Why the General Assistance floor fight was an inflection point in state politics | Thursday Morning Coffee

June 27, 2019 7:31 am

President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, speaks at a June press conference Wednesday after a vote on General Assistance led to a shouting match on the Senate floor. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

State Sen. Katie Muth, D-Berks, during her Senate floor speech on Wednesday (Screen Capture)

(*This piece has been updated, 8:47 a.m, to include Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, among the ranks of freshmen Democratic senators. It has also been updated to clarify the Republican advtange in the chamber)

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Take a good, long look at that image up there. That’s freshman Sen. Katie Muth offering her floor remarks during Wednesday’s Senate vote to eliminate Pennsylvania’s cash assistance program for thousands of the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians, including the disabled, and those struggling with addiction.

You’re probably going to be seeing a lot of that image in next year’s state Senate re-election campaigns, as Democrats look to tip the balance of power in the 50-member chamber.

In just a year, Republicans saw a veto-proof 34-16 majority (temporarily) whittled down to a far more slender 26-22 advantage. They’ve since won their way back to a 28-22 edge, thanks to a pair of special election victories in May.*

If you’ve seen this image, blasted out in a tweet by the progressive advocacy group Keystone Progress, then you heard Muth, D-Berks, offering arguments on behalf of the program. In the background, you’ll hear the voice of Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, bellowing that her remarks are out of order.

That’s because Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who presides over the Senate, took a parliamentary left turn, calling on Muth over Corman, even though, under the chamber’s operating rules, an action the Centre County Republican was making was supposed to get procedural preference.

His voice rising in anger, Corman accuses Fetterman of breaking “the rules that we all voted on unanimously,” the Capital-Star’s Sarah Anne Hughes reported Wednesday. Corman adds that Fetterman’s job is “to enforce the rules of the Senate, not to be a partisan hack.”

In the video, Fetterman’s voice is just about audible as he gives Muth the all-clear to keep speaking. As that happens, Corman grows incandescent with rage, yelling that Fetterman needs to follow the rules, and demanding that he step down from the dais (which did happen – Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, did run the Senate for a while).

We’re hardly parliamentary experts. So we’re not going to delve into whether Corman was right or wrong. Minds have already been made up on that score. And where you stand on that question depends a whole lot on where you sit.

Rather, we’re going to argue that this moment, captured on video, says a whole lot about the current state of our politics, the changing face of Pennsylvania, and where we’re headed as a commonwealth, and as a nation.

First up, the state of our politics.

While we’ve been struck by the unusual level of bipartisan cooperation this session (notably on such issues as criminal justice reform), it’s also clear that on such core issues as social welfare spending, abortion access, public education, and programs serving the most vulnerable, the partisan cleavage is as deep and profound as it has ever been.

It’s been made manifest in attempts to strip abortion rights. And we saw it up close in the Senate  on Wednesday in the fight over cash assistance.

Muth, who comes from a union background, is one of a class of five, newly elected — and very progressive — Democrats who came roaring out of the Philadelphia suburbs last year. Their ranks were filled out a month or so back with the election of Pittsburgh-area Sen. Pam Iovino.

The six, who also include Sens. Maria Collett, of Montgomery County; Steve Santarsiero of Bucks County, and Tim Kearney, of Delaware County, are living proof that the Philadelphia suburbs have turned Democratic blue. All flipped seats formerly held by Republicans. *Iovino, along with fellow Allegheny County Democratic Sen. Lindsey Williams, is at the leading edge of a similar sea change in suburban Pittsburgh, where she flipped a traditionally Republican seat as well.

Muth, more than most members of the Gang of Six, has few qualms about burning down the Senate’s institutional stodigness. And though it may or may not have been planned (Republicans, not without grounds, say ‘Yes.’), she was the perfect foil for Fetterman, who has similarly disruptive tendencies.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman offers a response to Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2019-20 budget proposal. (Screenshot from Capital-Star video)

As if those signs were not worrying enough for Republicans, last year’s election cycle showed that even Centre County, where there’s been someone named Corman in office since the first humans came down from the trees, is as no longer predictable for Republicans as it once was.

