Sunday, April 10, 2011


My Day At The Statehouse

On Wednesday I went to the Statehouse to testify against the "school choice" Voucher Bill (HB 1003), which will take tax money away from all Public Education in Indiana and allow some parents (statewide) to use those tax dollars to supplement their child's tuition at a private school. There is no restriction to prevent parents from using this tax money to send their children to religious or theological schools. When I first learned of this I was shocked that our State Legislature would even consider a bill that clearly violates the separation of Church and State. I was angered that they would consider a bill that would take my tax money away from the schools in my community and give it to private, most likely religious, schools. And I was livid that they were wasting more of my tax money on hearings about a bill that takes money away from the many and gives it to the few!

At the time, the bill was still in the Indiana House of Representative's. I sent an email to every Republican member of the House. I didn't send it to the democrats because they are in the minority and it took A LOT OF TIME to email all of the Republicans. I attached a "read request" to my emails. That night I received automated responses from every Representative's office that my email had been received and that it would be read. Within the week I received notifications (because of the "read request") from over half of the House Republicans that my email had been deleted without ever being opened! The only response that I received was from the Speaker of the House, Rep. Bosma, which thanked me for my email and then proceeded to tell me all of the reasons why he supports the bill without ever addressing my concern about my taxes being taken away from my community schools. This enraged me even further, as he was not elected to tell me why he supports anything; his job is to listen to, and represent, The People.

Because of the cavalier treatment I received from the House Republicans, I decided to testify in opposition of the bill in person at the Senate Education and Career Development Committee's one and only public hearing on the bill. There are seven Republicans and three Democrats on the Committee. The hearing was set for 1:30pm. Wanting to secure a good seat, I arrived early at 11am. I chose to walk, rather than use the wheelchair, and the first thing I noticed as I arrived at the basement entrance to the Statehouse (which is the only accessible entrance) was a large (two to three car length) dumpster sitting in the middle of the accessible parking lane. (Dad dropped me off, so it didn't cause a problem for me, but what kind of message does that send to people with disabilities who want to speak in person with their State Legislators?) I should have recognized it for the omen that it was...

Filled with anticipation, I found my way through the Statehouse to the room where the hearing would be held. After a while I met up with two people from my church who were there to oppose the same issue. We secured seats in the front row and went about our own business until the hearing began. The Committee quickly ran through business on a series of other bills and then the public hearing on HB 1003 began. The Chairman of the Committee stated that each side (Support and Opposition) would have one hour, not including question and answer periods, for all testimony to be presented. Dr. Bennet, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, was the first to testify in support of the bill. (Take a second to scratch your head over the fact that the State Superintendent of Public Instruction supports a bill that takes funding away from Public Education.) I listened to all of his testimony and was shocked to hear him say that "Public Education can't help every child". When questioned on the Constitutionality of the bill, he said that he had a "Constitutional Expert" who would speak on that later. When Dr. Bennet was done he left the room, clearly not interested in hearing what anyone else had to say. I can't remember the rest of his testimony, only that it didn't make any sense, and that the taste of vomit in my mouth stayed with me for the rest of the hearing.

The next person to speak was Rep. Behning, who authored the bill in the House of Representative's. Mostly he answered questions about the way the money works and what restrictions are in place for families to qualify for the vouchers. Two disturbing things came up during the discussion. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when Senator Leising told him that families in her area, who have already made the decision to send their children to Catholic School, are upset that they are not eligible for the Vouchers. (Although this statement did confirm for me that school choice already exists, it concerns me about what future amendments to this legislation, if it becomes law, would bring.) Then my skin began to crawl when Senator Leising began asking about how much money this voucher bill would save the State. (The vouchers will only be for a percentage of the tax money/per student that would normally go to a public school attended by that child. What percentage the parents receive to use for their student's tuition at a private school is determined by the parents income level.) The State has absolutely no business saving tax money that is supposed to be spent on the education of our children!

