Legislative Council keeps secrecy provision in H.B. 1315

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Political theater sometimes trumps sound policy decisions.

At least I hope that was the case at the May 7 Legislative Council meeting.

The Council’s meeting was the prelude to the May 14 one-day special session. Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, allowed testimony be given on H.B. 1315(ss) as the only “controversial” bill that will be considered next week.

The special session was sparked by the inability of the General Assembly, led by super majorities of Republicans in both the House and Senate, to get a half-dozen bills passed before the session’s midnight deadline.

H.B. 1315 was one of those bills. It deals with financially distressed school systems, including districts in Muncie and Gary that have been taken over by the state. Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, was the bill’s author. Sen. Ryan Mishler, R-Bremen, was the senate sponsor of the bill.

I red-flagged the bill after the Sen. Mishler chaired Senate Appropriations Committee, added language to make a process where the state’s Distressed Unit Advisory Board would determine which school districts should be contacted by the DUAB’s executive director and offered help to correct that district’s financial challenges.

HSPA’s concern was the process was made completely confidential. Parents, teachers, community leaders would have no opportunity to urge their school board to accept DUAB’s help or offer input as to a corrective action plan that would be created to help a troubled school district.

The only rationale given for this broad secrecy was a fear that parents of a school district contacted by DUAB would move their children to another school district, which would further exacerbate the district’s situation through the loss of tax dollars that would go with the children.

I reached out to Mishler and Rep. Brown after reading the secrecy language. Mishler apparently was too busy during the session to respond. Brown was nice enough to discuss our concerns. At the end of that meeting, Brown indicated he might make some changes, but probably not everything HSPA wanted

There was no conference committee report available for H.B. 1315 during the last days of the General Assembly, so no language to testify for or against at the bill’s conference committee meeting chaired by Brown.

So, the Legislative Council meeting was the first opportunity to testify on language that was available to the public and speak I did.

I pointed out that parents shocked and angered to learn about a school closing, major staffing cut or elimination of programs at a public meeting that followed secret meetings of the school board and confidential records unavailable to the public would be more likely to remove their children from that school district than parents who had been given a heads up about the district’s financial challenges months earlier and an opportunity to suggest solutions.

The lack of faith in Hoosiers rallying to the school district’s side during a challenge was the policy equivalent to Jack Nicholson’s character if “A Few Good Men” shouting: “You can’t handle the truth.”

H.B. 1315(ss) could easily have been fixed by the Council through the removal of the offending section that declared the process secret, but the request to do so made by HSPA and Dave Arland, executive director of the Indiana Broadcasters Association, was received by silence.

The leadership of all four caucuses is represented on the Legislative Council. I’ve worked productively with almost all 16 members on issues involving government transparency. I pointed out that I’ve never seen during my 25 legislative sessions the legislature embrace a policy of the public can’t be trusted to know the truth.

The reply was silence.

Apparently, the edict from Republican leadership was “no amendments.” The edict was followed, even by the minority Democrats who voted against the bill, but said nothing.

Why the intransigence? Either all 16 agree that the public should be kept in the dark, which I don’t believe. Or Republicans embarrassed by the need for a special session have determined a rocket-fast, one-day session, which leaves no time for any changes in language, while limiting political fallout, is a more valuable outcome than an improved law.

Politics defeats policy in this case.

 

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