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The Indiana General Assembly: Let the Games Begin

Andrew Downs

The Indiana General Assembly held its organization day on November 17.  Even before this ceremonial start of the 2015/16 session, there were rumors and announcements about what was going to happen. 

· Eric Miller of Advance America claimed there was going to be a “sneak attack” on organization day that would results in a bill about “sexual activity and children” passing on organization day. 

· Governor Mike Pence proposed a hefty transportation plan and then the House Democrats proposed a plan that was larger.

· Representative Greg Porter announced that he would try, again, to get hate crime legislation passed. 

· There has been no shortage of legislators saying they will introduce some sort of civil rights legislation. 

It turns out that the rumor was not true, and obviously, not all of these items can pass since some of them conflict with each other.  Some of them, or some version of them, have a much better chance than others. 

It is not a budget year which makes the transportation spending a bit of a long shot, but issues along Interstate 65 increase the likelihood that something could happen.  An increased awareness of, and attention to, racial issues and civil rights issues could give hate crime legislation its best chance yet of passing.  Given the desire by members of both caucuses in both chambers to pass some sort of civil rights legislation, it may be the issue listed above with the best chance of passing.  Of course, just because everyone is interested does not mean they will be able to reach an agreement and pass something. 

At the end of the last legislative session, I was asked what I thought would happen with civil rights legislation in the upcoming session.  I said that I thought the Republican leadership in both chambers[1] would want this to take up as little time as possible and that probably meant not letting it come up.  I said that one way to do this was by calling for the legislature to delay taking action until they could see what local governments around the state decided to do with local ordinances. 

I saw at least three advantages to this approach.  One was that it would keep the issue off the agenda which would allow for other issues to be addressed.  Another was that it would help to minimize the effect of any specific civil rights legislation on the 2016 election.  A third was that the General Assembly would be able to point to this in the future as an example of when they did not force something on local governments.  

Many months have passed since I said what I said and some things have changed, including my prediction of what will happen. I still think that the Republican leadership will want civil rights legislation to take up as little time as possible. Not because they do not think this issue is important, but because they see a long list of issues that they would like to address. I think this is part of the reason there is Republican-sponsored civil rights legislation drafted and ready to be introduced and heard.

This changes what the Democrats may want to do.  Back when it looked like there would be no civil rights legislation with a realistic chance of passing, the Democrats could have focused on using the inaction to their political advantage.  They could have gone out courting the many businesses and business groups that support civil rights legislation.  This could have helped the Democrats win seats in the 2016 election.  They also could have used the inaction against Governor Mike Pence.  They could have labeled this as “another example” of Pence’s policies being “unwelcoming” and him not showing “real leadership.” 

Now that there will be legislation, the Democrats have to change their approach.  Now they have to work on two fronts.  The first is to work to get the legislation amended to be as close as possible to what they consider to be good legislation.  The second is to find ways to continue to be able to use this to their political advantage.  For example, if a bill passes with bipartisan support early in the session, the issue of civil rights will play a vastly diminished role in campaigns. 

I often begin and/or end the talks I give with a disclaimer that I am not particularly good at predicting things, but I am reasonably good at explaining what happened.  That is why I reserve the right to change my predictions and to come back to explain why I was right or wrong.  In March or April I may write about why I was right or wrong in this post.  For now, all I will say is let the games begin.

[1] The Republicans have a supermajority in each chamber.

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