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Indiana battles legislative creep in short session

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mitch Daniels may be fighting the rising cost of a college education via "credit creep," but he's relying on Indiana's "legislative creep" to get the job done.

More than 40 years ago, lawmakers gathered at the Statehouse just once every two years. But in 1970, they amended the state constitution to begin meeting annually, adding a "short session" during even-numbered years to deal with "emergency" legislation.

"Government is a lot like everything else in life — it gets more and more complicated," said House Ways and Means Chairman Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, who has served in the House since 1972.

"The issues move faster, the, problems develop more quickly, lifestyles change, and I think that demands that we be around periodically to deal with whatever is the newest problem, or whatever is the newest opportunity," he said.

When lawmakers first began meeting during even-numbered years in the "short session," they typically dealt only with spending and tax measures and approved technical corrections on measures they passed the year before, said House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, who joined the House in 1970.

The "emergencies" are many this year. Senators have introduced 415 bills so far and House members have filed another 400, including so-called vehicle bills, which act as sort of blank slates for lawmakers to amend ideas onto.

Some of those "emergencies" this year include a bill to ban the sale of toy-like novelty lighters and another to establish a study committee to examine businesses that let customers hand-roll their own cigarettes.

Weightier social issues, like a proposal to allow the teaching of creationism in schools and another mandating drug testing for welfare recipients before they qualify for assistance, are also being vetted.

Even power battles, like the one between Indiana's universities and the Daniels administration over how many credit hours should be required for graduation, are getting worked out.

But the short session has also given lawmakers the chance to respond sooner to a real emergency — finding more money for victims of the deadly stage collapse at last summer's Indiana State Fair. If they had not come back this year, the additional $5 million being proposed to cover medical bills and give more to families of the seven people who died might have had to wait until 2013.

"Every bill is important to somebody," Espich said.

The original purpose of the short session became one of many side arguments in the divisive right-to-work debate this year. Democrats argued that the bill was far too important to be considered during a 10-week-long session built to correct technical problems in legislation passed the year before and meant to address only the most pressing issues.

"They're using it as a device to rush heavy-duty things through, and that's not what it was intended for. It was intended for more-or-less emergency measures," Bauer said.

But with the change affixed to the state constitution, there's little chance of Indiana's General Assembly returning to biennial sessions.

Besides, without that legislative creep, Daniels wouldn't have been able to take on the creep of credit hours student must complete to graduate from Indiana's universities during his last year in office.

And, for now at least, there's no talk of extending term limits via "gubernatorial creep."

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