Thursday, March 26, 2009

Should Senator Bramble apologize?

I recently got the full scoop on Senator Bramble's bill (SB199) that originally included language that would make it impossible for school staff and administration to work in a cooperative manner with any PTA group ever again. It would have been the first bill of its kind in the entire nation, but the bill ultimately failed. However, before it bit the dust the bill's sponsors, Senator Bramble and Representative Lockhart, were afforded many opportunities to prove why the public have been screaming "ethics reform" at the top of their lungs.

The premise of the bill was based on lies, falsehoods and a misrepresentation of the facts. It amounted to a smear campaign.

  • The title of the bill, "Equal Recognition of School Parent Groups", contradicted entirely the original language that "A school may in conjunction with a parent group that requires the payment of dues as a condition for participation in its group, including participation in volunteer opportunities, leadership positions, or the ability to vote." This verbiage was artfully crafted to specifically target the PTA, although it would have some unintended consequences for a few other organizations, as well. The original bill would have restricted all access to the largest parent group in Utah, thus effectively taking the "equal recognition" right out of the title.

  • The citizen sponsor of the bill, Dawn Frandsen, testified in the Senate Education Committee that there were major problems in her school district with fairness by administrators to include Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO) along with Parent Teacher Associations (PTA). She testified that preferential treatment was given to the PTA groups. This testimony was finally refuted by the District Superintendent via an email to legislators. The email claims that Ms. Frandsen never tried to work out this issue of fairness on a district level. Senator Bramble worked off the same assumption and made it public when he uncircled the bill on the Senate floor to ask for a vote to pass it out to the House (5:00). In my mind Senator Bramble owes Superintendent Merrill an apology.

  • Email from Supt. Merrill to Sen. Bramble

  • Bramble introduced the bill by saying (5:16), "Dawn Frandsen is really the genesis and it was her experience that has brought this issue to the forefront. This was done at her request." Ms. Frandsen started her testimony by catching everyone up on the basis for the bill (read "upset with the PTA"). She said that when the PTA at her school tried to become a PTO the Utah PTA made it very difficult for her and other parents to become a PTO they were (7:20) "threatened and told that they would be excluded from district privileges". Keep in mind that these are alleged threats by the PTA folks, not the district. Since when does the PTA decide what level of involvement parents have with a school district? If Ms. Frandsen really believed the threats, why didn't she take it up with the district? She later explains in her testimony that in a September 2008 district school board meeting there were discussions that there might be budget cuts that need to be made. Some board members suggested that they get input from the PTA. Frandsen explains, "The woman sitting next to me leaned over to me and asked "why they don't ask the PTOs", and I said, "Oh, they won't. They never have." Frandsen said that a "high ranking cabinet member" happened to be walking by and standing next to us and the woman sitting next to her said to him, "Why don't you ask the PTOs" and his response to her was, "We do not work with the PTOs". (8:30) I immediately began to question why she took one "high ranking cabinet member" at his word and didn't choose to pursue it further if she thought it was such a problem. Why didn't she talk to the Superintendent about the problem? If that's not enough, Frandsen goes on to talk about her problems with the PTA, not her problems with the districts not giving equal access to all parents. She elaborates on problems other parents in other districts (that she "personally talked to") had WITH THE PTA. The bill doesn't address equal access to the PTA. The bill doesn't address making it easier for a PTA to split off and become a PTO. But these are the types of examples that she included in her testimony, which clearly demonstrate that her beef is not with the districts at all, rather the PTA. This will go down in history as the biggest "I'll show you" move from a single parent. The fact that a lawmaker didn't see through this further demonstrates that they had some motive of their own to shut down the PTA.

  • Just as Senator Bramble didn't bother to check up on Frandsen's motive for bringing the bill forward, he also didn't bother to follow up on the validity of an email he received from a grandparent alleging that her granddaughter was not allowed to run for Student Body Office because her mother was not a member of the PTA and hadn't paid PTA dues. He cites the email as a basis for the law to pass out of the Senate when he uses it as yet another example of why a bill like this is needed (4:00). The principal of the school wrote a letter to Senator Bramble explaining that the basis of the email was completely false. However, no attempt was made to set the record straight, no apology...instead, an angry phone call by the Senator and a subsequent hang-up of the phone when the conversation didn't go his way. Sounds all too familiar. Before the angry phone call he had warmed up by ripping into a representative of the PTA outside the doors of the House of Representatives after he became frustrated with the PTA for exercising their right to do what's best for the children. The Daily Herald called it an "animated conversation" but they only saw the conversation. Had they actually heard it they would have used the words "butt-chewing". When Bramble and Lockhart were through with the butt-chewing Bramble must have realized that he did another stupid thing and said as much by huffing, "I'm sure I'll see this in Paul Rolly tomorrow, too!" I'm no Paul Rolly, but I'm sure plenty of people will read this. What he did was despicable. He threatened, he belittled, he tried to silence the PTA once and for all. He said that a PTA lobbyist would need a signed affidavit from the PTA Board when testifying before a committee or else they wouldn't be allowed to testify ever again. He tried to influence their decision by use of guilt, telling them that they could never be trusted again. Trust issues, indeed! But they lie with our legislators who continue to bully, but this time they don't even bother to keep it in house. Unethical behavior at it's best!

