Friday, March 21, 2008

Bill-jacked

In the You Saw This Coming From a Mile Away Dept.: News outlets around the country ran a story the other day about the fact that a federal judge in Illinois is on the verge of expanding the pending lawsuit regarding the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act (aka, the 'Moment of Silence' law) into a bilateral class action.

What that means in simple terms is that the pending suit filed on behalf of one student against one school district will now include all Illinois public school students as plaintiffs and all Illinois school districts as defendants.

In the interest of brevity, I'm not going to delve into all of the underlying arguments about the law, but rather, try to point out that this tremendous waste of resources could be easily avoided but for a move that really undercuts the integrity of our legislative process.

In sum, last year Sen. Kimberly Lightford introduced a bill that amended a law that permitted schools to start each day with a moment of silence, (a law that itself was unnecessary, but one that nobody on either side took issue with during the entire time that it was on the books), and made it mandatory. Amazingly, not only did the bill pass both chambers, enough legislators in both chambers even voted to override the Governor's subsequent veto of the bill. (And in case you're wondering, I voted against the bill and against the override.)

Before session reconvened, I filed HB4180, which would fix a number of deficiencies in the law. I believed that enough of my colleagues, having heard from school superintendents, teachers, parents, the media, and now cognizant of the lawsuit, would understand that, despite having had what may have been good intentions, they had passed a very untenable, unnecessary and unworkable law.

The committee debate was a thorough and good one, and on March 4, HB4180 passed the full House by a vote of 72-31-6. What is notable about the vote is that over 30 legislators who had supported the current law viewed HB4180 as a better alternative and voted for it. The intention had been that Sen. Jeff Schoenberg would be the Senate sponsor and that we could continue to advance the legislation.

So it seemed that everything was on track for the Legislature to fix the situation and moot the pending lawsuit, right? Nope.

Without my knowledge, on the same day that my bill passed out of committee, Sen. Lightford filed a slip with the Senate secretary to take sponsorship of the bill if and when it got to the Senate. By so doing, she now has control of moving and/or amending the bill.

In fact, Sen. Lightford has recently stated her intentions to amend the bill to take the word 'prayer' out and substitute it with 'meditation' and to set the moment of silence at 60 seconds. Not 61, not 59, 60. Most importantly, she also plans to amend the bill to remove the permissive language and keep the law as a mandatory one. This despite the fact that there are not even penalties for violating the law.

In sum, she has amazingly found a way to take a bad law and make it potentially more inane. Worse yet, she is arrogantly depriving her Senate colleagues the same opportunity that House members had, namely to rectify a vote that they may wish they had not cast in the first place.

Had Sen. Lightford attempted to make these changes by filing her own bill, that would have obviously been her prerogative. But to try to do it in the manner that she is egregiously violates an inherent trust between colleagues and creates an environment of distrust where treachery reigns over process.

I spoke in person with Sen. Lightford about the situation last week, and told her that while I had no personal animus toward her, I truly had no respect for what she had done. I also asked her to do the honorable thing and relinquish the bill to a sponsor of my choosing. I received no response (which speaks volumes in and of itself).

What will happen now is that even if she is able to pass her bill, there is zero chance that I will call it for concurrence when it returns to the House. In that scenario, as she is well aware, the bill dies and the present law stays on the books.

Which brings us full circle to the pending court case. The expansion of the lawsuit to cover every school district as a defendant means that at a time when everybody talks about wanting to increase education funding, dollars that should be going into classrooms will instead be going into courtrooms. All because one legislator gave more importance to her personal agenda than to the will of the Legislature.

When the Governor took the same approach last year, the General Assembly wound up in a record-long session costing taxpayers millions of dollars. It wasn't right then, and it isn't right now.


None of the recent events have been lost on Judge Gettleman, the federal judge overseeing the pending lawsuit:
"I was hoping, frankly, this was further along in the legislative process," the judge said at Wednesday's hearing. "I was hoping we'd avoid spending resources on all sides."
So did I Judge. So did a lot of us.


Note: I am out of town right now, so I may be a little slow in posting comments and/or replies.


3 Comments:

At March 21, 2008 at 4:44 PM, Blogger Yellow Dog Democrat said...

One of the truest tests of leadership is admitting that you were wrong, that you made a mistake.

Or, to paraphrase what State Rep. Jim Sacia once said on the House floor: "If you can't change your mind, I guess it means you don't have one."

Usually, its Republicans that I fault for their overzealousness. Like their failure to acknowledge that things aren't really going so well in Iraq.

Lately, its a problem that's crept into the Democratic Party in Illinois as well. Exhibit One: Rod Blagojevich.

If there is a sunny side to this case, lets hope that whether this legislation goes through the Senate Civil Law Committee or Education, Senators exercise some common sense and implore Sen. Lightford not to amend the bill.

 
At March 21, 2008 at 5:20 PM, Anonymous DuPage Saint said...

The time spent on this ridiculous bill and the arcane rules used to pass it just show the crying need for a constitutional convention. Maybe a unicameral house, elect a governor who appoints cabinet officers such as secretary of state, treasure etc. And have recall and referenda

 
At March 26, 2008 at 11:11 AM, Blogger Vegas Kid said...

Using every bill that happens to be a little messy as an excuse for a Con-Con is short sighted and ignores the fact that government is dysfunctional not the Constitution. Politicians that are using the Con-Con debate to vent their frustrations about the current situation are not seeing the forrest for the trees. If you have a problem with how things are done tell your leadership, overthrow your leadership - LEAD!

 

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