While the veteran Republican floor leader handily won re-election over Democrat Ezra Nanes, he had to do it by running up big numbers elsewhere in the 34th District. Nanes took 52.5 percent of the vote in Centre County, according to the Centre Daily Times.

Taken together, those results suggest that such progressive issues as general assistance resonate with a larger and larger share of the state’s electorate.

Key: Navy – D+1,000 or more, Blue – D+501 to D+1,000, Skyblue – D+1 to D+500. Light Salmon – R+1 to R+500, Red – R+501 to R+1,000, Maroon – R+1,000 or more. Map by Nick Field via Dave’s Redistricting.

Now here’s why that’s such a big problem for Republicans.

As the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported back in April, now that they’re within striking distance, Democrats see a real chance of flipping the Senate in 2020. And the path to do that runs through the Philadelphia suburbs.

With Republican wins in a pair of May special elections, that now give them a 28-22 advantage, Democrats need to flip three seats (Iovino’s, plus two more) to control half of the 50-member chamber. As the Senate’s presiding officer,Fetterman is then in a position to cast tie-breaking votes.

The bottom line?

Republicans will use that footage of Muth to cast Democrats as out-of-control progressives hellbent on wasting the taxpayers’ money on (gasp) programs that might as well be socialist.

Democrats, conversely, will use that footage of Muth as evidence that they’re standing up for the little guy in the age of Trump, and in the face of a Republican establishment more interested in propping up the rich than taking care of those who are in real danger of being left in the shadows.

The data and trends from the last year suggest that the momentum — and the strength of argument — is currently on the side of the disruptors, who always tend to be ahead of the curve of history in most cases.

So while Corman may have been trying to score a parliamentary point on Wednesday, something far larger, a system that’s wildly out of order, was also on the line. Progressives lost the battle — for now — but they may yet win the war.

WikiMedia Commons

Our Stuff.
Sarah Anne Hughes
 has the full story on the drama in the Senate and a moving interview with a former General Assistance recipient who explains how the program helped her.

Senate Republicans say budget talks have ground to a standstill because of the drama on the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon. Elizabeth Hardison has the details.

Stephen Caruso has the tale of the tape on a series of election reform issues.

On our Commentary Page, Shira Goodman of CeaseFirePA and an ally from the Education Law Center argue against a bill that they say is basically a backdoor attempt to arm teachers.

Thirty years after its release, Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’  still has messages for Harrisburg – and beyond, Anwar Curtis writes.

Duquesne University Law School professor Bruce Ledewitz argues the case for a middle ground in our ongoing argument over abortion rights.

Screen Capture

The Inquirer
 runs down the first Democratic debate, where ideas and barbs, where traded.
The Post-Gazette has more on the chaos on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
Lehigh and Northampton counties are among 19 Pennsylvania countiescooperating with ICE to deport people, The Morning Call reports.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has set aside $500K for recycling containers for residents, the Tribune-Review reports.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day (Never underestimate the lure of a milkshake edition):

WHYY-FM looks at the Philly media startups that are trying to fill a local news void.
Private schools are benefiting from a tax credit program, but have no low-income students, Keystone Crossroads reports.
The Philly courts’ computer system are back online – but three systems are still MIA, BillyPenn reports.
In remarks from the U.S. House floor, U.S. Susan Wild made an emotional plea for suicide awareness after losing her life partner to it a month ago,PoliticsPA reports.
Politico also has its account of the Democratic debate.

What Goes On.
The House is in at 9 a.m. The Senate gets rolling at 11 a.m.
12 p.m., Main Rotunda: The ACLU holds a newser on immigration.

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out to longtime Friend O’the BlogTuck Lentz, of Harrisburg, who celebrates today. Congrats, and enjoy the day, sir.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s a tune that never fails to raise a smile. It’s ‘Mozart’s House,’ by Clean Bandit.

Thursday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
Baltimore lost 10-5 to San Diego on Wednesday. Because, of course. Ugh.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

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