Friday, March 21, 2014

Caution: You Get the Government You Vote For

Caution: You Get the Government You Vote For 

The filing period for candidates running for public office is approaching, and it’s time to take a look at some people with overt or latent political aspirations. That’s what I did at the Cheyenne City Council first reading of PlanCheyenne, paying attention to the governing attitudes of the people who came to comment.

What kind of informed discussion and deliberation could we expect from them and the candidates who would represent them, I wondered, because I expect members of this group will be on our ballot come August and perhaps November.

I deduced following attitudes of governance from the folks I watched during that PlanCheyenne public comment period:

1.      It’s my way or the highway.
2.      If you disagree with me, shut up.
3.      If you contradict me, shut up. If you point out a contradiction in my position, shut up.
4.      If we show up to meetings in greater numbers than others do, we win. If I ask for a show of hands in the room during that meeting, and it favors my position, I win.
5.      We show disagreement to comments with audible scorn – grunts and sneers, mostly.
6.      We use name-calling, epithets and ridicule in the place of discussion and strength of argument.
7.      If we are loud and insistent, the decision must go our way.
8.      If I pay taxes, I get to control decisions.
9.      If my copy of the Wyoming State Constitution is well-worn, my position is superior.
10.  We misrepresent your position (a straw dog) and then proceed to ridicule and disprove it, to the sneers of our members.
11.  The world revolves around me and what I want. I don’t have to discuss short- or long-term consequences. Give me simple. Don’t give me complex.
12.  We believe that removal of regulation will yield an ideal world -- for ourselves and our posterity -- that has jobs for our kids but doesn't attract businesses with infrastructure and amenities.
13.  If I don’t need some thing, then there is no need for that thing.

The man sitting next to me illustrated some of these traits in one exchange:
“A bunch of Nazis!”
“Nazis? Conducting a public hearing?” (You know how Adolph Hitler opened up his policies to public comment.)
“You must be a Democrat!” (He spat out that last word.)
“I am a registered Independent.”
“Shut up.”

By contrast, consider the attitude and behavior of another kind of public official who, I suggest, is a better choice for good governance:
1.      I listen to table-thumping individuals, but I don’t let the loud comment weigh more than others.
2.      I do my homework instead of reacting to simplistic slogans and “bogeymen.”
3.      I try to appreciate complexities of problems and different viewpoints and interests, in order to find solutions. I understand that some solutions require balancing competing interests and compromises.
4.       I consider the input of people who show up to meetings, as well as those who don’t.
5.      After I listen to everyone and do my homework, I base my vote on what I think is best, and I can explain my vote to the public. I don’t take direction from an individual or group. I am not controlled by ideology.
6.      If I disagree with a fellow official or member of the public, I disagree civilly and with respect. 
7.      I understand that some regulation is necessary to ensure rights and responsibilities, but I am careful to consider the negative consequences of over-regulation.
8.      I try to consider the welfare of the whole community, for people who live here now and who will live here in the future.
9.      I am a public servant, which means I am not in this office for grandstanding and self-aggrandizement. I approach my job with humility and true interest in understanding the concerns of others. I know I don’t have all the answers, but I will do my best.

Your critique of PlanCheyenne is a separate issue. The question I raise is what kind of person you want in elected office and what kind of government do you want? Because you will get the government that you elect. Be informed - and then vote.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Loving the Sinner AND the Revenue

Whenever you hear someone complain that a legislative proposal is a “sin tax” and an attempt to “legislate morality,” you can take that as code for, “I don’t have a real case against this tax proposal, so I will use this fall-back argument.” It’s the last-resort argument that requires no reasoning. Sadly, it usually works.

The Joint Revenue Committee is contemplating a rise in the tax on beer, to help pay for substance abuse programs. The current tax is minimal – 2 cents per gallon, unchanged in 80 years. The national average is 28 cents per gallon. The cost to microbreweries would be less than $100 per year, according to liquor dealers. The reason for raising the revenue is fiscal, not punitive. No one hates beer or beer-drinkers. So when you hear opponents raise the thin objection to “sin taxes,” you suspect they don’t have much else to say.

