Here’s how deep the paranoia about government control runs in the Wyoming House: A bill that will increase the safety of children getting on and off school buses barely passed final reading Monday because some lawmakers viewed it as Big Brother taking over.
House Bill 5 is aimed at preventing tragedies like the one that happened in Crowheart in December 2011, when 11-year-old Makayla Marie Strahle was killed by a truck after she stepped off her school bus – which had flashing red lights – and started to cross a highway near her home in Crowheart.
In this case, the Wyoming Highway Patrol caught the driver responsible, who was barreling down the road at 57 mph in foggy conditions when he hit the victim. But in most “fly-bys” where drivers ignore signals to stop while school buses are loading and unloading, the reckless motorists can’t be identified. Bus drivers are trained to watch the students when they stop, not other vehicles.
About 300 of the 1,200 school buses in Wyoming have installed video cameras inside and outside the vehicle to help capture images of license plates and drivers as evidence, so the offenders can be prosecuted. HB 5 appropriates up to $5 million to outfit the rest of the state’s school bus fleet with cameras.
House Education Committee Chairman Matt Teeters (R-Lingle) said hundreds of fly-bys occur every day, putting students at risk. In districts that have installed the video equipment, it serves both as a deterrent that has lowered the number of violations and as a tool for prosecutors.
A driver convicted of illegally passing a bus that has its “stop” arm activated and flashing red lights is fined $420 for each offense.
HB5 narrowly passed, 32-27, and now heads to the Senate. It’s clearly a safety measure that’s needed, but House opponents tried to characterize it as an expensive, totalitarian invasion of privacy that is against everything Wyoming and America stand for.
“I’m troubled by the largesse of our government, and its ability to have surveillance over our daily lives. … It’s rolling surveillance in every neighborhood in our state,” said House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), who argued that prosecutors could use the tapes to watch and charge other people with crimes allegedly caught on tape besides just the fly-bys.
“I’m amazed by all the Orwellian comparisons that are being made to this bill,” Teeters said, adding that the bus video cameras have a specific target and will not create a treasure trove of other information for prosecutors.
Rep. Hans Hunt (R-Newcastle) said the school district he represents had a major problem with fly-bys, but they solved it without installing cameras by identifying problem areas and removing some bus stops.
“Local control works,” Hunt maintained.
Other Republican legislators agreed, and suggested that any school district that wants to could install the video equipment without being mandated to do so.
Rep. Matt Greene (R-Laramie), one of the most vehement opponents of the bill, said that “every day the NSA spies on more people,” and that shouldn’t be
extended to surveillance by the state of Wyoming.
“We’re videotaping our own people,” he said. “Mandating [the video cameras] is the state saying we will spy on our own citizens.”
Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, who represents the school district where the Crowheart student was killed, supported the bill and said the victim’s family would like to see it passed so others do not lose their children to tragedies that could have been prevented.
Lubnau withdrew an amendment that would have killed the bill. He said he wasn’t necessarily asking anyone else to oppose it, but he wanted to register his objections and announce that he was voting no.
The speaker’s opposition must have had some impact, though, because HB5 got 51 votes for introduction and only 32 votes for passage.
I don’t know how anyone could mistake this safety measure for a spying effort. The Education Committee’s bill is a good solution to a major problem, and the idea that it could be turned into a vehicle for legislators to complain about government spying is unbelievable. I hope the Senate doesn’t get bogged down in the same ridiculous debate.