As far as Rep. Ben Smaltz is concerned, the Indiana General Assembly should just skip the short session.
Smaltz, a Republican from Auburn in far-Northwestern Indiana, thinks the state should take more time to analyze problems and solutions, and skip the even-year, non-budget-writing session.
He’s not just talking smack. Smaltz, chairman of the House Public Policy Committee, decided there wasn’t a single one of the 19 bills assigned to that committee that couldn’t wait a year. He held zero hearings.
Waiting at least 24 months to see how laws work before rewriting them – as Indiana did until the 1970s – makes sense, he said. A short session should be called only for emergencies, “things that have to be taken care of. It’s not for bills that need a lot of work, that aren’t well-thought-out concepts, that have other sort-of barnacles on them. I’d want to set a very high bar.”
If there was such a high bar, a lot of the legislation now awaiting Gov. Eric Holcomb’s signature wouldn’t have cleared it.
Take – please – Senate Bill 148. That barnacle-encrusted gem nullifies ordinances by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and the city-county council, as well as other municipalities, from doing anything to protect renters.
Under it, a city cannot regulate landlord-tenant relationships. It cannot even require landlords to tell tenants of their legal rights. It supposedly guards against landlord retaliation against a tenant who complains about rental property – but only if the complaint had been in writing. And unless a tenant is familiar with Indiana Code 32-31-8.5, I’m doubtful the tenant would know of that catch.
The landlord-tenant language, a late amendment inserted by a House committee, was sought by the Indiana Apartment Association.
Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, questioned how one group could have that much pull. “Seriously, when I read this, I was like ‘What the heck? How can you even get this kind of sweeping language through a state legislature, just like that,” he said.
Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, read the list of 300 churches, civic groups and others who opposed the bill.
“Who do we represent?” she asked.
She got her answer with the 64-32 vote passing the bill.
Then there is House Bill 1065 which, thanks to a surprise amendment in the Senate, says school boards may share dollars from a property tax referendum with charter schools in its district.
Supporters called it a way to win votes for the tax hike by getting charter school support. Critics called it a step toward requiring the district to share property tax revenue and toward big-money outside groups weighing in on school board elections to win seats for charter-school supporters.
Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said the bill left unanswered questions such as how charters could spend and be held accountable for the dollars they’d get. And he noted that at a charter school in his district, most of the families live elsewhere – and wouldn’t pay the property tax increase they’d benefit from.
He said the Legislature whiffed on more urgent education matters – from increasing teacher pay to putting in more accountability in the wake of the $86 million fraud by a virtual charter school. I’d add they did nothing to address the looming coronavirus crisis, including whether to change how people can vote in the May 5 primary election where thousands of people will be touching the same voting equipment.
Smaltz thinks this session was worth it for one bill – House Bill 1004, meant to protect Hoosiers from surprise medical bills. I can point to a couple others, including one to keep cell phones out of motorists hands and one requiring schools to check their water for lead. If one life is saved from a distracted driver, if children are ensured safe water, if a family doesn’t have to face a crippling medical bill they didn’t expect, that’s good.
But there was way too much bad, too much ugly. Too many bills aimed at overturning the will of voters in cities by people who don’t live there. Too much legislation pushed with too little public input. Maybe more lawmakers should take Smaltz’s approach: More time thinking before rushing bills into law.