Something similar happened in the 2013 session with the cigarette tax proposal. The purpose was, in fact, was to raise the price of a pack of cigarettes to a point that it would affect sales. It would stop kids from starting to smoke and urge smokers to quit. The tax revenue would be applied to substance abuse programs. This also had a strong financial component: lower smoking rates would save Wyoming taxpayers millions of dollars that are spent on smoking-related illnesses and deaths.

So the tobacco tax was going to yield improved health AND save tax dollars. In fact, actuaries had just issued figures on how much health insurance premiums could be raised to pay for all the health care costs associated with smoking. No moralizing– just the financial realities. Tax supporters had empirical evidence that raising cigarette prices decreases use. They had solid evidence how much smoking was costing the state – in human and financial terms. Not a word against smokers.

Predictably, tobacco representatives dusted off the old reliable claim that the tax was intended to impose moral behavior on poor, beleaguered smokers. They took umbrage, harangued against the phantom moralists and were outraged! It didn’t matter that the “moral” argument had never been made. I thought any seasoned legislator could see through that. First of all, legislators legislate morality all the time. Second, in this case it was an obvious distraction from the actual arguments.

The reason lobbyists use the “sin tax” and “legislate morality” arguments? Amazingly, they continue to be an effective way to distract and short-circuit forthright debate. And maybe some lawmakers appreciate the chance to duck the hard questions. Look for these old friends in 2014 if the beer tax proposal is introduced in the Wyoming Legislature. What are the odds?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It’s the Legislature, Not a Message Service

A disturbing trend in the Wyoming Legislature is the endorsement of that most self-indulgent and wasteful practice of writing bills that “send a message.”

Thirty years ago, that sort of thing merited a response from other legislators that the bill’s author should try writing a letter – and here’s a stamp and envelope. Or more recently, the sponsor would withdraw the bill after the “message” was considered delivered. That happened when a state senator, in a snit over an article by a University of Wyoming law professor, sponsored a bill to cut funding to the UW College of Law – you know, to send a message and teach a lesson and all that. Then he withdrew the bill before it went further.

That was bad enough, wasting precious legislative time and staff on a personal pique.

But now it’s good. We are getting more and more self-indulgent legislation. I think one of the new uses of this shameful legislation-as-message is to demonstrate bona fides for the benefit of critics and potential re-election opponents.  These bills get introduced, waste Legislative Service Office resources and consume precious committee time and floor debate. Legislators posture and preen and earn their credentials, and these bills actually advance until responsible legislators stop the proposals. A few actually make it through the whole process.

One of the most ridiculous was one known as the “doomsday bill” that anticipated the collapse of the federal government and Wyoming’s plans to proceed as an independent entity. The bill briefly was amended to establish a Wyoming naval capability, so the absurdity was complete.

During the 2013 session, a bill was introduced in the Senate to establish a voter ID law in Wyoming, to foil voter impersonations at the polls. Except that  this isn’t a problem in Wyoming. But one of the sponsors said he wanted to “send a message,” as if that was good enough reason to consume legislative time and money and perhaps clutter up Wyoming statutes with pointless restrictions. Oh, yes, and it also would suppress voting. The bill had several flaws, which dampened legislators’ enthusiasm to rewrite the bill in committee, but the idea was referred to interim work.

In the final hours of the 2013 session, a ridiculous gun-related amendment was appended to a very serious and necessary bill and almost killed the bill. But it had a message, so it was okay. A committee was urged to approve a bill because, while it really didn’t do anything, it gave Wyoming a good grade on a particular “report card.” That bill is now law.

Some “message” bills and amendments are ridiculous over-reaching. Some are silly and a waste of time and paper. Some are bad. They surely are wasteful, and in most Wyoming legislative sessions, there is no spare time and staff. 

