Time to address a flaw in Indiana's legislative process?

Leigh Morris

We Hoosiers are incredibly fortunate to have many capable and dedicated legislators representing us in the Indiana General Assembly. I know many of them personally, and I appreciate and applaud their good work. They are part-time, citizen legislators who carry out the awesome task of dealing with myriad important issues facing our state, not career politicians who depend on their positions for their livelihood.

I’ve heard it said that laws are like sausage, and it’s better not to see them being made. The law-making process in the Indiana General Assembly is simple. When introduced, a bill Is heard for first reading. The bill is assigned to committee. The President Pro Tempore of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives can choose not to refer the bill to a committee. In this event, the bill dies.

If the bill is to advance, it is referred to a committee for review. The committee chairperson may choose not to schedule the bill for hearing. In this event, the bill dies.

If the bill is to advance, it must be scheduled for a public hearing. At that hearing, the committee discusses the merits and disadvantages of the bill, and any interested party may ask to speak to the committee in favor of or in opposition to the bill. Following this hearing, the bill can be voted upon or tabled. If the bill is tabled, it may or may not come back for a vote. If it does not come back for a vote, the bill “dies.” If the committee casts a vote on the bill, the bill can be defeated, or it can advance.

I believe there’s a flaw in that system that should be corrected. There are two opportunities for one member of the General Assembly, not subject to general election by Indiana voters, to unilaterally prevent consideration of proposed legislation. If the Speaker of the House or the President Pro-Tem of the Senate decides not to refer proposed legislation, that legislation dies. Even more onerous, if the proposed legislation is referred to a committee, the chairman of that committee can unilaterally refuse to allow a hearing on the bill. Once again, the bill is dead. I believe this practice disenfranchises voters and should be challenged.

I provide three examples of the negative impact of a committee chairperson, Representative Milo Smith of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, when he refused to allow a hearing on proposed legislation that had broad public support and would have helped significantly in alleviating Indiana’s poor to mediocre voter participation rates:

Redistricting reform

Advocates pushed for creating an independent redistricting commission instead of leaving the map drawing up to the General Assembly. A hearing was denied for House Bill 1014 that was even co-sponsored by the Speaker of the House.

Expanded absentee voting

Senate Bill 250, which would have allowed no-fault absentee voting in Indiana was denied because the chairman said he was unaware of any case in which Hoosiers were denied an absentee ballot.

Dead voters

A hearing was refused for Senate Bill 155 would have the vote from an absentee ballot to count even if the voter died before Election Day.

Sadly, legislation also died without a hearing that would have helped to modernize Indiana’s creaky township government structure. House Bill 1005 provided for a five-year transition period for the 300 of Indiana’s 1,005 townships that have less than 1,200 residents to develop plans for consolidating with neighboring townships to provide a larger unit to provide economies of scale. Some townships have fewer than 100 residents, but still have four elected officials and must maintain the same records and fiscal structure as larger townships. The Speaker of the House refused to call for a vote, and the legislation died.

I understand fully that there are typically 1,000 or so bills introduced in a legislative session, so there must be a way to “weed out” duplicative or self-serving proposals. One approach utilized by several other states would be a major step forward for Indiana: Require that any bill referred to a committee must receive a hearing on the affirmative vote of at least a majority of committee members.

Leigh Morris is former President and CEO of La Porte Hospital and former Mayor of La Porte.

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