'Weird' Sums Up 2020 Indiana Legislative Session For Many

Mar 12, 2020

The Indiana Statehouse
Credit Brandon Smith/IPB News

The 2020 legislative session wrapped up in Thursday’s early hours, a session led by major health care and education measures.

But the session was also marked by something else: how unusual it was.

The word used by many throughout 2020 to describe the legislative session: weird. From lawmakers to staffers to lobbyists, even the House and Senate doorkeepers – it kept coming up.

Why? Well, let’s look at the House Public Policy Committee. That’s a major committee, typically responsible for handling issues like guns, abortion, alcohol, gambling. And Chair Ben Smaltz (R-Auburn) didn’t hold a single meeting in this non-budget, short session.

“We should be dealing with emergencies and not things that don’t rise to that level,” Smaltz says.

There was an abortion bill this session. But unlike just about every year for the last decade, there wasn’t as much controversy around it – it even earned "yes" votes from Democrats who traditionally vote against such measures. Sen. Liz Brown (R-Fort Wayne) sheds a little light on why.

“Let me tell you what this bill doesn’t do," Brown says. "It doesn’t put any burden or any additional costs on the woman who is choosing to have an abortion.”

Maybe the session was weird because of how quickly it went by. That’s something Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) noticed early on.

“Well, these were the two fastest start-of-session weeks that I’ve experienced in my 34 years here,” Bosma says.

Case in point: Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the first bill of 2020 into law before the session had even hit its halfway point, which is very rare. That bill spends extra surplus dollars from the state budget that closed last summer.

Republicans say they passed it fast to get the money out. House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta (D-Fort Wayne) thinks there’s another reason.

“The quicker you can get that off the calendar means you don’t have to deal with it or talk about it anymore, so I’m sure that’s part of the strategy,” GiaQuinta says.

Still, there were big bills that received broad, bipartisan support: measures to loosen regulations on public schools and shield teachers from penalties over low student test scores.

There was also consensus on the need to make health care costs lower and more transparent. There’s disagreement, however, over whether that was accomplished this session.

“When you have a constituent that has a deductible that’s $2,500, $5,000 – when we get out this session, nothing is going to change for them,” says Rep. Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis).

Republicans have a different view.

“Really, we’ve allowed a level of transparency for both employers and, most importantly, patients that we’ve never seen before," says Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers). "You know, we all have to be – and we all should be – better consumers of health care.”

Notice that says Speaker Todd Huston, while there's an earlier reference to Speaker Brian Bosma. Well, that’s another weird element to the 2020 session: the leader of the House changed during it. Bosma announced the move early on.

At the end of this session, I will be stepping down from the Speakership and won’t be running for re-election,” Bosma says.

Bosma is the longest-serving House Speaker in state history. And Huston – who was tapped months ago to succeed him – worked alongside Bosma throughout the session.

“You know, I couldn’t imagine walking in here without this type of transition, so I’m very, very grateful to Speaker Bosma for it," Huston says. "I’m still gonna make a bunch of mistakes and I totally acknowledge that. But I hope it will at least limit them.”

Both chambers have undergone a complete turnover of leadership over the last 14 months. And lobbyist Mike O’Brien says the people who work in and around the legislature – as he has for 20 years – have noticed. He describes a disconnect between leaders and committees, which makes the process suffer.

“Those of us who’ve been doing this for a long time have joked that we’ll either look back at this session and say, ‘Boy, that was weird’ or ‘This is just how we’re doing it from now on,'" O'Brien says. "It’s just going to be a little chaotic.”

Weird, indeed.

Contact Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.