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Superintendent bill passes; late amendment tough on Hill

Jan 27, 2013 - Staff and wire reports

After being pushed through the Wyoming Legislature at breakneck pace, a bill stripping the Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction of most administrative duties passed Friday -- complete with an amendment requiring that Superintendent Cindy Hill be removed from her office by police.

Gov. Matt Mead had ben expected to sign the bill immediately, and witnesses said a detachment of Wyoming state police had arrived at the Wyoming Department of Education to escort Hill outside. But the officers left when a photographer showed up to record the scene, witnesses said, and as of Saturday the governor had not yet signed the bill.

The legislation, spearheaded in the Senate by Sen. Hank Coe of Cody and in the House by Rep. Matt Teeters of Lingle, had become intensely controversial as it was sped through the Capitol.

Senate File 104 became the first bill to pass the Legislature, moving through the legislative process in an unusually quick 12 days. Opponents complained the measure was being fast-tracked, but supporters said no legislative rules were broken or suspended.

On Friday, the bill, which was first proposed on Jan. 9, passed the House on a 39-20 vote after a 70-minute debate, and the Senate followed with a 21-9 vote to accept the House version.

Gov. Mead has not explicitly endorsed or rejected the bill, but it believed that he supports the concept of an appointed state education department head.

In a statement issued by his office, Mead remained noncommittal, saying only that he would thoroughly review the legislation and give it thoughtful deliberation. The governor has until the end of the day Tuesday to sign or veto the bill, or let it become law without his signature, according to his office.

Some observers speculated that Mead might opt to let it take affect without signing it in order to stay more removed from the controversy the bill has generated.

Effective immediately

If it becomes law, Hill would be removed immediately as head of the Department of Education and an interim director appointed by the governor would assume supervision of the agency.

The superintendent would remain a statewide elected official with some education duties, such as making an annual report to the Legislature on the status of Wyoming's public education.

Hill said in an interview with The Associated Press that she expected Mead to sign the bill into law or let it become law based on a conversation she said she had with him a year ago about whether the Education Department should be run by an appointed director.

"It's a sad day for Wyoming ... and Wyoming's constitution, and we the people are not going to stand for this," Hill said.

'Steps ahead'

However, she was coy when asked if she planned to challenge the law in court.

"There'll be steps ahead," she said, declining to elaborate.

Hill emerged as a new star of the Republican Party when she was elected in 2010, beating two-term incumbent superintendent Jim McBride in the GOP primary by a substantial margin, then winning decisively over Democrat Mike Massie in the general election. She is in her third year as head of the Wyoming education system.

Hill has frustrated some state lawmakers who took issue with how she ran a department with a $1.9 billion two-year budget and 150 employees.

Her tenure so far has included accusations that she improperly redirected state money to programs not authorized by the Legislature and hindered legislative education reform efforts to better prepare Wyoming students for college and careers. Hill has defended her administration of the agency and denied obstructing education reform laws. No specific allegations of misconduct have been raised publicly against her, as opponents have stuck with generalities.

Proponents say the bill, which was sponsored by all the legislative leaders in both political parties, would improve delivery of K-12 education and save the state's school reform effort. Opponents are concerned about increasing the governor's power and diminishing voter influence on education policy.

In its short run through the Legislature, the bill quickly became one of the most contested proposals, prompting multiple hours of impassioned floor debate in front of packed Senate and House galleries, hours of committee testimony and hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to lawmakers. Some 400 phone calls were made to a legislative "hotline" alone, according to Legislative Service Office records. Individual lawmakers received hundreds of additional contacts from constituents. Most voters who spoke publicly about the bill were supportive of Hill.

During debate Friday on the House floor, some lawmakers raised concerns about the bill's constitutionality and warned of a possible lawsuit.

Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, argued that the bill strips the superintendent of so many duties that it effectively negates the office's status set out in the Wyoming Constitution and begs for a court challenge.

"How far can you go? I don't think you can go this far," Gingery said.

But House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said it's the duty of the Legislature to fix a broken state education system that allows elected officials to "overstep their bounds."

"If enduring lawsuits is what I have to do to protect the sanctity of the government, bring them on," Lubnau said.

Reflecting the distrust lawmakers have for Hill, the bill includes a provision that the governor's office review all Education Department personnel decisions and job changes over the 60 days leading up to the law's enactment.

After appointing an interim director of the Education Department, Mead has until Dec. 1 to appoint a permanent director. The state Board of Education will give him three names to choose from. His appointment must be confirmed by the state Senate.

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Legislature, Wyoming