Legislative process takes a beating near the end of session

April 7, 2023 7:00 am
legislative process

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You know it’s April when lawmakers start getting “creative” with legislation. But these maneuvers — while legal and frankly not rare — undermine the integrity of the process and citizen’s trust.

They move language from one bill into another; create massive amendments with new concepts that haven’t been vetted; and insert completely unrelated language into other measures.

It’s all to meet looming deadlines as the session’s end becomes more real. And it should be noted that GOP supermajorities control both the House and Senate.

“What kinds of games are being played?” asked a citizen while testifying on a bill Wednesday in the House Education Committee. “We demand transparency.”

He was criticizing the process the House was taking with a controversial Senate bill aimed at books some consider to be harmful to minors.

Instead of hearing Senate Bill 12 under a clear and routine procedure, Chairman Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, stripped language from Senate Bill 380 out and heard an amendment with library language instead.

Only because journalists and stakeholders were paying attention did the public know about the switcheroo ahead of time. The posted notice of the meeting gave no indications that the topic would be taken up on a bill about graduation waivers.

This isn’t the only example I can give you. Here are a few more:

  • Recently the House Environmental Committee inserted unrelated language on wetlands (that was defeated in prior years) into a bill about septic systems. Again, it was not made public beforehand — the amendment wasn’t posted. Interestingly, the Indiana Builders Association, which sought the language, was in the know and was there to testify in favor. A representative from the Hoosier Environmental Council happened to be in the room and was caught by surprise. He asked the bill be held so that stakeholders would have a chance to review and offer testimony. Instead, the bill was approved.
  • The Senate recently put language loosening rules on residential tax increment financing into an otherwise non-controversial bill meant to shore up Indiana’s housing stock. It seems Senate Bill 300 wasn’t going to be heard in the House so instead, senators slipped the language into House Bill 1005.
  • Earlier this week, the House Public Policy Committee inserted brand-new language into Senate Bill 20 blocking grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores from selling cold liquor, mixed drinks or seltzers. It would give exclusive rights to sell those items cold to liquor stories, who already have that right for beer. The language actually takes a current option away from the consumer and consumers weren’t given a chance to testify.

In most of these examples, the amendments are not made available publicly before the meetings because that is up to each individual chairman.

When members of the public questioned the procedure in the education committee, Fort Wayne GOP Rep. Martin Carbaugh reacted strongly.

“It’s entirely common to take parts of or all of certain bills and put them in other bills in committee. Germaneness is up to the chairman,” Carbaugh said. “And we do that for a number of reasons. Many times it’s because of time … there are a limited number of days for us to meet, limited number of hours for us to consider bills.”

While Carbaugh is right in some cases, it doesn’t always hold true. With the library bill, there was no reason to find another vehicle when Senate Bill 12 already existed. And there clearly was time to hear it because lawmakers had a full hearing on the bill they stripped.

In some ways, the General Assembly deserves kudos for making its sessions and committee hearings accessible online and generally improving the process from when I started in 1999.

But these sneaky moves break down all that goodwill. These aren’t issues that suddenly popped up and required change at the last minute. They are strategically done to limit public uproar — and public transparency.


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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.