Opinion and Forefront

BONIFIELD: What are our politicians so afraid of?

January 21, 2012

Jake BonifieldTwo years ago this April, I sat in the state Senate gallery as a bill on net metering was being debated. The bill, a product of countless hours of research and testimony by Hoosier environmental groups, looked likely to survive a floor vote, but no one was sure. A fellow student who had also spent the past several months working on the measure sat anxiously beside me, waiting for the bill to be called. Finally, it was up.

A few speakers in, as we looked on, there was a sudden commotion on the right side of the room. Two prominent Republican leaders had spotted my colleague violating Senate rules. A state police officer was called, accompanied by a concerned senator, and my friend was removed from the gallery and interrogated. His offense? Filming debate, an action prohibited by Senate rules.

No such moratorium was in place a few weeks ago as cameras surrounded the governor’s impromptu press conference, the circumstances leading up to it resembling something you might see on a political show’s “not top 10” segment. As he reluctantly succumbed to widespread public criticism of his decision to limit protests at the Statehouse, Daniels tried to rationalize his about-face, citing safety concerns that, to-date, had not been an issue.

In light of strong opposition to the same right-to-work bill he refused to actively endorse just last year, these concerns became a top priority with the governor deciding that the 124-year-old Statehouse and its Indiana limestone couldn’t handle the weight of organized citizens.

In the end, Daniels admitted either his strategic gaffe or his ambivalence toward safety, the former being the most plausible explanation for his reversal.

It was another rule, obscure but brutally enforced, that had me incensed in the gallery. How could we, students and concerned citizens, not be allowed to film our own government? Surely there had to be a law against this. As it turns out, there is.

The Indiana Open Door Law provides in part that all public meetings must be open to the public. Litigation, most of which has concerned school board meetings, has led to rulings requiring public officials to allow non-disruptive filming of public meetings.

Speak to most legislators with even a passing knowledge of the statute and they will quickly tell you that the General Assembly is exempt from the law. A thorough reading of the statute, however, reveals otherwise.

In short, the General Assembly exempted itself from most of the law, but did not write in a similar exemption from the same rules that keep local government and school board officials from discriminating against parents and citizens in their own proceedings.

Observers should have the right to record what goes on in open debates. Bringing House and Senate rules into compliance with the text and spirit of the open door law would be an important move toward a more honest, open and accountable state government.

Even after shrugging off the misplacing of $300 million in taxpayer funds, Daniels has managed to maintain his sterling reputation as a small-government fiscal conservative. Also, seemingly few have taken notice of the fact that “small-government Republicans” in the Legislature have, with few exceptions, chosen not to take action.

Daniels and Republican legislators have been able to brush aside concerns of open government watchdogs without lasting political fallout. If sudden and overt attempts to exclude specific groups of citizens are now the moniker of small government, then Hoosiers can no longer correlate transparency with size. A small, opaque government is inevitably more dangerous than a large, accountable one.

For my $50 refund, I would like to endow a public education system worthy of every student, allow every citizen the right to protest her government, and objectively investigate how to prevent another gross mishandling of my tax dollars.

If the Senate delays the automatic refund and the governor speaks out in favor of permanent rules allowing cameras and peaceable protest at the Statehouse, we can achieve some of these priorities today.•

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Bonifield is a political science major at DePauw University and president of Hoosier Youth Advocacy, an organization focused on increasing youth participation in the Indiana General Assembly. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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