I ask legislators to find better ways to scold, to exhort, to excoriate, to pontificate, to curry favor, to polish “credentials” with this or that interest group. Legislation is for real response to a serious need. Do you really need a section in Wyoming Statutes?  Write a letter, buy an advertisement, have a town meeting, get a soap box, get a Facebook page, start a newsletter.

This is the Legislature, not a message service. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The public's right to know. But not right now.

On the same day the Wyoming House gave final approval to two bills that will provide more access to public documents and meetings for Wyoming citizens, the representatives took their business behind closed doors. In an unusual move, everyone present in the House of Representatives, Republicans and Democrats, left the House floor and crowded into a meeting room in the Capitol for one-half hour to discuss the pros and cons of the conference report on Senate File 57 and decide how they would vote.

Once they adjourned their private meeting on March 8 and returned to the House floor, the chairman of the House Education Committee called for a vote before anyone else had a chance to speak, ensuring no discussion or explanation for the public of what their representatives were thinking.  The vote was 38-18 (with four members excused) to approve the final compromise version of the bill.

Floor discussions of conference committee reports are very informative for the public to understand the proposal and to hear questions, concerns and responses. The debate is recorded so people can listen to it on their computers later. But the House wanted none of that on this momentous and controversial bill, which will affect every public school and school district and student in Wyoming for decades to come. The Wyoming Accountability in Education Act lays out a framework of data-gathering to track the achievement, growth and readiness for every student and school in the state.   

The stage was set by a rancorous conference committee meeting of three senators and three representatives. They worked out a compromise on the Senate and House versions of Senate File 57 – Education Accountability. Legislators, an advisory group of educators, legislative staff and an excellent consultant had labored a year on the accountability plan, but there remained differences of opinion on the manner of testing that should be used.

Those differences came out in the bills approved separately by the House and Senate, and they emerged in the conference committee meeting. One member, a freshman senator, was particularly aggressive, even abrasive, and seemed to focus on scoring points for the Senate. At the end of six hours of negotiation, all six seemed satisfied with the compromise, and all six signed the report.

Perhaps “buyer’s remorse” set in for the House conference committee members, as they reviewed the tough negotiations and their concessions. Something prompted the call for a secret House meeting to discuss the deal.

Twenty-four hours before adjournment of the 2012 legislative session, the House could have rejected the compromise report and tried for a new conference committee meeting and a new compromise and a new vote in the House and Senate on the compromise. The stakes were high. Was there enough time for another conference committee? Would rejection of the report kill the proposal? This is drama and brinksmanship in the State Capitol, for those who follow such things.

What to do, what to do...  It’s fine if House members want to close discussions of political strategizing versus the Senate – but not when they are weighing the final form of an extensive accountability system for Wyoming school children. When House leadership called everyone to caucus in Room 302, there was no noticeable protest. They returned to their seats 30 minutes later and the conference report was moved and the final vote was called immediately.

It was an unfortunate disregard for the people of Wyoming and their ability to follow public business conducted in their name.

During debate on the public documents bill (Senate File 25) and the open meetings bill (SF27), someone always spoke about the difficulty of insisting on “sunshine” laws for other governmental entities while the Legislature exempted itself from those same laws. However, when the topic comes up, many legislators will cite their need to work freely without public scrutiny and public record. The same reason is given for resisting universal roll-call votes.

The Wyoming Legislature has exempted itself from public document and open meeting laws. To their credit, legislators have voluntarily done a pretty good job to give public notice for meetings and to make legislative documents available to the public.

Changes made by the 2012 Legislature to our public documents and open meetings laws were good ones. They better define public meetings, require notice for special meetings and require certain responses to document requests.

But the Legislature itself remains exempt. The events of March 8 are a reminder that making openness in government voluntary is problematic, and it can leave the public right out of public affairs.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Leave Your Gun and Your Rude Behavior Outside

Decorum n. 1. Propriety and good taste in behavior, dress, etc. 2. An act or requirement of polite behavior (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed.)

