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State Senate passing major bills without public hearings

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Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans who control the Indiana Senate have advanced major, politically charged proposals in the final weeks of the legislative session by inserting amendments into other bills — avoiding public hearings on issues including defunding Planned Parenthood, fining boycotting lawmakers and changing rules surrounding the indicted secretary of state.

If the legislation is such a good idea, critics ask, why not go through the typical public hearing process?

"There are a lot of highly politicized issues that are getting crammed down the public’s throat,” said Julia Vaughn, with the government watchdog group Common Cause Indiana. “It seems like every hot-button issue that a conservative special interest group holds dear is being raised in the final days.”

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said the Senate prefers to follow the typical legislative process: a public hearing and committee vote, followed by a second reading before the full Senate when changes can be made and then a full Senate vote.

But the five-week boycott by House Democrats earlier this session changed the timeline, Long said, giving committee chairmen less time to schedule hearings.

“This year is an unusual year, a difficult year and a compressed year because we’ve lost all that extra time,” Long said. “It’s put us in a very unusual spot.”

In the past week, the Senate used amendments to insert several controversial provisions into other bills.

The Senate put a measure to cut funding for Planned Parenthood into a bill tightening abortion restrictions. It inserted into an elections bill a provision to allow GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels to appoint a new secretary of state if Republican Charlie White, who faces charges of voter fraud, is found to have been ineligible — a move Democrats branded a power grab. And it changed the budget to provide a way to fine boycotting lawmakers, a direct response to the House Democrats’ walkout.

"I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington. “The radical agenda that’s being put forward, the disregard for ethics and common sense, is just beyond the pale.”

Republicans point out that Democrats, too, wanted to amend bills with provisions that weren’t considered in committee. Republicans control committees, however, and determine which bills get hearings, so amendments are among the only ways minority lawmakers can raise points.

Sen. Mike Young, a Republican from Indianapolis who sponsored the amendments to change the secretary of state rules and add fines for boycotting legislators, noted that the bills haven’t finished their legislative journey. They could get public hearings as Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate try to work out compromises before the session ends Friday.

“Both caucuses in both houses will have some input on that,” Young said.

Contentious second-reading amendments are more often found in the House, where two-year election cycles and typically close splits between Democrats and Republicans contribute to the chamber’s more raucous nature. The Senate, with four-year terms and a history of Republican control, prides itself as the more deliberative and policy-oriented chamber.

But recently there have been fewer shenanigans in the House as House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, tries to keep both his own caucus and minority Democrats in the delicate political balance reached after boycotting Democrats returned. Bosma promised openness and transparency this year when doing House business.

“We pledged to do things differently,” Bosma said.

Simpson chalks up the Senate’s recent actions to new, more conservative members who she said may not understand the Senate’s history and tradition of civility.

“What’s happened this week would never have happened in the Senate five or 10 years ago,” she said. “It really has shown that the Senate has changed.”

Long said he understands the Democrats’ position during this “anomaly” of a session, but said both parties in the Senate will always be able to work together on major issues.

“This is a difficult political year for the Democrats,” Long said. “I know they’re frustrated, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the most part we work well together."


Posted 4/25/2011




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