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A statue of George Washington outside the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis.

SOUTHERN INDIANA — Hoosiers will have another issue to ponder in the General Election in addition to who they'll choose for school board, county, state and federal offices.

Public Question No. 1 will ask whether they support an amendment to the Indiana Constitution obligating the General Assembly to adopt balanced budgets.

The question, which was first proposed by Vice President Mike Pence when he was governor in his 2015 State of the State address, comes after it cleared two separate General Assemblies as a resolution, as required by state law.

Constitutional amendments are "relatively infrequent but not unheard of," said Frank Sullivan, professor of practice at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. Hoosiers were last asked to vote on an amendment two years ago when it approved a provision to protect the right to hunt and fish.

That amendment stirred a bit of controversy after opponents, including the Humane Society of the United States, voiced concern that the measure could open the door for lawsuits against hunting restrictions, among other objections.

Sullivan, who served as the state's budget director for three years, and who sat on the Indiana Supreme Court for nine years, sees no such controversy with the most recent amendment.

The constitution already largely bans the state from incurring debt, except in times of war. Under the amendment, the General Assembly would be required to pass a balanced budget unless supermajorities of two-thirds of the members of each chamber vote to suspend the requirement.

"I don't think that this amendment does anything more than what already exists in the Constitution," said Sullivan, adding that, to his recollection, the state has had a balanced budget since 1891. "It seems to me that it's unnecessary. Nevertheless, two sessions of the Legislature found it necessary to pass and put it on the ballot."

One possible unintended consequence of the amendment, according to Sullivan, could be adding layers to the budgetary process.

"It adds a lot of what I would call 'bureaucratic legalize to the Constitution," Sullivan said. "Passing a budget should be difficult, but it may make what's already a difficult process even more difficult."

If anything, the amendment holds lawmakers accountable, according to state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany.

The measure "is intended to underscore and reinforce our commitment to fiscal responsibility," Clere said, and "prevent the types of fiscal crisis that other states are experiencing, including at least two neighboring states, namely Illinois and Kentucky."

The supermajority requirement and a provision that the state must actuarially fund the accrued liability of pension funds are bonuses in Clere's eyes.

"This actually raises the bar and provides significant additional protections for retirees and future retirees," he said.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, was one of just four senators who voted against the amendment last year, but not because she's opposed to balanced budgets.

"I think we should have a balanced budget. We've always had a balanced budget ... We already have a provision in the Constitution that says we can't go into debt," Tallian said.

Sullivan, who plans to vote "no" on the amendment, is in Tallian's camp.

"I think the people's intent is to make a strong statement that we're a state that believes in balanced budgets," he said. "I think our history has already demonstrated that."

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jason Thomas is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Contact him via email at jason.thomas@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2127. Follow him on Twitter: @ScoopThomas.

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