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Indy Star Columnist Tully: Statehouse restrictions will hurt more than union rallies January 4, 2012

Posted by Laura Arnold in 2012 Indiana General Assembly, Uncategorized.
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by Matthew Tully, Indianapolis Star, Jan. 4, 2012

We all understand the need for tight security at the Statehouse. For years, in fact, I questioned why visitors could walk into the state’s most notable government building without having to go through even the most basic security check.

It seemed as if Indiana officials, in their admirable quest to hold onto the tradition of openness at the Statehouse, hadn’t accounted for events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks. They finally relented and added screening checkpoints a few years ago.

So I’m going to restrain myself and not pound my fist too hard on the desk as I talk about the newly enhanced Statehouse security rules. But those rules are worthy of a decent dose of outrage, as they seem to have been developed without much public discussion, without much concern for openness, and at a time that is certain to — coincidentally or not — frustrate labor union activists who are preparing to launch hallway rallies over anti-union legislation.

Let’s make one thing clear: your view on the security issue should not be based on whether or not you support unions. While the unions are gearing up for a round of protests when the legislative session kicks off this week, this new policy will affect Hoosiers of all political ideologies, and perhaps many who just want to visit a spectacularly beautiful and historic building. Most important, it would send a clearly un-democratic message in the state’s epicenter of democracy.

The part of the rule that has received the most attention limits the number of people in the Statehouse at any time to 3,000. After accounting for government workers, reporters and lobbyists, whose presence is essentially guaranteed, that means somewhere south of 1,500 visitors can be in the sprawling Statehouse at any one time. During days of heated legislative debates, that’s far too few.

And in another swipe at convenience, the Daniels administration announced last week that visitors will have to enter and be screened at one Statehouse entrance, a move likely to cause long lines on the winter days when the legislature is in session. This unfriendly, old-school government rule runs counter to the customer-friendly message long espoused by the administration.

Senate Democratic leader Vi Simpson called the moves “symbolic of a closed, elitist government which seeks to silence the voices of persons who disagree with them.”

I can’t prove such motive, and I hope that’s not what this is. But the timing sends a bad message, coming on the eve of a major battle over changes in union rules that the administration supports. Going forward, rallies over everything from home-schooling to abortion to taxes also could be affected.

Security makes sense. But aspects of this policy do not. For instance, I was struck by a provision limiting the size of signs, often carried into the building by protesters. Such signs can be no larger than two-feet by two-feet. Is there really a safety concern so dire that citizens cannot be allowed to express themselves with larger signs criticizing lawmakers, legislation or their government in general?

In the end, here’s my biggest problem with the new security rules: they have been arrogantly tossed down by state officials without fully considering the impact on ordinary Hoosiers. Those crafting the policy should have had as their goal passing rules that, while providing safety, seek to ensure as much public openness as possible. Every new restriction should be a last resort.

When lawmakers gathered in November, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, celebrated the many “historic transparencies” the House has adopted in recent years, such as making sure all House proceedings are available on the Internet. Those changes have been wonderful, and Bosma, who has long championed them, should be at the front of the line of critics of this new policy. He might consult with Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, who has questioned the constitutionality of the new policies.

Of course, this doesn’t mean protesters should be allowed to disrupt the work of government, or that crowd control efforts are inherently bad, or that an occupancy limit of some kind isn’t necessary. It simply means people deserve the chance to be heard by their lawmakers, even if that is sometimes uncomfortable.

Since learning of the new policy, I’ve had this vision: On a cold winter morning sometime this month, four Indiana residents get in their respective cars and head for Indianapolis: A home-school advocate from Marion, a union worker from Evansville, a small-businesswoman from Madison and a tea-party activist from Valparaiso. As Hoosiers before them have for generations, all four want to go to the Statehouse to express their views — whether those views are conservative, liberal, moderate or nonpartisan.

But when they arrive at the steps of the state’s most majestic building, the doors are closed. Others who got up earlier, or who had fewer miles to travel, or who were part of a better organized group, have already filled the People’s Building.

And with that, as one critic said last week, the Statehouse will be the People’s Building no longer.

Reach Matthew Tully at (317) 444-6033 or via email at matthew.tully@indystar.com.

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