Lawmakers go overboard defending ‘Hill Bill’— April 30, 2013
I hesitate to ask this question, because I’m pretty sure the answer is yes, but here goes: Can the fight over the authority of the Wyoming Legislature to give many of the duties of the superintendent of public instruction to a governor-appointed director of education become any wackier?
The latest episodes of the continuing Cindy Hill saga include legislative leaders in the House issuing a 32-page “white paper” claiming why their actions were necessary and, in fact, exactly what the state’s founders would want them to do, were they to suddenly pop out of their graves and review the lawmakers’ handiwork. This report was undoubtedly prompted by the Wyoming Republican Central Committee’s repudiation of what the Legislature did to Hill when it approved a resolution earlier this month to endorse repealing the new state law.
When Republican legislators who have long proven that they can do anything they want suddenly find themselves at odds with party officials, it sets up a very strange, probably no-holds barred confrontation in next year’s elections. Anything could happen, including a lot of GOP primary challenges of incumbents who voted against Hill.
Hill, who responded to the law itself by vowing to challenge Gov. Matt Mead in the GOP primary for his office in 2014, issued a bizarre response to the white paper through her attorney that essentially gave the two Republicans and one Democrat who signed the report 10 days to take it all back, or risk being sued for libel.
Hill’s attorney, Robert DiLorenzo, said, “If you want to say things about my client, have facts. Give me the facts — that’s all I want. But they don’t they have any facts.”
DiLorenzo, and by association his client, don’t seem to have even a basic understanding of libel laws. The white paper was written by House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), House Majority Whip Tim Stubson (R-Casper), and House Minority Leader Mary Throne, (D-Cheyenne), and circulated via email by Rep. Rosie Berger (R-Big Horn).
These two men and two women, like Hill, are public officials. They are under no obligation to “prove” that their claims against her are true. Criticizing public officials is protected by our free speech rights under the First Amendment — just as the superintendent has the right to blast her public official detractors with claims that she is being victimized by the state’s “good ol’ boys club.”
In reality, the authors of the white paper offer substantial evidence that Hill did ignore educational accountability measures passed by the Legislature, and bypassed state lawmakers and established her own programs.
Stubson was correct when he said that the Legislature needs to have “an important discussion about education policy and how we handle it.”
“If you can’t have those sorts of discussions without finding a letter from a lawyer in your mailbox,” he warned, “then it’s gonna cause some real challenges for us in talking about these issues going forward.”
But as much as I disagree with Hill’s predictable “I’m going to sue you or run against you” dual response to criticism about her job performance, I don’t think legislative leaders did themselves any favors by issuing a far too long, often poorly worded explanation of why they stripped her of many of her duties as the state’s top school official.
The first thing I disagree with in their analysis is the abject, ridiculous denial that they took any powers away from the superintendent. Of course they did, but instead of owning up to that fact, they would rather blame the media for how it covered the controversy over Senate File 104, which they obviously knew was going to be among the most contentious issues they would debate this year.
This is how the white paper begins: “From the outset, the discussions of SF 104 has mischaracterized the purpose of the legislation and the role of the Legislature. Headlines around the state have labeled the legislation as the ‘Hill Bill’ or worse, [and] have claimed ‘Bill Strips Superintendent of Powers.’ Both of these characterizations ignore the real purpose of the bill, which was a reorganization of the Wyoming Department of Education, an agency created, not by the [Wyoming] Constitution, but by the Legislature. … [The] fundamental distinction between the role of an agency head and the duties in the Constitution has been lost in the media hype over SF 104.”
The authors of the analysis make a good argument that the constitutional powers of the superintendent weren’t originally spelled out, and that the Legislature indeed created the Department of Education and has changed both its powers and duties and the superintendent’s many times during the past century of lawmaking. That’s really the only point they need to make in justifying their actions and/or responding to Hill’s claim that there is a vendetta against her.
But it’s silly for lawmakers to maintain that the problem is just too much media hype, or that there’s absolutely no political motivation behind the extraordinary measure of taking away many of Hill’s powers in the middle of her first term. When they employ blame-the-media tactics, they not only give the public too little credit for being able to understand what is really happening, but for many they give credence to the superintendent’s charge that they really are just out to get her.
Lubnau, Stubson and Throne didn’t do themselves any favors by using their verbatim speeches to fellow legislators to sum up their arguments. If the intent of their paper really is to explain the constitutional reasons that justify their action regarding Hill, they could have done it in a few paragraphs that were easily digestible, instead of endlessly repeating their points and making countless ill-fitting analogies, like this one by Lubnau:
“We have a broken system. It’s like, to use the good example of my friend from Hot Springs County, there’s 90 beavers, and they’re working as hard as they can, gnawing and chopping down trees, and doing everything that they can to build a wonderful dam. And they have testimony, and they chop trees down, and they dig canals, and they chop trees down, and they have debates and they chop trees down, and they try to form a legislative session. And there’s this great big politically adept super powerful great email list bear down at the bottom of the dam rearranging the logs. And they’ll stand them on end, or mess them up, or maybe go create another dam half way down the road with the logs that we laid for this dam.”
Methinks some of the beavers doth protest too much. And if they really don’t want that big, bad email list bear to undo their work or get the other critters in the forest mad at them, maybe they should just leave their defense up to their lawyers.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.
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