Changes to state fair unlikely in 2012 legislative session

Indiana lawmakers look ready to wait at least a year before changing any laws in response to the stage collapse that killed seven at this summer's Indiana State Fair. And that's if they change anything at all.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, has floated the only legislative proposal stemming from the collapse thus far, saying he would like to raise the state's liability cap from $5 million to something closer to $15 million. But Republican leaders have said that would amount to a handout to trial lawyers, not victims.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, says it's too early to make any changes without knowing who's to blame for the fatal collapse.

"I think we're going to have a pretty healthy debate about whether the legislature should take a 'ready-aim-fire' approach or a 'fire-ready-aim' approach," Bosma said.

Experts and state officials have suggested a multitude of reasons for the collapse of the grandstand stage Aug. 13 as thousands of fans awaited a concert by country duo Sugarland. Meteorologists have said fair officials should have known that straight-line winds like the gusts that toppled the stage routinely precede major thunderstorms. The brother of a stagehand who died said his brother routinely complained about the stage's integrity before the fatal day.

Gov. Mitch Daniels has called the wind's narrow impact an unforeseeable "fluke."

Families of the dead and injured want answers; as of Friday, 66 tort claims announcing intentions to sue had been filed with the state.

Those answers will be months in the making. Two firms hired to investigate separately the fair's emergency preparations and response and the structural integrity of the stage are not expected to deliver their reports until next spring, possibly as late as April 15, one month after lawmakers have finished their work for the year.

State Fair Executive Director Cindy Hoye told members of the Legislature's fair advisory committee last week that although Witt Associates has finished much of its work assessing the state's emergency preparations, it will wait to release its report until the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti completes it work closer to April.

"I want to be very careful before we get into changing any laws," said Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, a 14-year veteran of the legislature's State Fair Advisory Committee. He expects lawmakers to discuss the stage collapse extensively next year but said any proposals probably wouldn't make their way to the governor's desk until 2013.

Bosma concurs.

"The state can't say 'Here's what we should do' until we find out who is to blame and what the damages are," Bosma said.

Hoye, Bosma and others have said they want to wait to see the recommendations before making any major changes to how the fair operates.

DeLaney contends the lack of urgency stems from a desire to stall and try to sweep the issue under the rug. He notes that other venues evacuated audiences long before the storm hit Indianapolis, raising questions about whether the fair should have acted sooner to evacuate concertgoers.

"Those questions don't require any high-tech examination, but those questions are not being faced because there's no upside, there's no good answer," he said.

Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, runs the Legislature's committee overseeing state fair operations. The panel had its sole meeting for the year last week.

Cherry falls solidly in the camp of those who believe it's best to wait for the results of the two investigations before making any decisions. But he said the Daniels administration and the state fair could change their emergency operations and evacuation procedures on their own.

Looks like the ball is in the administration's court, at least for another year and a half.

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