    FW Student Officers at Spring Creek Middle School

Perhaps it's occurred to you as you've read about the disheartening actions of abusive legislators that there is an obvious connection between the PTA's involvement in the education coalition effort to squash vouchers and the actions of policymakers whose unethical behavior is standing in the way of progress for Utah's public schools. It couldn't really be a coincidence, could it? Bramble has already refuted the connection, but isn't it interesting that the same legislators and organizations that stood on opposite sides of the voucher issue also stood on opposite sides of the anti-PTA bill?

I would encourage more people to get involved as it would seem that our politics are being taken over by overly zealous individuals on the far left and the far right. With that kind of framing of our laws and policies, it's really quite amazing that we're not worse off than we are. We need reasonable people out there making their voices heard and working to control the insanity, so I invite you to get involved!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Are pigs really flying, or are legislators just lying?

I had high hopes coming into the 2009 Legislative Session. I had hoped that something would be done about ethics reform this year. Finally, not only was the public ready (this year more than ever), but it seemed legislators were ready, too. Several complaints were brought forward just months earlier. These ethics complaints clearly demonstrated that legislators were unable to govern themselves when it came to following through on any action that might be brought against one of their own. Most agreed that they needed to fix it and many vowed to do just that.

In January of 2007, a Deseret News writer suggested that Utah would ban lobbyists' gifts "when pigs fly". When a few bills made it to the House Ethics Committee for consideration the committee members took the opportunity to blame the media for the public's "misperception" of ethics on the hill, claiming that they only know what the media tells them and often the media isn't giving them the entire picture. During discussion of HB 213 Ban on Gifts to Legislators they felt comfortable enough to joke that they had seen pigs flying above the capitol that morning and the Deseret News reporter was even in the room. At the end of the session, Speaker Clark was presented with a pig made out of wood - wings and all! The funny thing is, HB 213 was stalled in rules committee just as we suspected and it FAILED! How could they possibly have taken credit for flying pigs when there is no ban on gifts to Legislators?

Of the 21 ethics reform bills that were filed, only 5 of them were sent to the Governor for his signature. The Utah State Legislature website breaks it all down for us, but let me fill you in on some details.

HB 346 Campaign and Financial Reporting Requirements Amendments

You might find it interesting to know that HB 346, Campaign and Financial Reporting Requirements Amendments, originally required contributions and public service assistance to be reported within 5 days of the day on which they were received. The main purpose of this bill was to increase the speed of reporting requirements, thus making it more difficult for legislators to report donations after they had already been elected. It passed out of the House Ethics Committee with a favorable recommendation and then out of the House with a unanimous vote with original language. On the Senate floor the bill was substituted, meaning that changes were made to it, specifically that the 5 day reporting requirement was changed to 30 days. The bill was substituted yet again (on the very same day, two days before the end of the session) and under suspension of the rules it was considered read for the second and third time and a vote was taken and passed out of the Senate.

Senator Valentine made the first substitute that did the real damage. A second substitute was written up but not made public or voted on, and finally, Senator Bramble added definition language to the bill in the third and final substitute, essentially watering the bill down even more by adding more things that "Contribution" does NOT include.

When a bill undergoes that many changes after it has already passed out of the House it is necessary for the House to either "concur" or agree to the Senate amendments or take another vote. It is common practice for the House to concur on Senate Amendments and for the Senate to likewise concur with House amendments to Senate bills, especially as the session winds down to a close. What is that good for? Laws that haven't been closely scrutinized. Laws that lose their original intent. Only four representatives voted not to concur to the Senate amendments.

HJR 14 Joint Rules Resolution - Ethics Training Course Provisions

HJR 14 is the only piece of legislation that adds rules to ethics procedures and this is what concerned me the most. After all the problems the ethics committee complained about, not having the proper guidelines and guidance when it came to knowing if Greg Hughes was guilty of the complaints brought against him, I would have thought that they would try to fix their process and rules! The best they came up with is to have legislators undergo online training, but what happens the next time fellow legislators file another ethics complaint? Do the new rules requiring legislators to know what is ethical and what isn't ethical help the ethics committee with the problems they had last year?

To add to the debacle, the Senate mucked with this bill just like they did with HB 346. With only one day left in the session they amended the bill to include lobbyists! I might have thought that a great thing if it weren't for the last line of the amended bill. It states:

45a S. (6) A lobbyist who does not complete the training required by this rule is subject to an
45b ethics complaint under Senate or House rule. .S

Notice that it doesn't say "A legislator or lobbyist". I find that somewhat curious. Are legislators not subject to an ethics complaint if they fail to complete the training? Legislators are off the hook according to this new law and apparently nobody noticed.

Instead of rushing amendments through that result in sub-par law they should have been fixing their own ethics process and rules. If you've forgotten how bad it is read Bob Bernick's take after he listened to the taped testimony of Rep. Greg Hughes during the last Ethics Committee investigation. They desperately needed to make themselves some new rules but they ignored that completely. They'll certainly keep ignoring the need for an independent Ethics Commission, too. But don't worry, pigs were flying this year, right? Congratulations to everyone! Congratulations to the rules committees who did their job with flying colors just as in previous years. They held over 75% of the ethics bills that came before them. They seem to think that's their job. Take a look at some of the good bills that they failed to take action on:
And still more that didn't even get as far as the House or Senate Rules Committee:
You can read more about the lucky five here.

So there you have it. The newspapers have apparently succumbed to the pressure to quit "misrepresenting" ethics on the hill. I've only seen a couple of stories that question whether or not ethics reform happened this year. It's quite clear to me that it did not and my next post will illustrate how out-of-control things got up there this year, specifically concerning Bramble's SB 199 which I like to call the anti-PTA bill. Talk about ethics!