Weird Pennsylvania: Bills that make you go ‘hmmmm’

From celebrating a pop star to existential questions about milk, state lawmakers came up with a few head-scratchers in 2023

By: , and - December 28, 2023 6:30 am

Taylor Swift performs onstage for the opening night of “Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour” at State Farm Stadium on March 17, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by John Medina/Getty Images)

Pennsylvania is a weird place, and sometimes that calls for unusual, quirky, and yes, even weird laws. The General Assembly isn’t typically a venue where stand-up comedy is common, and the bills and resolutions it considers usually have a kernel of merit, even if they may sound a bit out there. 

Here are the weirdest bills and resolutions (and ideas for bills and resolutions) to come out of the 2023 legislative session of the General Assembly. 

Resolution recognizing the year 2023 as the Taylor Swift Era

  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester). 
  • Status: Passed the House 103-100

So it’s not every day the General Assembly has a heated debate over a pop star. 

Taylor Swift certainly had an impressive 2023, with her sold out Eras tour and top-grossing film. Otten wrote in her memo: “From her humble beginnings as a teenage artist on that Christmas tree farm in Berks County, Taylor Swift is the epitome of what it means to be a Pennsylvanian.” 

Some Republicans (and a few Democrats) grumbled about there being more serious matters to attend to, but that didn’t stop Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) from singing a verse of a Swift song (giving us the “weird” angle for this list) at the Capitol (h/t to SpotlightPA’s Stephen Caruso for capturing this on video for posterity). Make sure your computer’s sound is on:

But I’d argue this is a completely legitimate use of the legislature’s time, to take a moment to recognize a person who had a major impact on Pennsylvania’s economy in 2023: Her Pittsburgh concerts in June generated $46 million for Allegheny County businesses, and the tour gave Philadelphia its strongest month for hotel revenue in May since the onset of the pandemic, thanks to all the Swifties coming to town. 

And Swift made significant donations to food banks in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as well (but without a lot of fanfare). A small recognition from her home state is surely the least the general assembly could do. The haters can go ahead and shake it off.  –Kim Lyons

This is probably milk, but who can say, really? (Jose A. Bernat Bacete/ Getty Images)

What is Milk? 

  • Prime sponsor: Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver)
  • Status: Proposed, but not introduced.

In case there’s any confusion, Almond milk is not actually milk. Oat milk? Nope. Coconut milk? Also, no. 

Despite the lack of Pennsylvanians reportedly feeling bamboozled by the labeling of grocery store offerings in the “dairy” aisle, lawmakers set out on a quixotic effort to confront the problem head-on.

In March, state Sen. Elder Vogel, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, announced in a co-sponsorship memo that he would introduce legislation to “clarify the definition of milk in the state of Pennsylvania.”

The term “milk” is defined “in statute,” Vogel explained, but Pennsylvania has never formally defined it as coming from a dairy cow, even though the federal Food & Drug Administration definition does. 

This, Vogel said, has created a “competitive disadvantage” for Pennsylvania’s 5,000 dairy farms, and is misleading shoppers in picking out their preferred dairy products/alternatives. 

“There is a clear disadvantage when non-dairy milk substitutes are allowed in the dairy case and compete with actual milk by claiming to be a healthier alternative,” Vogel wrote. “While I understand the need for these milk substitutes, they are simply not milk and should not be labeled as such.”

Earlier this year, the FDA investigated the matter, ruling that plant-based dairy alternatives, such as almond milk and others, could continue using the “milk” label on their packaging and marketing materials. After employing focus groups, the FDA reported that consumers weren’t confused by the label (see page 5 of the ruling) and that the products do not pretend to be dairy products. 

Despite the co-sponsorship memo, a bill formally defining milk was not introduced this year, so, for now, the dairy product’s existential crisis will seemingly continue. Cassie Miller

He looks cute but watch out for his mob. And don’t pat him.  (Getty Images)

Feeding time at the zoo

  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Joe Kerwin (R-Dauphin)
  • Status: Not considered

“Don’t feed the animals” is a good rule to live by out in the wilds of Pennsylvania, but some of Pennsylvania’s zoos and wildlife parks make an exception. 

State Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D-Philadelphia) listed a few examples of why that’s a bad idea in his memo seeking co-sponsors on a bill to ban the practice.

In 2017, a kangaroo at an Alabama zoo attacked a nine-year-old girl, grabbing her hair and ripping at her ear. In March, a teenager had to get rabies treatments after a sloth bit her during a public contact experience. And in 2021, an elephant being used to give rides seriously injured an Oklahoma man.

“Such incidents reveal the dangers of allowing public contact with wild animals,” Hohenstein wrote, adding that scratches and bites can transmit infection and disease and animals in attractions can face inhumane treatment. 

Hohenstein introduced House Bill 1451, which would make it unlawful to allow the public to feed wild animals.

