Morris: Lawmakers Always Find Their ‘Emergencies’
by Leo Morris
“No man’s life, liberty or property are safe when the legislature is in session.”
Contrary to accepted wisdom, Mark Twain didn’t say that, although it sounds like something he should have said. It was included in the opinion issued by a New York magistrate in 1866, chiding a lawyer for bollixing up the case of a will because he hadn’t paid attention to provisions dictated by the last session of the state’s legislative body. His point – a sad one indeed – was that we must always pay attention to our lawmakers’ whims just to live a quiet, normal life.
That means Hoosiers should be half safe in 2018. It will feature the every-other-year “short session” of the General Assembly, reserved by the state constitution only for the sorts of emergencies that arise because not all contingencies can be anticipated by the two-year budget adopted in the long session. With fewer days spent in Indianapolis and without any imperative issues to consider, legislators’ ability to do great damage should be limited.
Oh, if only.
In the 2017 session, state legislators considered 1,426 bills. Honestly, in the 21st century, 167 years after adoption of the current state constitution, does Indiana need that much fine-tuning? Who really thinks we need 1,426 pieces of improvement in this state?
To be fair, only 271 of the proposals – about 19 percent – reached Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk as actual pieces of legislation. He vetoed exactly one of them. Saying “no” to the General Assembly is not the governor’s strong suit.
The Indianapolis Star notes that the upcoming session will have “no central issue to focus the attention of lawmakers.” There will be no “overarching, bright, shiny object,” says House Speaker Brian Bosma, “unlike recent sessions when infrastructure, school funding, right-to-work and other major fiscal initiatives topped the agenda.”
If we’re very lucky, none of the dark, dull objects making the 2018 legislative calendar – 700 or 800 of them would be a good guess – will gain enough traction to actually get a majority vote. Hoosiers will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to their ordinary lives.
But, ooh, look – squirrel! Something just flitted by and it looks like – by heavens it is – a crisis, a real, honest-to-goodness emergency the constitution gives legislators permission to solve.
They must give Hoosiers the right to bear arms without a carry permit. They must have hate crimes legislation. They must figure out if they’ve made CBD oil legal so they know whether or not to make it legal. They must address the heartbreaking dilemma of cold beer sales. They must get a handle on the scandal of opioid addiction.
Concerning the opioid epidemic, The Associated Press sent out an analysis with quite a remarkable sentence:
“What advocates describe as a growing crisis . . . will test not only the rookie governor but whether a state government re-engineered over a decade to comport with conservative ideals can address a systemic problem with no easy solution.”
The article, it should be noted, did not suggest any of the causes of the problem – not a single one – nor did it list any possible solutions that have been tried or might be tried. It merely laid out, in excruciating detail, how much money the state has spent on the issue, or, rather, how much it has not spent.
So, permit a translation: This is a problem the state must fix by spending a lot of money, but it is now stuck in the conservative mode of trying to spend less money. How much money the state is willing to spend is now the sole yardstick with which to measure its success. The watchdog press has spoken, so it must be so.
A skeptic might ask one question: “The opposite approach, comporting with the liberal ideal of spending more and more money on a problem even as it gets worse and worse – how’s that worked out?”
But skepticism can be taken for cynicism, and that would be dismissed as a churlish attitude to adopt toward our earnest legislators who are only doing what they believe they were elected to do. They are determined to get things done and have their names etched into Indiana’s legislative history, one “emergency” at a time.
The best we can do is keep paying attention and taking stock of how much life, liberty and property we have left.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.