Indiana lawmakers came into this legislative session knowing that trying to boost the state’s sagging economy and drafting a new state budget in tight fiscal times would be the dominant issues.
That’s mostly been the case so far, and an expected influx of billions of federal dollars should enhance efforts by Gov. Mitch Daniels and lawmakers to create jobs. Making decisions on spending the money will mean more work for legislators and the Daniels administration, but as Daniels has put it, that’s a good problem to have.
But legislators have still managed to load this session’s docket with a wide variety of side issues. Some of them are weighty proposals, such as a statewide ban on smoking in public places. Some are on the light – and even sweet – side.
State senators, for instance, took time out one day to pass a resolution to make the sugar cream pie Indiana’s official state pie.
There was no debate on that resolution, although some lawmakers suggested that it sent a questionable message at a time when the state is battling sagging tax collections and high rates of unemployment and foreclosures.
And those concerns haven’t prevented lawmakers from advancing scores of other bills with few or no ties to the budget or economy.
More than 730 bills were filed in the House, and 51 of them have passed that chamber so far. More than 580 bills were filed in the Senate, and 71 have passed.
Longtime Rep. Win Moses (D-Fort Wayne) said it’s the nature of the General Assembly to load its plate with so much work, even when there are a few crucial issues that must be addressed.
“Many bills are filed because it’s a complex society and economy with a lot of complications for people,” he said. “We probably file too many bills, and when we’re done, only about 10 percent of them will pass, but it’s important to examine all the issues.”
Some bills seem less rooted in dealing with complexities than in what seems should be common sense.
A bill passed by the Senate, for example, would require school bus drivers to do seat-by-seat, end-of-route inspections to make sure no child is left behind. Some drivers, at least on occasion, haven’t done that.
Three South Bend students were left on school buses last year, and earlier this year, a 4-year-old was left unattended inside a parked school bus in Richmond. Republican state Sen. Teresa Lubbers of Indianapolis says such incidents are unacceptable, and she hopes her bill will help put a stop to them.
Other perennial favorites are bills that enhance sentences for crimes, often because of a tragedy that occurred in a lawmaker’s district.
The House has passed a bill that would increase the penalty for passing a school bus that has its stop arm extended, causing injury. The offense would go from a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine to a Class A misdemeanor carrying a maximum 1-year jail term and $5,000 fine.
The bill stems from an incident in November 2007 in which an 8-year-old girl living in the district of Rep. Suzanne Crouch (R-Evansville) was struck by a car while getting off her school bus. The girl survived but had a long recovery that involved several operations. Her mother contacted Crouch and said penalties for the crime should be increased.
The Senate has approved a bill by Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford) that would add the governor, lieutenant governor and state legislators to the list of people who could solemnize marriages.
Steele said his proposal stems from five or six years ago, when his son asked him to conduct his marriage. Steele said he was surprised to find out that lower office holders such as mayors and town clerks, could solemnize marriages, but governors and state lawmakers could not.
Steele was asked if bills such as his detracted from work on more serious issues.
“We are here for four months,” he said. “We don’t just deal with one thing. I can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the House will give its blessing to Steele’s bill. But it’s a virtual certainty that when the session ends, there will be a big, big pile of bills on the governor’s desk.