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Five myths…Indiana General Assembly

General knowledge

State government is truly of, by and for the people

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Members of the Indiana House gather in their chamber to open the last long session of the General Assembly on Jan. 7, 2009.

The weather is cooling, election season has passed, and the General Assembly is organizing. Think you know about the state legislature? Consider these five myths about the Indiana General Assembly.

1. Government ignores the people.

The foremost myth about the General Assembly is one told about government generally; that it is something separate: an “other” that is always out to get “us.”

We fear government because it has power over our lives. While healthy skepticism is useful, it bears noting that there are organizations and institutions with power of their own feeding the distrust. Getting rid of the competition is good for business. It is easy to slip into the habit of thinking about lawmakers as different from regular people. Certainly, at the national level, it is easy to see politicians as nothing more than slogan-spouting cyborgs with suspiciously good hair. Closer to home, however, our state legislators are surprisingly lifelike. That’s because they are us.

Our citizen legislature is made up of lawyers and teachers, shopkeepers and nurses, police officers and farmers, mothers and fathers. Government has its problems, but they are more like the flaws of a family member and not, say, the malevolence of an alien overlord.

2. Legislators write the laws.

It is commonly believed that legislators write our laws. You may have even learned this one from “Schoolhouse Rock” or your civics teacher. But, the fact is, legislators write laws in the same way LeBron James wrote his autobiography.

Typically, legislation is written by lawyers in the General Assembly’s Legislative Services Agency. Every November and December, while the rest of us are enjoying the holidays with our families, the LSA staff toils away like legislative elves in some grim wing of Santa’s workshop so representatives and senators, naughty and nice alike, can have bills to introduce on the first day of the session.

A lawmaker with an idea (or a lawmaker who owes a favor to a lobbyist with an idea) makes a request to LSA, and the agency’s employees do the grunt work necessary to turn the idea into a law: formulate the necessary language, identify other laws that will have to be modified, and alert legislators to potentially unintended consequences. The lawmaker has the opportunity to review the actual language before the bill is introduced and, ultimately, the legislator has the final say and is listed as the author. Unlike James’ co-author, the LSA staffers do not share in the writing credits. Given the content of some of the bills introduced, they are often just as happy to remain anonymous.

3. My legislator has no interest in my issue.

Many folks believe that their relationship with the General Assembly is like a bad one-night stand. After getting their vote on Election Day, their legislator will dodge their calls until he or she wants another vote. But, for most, that is not the case.

While it is true that your legislator is unlikely to introduce sweeping changes or buck his party on a hot-button item just because you call and ask, they are in a service business, and most of them sincerely want to help constituents and make their communities better. A lot of narrowly focused proposals are at least introduced, if not necessarily passed, because a legislator is attempting to help an individual or small group of constituents.

For example, I recall one bill that was introduced by a senator on behalf of a small group of Amish constituents. They had religious concerns about outsiders being too involved when members of their community passed away. However, the law required the involvement of a funeral director when someone died. The senator went to bat for them, introducing legislation that would have allowed an exception where there was a bona fide religious objection and where a licensed physician ensured that the relevant public health laws had been observed.

This was not a group that was contributing a lot of money or bringing a lot of votes, but it was a constituency with a reasonable concern. And the legislator went to a good deal of effort attempting to address their concern. If you are not an obvious nut cup and if your concerns can reasonably be addressed without unduly burdening your fellow citizens, there is a good chance your legislator will go to work for you.

4. Deliberation is a measure of significance.

One would think that the time spent discussing a piece of legislation would be in proportion to its effect on the state. Sadly, no.

Like most other organizations, the General Assembly is afflicted by Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. The volume of discussion on a subject goes up as the technical difficulty goes down. It is human nature to speak at more length or to ask more questions where one is more familiar with the subject matter.

I was introduced to this aspect of the General Assembly one afternoon while staffing a committee that was scheduled to consider two bills. One of them had to do with recognizing the validity of digitally encrypted signatures. The other had to do with calling the local utilities before digging. Being something of a nerd, I was excited to hear about the issues surrounding encryption. The hearing that afternoon was lengthy. Unfortunately, as it turned out, all of the committee members knew how to dig holes. The encryption legislation passed out of committee without discussion.

5. The budget is the law that must be passed.

The General Assembly absolutely, positively must pass a budget. The Constitution demands it.

Our General Assembly operates on two-year cycles. Every biennium, all the representatives and half the senators stand for election. The January following the election, the General Assembly goes into its “long” session. Traditionally, this is when the legislature adopts the state’s budget for the next two years. Negotiations being what they are, both sides will huff and puff and generally make it known that pigs will fly before they would ever accept the criminally insane proposals being forced upon them by the other side. Progress comes to a halt. About this time – you can almost set your watch to it – news articles and opinion columns will start to appear, questioning whether a special session will be necessary. Without fail, a politician or reporter will assert that, while none of the other legislation has to move forward, the budget bill must get through. It is constitutionally required.

But, it’s not. While failing to adopt the state budget would be an extraordinarily bad idea and would result in any number of adverse consequences, such failure is not illegal and does not violate the Indiana Constitution.

Myths aside, I would encourage any citizen to pay attention to the state government and to communicate with their representatives. State and local government have a far greater influence on most people’s lives than the federal government but typically get only a fraction of the attention. Most state legislators are very approachable and, whatever their policy approaches, truly do have their constituents’ best interests at heart.

Doug Masson, a Lafayette attorney, worked at Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency for three years. He blogs regularly at www.masson.us/blog/. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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