I listened to all of the supporters and I watched each of the Senators throughout the testimony. I was pleased to see them listening intently, occasionally communicating with an aide, but for the most part being mentally and physically present for the person speaking. There were some parents who came to talk about how their child was failing in public education and that they had received scholarship money to send their child to private school, where the child is now flourishing. (Further proof that school choice already exists without diverting our tax money.) The "Constitutional Expert" who stated that he was not, in fact, an expert but was an attorney, informed the committee that the issue of constitutionality had been ruled on by a US Supreme Court judge when looking at another States voucher bill. The ruling was that because the State was giving the voucher for the tax money to the parent, and it was the parents choice to give it to a religious institution, no violation of the Constitutions establishment of separation of Church and State existed. Representatives from the Archdiocese of Indiana and from a Christian School group both spoke and asked for leniency in regards to an amendment to HB 1003 which requires any school receiving tax voucher money to be ADA compliant. (You see, as a result of Separation of Church and State, religious institutions are not required to comply with the ADA unless they receive federal funding, which is why many churches and religious schools are not ADA compliant.) The representative from the Christian Schools actually asked for that amendment to be removed. (If I had hackles, they would have been raised.) If they pass this bill without that amendment, the system itself will be set up to allow institutions that are physically inaccessible to discriminate against children with disabilities!

The supporters hour of testimony, which began at 2:00pm, wrapped up at about 5:00pm with all supporters having testified. The Chair of the committee reminded us that the opposition had one hour, not including Q&A, informed us that there were more people testifying in opposition of the bill, and called the first person. The opposition was made up of attorneys, teachers, educators, parents, and me. I wasn't the only person present who was upset about our tax dollars being removed from the public schools. The point was clearly made that this bill does absolutely nothing to improve education for children statewide. The point was also made, by many, that our State Constitution clearly states "no money shall be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." Which is far more specific wording that the language in the US Constitution, and makes the US Supreme Court's ruling pointless in Indiana.

As the opposition testified, I watched the Senators on the Committee as I had before. During the first person's testimony, two of the Republican Senators left the room, never to return. Throughout of the testimony of the first three in opposition of the bill several Senators began looking at cell phones and looking through files they had with them. While the third person was testifying, the Chair of the committee, Sen. Kruse, was flipping through a small book. After the first three were done the Chair of the committee took a moment to remind us that we only had an hour and informed us that the first three had taken up 26 minutes. (There were no statements like this during the supporters testimony.) Senator Kruse called my name to testify...

As I was getting up from the chair I asked if I could ask a question (I know, it's redundant) and he said yes. I asked if Dr. Bennet's testimony and Rep. Behning's testimony had been deducted from the hour that the supporters had to present. Sen. Kruse informed me that Dr. Bennet's had, and that Rep. Behning's had not. I told him that I didn't feel that it was very fair for the opposition to sit through all of the supporters testimony, including Rep. Behning's, and not be given extra time. Before he could respond I told them who I was, that I was not an educator or a parent, described how my attempts at communication had been treated by the House Republicans, and then proceeded to talk about why I opposed the bill. I told them that I was not willing to pay for someone else's kid to go to private school. I spoke about how they have no right to take my tax money away from my community and the fact that I've already watched one school in my neighborhood close. I spoke about what kind of impact school closings can have on property values. As I spoke I got angrier and angrier.

I began to lecture them sternly about how perception is reality and about what I had witnessed as I watched them "listen" to both sides. (As I spoke, the volume of my voice grew louder.) I pointed to the empty chairs and pointed to each Senator who had diverted their attention as the opposition spoke, telling them what I had watched them do when they were supposed to be listening to the people testifying. (I began to shake.) I reminded them that they work for the taxpayers and voters and told them that the perception created by their counterparts in the house, and their behavior that day, was that they are not interested in what the people have to say; that it was clear to me that they were voting based on the direction of their political party and our Governor. (My face became red and I'm pretty sure at least one vein started to pop out of my forehead.) I told them that regardless of a Supreme Court Judge's ruling the people's perception of the Constitution, both Constitutions, was that it ensured Separation of Church and State and that the bill should have been thrown out the day it was introduced in the House for being unconstitutional. (A little spit escaped as I spoke with more force.) I told them that I was appalled at the performance of our entire State Legislature and fed up with hearings about unconstitutional bills that do nothing to improve this State for all people and ended it by yelling "STOP WASTING MY TAX DOLLARS!"

