An end run in Cheyenne

Jan 11, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

The bill to strip power from the state superintendent is dangerous and premature

Some members of the Wyoming Legislature have taken a dislike to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill. There are several ways to deal with the matter, but the one they are attempting goes much too far.

Legislation is being fast-tracked toward the governor's desk that would remove management of the Wyoming Department of Education from the elected state superintendent and place it in the hands of an unelected administrator to be appointed by the governor.

This is an astounding proposal, unheard of in the annals of Wyoming government. It also is a constitutionally suspect move that ought to proceed only after painstaking contemplation and public review, if it is to proceed at all.

Instead, the principal backers of the legislation are working fervently to rush it through the legislative process, the better to spare it from the kind of sensible scrutiny that any important legislation ought to undergo, and which in this case very possibly would halt the bill in its tracks.

There are many things wrong with this bill, as well as the approach to it. Here are a few:

No need for it has been demonstrated by its proponents. An attempt to create a climate of incompetence around Hill has failed to catch on with the public. Exactly what the key legislators have against her has not been made clear enough to engage voters, nor to warrant this sudden and wholesale change in state government.

"Missing deadlines" doesn't cut it -- especially when the superintendent presents compelling evidence that she has complied with every deadline of any importance.

The bill would set a dangerous and frightening precedent for others in state office. If it were to be implemented, the Wyoming Secretary of State, the Wyoming State Auditor, the Wyoming State Treasurer, and even the governor ought to be worried. What's to stop another disgruntled handful of legislators from railroading a bill through the Capitol that would de-horn the auditor, secretary of state or governor?

Long after the small disagreements among temporary office holders have been forgotten, the impact of this short-sighted bill would remain. The weakness of politics is short-sightedness. That weakness is on full display here.

The legislation stands on shaky constitutional ground and would seem certain to embroil the state in a drawn-out courtroom challenge that likely would extend beyond the time Superintendent Hill holds office. The Superintendent of Public Instruction is a constitutionally mandated position on par with the governor and the other three state elected officials. The constitution names the superintendent as the chief education official of the state, and voters expect the superintendent to do that job.

There are as many interpretations of a constitution as there are attorneys to read it, but it won't be hard for Superintendent Hill and other opponents of this bill to find one who will see it their way and try to prove them right in court.

Above and beyond all else, this is a bureaucratic power grab that undermines our state's voters. Wyoming elected Cindy Hill in 2012. She campaigned statewide, she laid out specific plans and proposals and, as a political unknown, she defeated the incumbent superintendent in the primary election. She then won the general election handily, overcoming a bitter campaign whose elements have been continued since she took office.

Wyoming elected her to do the job that the superintendent has always been elected to do. To try to wrest the authority and responsibility from her is, in fact, to wrest it from the people who voted for her. And that, dear legislators, is a dangerous proposition -- because you must face the voters as well.

Anyone who has read editorials in this newspaper knows that the topic of an appointed state superintendent instead of an elected one has been raised in this very space. But always it was within the context of an elected Wyoming State School Board, the members of which currently are appointed, not elected.

But this new bill makes no provision for an elected state school board, either. Its passage would mean Wyoming's voters would be shut out of state education on the ballot entirely as a new layer of government bureaucracy is created to replace their voice.

The message: We voters don't know what we're doing, so our legislators have to "correct" our mistake. Again, a dangerous message to convey to the same "incompetent" voters who put you in office.

The general concept of an unelected education executive for Wyoming might have some merit, but that can be determined only through a fair, deliberative, unhurried and critical process of analysis -- complete with public input free from deadline pressure and in full view of all who want to observe.

That is precisely what is not happening this week in Cheyenne as this astonishing, overreaching, end run around the voters and the constitution is being ram-rodded through the Legislature.

Readers, contact your legislators and tell them to put on the brakes. Otherwise, the state will have been blind-sided.

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