INDIANAPOLIS — When Indiana voters were asked in 1970 to amend the state Constitution to allow legislators to meet annually, rather than every other year, they were assured it was for good reason.
An added, 10-week “short” session in even-numbered years would let lawmakers deal with emergencies or minor, time-sensitive corrections to laws passed in the longer, 16-week sessions that met in odd-numbered years.
Voters said yes to the idea strongly backed by legislative leaders.
Two years later, in the Legislature’s first annual “short” session since 1850, lawmakers filed more than 800 bills. On review, plenty seemed worthy — like raising fishing license fees for out-of-state anglers — though not exactly emergencies.
Lawmakers have been cramming a lot of work into their short sessions ever since. About 800 bills were filed again in this year’s session, slated to close March 10.
Among those are some critical, road-funding bills and a measure giving schools a temporary reprieve from a standardized testing mess. Also on the list of bills passed is one that bars local governments from restricting the use of disposable plastic bags.
The amount of work packed into the session may not have changed, but some retiring lawmakers say the intensity and expectations have.
The job is no longer that of a “part-time citizen legislator” that Indiana’s forefathers conceived 200 years ago when they drafted the state’s Constitution at the former capitol in Corydon.
Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, for example, says she’s leaving a job, at age 81, that much’s different than it was when she walked into Statehouse as a member of the House 38 years ago.
“Back then, I’d might get 40 letters or phone calls from constituents in a week,” she said. “Now, I’m getting hundreds of emails in a day. I feel an obligation to respond to them all, but I can’t.”
Legislating in the digital age doesn’t stop when the session’s out.
Lawmakers spend significant amount of time helping constituents, vetting legislation in summer study committees, and campaigning for election. A 2014 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that Indiana lawmakers typically spend more than two-thirds of what would be considered a full-time job as legislators.
Their work is also more complex — or, at least, more costly.
The year before the Legislature started meeting each year, legislators crafted a biennial budget of $1 billion.
The two-year budget they approved last year was closer to $30 billion.
Special interests have followed. They spent almost $24 million lobbying the General Assembly last year — up from about $15 million 15 years ago.
Retiring Sen. Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis, longtime chairwoman of the Senate Public Health Committee, describes the job’s hours as a demanding “24/7” — which is why she’s leaving the state Senate after 35 years.
“I just really want to spend time with family,” says Miller, who turns 80 this July.
In total, 17 of 150 lawmakers aren’t seeking re-election this year.
Some are still politically ambitious. Sens. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, and Jim Banks, R-Columbia, are all running for Congress.
Some — like Senate Roads and Transportation Chairman Carlin Yoder, R-Goshen, and House Public Policy Chair Tom Dermody, R-LaPorte — are leaving behind powerful political jobs to devote themselves to their full-time jobs and their children back home.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brent Steele, R-Bedford, decided not to run for another four-year term after two decades of combined House and Senate service.
At 68, he says he doesn’t want to become what he calls “dinosaur-ius” like some aging legislators who won’t leave on their own.
Said Steele: “I figured, what was I going to accomplish in the next four years that I didn’t get accomplished in the first 20?”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com