One Senator applauded my bravery, and then Senator Buck (a sponsor of the bill) stated that as a tax payer I am one of their bosses and that as their boss I should have the decency to ask them questions about what they are doing before I establish a perception that "could cause me to lose my grip on reality". He then said that none of them were being told how to vote by the Republican Party or Governor Daniels. I was about to challenge this, what I wanted to say was "we both know that the Governor and the Republican Party want to see this bill go through, and that the republican party helps fund your political campaigns, so don't pretend that your not under any pressure", but then one of the Senators who had left the room earlier returned to his seat. The Chair of the Committee asked him to tell me where he had been. He looked rather stunned and told me that he had to go work on an issue that had to do with the Budget, and that it had to happen right then. A red light went off in my head, but I was so upset that the thought didn't form. I should have told him that the State Budget should have been finished by now and asked how he felt about the fact that a hearing on an unconstitutional bill was keeping him from finishing it. Instead I told them that the point I was trying to make was that a hearing about a bill that is unconstitutional is a waste of tax payer time and money and that they need to vote this bill down. I walked away, shaken and disturbed that I had lost control in such a public way. As I sat down one person asked where I was from, and another leaned over to tell me that they didn't think it had hurt our efforts to oppose the bill. The testimony continued.

When the person who testified after me was finished, Sen. Kruse announced that our time was up, but that there were still seven people on the list to testify, so he would stay to hear them and invited the other Senators to stay or leave as they wished. All Senators stayed to hear the remaining testimony. As I was leaving the Statehouse two people told me that I had done a good job. I felt like I had come across like a stark raving lunatic, but at least they decided to give the rest of the opposition a chance to speak, and appeared to pay attention to them.

For the last four days this experience has been running through my mind, all the things I should have said. I wish I had told them that if I wanted to donate to a private school I would, but that they have no right to make that choice for me by giving them my tax money; that it is up to The People to decide and that if they want to change the constitution to allow this use of tax money then they have to let us make the decision through a referendum. I wish I had told them to ask for Dr. Bennet's immediate resignation, as his testimony proved that his heart is not in Public Instruction, and that he should be releived of his role as State Superintendent of Public Instruction so that he could pursure his real interests. I wish I had handed a copy of the Indiana Constitution to Senator Kruse, or maybe Senator Buck, and asked one of them to read out loud the section of the constitution that says "no money shall be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious or theological institution." I then would have asked them to tell me what the spirit of those words meant. What the author of the constitution, and those who signed it, were trying to protect. During Doctor Bennet's testimony Senator Rogers asked "is this a road we should go down?" I should have looked at her, told her how important that question was, and then told her that to find the answer all she needed to do was look at our State Constitution. The Indiana Constitution tells us that it's a road we shouldn't even be on. If they vote to pass this bill then it proves that our State Legislature no longer works for The People.

The Senate Education and Career Development Committee will vote on this bill early next week. Regardless of the political party you affiliate yourself with, if you believe that your tax dollars should stay within your community schools, if you believe that separation of church and state was written into both Constitutions for a reason, if you believe that the spirit of our Constitution should be upheld, if you believe that Legislators should not use loop holes do do what they want with our tax dollars, then please contact your State Senators and every member of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee before Wednesday 4/13/11 (that's this Wednesday). If this passes through the committee to the general assembly, please contact every Senator to inform that that if they vote to violate the Indiana Constitution without first changing the Constitution through a public referendum, then they prove that the Indiana Legislature no longer works for The People and that they have failed in the job they were elected to do.

I could get into an unbelievable rant, (and will, anytime you want me to- check out, by the way, the use of federal tax dollars on just two counties in southern Indiana on "Anti-Obesity Grants)." To get really pissed, look at how much dough was shelled out on anti-obesity grants nationwide. Talk about waste of taxpayer dollars. But, to them, it's not real money, in the slightest, at all.
Thank you for caring about this issue, and, for calling legislators to task about it. I concur that taking money away from taxpayers for any private school is absolutely wrong. If they wanna have a fundraiser? Have at it. But don't use my taxdollars. And God Bless you for caring about and being so angry about an issue that you are literally trembling with rage. I've listened to Bennet on Abdul (talk radio). He sounds like a phony.
Here's what happens: Local (City-County Government Officials- modestly and more immediately accountable for use of public money). State Officials- way more detached and way less personally accountable for the use of your money. Federal Officials-Forget about it. They are absolutely disconnected from reality, and, essentially absolutely unaccountable and I think that most of them believe that none of it is real money whatsoever.
I'm stopping myself at this time before I get carried away. Matt
What a great day that must have been. I truly wish I had been there. I imagine it is a rare day that a "commoner" calls it as it appears to the general public and mirrors the politico's behavior to them. Perhaps you have found your true calling. I am confident that in public service you would act exclusively for the good of the people. I am extremely proud of your observations and your so thorough exposure to the assembly. Thanks for the record length post on your blog ...... eight printed pages.... WOW!!!

Jeremy = Matt's hero.
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