be protected, and we must be vigilant in our efforts to see it not only recover, but to emerge stronger and more resilient when this crisis is over. We must get people back to work but only when we can do it the right way.
The Turzai-authored bill is legislation that was doomed from the start, presenting legislators with an untenable choice.
As House Majority Leader Brian Cutler, R-Lancaster, himself said, “This false choice of, ‘We can only be healthy or the economy will be destroyed,’ is not true.”
On this, we agree.
But accomplishing both objectives would require our leadership to put in the hard work that our tax dollars, our votes, and the public trust oblige them to do.
And maybe (I’m just speculating here) that will result in a robust policy framework comprising more than 66 words.
In this moment that has forever changed us, our world, and even how we conceive of the future, I would remind Speaker Turzai and the other sponsors of HB 2400 that our economy doesn’t exist for its own good. It exists by and for the people of this Commonwealth, who create and sustain it with their hands and their hearts, with their time and their talents, with their sweat, their skill and their perseverance.
Pennsylvania is nothing without Pennsylvanians, and they are who must come first.
Emily Skopov is a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 28th House District, the Allegheny County-based House seat currently held by House Speaker Mike Turzai, who has chosen not to run for re-election this fall. In accordance with the Capital-Star’s policy of allowing candidates one op-Ed or letter per campaign cycle, her work will not appear in these pages until after the June 2 primary.
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