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Andrew Downs commentary: Ready, set, legislate

This analysis by Andrew Downs (above), emeritus associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne, was originally published by the Indiana Capital Chronicle  and is republished according to Indiana Capital Chronicle republishing guidelines.

Legislators are sworn in. They elected leaders and received committee assignments. Bills are now public. Now, it is time for us to put our focus on the work of the Indiana General Assembly.

The legislature meets for two years at a time. The first year (odd-numbered years) is referred to as the First Regular Session and as the “long session.” The second year (even-numbered years) is referred to as the Second Regular Session and as the “short session.” Sessions must start no later than the second Monday in January. That’s January 9th in 2023. Long sessions must adjourn no later than April 29. Short sessions must adjourn no later than March 14.

Legislators get ideas for legislation from community leaders and elected officials in their districts and constituents. They also get them from interest groups. The professionals who work in the Office of Bill Drafting and Research (The Office) in the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) actually draft the legislation based on the ideas legislators take to them. This ensures bills are written with consistent language and format. Those professionals also review the rest of the Indiana Code to minimize unintentional contradictions. Legislators review what The Office drafts to be sure it matches their idea.

Just over 1,200 bills are introduced in a long session. Short sessions average approximately 850 bills. The length of the session helps to explain the difference in the number. The crafting of the two-year state budget is what distinguishes the long and short sessions the most. This task happens in the long session and dominates what happens.

The process to pass a bill is the same for long and short sessions. In order for a bill to become a law, identical versions of the bill have to pass the House and the Senate and then be signed by the Governor. This sounds simple, but the devil is in the details.

After being drafted by The Office, legislation is introduced in the “chamber of origin.” It will get the first of three “readings.” The readings are a public presentation of the legislation. Believe it or not, a portion of the bill actually is read out loud.

Bills are assigned to a committee after the first reading. This is where the largest amount of work is done on most bills. The legislators who introduced the legislation attend committee meetings and argue for passage. Other legislators, members of the administration, and representatives of special interest groups may testify as well. What might be most important is that this is where the public has a chance to speak on the record about the merits of the bill.

It might surprise people, but legislators like to hear from the public at committee meetings. Taking the time to travel to the statehouse and sit through a hearing shows a level of interest in the issue that legislators notice.

Bills that make it out of committee then go to the floor for a second reading and then a third reading. These two activities may look identical to the casual viewer, but they are different. If a bill passes on third reading it means the bill is eligible to move to the other chamber. The word “eligible” is used because there has to be a sponsor in the other chamber. If one cannot be found, the bill will not advance.

A bill that makes it out of the chamber of origin goes through the same steps all over again in the other chamber – First reading, assigning to committee, committee hearing, second reading, and third reading.

It should not come as a shock to people that a process with this many steps is not fast. It also does not yield many bills becoming laws. The passage rate for the last 11 years is approximately 21%.

The fact the IGA passes about one fifth of all bills generates two reactions. The first reaction is, “Is that all they got done? How inefficient.” The second is, “Thank goodness that is all they got done.” Another way to look at this is to understand people want the legislation they like to pass quickly and easily. They want the legislation they do not like to die as quickly as possible.

This is a slow process that is intended to ensure that people have time to contact legislators and let their voices be heard. Please visit iga.in.gov and research what the legislature is doing this session. Then take the time if you can to contact legislators or visit the statehouse and testify.

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