The Indiana Senate unexpectedly shot down a bill on Monday that would have made the role of state superintendent of public instruction an appointed rather than elected position—raising doubts over whether a key part of Gov. Eric Holcomb's legislative agenda is dead for the session.
The bill by state Sen. James Buck, a Kokomo Republican, failed on a 26-23 vote after 17 Republicans joined Democrats to oppose the measure, which would have allowed the governor's office to appoint the head of the office.
The vote came shortly before the House approved a similar Republican-sponsored bill on a 68-29 vote, though the fate of that effort is uncertain and Speaker Brian Bosma said the Senate defeat "raises issues."
Both the Senate and the House measures would take effect during the November 2021 election and would not cut short the current term of Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, a Republican.
"I think this is the right time," said Bosma, who sponsored the House bill. "I know not everyone in the building agrees—not everybody across the hall apparently agrees."
Indiana Senate rules state that "whenever a particular bill ... receives a constitutional majority of votes against its passage (26 or more nays), that exact language or substantially similar language shall be considered decisively defeated and shall not be considered again during the session."
Democrats said the rule was unambiguous and means the bill—and others like it—should be dead for the year.
A spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem David Long said the Fort Wayne Republican, who supported the measure, was looking into his options.
For decades, both Republicans and Democrats have undertaken efforts to change state law so that the superintendent would be selected by appointment, lawmakers say. But each time those efforts have been defeated.
Opponents say the proposal isn't democratic because it takes choice away from voters. Proponents say Indiana is one of only 13 states to elect the leader of the state Department of Education.
"I trust the people to make this decision," said Senate minority leader Tim Lanane, an Anderson Democrat. "I trust all of the voters of the state of Indiana ... more than just one person."
Republicans dominate state government and hold supermajorities in both chambers. But they were given ample motivation for the proposed overhaul after former Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, fought bitterly with former superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who lost her re-election bid in November.
Pence wanted to have more control over the state board of education, but vehement resistance from Ritz, who chaired board meetings, posed an obstacle. When he tried to push a bill in the Legislature that would have removed her as the leader of the state board of education, it was Ritz who drew sympathetic coverage.
Holcomb made making the superintendent an appointee of the governor's office a major goal for the current legislative session.
"I firmly believe that making the state superintendent of public instruction an appointed position is a long-overdue, widely-supported and common-sense change that will benefit students, educators and our state in the future—and it's a change I will continue to support," Holcomb said in a written statement.
Supporters of the idea, including Sen. Brandt Hershman, a Lafayette Republican, said opposition to the bill amounts to "embracing the status quo as the only reasonable way of doing things."
"I trust the people, too," Hershman said. "I trust them to elect a governor who focuses on education as a key part of his or her platform. And if they don't, I suspect they won't be elected."