Caucus secrecy cloaks important legislative moves

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To get the best picture of what's happening inside Indiana's General Assembly, residents would have to find a way into closed-door meetings of the Democratic and Republican caucuses at the Statehouse.

Their importance—as private forums where lawmakers speak freely and openly about the most pressing issues facing them—has always been known among Statehouse insiders. But the public got a good look at them this session, as battles over gay marriage and nursing homes spilled out from behind the caucus doors.

A private caucus fight over nursing home construction during the final days of the 2014 session ultimately spurred House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, to call for an investigation into whether one of his own caucus members violated state ethics rules.

Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, maintained his neutrality on the issue in public—his son, Zeke Turner, owns nursing homes and his daughter, Jessaca Turner Stults, lobbies on behalf of the family nursing home business. But Turner ended his neutrality in private and argued against the construction ban during caucus meetings.

The very secrecy of the caucus kept accounts of Turner's actions from appearing until days after the 2014 session had ended and the nursing home ban had been killed. Democratic Party Chairman John Zody called for an investigation of the matter last week, and Bosma tasked the House Ethics Committee with reviewing the matter.

It seems fitting that it was during national Sunshine Week—designed to promote government transparency—that the story of Turner's actions inside those private caucus meetings lit up the world of Indiana politics.

Supporters of the private caucus meetings, including the legislative leaders, argue that it allows their members to speak freely on all types of issues, without fear of reprisal.

Those caucus meetings are often interspersed with public meetings of the House and Senate, especially as lawmakers head into their final weeks of work each year. The longer a caucus meeting lasts, the clearer the indication that members are struggling their way through an issue.

Ironically, that very secrecy of the caucus could keep any House ethics investigation from commencing. House Ethics Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said last week that he was unsure whether he could compel testimony from House Republicans because the talks are "private and confidential" by design.

"They're intended to be private and confidential—that's why you have a caucus," he said.

The secrecy of caucus meetings is hardly limited to Republicans.

House Democrats were able to play their cards tight through the 2012 right-to-work battle in large part through frequent meetings of their caucus. Facing fines from 2011's five-week walkout, they opted for a new strategy of periodic boycotts. But which days they would boycott was anyone's guess because those calls were made in private caucus meetings.

In one of the stranger dramas of this year's session, Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, was stripped of his formal positions within the Republican caucus on allegations he violated the group's sanctity with a tweet saying the proposed constitutional amendment on gay marriage was dead.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, penalized Delph for the tweet.

"We can't talk about caucus," Long said. "Just so you know on this one thing, it's our rule that we don't discuss what goes on in caucus. You know, that's private, and to the extent that anything was said today, that's a breach of our normal protocol."

A few days later, Delph held a Statehouse news conference accusing Long and other Senate Republicans leader of scuttling the ban.

It would be hard to say exactly who is right, though, because the public was kept out of that Senate Republican caucus meeting, the same as every other caucus meeting.

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