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Monday, March 17, 2014

Bullying has no place in the Statehouse

Posted By on Mon, Mar 17, 2014 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge lesley_stedman_weidenbener_-_mug_-_the_statehouse_file.jpg
One thing I've always loved about covering the General Assembly is seeing people come to the Statehouse and make a case.

Whether they're arguing for a bill or against a bill, telling their own stories or that of a loved one, or simply sharing a heart-felt belief, it's great to see Hoosiers participating in their government.

Until it goes wrong.

Then, it's just frustrating.

So was the case last week as one Hoosier tried to express her views on a controversial bill only to be browbeaten by a handful of lawmakers who didn't like those views.

The legislature was days from wrapping up the 2014 session when Shannon Watts, who launched the national group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, came to the Statehouse to testify against a bill that would allow guns in locked cars in school parking lots.

It was a controversial proposal, especially among gun control and education groups. The proposal's supporters say it just makes common sense. And I wrote recently that it seemed like an issue on which both sides could find a reasonable compromise.

But Republican lawmakers who backed the legislation - which has since been sent to Gov. Mike Pence to sign into law or to veto - were in no mood to talk compromise with Shannon Watts.

Watts filled her testimony with statistics and data, which she said lawmakers had asked her to do the last time she'd appeared before them. "Easy and unregulated access to guns must be eliminated, not encouraged," Watts told them.

Republican legislators then picked apart her statistics. They were combative in their questions. They challenged her views.

One lawmaker - Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour - had done research on Watts' background and ticked off her various jobs, even asking her one time to verify her maiden name so he could describe more of her career history.

His point? She had been a marketing specialist and therefore knew how to manipulate data.

It was all, well, uncomfortable. Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, even called it "bullying."

The situation was particularly puzzling because Republicans who supported the legislation control the House and Senate - and therefore the conference committee that was working on the bill. That proposal was never in trouble in that committee. And it later passed the House and Senate easily.

There was no reason for those Republican lawmakers to be so defensive.

Of course, anyone who testifies before a legislative committee should be prepared for questions - and Watts certainly was. Lawmakers should absolutely interact with people about their research and opinions.

Still, there's no reason to be aggressive and confrontational. A public hearing is just that - for the public. It's the time for people who represent organizations or companies or themselves to come before the elected leaders who make our laws and try to influence the outcome.

People who exercise that civic duty in the respectful way that Watts did should never be treated poorly. Doing so is indeed bullying and it has no place at the Statehouse.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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