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Not the greatest show on Earth

Legislature’s performance was mixed

“I’ve been to the carnival before, and you don’t walk in to every sideshow tent.”

– House Speaker Brian Bosma

The Republican leader of the Indiana House undoubtedly offered the legislative session’s best line when he explained why he was avoiding the brouhaha over a resolution honoring the Girl Scouts. If only Brian Bosma had stayed out of a few more sideshow tents.

Yes, the General Assembly finally passed a statewide smoking ban. It steered another $80 million to public education. It approved additional compensation to victims of the tragic Indiana State Fair stage collapse.

But voters shouldn’t forget in November what a circus they witnessed in January through early March. A few of the star attractions and distractions:

Right-to-work

The right-to-work battle was destined to rock the session from the start; it did not disappoint. Union members showed up in force to protest the legislation, which was given House Bill 1001 designation as the majority party’s top priority. In what was clearly no coincidence, the Indiana State Police issued stringent new security rules just days before the session began. Gov. Mitch Daniels lifted the arbitrary occupancy limits, but not before the administration showed its hand in attempting to restrict access to the people’s house.

Hiding the hordes of protesters from Super Bowl visitors was a trickier task, especially when the NFL Players Association threw its support behind its organized labor brethren. But the GOP majority managed to push the bill through just before the General Assembly’s football hiatus in early February.

Leon Fink, a professor of labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago – and, coincidentally, a high school classmate of Daniels – lamented that there was no show of union solidarity at the most-watched sporting event of the year: “(D)espite the fact that Indianapolis had once hosted more union headquarters than any other city in America, legislated reduction of the union presence triggered no visible sign of larger public hurt,” Fink wrote at Salon.com. “Had thousands of workers – machinists, teachers, nurses, construction workers, et al. – assembled in a disciplined, nonviolent ring around Lucas Oil Stadium, they might have changed the chemistry for the next round of statewide elections.”

More likely, the protest would have backfired and union members would have been accused of spoiling Indiana’s moment in the spotlight. They could fare better waiting until this fall and publicly asking voters what the General Assembly did to bring good-paying jobs to the state. After all, just how attractive are jobs offered by any employer who wouldn’t locate in Indiana unless it was a right-to-work state?

Ideological battles

Even as HB 1001 was easily moving toward approval in the GOP-controlled legislature, some Republicans tried to charge that Democrats were blocking worthy legislation.

“None of this important legislation at this point is even able to be heard because the Democrats are not showing up in the House chambers,” complained Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, in an op-ed submitted to The Journal Gazette less than 48 hours after the session was convened. Morris, of course, later prompted Bosma’s sideshow comment when he sent a letter to his House colleagues attacking a resolution honoring the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts. Talkingpointsmemo.com called Morris “A few samoas short of a full box.”

But his far-right-field claim that the Girl Scouts was a “radicalized organization” promoting homosexuality and Planned Parenthood, wasn’t the only ideological distraction during the session. Auburn Republican Dennis Kruse, who heads the Senate education panel, once again filed a bill to allow school districts to teach creationism. The measure wasted plenty of time and drew plenty of scorn before it passed the Senate in a weakened form and died in the House, which enjoyed the unusual distinction of looking like the wise and deliberative chamber this session.

There were also proposals to designate an official state rifle, to require schools to teach cursive writing, to require contracts for school performances of the National Anthem and to once again intrude in the long-settled class basketball debate.

Some of the legislature’s forays in social engineering fell under the radar, including attacks on bullying legislation on the grounds that it might protect gay students or its repeated failure to place common-sense regulations on child-care businesses operated by churches – even after the drowning death of a toddler in a baptismal font last month. But one of those maneuvers – taking control of the state’s specialty license plates – was rightly unmasked as an angry response to a plate recognizing a support group for gay and lesbian teens.

Smoking ban

Nothing demonstrated the General Assembly’s circus-like atmosphere as well as the debate over a statewide smoking ban. Unlike the bitterly divisive right-to-work bill, this one enjoyed bipartisan support and was backed by public opinion polls showing Hoosiers favored restrictions. Sound research also backed the considerable health-care savings the state could see from a strong ban.

Still, the best that GOP leadership in the House could manage was a bill exempting casinos, cigar and hookah bars and an 18-month exemption before the new rules would apply to bars and taverns. When the measure finally reached the Senate floor, President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, seemed to have lost all control. In a display lasting hours, Republican senators attempted to poke enough holes in the legislation to sink it entirely. What finally passed the Senate and conference committee negotiations was what the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and others described as “the weakest smoking law in the Midwest, and one of the worst in the nation.”

In the end, the tightly controlled discipline the Republican leaders exercised during the right-to-work debate fell apart when lawmakers considered a measure that would truly make a difference in Hoosiers’ lives and well-being.

Lasting effects

For all of the drama, the General Assembly did manage to approve a few hopeful laws. A long-stalled effort to address conflict of interest and nepotism in local government prevailed. It wasn’t pretty, but lawmakers hammered out a response to the illegal entry measure triggered by an Indiana Supreme Court ruling. The “augmentation” of the full-day kindergarten grant will make a real difference in school achievement, even if it falls short of covering the full cost of full-day kindergarten.

Lawmakers also eliminated the inheritance tax, albeit without a mechanism for making up lost revenue. To their credit, they phased out its elimination so that the total loss won’t be immediate.

As important was what they did not approve, including a number of education bills that would have placed additional burdens on public schools. One observer noted that it was an unsuccessful session for the Indiana Department of Education, which made it a successful session for public education.

The full measure of the session won’t be known for months or even years, when the consequences – intended or otherwise – become clear. But all Hoosiers can agree the legislature offered a sometimes-entertaining spectacle while all voters should agree that the state deserves more than entertainment in 2013.

Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email, kfrancisco@jg.net.

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