Bad bill a bit better

Cayman Islands lawmakers deserve some recognition for passing the National Conservation Bill.

Whether that’s laudatory or the opposite, time will tell.

On Friday, lawmakers transformed the floor of the Legislative Assembly into an operating theater and performed reconstructive surgery on the National Conservation Bill, approving some 35 amendments to the 72-page document before passing it in the evening.

An official copy of the brand-new law has not been released to the public, to our knowledge, as of our press deadline Sunday afternoon.

While a Compass reporter diligently took notes on each amendment as the debate proceeded, we haven’t yet seen the new law in its entirety.

Our tentative understanding is that, through the plethora of proposed amendments, the Legislative Assembly took a bad bill and made it slightly better; but we won’t really know until we read the text of the law. (It’s OK to toss out – or reuse – your 12-page Compass supplement that reprinted the earlier conservation bill in its entirety, because it’s now obsolete.)

What politicians say they are doing, and what they actually are doing, are often two different things. That has been demonstrated repeatedly since Environment Minister Wayne Panton laid his draft of the bill on the table several weeks ago, declaring that the bill would sail through the Legislative Assembly with little public outcry and few amendments.

Mr. Panton probably would have been correct, if it had not been for strong vocal criticism from opposition members, local businesses, realtors and others, including this newspaper’s editorial board.

From the beginning, Mr. Panton, his government and bill supporters maintained the legislation was a decade-old compromise agreement that would not require significant amendments – scowling upon those who dared raise concerns about textual ambiguities and potential infringements on private property rights.

It’s a good thing Mr. Panton and his Progressives were able to swallow their pride after all and make dozens of changes to what was a critically flawed bill. Those significant amendments were enough to draw support from UDP and independent members, resulting in the unanimous vote of affirmation that Premier Alden McLaughlin predicted in October.

What remains puzzling is why the government refused to postpone debate on the bill (as urged by the Chamber of Commerce, C4C, the Compass and others) and then waived rules to speed up consideration of the bill, when as many as 50 amendments were already waiting in the wings.

If Mr. Panton and his government already knew the changes were needed – as did the Compass, the Chamber, CIREBA, opposition lawmakers and members of the public – why did they refuse to acknowledge the criticism as being constructive? Why not be more forthcoming about the changes they intended to propose?

The result of the government’s rushing through the process is that the public was never informed of the version of the bill that lawmakers ultimately were considering, and days after the vote, the public still doesn’t know exactly what it is that their representatives approved.

The debacle is reminiscent of the U.S. Congress’s helter-skelter, damn-the-unintended-consequences passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 (aka “ObamaCare”), crystallized by the now-famous quote from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy.”

Pass it. Then read it.

That’s no way to run a democracy.