Don’t trust Schoolhouse Rock

State checks and balances a complicated affair

Indiana Capital Building

Indiana Statehouse (Getty Images)

Schoolhouse Rock lied. 

Well, to be fair, the popular 1970s education series that merged music and color animation with academic content simplified many concepts, particularly in their civics series.  While it may have made it easier for children to understand, the catchy jingles failed to convey the complex nuances of governmental powers.

The lyrics of the “Three Ring Government” song espouse the pure checks and balances system, claiming, “No one part can be more powerful than any other is. Each controls the other you see, and that’s what we call checks and balances.”  While the comparison of government to a circus may seem crude, the metaphor captures the push-and-pull dynamic of interests – sometimes competing, sometimes complementing – in both.  

The real checks and balances in state governments are not nearly as easy to understand. 

Indiana’s fight

State legislators are limited in power compared to their federal counterparts in Congress because only a handful of states have full-time legislatures (meaning they are in session most of the year). Many lawmakers are still active in their work when they are not in the legislature but their involvement in passing legislation is limited to the time in which they are in session; for the Indiana General Assembly, this is just three to four months out of the year. 

Gubernatorial power likewise varies from state to state (often characterized by the qualifications and tenure of the post, legislative authority, and appointment sovereignty) but governors are engaged year-round and represent the sole statewide official involved directly in the legislative process.  

The real-life balance of power in state government is not just overly complicated for an elementary-aged audience watching SchoolHouse Rock videos; even the Indiana General Assembly, attorney general, and governor all disagree on what their respective powers and responsibilities are. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a series of executive orders that reflected a considerable expansion of his previous involvement in public health but also cited his own legal authority to do so.  One notably declared: “the Governor has authority and power, under Indiana law, to declare and respond to public health emergencies and is doing so for the entire state of Indiana” while all subsequent executive orders included a similar dictum.)  Arguably the most controversial of these orders was 20-37 which issued the statewide mask mandate, a practice some local municipalities had already begun.  The fissure between the executive and legislative branches, began as a small crack along the lines of differences of opinion, widened. 

Holcomb prevails

Some in the state legislature pushed back, arguing on both ideological grounds (that such a declaration unfairly restricted individual liberties) and on procedural grounds (that the governor had essentially overextended his authority).  Opponents to Holcomb’s decisions, comprised of mostly rural legislators from his own party, charged that the governor did not have the authority to legislate in this way.  Last year, lawmakers passed HB 1123 that would give themselves the power to call an emergency session; Holcomb vetoed the measure but legislators overrode his veto and the debate ended up in the Supreme Court, the third “ring” of the Indiana state government circus.  To add to the conflict, Attorney General Todd Rokita, who supported the state legislature, charged that only his office could represent the state in the lawsuit when Holcomb hired outside counsel.

The question of who can call special sessions in the state of Indiana was answered this month, in a resounding 5-0 decision by the state Supreme Court.  Chief Justice Loretta Rush said, “simply put, absent a constitutional amendment under Article 16, the General Assembly cannot do what HEA-1123 permits.” The Indiana Constitution of 1851 denotes the legislative powers within a special session, under Article 4, Section 9, wherein the governor can proclaim a special session (a power reaffirmed to the governor in Article 5, Section 10 and Section 14).  

Less than one week after the Supreme Court’s decision, Holcomb announced that he would give taxpayers each back $225 of the $1 billion collected in state reserves. 

How would this be done? By calling a special session, of course, a power the governor was happy to exercise. With the question of balance between the three branches of government (or, the three “rings of the circus”) now addressed, it is the responsibility of the legislature and governor to work collaboratively in providing some much-needed financial relief to Hoosiers.

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Laura Merrifield Wilson
Laura Merrifield Wilson

Laura Merrifield Wilson, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Indianapolis. She specializes in the study of political behavior, state and local government, and campaigns and elections. She earned her PhD, MA, and MPA from the University of Alabama and her MA and AB Honors from Ohio University. She is a regular political commentator and analyst.