One former Indiana state legislator called it “a massive (expletive) power grab.”
Another told me it was “a back-door way to get to a full-time legislature.”
The two former lawmakers are from different parties. The first is a Democrat, the second a Republican.
What they were talking about was the 2021 Indiana General Assembly’s decision not to adjourn sine die—Latin for “until the day,” meaning until the next session—but instead to go into recess. The lawmakers decided to take this course even though a state law requires the legislative session to end by April 29 in years ending in odd numbers.
The road that led to this point is twisty. Hope Shrum, a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, has done a superb job of mapping it.
The stated reason for going into recess rather than adjourning is that the legislature still must deal with redistricting.
There may be a sliver of truth to that. Lawmakers need more census information to do that work. It’s not wise to rush.
But the traditional remedy for such a problem is to have the governor call the legislature into special session.
That’s the rub.
The Indiana Constitution specifies that only the governor—not the lawmakers themselves—can call the General Assembly into session.
That rankles many conservative Republicans, who—ironically—often call themselves constitutional purists. They feel Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is also a Republican, has used the governor’s emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic unfairly and unwisely.
They want to clip his wings.
They even passed a bill that would allow them to call themselves back into session. Holcomb vetoed it. So, they overrode the veto, making it law.
This new law faces an inevitable court challenge.
It will be struck down as unconstitutional right around the time the ink dries on the page upon which it was printed.
That left the unhappy lawmakers looking for another option. They settled on just extending the session. They don’t have to wait for the governor to call them back if they never leave.
But that too creates problems.
The first, of course, is the law requiring the session to end by April 29.
The second is that lawmakers are prevented by law from doing campaign fundraising while the legislature is in session.
The lawmakers have tried to get around that by saying the extension only applies to this session. The same goes for the fundraising exception. This year and this year only, legislators will be allowed to raise funds while in session, but only after April 29.
But that means a precedent will be set to allow legislators to raise campaign cash while they’re in session.
Legislative leaders say that’s not the case—that the April 29 law remains in force and no precedent for in-session fundraising has been set.
That’s like arguing, after the horse has left the barn, that we all should pretend not only that the horse still is in the barn but also that the barn doesn’t even have a door.
The reality is that now any future legislature just has to copy this language and lawmakers can stay in session for as long as they want—and raise campaign cash while they’re doing it. The April 29 deadline no longer is a law that must be obeyed. It’s more like a polite suggestion.
There are those who see the idea of a full-time, year-round legislature as an abomination.
I’m not one of them.
The idea of a full-time legislature has a lot to recommend it, if certain safeguards are in place. Having the taxpayers be lawmakers’ only employer would eliminate many conflicts of interest and other possible sources of corruption. It also would allow citizens without significant personal wealth or jobs they can be away from for months at a time to serve in the General Assembly.
But this isn’t the way to get there.
A change that fundamental should be debated and decided on its own merits.
It shouldn’t be accomplished through a back door or to circumvent the Indiana constitution.
The former lawmaker who called it a “power grab” got it right.
All the way down to the expletive.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.