Perception of bipartisanship in Indiana legislature often doesn't match reality
Republicans have held supermajorities in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly for more than a decade. And listeners regularly ask whether anything bipartisan happens at the Statehouse.
The amount of bills that pass with support from both Republicans and Democrats would likely surprise many people.
Abortion. Gun restrictions. Transgender rights. These are some of the most controversial — and least bipartisan — issues the General Assembly tackles. They’re also the issues people in Indiana are mostly likely to see in news coverage.
Laura Wilson, University of Indianapolis associate professor of political science, said that skews how people view the legislature overall.
“And I would add too, we make an assumption sometimes that there's this monolithic group of Democrats and a monolithic group of Republicans and within their own party, everybody thinks and feels the exact same way on those issues,” Wilson said. “And we know that that's not true.”
Wilson said elections, too, heavily color how people view lawmakers.
“The way in which most voters or constituents are exposed to elected leaders is through elections, campaign advertisements, debates,” Wilson said. “But it's always going to be oppositional. By nature, you're trying to position yourself in the opposite corner of whoever you're competing against and you're highlighting how you are different. You're never — even in a debate, if you're like, ‘Well, I agree on this,’ you have to follow it up with the ‘but.’”
Terri Austin agrees. She’s a Democrat who served in the legislature for 20 years. She understands why people view the legislature through the prism of partisan elections.
“But once you get elected, you do not just represent your party,” Austin said. “You have to represent people and you have to represent all people.”
The numbers seem to bear that out. Over the past five legislative sessions, more than 1,100 bills became law. More than 90 percent had support from both Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate. And about 40 percent of them cleared the final vote in both chambers unanimously.
Austin said she’s not surprised. So much of what the state legislature passes each year, she said, is about finding solutions to issues that both sides agree need to be solved.
“Does it mean everybody gets everything they want in a bill? No. But it's also a first step,” Austin said. “And compromise does not mean that you're giving away your principles or giving up your principles and values. It means that you're recognizing that the solution you're proposing through legislation, there are things that you may not have thought about as an impact.”
So, in a Republican supermajority — when a GOP lawmaker almost never needs Democratic support to pass a bill — why is bipartisanship important?
“The minority party who I’ve had as coauthors always have some input or some ideas or some tweaks that I've taken that's making the bill better,” said Rep. Greg Steuerwald (R-Avon).
Steuerwald is the chair of the House GOP caucus. He’s one of the few Republicans left in the legislature who served in the minority. And he said he talks to the caucus about what that experience is like.
“I remember being in the minority — and it isn't fun,” Steuerwald said. “I mean, there's very little enjoyment about being in the minority.”
It’s likely not a coincidence that Steuerwald is one of the GOP members that Democrats say is easiest to work with. And it would be hard to name a bigger bipartisan accomplishment than his comprehensive police reform bill in 2021, HEA 1006.
The measure improved law enforcement training, required all police to undergo de-escalation training, made it easier for the state to decertify those who commit misconduct, and required law enforcement agencies to share employee information with each other.
“We’re really tired of the rogue or what they call now the wandering officer, who gets in trouble at one agency and then says ‘Hey, I’ll resign; leave me alone,’ and then they go elsewhere,” Steuerwald said.
Ten months after the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests around police accountability, Indiana’s bill passed through four committees and both the House and Senate floor without a single "no" vote.
“Considering that point in history and the potential for that bill to go bad, it's probably the number one bill that I authored,” Steuerwald said.
How was that possible? Steuerwald stressed that he didn’t do it alone. He had input from every law enforcement organization in the state and the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, led at the time by Rep. Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis).
“We had to get people’s expectations into a realistic alignment,” Shackleford said. “You have the Black Caucus. You have the Black community, whose wants and needs was all over a spectrum. So, trying to narrow that down into things that we all could agree on, that law enforcement will be willing to agree on.”
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Shackleford said she, like Steuerwald, met with law enforcement organizations in the summer of 2020. She also met with groups including Black Lives Matter and Concerned Clergy.
“If you can imagine trying to take the ideas from the protesters, trying to take what change they wanted to see versus trying to take the changes the chief of police wanted to see,” Shackleford said. “So, Greg and I had to come up with, OK, this is our list and then this is his list. And how do we go and start picking out those things that we could actually get movement on and work on?”
Shackelford said despite the political landmine that the measure seemed to be, there was never a moment when she thought the bill wouldn’t happen.
“The moments were, what's going to be in the bill? How much can we get in the bill?” Shackleford said.
Shackleford said a big part of what made the collaboration possible was the people involved.
“One of the biggest lessons I think that can be learned is — and I think Rep. Steuerwald and I both had it in each other — that we trusted each other and we respected each other.”
And Austin said a growing lack of those personal relationships is why she thinks bipartisanship has lessened since the Republican supermajority took control.
“We've seen less of a inclination to really get to know people who may sit on the other side … less of an opportunity to really get to know them as people,” Austin said. “And that's the first step in understanding the perspective that somebody brings to your debate.”
Still, Austin said a majority of the legislature’s work is bipartisan — more than many Hoosiers might think.
This story is a part of “Civically, Indiana” — a project to answer both the how and why of Indiana’s state government. To take part in the conversation or find stories like this, go to ipbs.org/CivicallyIndiana.