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.