Services agency lawyers, analysts unsung heroes

INDIANAPOLIS — Just a few weeks into their session, lawmakers already have filed more than 1,100 bills, from a rewrite of ethics rules to regulations for swine feed.

By the end of the four-month session, about 300 bills are likely to become law. The survivors will have been revised and rewritten multiple times, generating an astonishing 3½ million pieces of paper.

Lawmakers will be cheered and jeered for their work, but recognition is also due to the 80-plus lawyers and fiscal analysts in the Indiana Legislative Services Agency.

Former House Minority Leader Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, calls them “unsung heroes” of the Indiana’s part-time, citizen legislature — a phrase echoed by Republican and Democratic legislators alike.

The agency was created in 1967 during a “good government” era that saw legislatures across the country seek to up their game. Lawmakers dealing with increasingly complex issues saw that the writers and analysts of bills needed to be more professional and less political.

For agency director George Angelone, its identity as the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm is critical.

It’s legislators who craft and debate and settle on what they think is the best public policy. In turn, it’s his veteran staff — more than half have been there more than a decade — that does the grunt work for whatever proposal comes before them, no matter how sane or wacky.

“We understand that’s our role,” said Angelone, a lawyer and certified accountant. “If someone crosses the line (into policy advocacy) they just have to leave.”

Supporters of Sunday alcohol sales, for example, were infuriated when the agency’s analysis estimated only minimal tax revenues from the extra day of sales. The agency concluded that consumers would just shift their habits instead of buying more alcohol — an argument that’s helped to kill the bill in years past.

Still, Angelone said staffers who leave the agency don’t go because of politics or policies.

It’s because “the work can be grueling,” he said.

During the Christmas holidays, in advance of the session’s start in early January, the halls of the Statehouse were nearly empty. But the Legislative Services Agency’s offices on the third floor bustled.

That’s because legislators often wait until a mid-December deadline to turn in proposals, most of which must be drafted into code-complying language before they’re edited and printed.

In the last week of December, the agency’s staffers churned out 600 bills. Many celebrated Christmas Eve at their Statehouse desks, took off Christmas Day, then returned to work through the weekend.

On New Years’ Day, they were calling legislators at home to get final approval on drafts of bills.

The hours and the demands get worse as the session continues. Bills are negotiated and debated. In a typical session, bills will be changed with almost 2,000 amendments and another 1,200 procedural motions.

In the session’s final weeks, chaos reigns as lawmakers rush to hash out final language of bills in dispute.

The Legislative Services Agency helps bring order.

“The legislative process may seem difficult to understand, but it really does work,” Angelone said.

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CHNI newspapers.