The rough and tumble world of advocacy elsewhere burst onto the Wyoming legislative scene last winter. In preparing for the 2012 session, lawmakers are instituting rules they hope will preserve our friendly open citizen Legislature but regulate some of the most objectionable behavior.

Legislator and public behavior could get rowdy in territorial and early statehood days, but in recent decades a generally accepted courtesy and deference has been the norm. Legislators in Wyoming are unused to intimidation outside the caucus meetings,and the deliberative and mannered world of the Wyoming State House was disrupted in 2011. Some legislators, caught off guard, succumbed to the aggressive methods.  

Legislators have their own rules for decorum. Now for the 2012 session, we have rules to guide decorous behavior by the public in the galleries, committee rooms and lobbies of the State Capitol. Some rules are common sense and courtesy and only the most obnoxious behavior will be affected. Others could impinge on normal, reasonable behavior, so we rely on the good judgment of the enforcers.

For Instance:

One of the most objectionable behaviors of 2011was the use of still and video cameras -- flourished in committee meetings, positioned to obstruct traffic and extended over the gallery glass to record documents on legislators’ desks. No one can hold recording equipment (or anything else) over the glass barrier in the gallery, and otherwise recording is allowed if it is not obstructive or disruptive. People who want to record committee meetings should check first with the chairman.

People in the galleries must be quiet and still and refrain from trying to communicate “visually or audibly” with anyone on the Senate or House floor. This is in response to the dramatic gesticulating in the galleries last session, which was distracting to legislators and also to the clerks as they counted heads for the “division” votes.

In the lobbies, demonstrations, signs, banners, placards and other display materials are prohibited. “Individuals in the lobby may not react to debate or voting on the floor in any way to signal approval or disapproval of floor action.” Now, that’s a tough one. A raised eyebrow, smile or discreet fist bump are okay, I’m sure. But when will the door man (they are always men) intervene?

I hope legislators remember they always can exert their own will on people who get too pushy. They can declare their position and then stand by it at election time. We cannot insulate them from public importuning or the implied threat of “we’re watching you, so be careful.” Committee chairmen have always been able to enforce their own rules to preserve decorum.

On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to say Wyoming folks know rude behavior when they see it and we don’t have to put up with it. The Legislative Service Office reviewed rules of other legislative bodies, and the Wyoming rules of decorum represent a middle ground, according to Sen. Tony Ross.

I guess these rules will give the House and Senate staff the authority to squelch the most disruptive behavior. We rely on the judgment of staff to know when behavior crosses that line from proper comment to prohibited disruption and contumely.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Teaching a Culture That Does Not Tolerate Abuse

A recent survey of Wyoming school children reveals more than half of middle-schoolers say they’ve been bullied at school, and a fifth of high school students say they’ve been bullied in the past year.

Everyone decries this problem, and there are programs to reform the bully and help the victims resist the abuse or deal with the mental and physical injuries. We seem to overlook a strategy that could do as much – maybe even more – and that focuses on all the rest of the children. That is to teach our children to speak up when someone is being bullied, to say picking on a classmate is wrong.

Recall the Edmund Burke quotation about the victory of evil when good people do nothing. This is something like that. A bully shouldn’t get the reinforcement of admiration or terror from his or her peers. There may be many motivations to bully, but at least take away the power over others, and the victims know they are not alone. We should be teaching our children from an early age to speak up when they see someone being abused.

It’s not okay to look the other way or remain silent while someone is hammering someone else, in person, via social media, physically, verbally, whatever. That is a lesson we sure could use today by adults in cases of all kinds of abuse. How many people at Penn State looked the other way while young boys were abused by a popular assistant football coach? I heard a professional hockey player on the news say he was sexually abused by a youth coach for several years, and he wondered why so many adults surely suspected something was going on but did nothing.

We don’t want adult bystanders?  Let’s teach the lesson to our children right now, from an early age. This is not just a school project. I know we are asking a lot of them to speak out against bullying. I’m talking about changing the culture of the school yard, so speaking up is the norm, not the courageous act of a solitary child. But let’s promote the idea of the brave individual, too.   

