Morris: A Truth-in-Legislation Act
The Indiana Senate recently demonstrated what seemed to be a prime example of legislative thuggery in action.
A bill was before senators that would have, among other things, changed the burden of proof from parents to schools in certain special education disputes. They not only defeated the measure but bullied its sponsor, Republican Dennis Kruse of Auburn, into changing his vote so that the bill could go down by a rare unanimous vote. Then they laughed and cheered.
Trouble was, the bill had received bipartisan support in the House and passed there 57-43. No senators took questions or bothered to explain their votes. An advocate for special education students said senators should be embarrassed for the way the bill was handled from start to finish because, “unfortunately, the losers are students with disabilities and their families.”
It’s just the sort of high-handed behavior so many critics say a legislature with supermajorities in both houses is inclined to indulge in.
State Police Superintendent Doug Carter, a Republican normally in sync with legislators, became one of those critics when the General Assembly seemed poised to eliminate Indiana’s gun carry permit requirements despite his objections.
“This is a problem with the supermajority,” he said. “It stifles, prohibits and oftentimes limits public debate.”
But the striking thing about the special education example is not how common it was but how rare it seemed. For a body with the power to do whatever it wants, the General Assembly seems like an awfully timid bunch sometimes.
What legislators like to do with a touchy subject like carry permits in previous sessions or, in this session, a bill that would restrict the teaching of certain subjects in the classroom, is to play to both sides so they can pretend to be the rational mediators in the middle.
The pure version of the bill will be passed in the House. Then it will go over to the Senate, where it will be amended beyond recognition so it can be dropped or killed. In some cases, as with the gun bill in the past, onerous riders are added that supporters just can’t accept. In others, such as the classroom legislation this year, the bill is so watered down it becomes meaningless.
When such bills are put out of their misery, legislators can then say to rabid detractors, “See, we’re not as crazy as you thought we were,” and to the rabid supporters, “Well, sorry, but you can see we tried.”
It’s sort of a passive-aggressive approach to constituent management. Sadly, this approach works, and will continue to work until constituents get tired of being managed.
The interesting thing is that in neither case – the rare instance of bullying or the more common disingenuous approach – do citizens get the honest information they need to understand what legislators are doing. In the former, lawmakers don’t say anything. In the latter, they say so much on both sides of the issue that nothing can be trusted.
Perhaps we need a truth-in-legislation act.
One measure the General Assembly did pass this session, without despotic swaggering or weaselly dissembling, requires school boards to provide time for the public to comment at meetings. Hoosiers could benefit from such a requirement for legislators, along with a provision for immediate expulsion for the first lie told.
But then the chambers would be empty, and who else could we get to designate the mastodon as state fossil or bravely tell Russia it can no longer buy Indiana farmland?
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.