Townsend bill enhances Legislature’s comedic value

"Rarely have I met a group of people so intent on arguing over nothing for months on end."

When I came to Arizona in the mid-1990s, I found myself fascinated by the Arizona Legislature.

Then, as now, legislators earned the princely sum of $24,000 a year, and in return they seemed mostly motivated to entertain us.

Given that your average Hollywood blockbuster costs upwards of $100 million to produce, paying 90 elected officials about $2.2 million combined seemed like a smoking deal.

Early on, I started referring to our legislators as “the 90 Dwarfs,” before realizing that this was a grievous insult to Disney, Snow White, Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezy and little people everywhere.

Over time, I’ve reached a grudging admiration for this elected body, if for no other reason than their stamina.

Rarely have I met a group of people so intent on arguing over nothing for months on end.

Case in point? Earlier in May, this august body passed a law making lemonade the “official state drink of Arizona.”

This declaration was not without controversy: House Bill 2692, sponsored by Majority Leader Warren Petersen of Gilbert, failed in the Senate before being brought back on a reconsideration vote and winning passage by a tally of 18 yeas, 11 nays and one abstention.

Last week, amid a fight over the state budget, potential for another controversy arose when House Bill 2032, sponsored by Mesa’s Kelly Townsend, resurfaced in the Senate. Townsend’s bill targets some of Arizona’s most notorious outlaws.

Classroom teachers.

HB 2032 would insert into statute the following: “A person acting on behalf of a school district or charter school or a person who aids another person on behalf of a school district or charter school shall not use speech or curricula during school time with the intent of influencing or changing a student’s political ideology or religious belief.”

Teachers found guilty of such thought crimes could be subject to a fine of up to $5,000.

You’ll forgive me if I don’t remember my K-12 days clearly, given that it was decades ago, but I seem to remember the best teachers I had challenging what I thought I knew.

Back then, we called such a novel concept “learning” and teachers would do things like make us read books with which we might disagree.

I couldn’t have been past sixth grade when we read books like “Johnny Tremain” and “Ishi, Last of His Tribe,” which certainly impacted my political ideology, as did my high school encounters with Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

In modern American history, we were often encouraged to read a paper-born relic known as the newspaper, which detailed current events that often became a focal point of vigorous debate.

In “The World According to Townsend,” that would appear to risk a five grand fine — as would asking students in a world religion class to take the radical step of reading pieces of various historic texts — say the Bible, the Qoran and the Talmud — to compare the belief systems of the world’s religions.

My guess is, Townsend and the bill’s supporters would accuse me of oversimplifying, saying they only intend to criminalize teachers who obviously stump for certain ideologies and beliefs.

My response: One person’s introduction surely is another person’s indoctrination. It seems to me impossible to draw a bright line defining where education ends and advocacy begins.  

Should the bill pass — and I’m not holding my breath — this could be the statute that launched a thousand lawsuits.

Having said that, I can’t say I’m totally opposed to Townsend’s effort. Judged purely as theater and an opportunity to chuckle, this bill beats the finale of “Game of Thrones,” hands down.

Rep. Townsend, I raise my glass of Arizona lemonade to you.