Legislators Are Human Too

This week’s Courier Herald column

Last week there was a bit of a kerfuffle involving House Bill 530, a bill aimed at parents who withdraw their children from school for the purpose of “avoiding compliance with laws relating to mandatory attendance, school discipline, parental involvement, or parental responsibilities.”  That sounds simple enough.  The bill’s primary author wants to ensure that DFACS has the directive to ensure that children are receiving an education.

What appears simple on the surface never is, especially when making law.  A degree of difficulty is added when making laws about children, parental responsibilities, and state enforcement.

One of those signing on to the bill was Representative Wes Cantrell, a Republican from Cherokee County.  In his day job he’s a minister.  At the capitol, he’s a leader in the effort to expand school choice options and is a staunch home school advocate.  

One’s history on issues should be taken into account when considering intentions at the earliest stages of proposed legislation.  History is often ignored when making laws about children, parental responsibilities, and state enforcement.

HB 530 as originally filed has some language that home school advocates find objectionable.  Cantrell agrees.  It’s language he says on Facebook in response to the criticism that he doesn’t support, told the original sponsor, and was told that the language would be removed.  He admits signing the final version without re-reading it was a “big mistake”, and doesn’t blame the sponsor for the inclusion of the language.

This is where it is important to take a step back and understand how our state legislature is quite different from Congress in both operation and execution.  While they both have a House and Senate, and leaders with similar titles, the differences should be noted and expectations adjusted accordingly.

State legislators serve part time, and don’t have access to the same resources members of Congress do.  Most legislators only have a secretary which they usually share with other members.  Those that assist with drafting legislation are mostly in the legislative counsel’s office.  While they are full-time staff, they get the bulk of their requests immediately prior to and during the 40-day legislative session.

Everyone involved is human, doing the best they can under the workload and timeframe required.  As with all human activities, mistakes happen.  While the system does allow some to exploit the confusion for nefarious means, most errors such as those described by Rep. Cantrell are due to multiple drafts being circulated simultaneously with a legislative counsel’s office just trying to keep up.

It’s also important to understand how the process of gaining signers of bills usually works.  Again, there is not a team of full time staff assigned to each legislator to review legislation before it is filed to determine sponsorship.  Instead, the process is a lot more like gaining signatures for a school yearbook the day school lets out. 

The lead sponsor of a bill hand carries a draft to those he or she thinks may be interested in signing.  There is a one-paragraph title at the top of the bill that attempts to describe the purpose of the bill.  Those that ask for a signature usually verbally say what the bill does (and if asked, what it doesn’t do).  Much of this happens during the first couple of days of session, with each member scrambling to get signatures. 

The work of reading bills usually occurs between the time the bill is filed and it reaching committee.  Committee Chairmen then take on a gatekeeper role to ensure the bill’s language does as intended. 

While everyone involved would enjoy a slow and purposeful review of every bill individually in its entirety, that’s a world our legislators will never live in.  We pay them $17,400 per year to get all their work done in 40 days.  Our expectations should be adjusted to allow for human error along the way, while holding legislators ultimately accountable for the finished product.

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There’s not going to be much left of that bill if you remove all references to home schooling.