GREENFIELD — The death was swift.
Location: a Statehouse committee hearing. The perpetrator: the bill’s author.
Sen. Mike Crider’s bill on wild animal permits died recently because he refused to let it be buried under a pile of other potential laws to be further studied this summer.
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“I kind of forced the vote, and I lost,” the Greenfield Republican said. “I probably could have saved that bill if I’d sent it to summer study committee, but that would have done nothing other than delay it another year.”
The bill is among hundreds that will end up in the legislative graveyard by the end of April.
As state lawmakers reach the halfway point of the legislative session, only a select few bills are passing out of one chamber and heading across the hall for a chance at final approval.
And as legislators celebrate their victories, they also mourn what could have been or try to figure out a way to bring their ideas back to life.
Only about 20 percent of bills will make it to law, legislators say. With more than 1,200 bills filed this session, that means nearly 1,000 bills likely will bite the dust by the time the session closes.
And the number of ways a bill can die is practically immeasurable.
“It’s kind of hard to quantify because somebody always invents a new one,” Crider said.
Multiple means of death
Many bills won’t even be seen by the full House or Senate but die in the committee to which they were assigned. In fact, some bills might never even be heard in the committee if the chairman doesn’t like them.
Or it can be voted down in committee, like Crider’s bill, which would have cracked down on the permits for people who house wild animals.
Bad news if your bill gets sent to the rules committee. Lawmakers say that’s a death sentence. That’s where the House speaker or Senate president pro-tem send ideas they want to immediately strike.
Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, said even if the bill survives committee, it can be voted down by the full House or Senate.
And if it passes the first chamber, the process starts all over again in the second half of the session.
“The rulebook runs probably 75 pages, but the informal rules are everywhere,” said Ray Richardson, a state representative from 1966 to 1990.
How savvy lawmakers become about the system depends on how much interest they show in learning, Richardson said.
Even though 20 percent of bills make it to law, Richardson said, it’s hard to tell how many more ideas become law because of the potential for a legislative resurrection, in which the language of a dead bill is inserted into one that’s still alive.
And it’s all about who you know. A lawmaker can try to persuade the House speaker to assign a pet project to a committee where he knows it will pass.
But watch out for a “poison pill” amendment, Richardson added. If a bill makes it to the full House on second reading, where amendments can be added, that could send the measure to death row.
Some 35 years ago, Richardson recalled, a poison pill amendment about keeping movie projector operators employed was added to one of his bills that had nothing to do with theaters.
“I got it beat, but I would have killed my whole bill if I hadn’t,” Richardson said. “I pointed out it would increase the price of a movie ticket to the voters that vote for you. I asked them to defeat the amendment, and they did.”
The legislative process is a complicated one to learn. Just ask Jenny Wendt Ewing, a former Greenfield resident and rape victim, who is striving to increase the statute of limitations on rape.
Crider’s original bill would have removed the statute of limitations on rape, but that wasn’t gaining traction. Crider withdrew that bill and instead focused on one that keeps the current statute of limitations but allows prosecution later if DNA evidence is found or if the perpetrator confesses to the crime.
Wendt Ewing says that’s fine by her and is optimistic the bill, which would be called “Jenny’s Law,” will pass the House. It already passed the full Senate.
“What’s better? To try to go for elimination and be completely shot down and get no change at all? That’s what would be disappointing,” she said. “To me, it’s better to change it so something gets changed.”
Another one of Crider’s bills on its way to law is Senate Bill 309, which prohibits cities from taking an electric service area from a private company or rural electric provider during annexations.
On Thursday, Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell and Greenfield Utility Director Mike Fruth spoke against the measure in committee, while NineStar Connect CEO Mike Burrow spoke in favor of it. In the end, the committee passed it 8-2, and now it’s on its way to the full Senate for consideration.
Retired Sen. Beverly Gard said that, even after a lawmaker goes through the lengthy process of getting a bill passed in one chamber, it’s nerve-wracking to hand off a pet project to a colleague so it can be considered in the other chamber.
A bill that passed the Senate, for example, must be carried by a representative from the House who might not be as passionate.
“I always was very nervous,” Gard said. “I really got into the nuts and bolts of my bills; and when you send the bill to the second house, that person is usually not quite as conversant in the bill as the original author is.”
If a bill passes both chambers but there’s at least one change to it, even as minute a change as an added comma, the bill can be sent to a conference committee, where representatives from both chambers hash out the differences. Many a bill has died in last-minute negotiations.
Gard said one of the most frustrating bills she could never get passed was related to elected officeholders in Hancock County. If an officeholder was charged with a felony related to his or her line of work — former Auditor Linda Grass, for example — that official could be suspended from office. The measure was heard four years in a row and passed the Senate every time but never got enough votes in the House.
Still, Gard said the long process is there for a reason: It shouldn’t be easy to change state law.
“It gives the public a lot of different opportunities to weigh in on this,” she said. “I agree it needs to be this convoluted and this long. Otherwise, we would be in a lot worse mess than we are now.”
To be successful, a lawmaker has got to know the official rules, the nuances of key lawmakers and the twists and turns a bill could take on its road to passage.
“It’s like 100 ways to kill a bill, and you gotta overcome every single obstacle,” Richardson said. “It’s just a hugely complicated system, and the legislators who get to know the system are the ones who can get things done.”
There are several ways a bill can die in the Indiana General Assembly, and several bills written by local lawmakers have already kicked the bucket. Here’s a look at a few of them:
- Disguised firearms, Senate Bill 224, written by Sen. Mike Crider
Cause of death: The chairman of the committee in which it was sent refused to give it a hearing. The bill would have increased criminal charges for people who carry a toy firearm in public or for those who disguise a real firearm inside of a toy.
- Wild animal permits, Senate Bill 226, written by Sen. Mike Crider
Cause of death: Killed by a vote in a committee. Crider says he forced the vote and lost. The bill would have cracked down on the number of wild-animal permits people can hold.
- Annexations, House Bill 1268, originally written by Rep. Bob Cherry and then carried by Rep. Sharon Negele
Cause of death: Another bill on annexations, HB 1561, will take the lead. The language of 1268, however, could remain alive and inserted into 1561. Both bills change the way citizens are notified when a city or town plans to annex.
The path of a bill becoming law in Indiana is a lengthy one. Here’s a look at what could happen to a bill over the course of the Indiana General Assembly session:
A bill is passed on first reading in one chamber — the Senate or House — and then assigned to a committee to be discussed.
If the bill is heard in committee, it could die there by a vote. The bill could simply die by not being heard at all: the committee chairman has discretion over what bills are discussed
Bills passed in committee are sent to the original chamber for second reading. Amendments can be added.
A bill must pass a third reading in the original chamber before being sent to the second chamber.
The bill is sent to a committee in the second chamber. The same first, second and third reading process is held.
If any changes are made in the second chamber, the author of the bill can concur or dissent. If a dissent is made, the bill is sent to a conference committee, where differences are worked out and another vote is taken.
After all that, the governor must decide whether to sign a bill into law or veto it.
The deadline for bills to be approved on third reading in their house of origin is coming up soon: Feb. 25 for House bills, Feb. 26 for Senate bills. The session must end by April 29.
For more on the process, to read bills or to watch the session live, visit iga.in.gov.