The bill includes exceptions for ruminants including cattle, sheep, antelopes, and deer, but not giraffes, which despite being ruminants, are specifically excluded from the list.

Apparently, that didn’t sit well with Rep. Joe Kerwin (R-Dauphin), who introduced an amendment to permit limited direct contact with giraffes and kangaroos.

Kerwin’s district is home to Lake Tobias Wildlife Park in Halifax, Pa., which is one of several zoos in Pennsylvania where visitors can take part in feeding time for giraffes. 

The wildlife park’s website doesn’t mention anything about feeding their red kangaroos, which is probably wise. The Australian marsupials hang out in crowds of 100 or more called “mobs” and can move at 40 mph, the wildlife park says.

Hohenstein’s bill passed in the House on Nov. 13 without Kerwin’s amendment and awaits consideration in the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee. Peter Hall

Cursive is making a comeback. Sorry, schoolchildren (Getty Images)

Requiring cursive instruction in Pennsylvania schools

  • Introduced by: Rep. Joseph Adams (R-Wayne)
  • Status: Proposed, but not introduced

Learning cursive writing was once a rite of passage for grade school students. Along with memorizing multiplication tables and long division, it signaled a graduation from the lower grades and a first foray into the adult world. 

Today, in a world where many students hit “submit” to turn in their school work and a legally binding signature can be affixed to a contract with the click of a mouse, cursive’s cache is greatly diminished. 

There’s no requirement to learn cursive in Pennsylvania, and the mandate for schools to teach the skill was dropped from the national common core curriculum more than a decade ago.

But more than 20 states have implemented state directives to teach cursive in the past decade or so, according to Connie Slone, founder of MyCursive.com, a company that provides cursive learning materials to teachers and schools.

Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph Adams (R-Wayne) proposed legislation this month that would require cursive handwriting to be taught in Pennsylvania public schools. And it’s not just an effort to make things the way they used to be. 

Learning cursive has an array of cognitive, developmental and practical benefits, Adams said in a memo seeking co-sponsors for the legislation. 

“The linked, flowing motions of cursive writing help reinforce neural connections and build hand-eye coordination in developing brains. Students who learn cursive may show improved language fluency, enhanced creativity, and better recall,” Adams said.

Many documents still require a handwritten signature. But Adams also argues that learning and being able to read cursive is essential to maintaining a connection with our past.

“A growing cursive illiteracy poses a threat to accessing and comprehending key historical sources, such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights,” Adams said. “Mandating cursive writing education will allow students to actively read seminal documents that shaped our democracy which is vital for an informed, engaged citizenry in the generations to come.” 

No word if any lawmakers want to reintroduce the abacus for math classes. Peter Hall

Honorable mention: To Catch a Predator, home edition

  • Prime sponsor: Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair)
  • Status: Introduced and awaiting consideration

Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair) sought co-sponsors for a bill that would have made it legal for anyone to go undercover posing as a minor online to help law enforcement arrest sexual predators. 

He cited the long-since canceled hidden camera reality TV show “To Catch a Predator” as evidence that online child predation is a significant problem. No question that’s true, but letting anyone pretend to be a child online to entice would-be predators is fraught with legal problems, not to mention the potential for misuse, including by actual child predators. Perhaps it’s best not to base ideas for legislation on a canceled TV shows (especially one with such a troubled history)

–Kim Lyons  

Honorable mention: Those puffy white lines that the airplanes leave behind

  • Prime sponsor: Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin)
  • Status: Not formally proposed

Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) posted a picture to Facebook on Nov. 6 showing trails of puffy white clouds criss-crossing the sky above Chambersburg in his district.

“I have legislation to stop this,” Mastriano wrote in the post, without elaborating on what “this” was. 

He continued with an oblique reference to the conspiracy theory that “The Government” is using commercial airliners to spray chemicals into the atmosphere for … reasons. Depending on the flavor of the conspiracy, the motives range from mind control to altering the mating habits of amphibians.

“Normal contrails dissolve/evaporate within 30-90 seconds,” Mastriano wrote, suggesting that the condensation trails above Franklin County that day were somehow different from the trails of water vapor that routinely form when hot jet exhaust meets the frigid air of the stratosphere.

The last time Mastriano posted references to the chemtrail conspiracy was in December 2022, shortly after he lost the Pennsylvania governor’s race by a historic margin to Gov. Josh Shapiro.

On the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, below four photos of contrails over his district, Mastriano posted an article indicating his concern was at least based in reality, if not fact.

The piece detailed a proposal by the Biden Administration to research ways to combat climate change, including a controversial plan to release aerosols into the upper atmosphere to reflect solar radiation. 

So far, that remains just a proposal, which is just as well, because Mastriano’s legislation remains just a vague mention on social media. Peter Hall

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller was the associate editor at the Capital-Star.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly

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