Last year, columnist Dan Savage started the “It Gets Better Project” to tell gay teenagers whose lives are made miserable by bullies that their lives improve later on. I propose that the culture of American high schools is to treat all classmates with tolerance. Now. Not later.

I attended 11th grade in a Montgomery, Ala., high school in 1966, just two years after it was forced to admit African-American students. Things were quiet but tense. My father was in the Air Force, and we all knew we would be leaving in one year. It was easy to let the racial slurs in classroom conversations go by. I regret to this day that I didn’t say something – not because I would have changed anything, but my silence was tacit approval.

In Wyoming, we have the ethos of minding our own business, which is good. But we have the equally important Wyoming value of helping our neighbors.

Of course, part of this culture of speaking up involves teaching our children to know the difference between teasing and flat-out bullying and not to overreact to every comment. But kids should learn when they themselves or anyone else is crossing the line from teasing into cruelty. (Think about the cases of hazing that turn fatal.) Kids and adults who are bullied can turn around and be mean to someone else. Instead of focusing on labeling students “bully” and “victim,” help them all create an environment of mutual respect and concern when someone is being abused.

We should know abuse when we see it – as children and as adults – and say, “Stop.”  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Legislative races should be crucible, not a cakewalk

I just read a column describing this long, sometimes brutal battle for the GOP presidential nomination, saying it’s good for the candidates and good for the electorate. It’s like a crucible that fires strong candidates, burns up weak ones and reveals all to the public.

And that’s what is sadly missing from too many legislative races in Wyoming. Each election, scores of races are decided in a primary or don’t need deciding at all, because only one person files for a seat. Each election, all 60 House seats and half the Senate seats, 15, are on the ballot. We electors are the losers in having such paltry choices.

No one is served by an uncontested or lop-sided election. Not the voters, obviously. But the candidates lose out, as well. The candidate who gets a free or near-free pass misses out on that crucible, untested by the fire and scrutiny of debate. The candidate doesn’t have to deal with an opponent’s challenges and hard questioning and may not even have to take a stand on tough issues. (Why alienate any voters if you don’t have to, you know what I mean?)

But the worst part comes when the unchallenged candidates take their seats in the Legislature, filled with a moral certitude and rectitude that makes for a stiff, uncompromising neck. In their eyes, they come with an unquestioned mandate, and they aren’t inclined to listen to and understand other viewpoints. Some come with a mission and a set of blinders, and they go home after 40 days just as clueless as when they arrived. Constituents rarely hear from them between elections, and the lawmakers would prefer not to be bothered by constituents, either.

Usually, legislators learn after a couple of terms that the unyielding, categorical style of representation doesn’t work. (Usually, but not always.)

Some legislators understand the importance of understanding right from the first day, including some who ran without a challenge. But, when you have a challenge, you have to listen.

Why do we have so many unchallenged races? One reason is the hard work of diligent legislative service. It’s a huge commitment of time away from work and family during the sessions and in the interim. Not many people can swing that. There’s also the cost of running – about $8,000 for a House race and $12,000 for a Senate race – and devoting a summer of knocking on doors. Another reason, I suspect, is the general lack of citizen awareness of what the Legislature is and the significance of service. That’s the fault of an uninformed electorate that substitutes yard signs for real information-gathering.

Some people are inclined to blame our single-member legislative districts, which encourage head-to-head competition and have residency requirements. Back before the 1992 redistricting, Laramie County was one at-large district. Imagine dozens of people running in a pack for the county’s  nine House and five Senate seats. It was hard to know much more than the names of candidates in that race. I don’t remember vigorous debates.

Single-member districts make for more accountable representation of a defined constituent area. But we need candidates who will oppose each other in primaries and general elections and challenge each other to be excellent candidates and then excellent legislators. We need a crucible, not a cakewalk. I’m not sure how we get that. It’s a shame that we don’t.