Bob Davis: Like wine, some bills need aging
Jun 23, 2013 | 2566 views |  0 comments | 157 157 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Let us pay tribute to the lowly legislative hearing.

Like a wine jug, what matters is what’s inside. It can be the rotgut of rank partisanship. Or it can be the vineyard’s best enlightenment.

As a devoted follower of C-SPAN, I’ve watched all sorts of legislative hearings in Congress. Long ago when our daughter was a newborn, she often had trouble sleeping through the night. When my overnight shift came, I would fill those long hours of rocking a baby watching reruns of congressional hearings on C-SPAN. It usually managed to put both of us to sleep.

The worst part of hearings are when partisan instincts are running high. At that point, each senator or representative falls into a pattern — grill the expert witnesses unfriendly to your position and lob the easiest of softballs to the friendlies.

While tedious, even these exchanges serve some purpose. Questions are asked. Experts speak. Knowledge grows.

The best hearings actually inform both lawmakers and the public on the range of wisdom on a given subject. My hope is that hearings about how the National Security Administration collects and examines phone records will serve a purpose beyond congressmen pounding the table. With the lines scrambled among Democrats and Republicans, with some from both parties on either side, we stand a chance of actually learning about the program and its reach.

Properly armed with knowledge from experts on privacy and national security, Congress can at least theoretically make smart legislative corrections on how the government engages in counter-terrorism and protects the privacy of its citizens.

If only the legislative bug had been biting in February when Alabama lawmakers were drafting what became the Alabama Accountability Act, the law that, among other plans, creates a school tax credit for parents of children enrolled in “failing” schools.

The policy was quietly drafted by Statehouse leaders and the governor earlier this year and then put before legislators only hours after it had been made public.

My C-SPAN viewing habit demonstrates that it didn’t have to be that way. As the bill was being considered, a whole roster of experts and affected parties could have made themselves available to state legislators during hearings.

For instance, Donoho School president Jan Hurd could have told lawmakers what she told this newspaper after the bill was signed into law. Hurd said that a $3,500 tax credit isn’t enough to cover the school’s annual tuition of about $8,000. More important, the scholarship pools the law established to help families make up the tuition difference were a non-starter for private schools wary of accepting state funds.

“We, being an independent school, do not want to accept any scholarship funding that would be a threat to our independence,” Hurd told The Star.

Next up at the hearing could have been Bob Phillips, headmaster of Faith Christian School in Anniston, who would have echoed the same point. “When you accept money from the government, there’s always strings attached,” he told The Star last month.

The predictions made by directors of the Alabama Christian Education Association and the Alabama Independent School Association would have been equally bleak. Our member schools don’t expect much, if any, impact from the act, they said last week.

Imagine Joan Frazier, the superintendent of Anniston City Schools, as an expert witness in Montgomery back in February. She could have raised another relevant point. Because of a longstanding desegregation case, Anniston schools are under the supervision of the federal courts. In other words, transfers from Anniston Middle School, which was labeled as a failing school last week, are complicated by the details of Lee v. Macon, which severely limits student transfers.

What about schools where these students might transfer? “Due to our desegregation order, we will not be accepting transfer students under the Accountability Act at this time,” Calhoun County Superintendent Joe Dyar told The Star last week. His counterparts in Oxford, Jacksonville and other districts across the state said much the same — no transfers.

Perhaps these administrators and other experts could have shared their views before the bill became law. Perhaps members of the state Legislature could have listened before the bill became law. Perhaps adjustments could have been made before the bill became law.

Like wine, it would have better if legislators had let the issue age and breathe a bit more before pouring it out of the jug.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.
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