If you happened to tune in to the Pennsylvania Cable Network yesterday to watch the floor debate in the state House, you might have been more than a little perplexed when lawmakers began debating a bill with no name.
Well, it had a name SB 71. It was originally drafted as legislation to ban simulcasting of greyhound racing. A similar bill was already signed into law by Gov. Corbett.
Instead the language was removed and replaced with language to ban pigeon shoots - a practice where live pigeons are launched from electronic boxes while shooters fire rounds at short distance. Injured birds that land in the shooting circle get their necks broken - often by teenagers. Wounded birds by the hundreds fly off to die slow deaths.
Animal advocates who have been fighting in the courts, on the streets and in the legislature to stop what they call a barbaric practice for more than two decades. The Pennsylvania Game Commission said shooting pigeons at close range did not constitute "real" hunting. Many hunters I've interviewed agree.
Yet still, the NRA launched a full throttle lobby effort to block the bill, saying it was the first step toward ending the hunting of all animals. (See Berks County Humane Society executive director Karel Minor's blog for a response to that claim.) In its alert, the NRA called on its members to halt the bill, saying it was a proud tradition supported by long-dead celebs like President Theodore Roosevelt and Annie Oakley.
The reality is very different. The shoots are sparsely attended and the practice supported in large part by New Jersey residents who come to Pennsylvania to shoot pigeons because they can't shoot pigeons in their state. Attacks by shooters or their henchmen on the handful of individuals who document the shoots - mostly held in Berks County - with video cameras have escalated from name calling, to gun threats to assault. See the website PA Shame. It's all on tape.
Animal advocates used the "gut and replace" strategy because they cannot get a pigeon shoot ban bill out of the House Judiciary Committee - blocked by the chairman Democrat and Republican. They prevailed in the Senate where a bill did make it out of the Judiciary Committee earlier this year and lives to see a possible floor vote.
The public had no idea what happened on the floor of the state House yesterday.
In ten years of covering the PA legislature I have never seen such an odd debate; 20 minutes of discussion on a bill whose actual purpose was never stated. Not a single lawmaker even used the words "pigeon shoot."
Supporters begged for an up or down vote. Let the public know where you stand, they said.
"Let's stand up and be counted," said the pigeon ban amendment sponsor Rep. John Maher (R., Allegheny). (The bill also would have banned the release of exotic pets into the wild and forbidden the eating of dogs and cats - we're not sure what prompted that.)
House Majority leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) backed him up. "I'd like to see this get a vote. Let's put this issue to rest."
When retiring Rep. Curt Shroder (R., Montgomery) made a motion to send the bill back to committee for further discussion, Maher replied: "What is left to be said on this subject? We have a proud tradition of running away from this subject."
Still no member of the public watching would have any idea what they about to vote on. Even in the Pennsylvania Electronic bill room today. The bill (SB 71) reflects only the original greyhound language.
In the end the vote was 124-69 to recommit the bill to committee - another word for kill it.