Monday, January 13, 2014

Act quickly to voice opinions in short session

Posted By on Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 9:15 AM

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The first week of the legislative session may have started with a snow day but that didn't stop lawmakers from getting right to work.

That means if you want to get your voice heard on key issues, now is the time to act.

In the session's first week, committees moved bills that would:

- Create a state-funded preschool pilot program.

- Ban kids younger than 16 from using commercial tanning beds.

- Create a commission to draw legislative maps for redistricting.

- Let microbreweries sell their products at farmers' markets.

- Develop state-assisted retirement plans for Hoosiers not eligible for work-based plans.

Whether you agree with those bills are not, that's a busy opening week. And there was much more.

Committees also considered but did yet not vote on a bill that seeks to punish individuals who take actions that hurt farmers and legislative leaders introduced measures to cut the property tax on business equipment.

Then of course, there's the proposed constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. That proposal - which if passed this session goes on the ballot in November for ratification by voters - comes with a companion bill meant to explain what the amendment does and doesn't do.

The House Judiciary Committee will take up that issue Monday at a meeting at 10 a.m. in the House chamber.

Other committees this week will consider bills that would increase a cap on a property tax break available to veterans, change the state's child seduction law to increase penalties for some offenders, increase the timing of payments from the state's medical malpractice compensation fund, and require schools to teach cursive writing.

This is the way a short legislative session - a non-budget session that lasts only through mid-March - typically goes. It's fast. Bills can move through the committees and the House and Senate at lightening speed.

And although the short session used to be considered one reserved mostly for emergencies, that sentiment is long antiquated. These days, just about anything is game for a short session. The number of weighty issues on Gov. Mike Pence's agenda alone - tax cuts, preschool, road funding - is evidence enough.

So, if you want to have a say on any of these issues, you should contact your lawmakers now - and it's never been easier.

The first stop is iga.in.gov, the legislature's new web page. From there, you can read bills, watch the session and get contact info for lawmakers.

You can call lawmakers, write them letters and use email. Many of them are active on social media. Tweet @Jim_Banks and you'll likely get a quick reply from the Republican senator from Columbia City. Or tweet @HaleIndy to find Rep. Christina Hale, a Democrat from Indianapolis.

Most lawmakers now have Facebook pages - and whether they are monitored by lawmakers themselves or their aides, you can bet someone is going to read your comment.

But you have to do it soon. By the end of the month, most bills will have moved from the chambers where they were introduced to the side of the Statehouse, where they'll be considered again. By the end of February, most bills will either be nearing passage or death.

So start reading the bills now. Follow your local representatives and senators. Watch the General Assembly online. Check out the fiscal impact statements developed by the Legislative Services Agency to find out how much a proposal will cost to implement.

And tell your legislators what you think.

There's a lot of talk inside and outside the Statehouse about the impact of lobbying and campaign funds. But in the end, nothing is more influential to lawmakers than a voter, a constituent with something to say.

In the absence of that, lawmakers will look elsewhere for guidance. Wouldn't you rather they were listening to you?

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.
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Flood of marriage money will divide Hoosiers

Posted By on Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 8:30 AM

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The coming flood just began with a trickle.

A few days ago, the conservative advocacy group Advance America started running a series of television commercials designed to push the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in the Indianapolis and Fort Wayne media markets.

The ads follow on the heels of an outcropping of now outdated yard signs, placards and bumper stickers urging Hoosiers to reject House Joint Resolution 6, the original legislative designation for the proposed amendment. The measure for this session has been renamed HJR 3, which means much of the money spent on the signs and stickers has gone to waste.

It won't matter.

If HJR 3 makes it past the Indiana General Assembly and goes onto the ballot this autumn, the amount of money spent by both sides in this fight will make the sum dropped on obsolete yard signs seem like the lint in a rich man's pocket.

The leaders of Freedom Indiana - the most prominent coalition opposing the constitutional ban - have said they alone will raise $15 million to make the fight. Other groups on both sides of the battle are raising money just as aggressively.

After it is all over, we Hoosiers likely will see more than $50 million spent in the state arguing about same-sex marriage - more than the most expensive governor's race we've ever seen.

But this flood of money will be different than the tides unleashed by normal political campaigns.

All of it will be spent on a single issue and almost all of it will be devoted to demonizing the other side in the debate.

Regardless of which side wins, we will be a different state when this fight is over. Even when floods have receded back inside their banks, they still leave marks upon the land they've washed over.

Critics will call this spending splurge on same-sex marriage a waste. They'll note that the massive number of dollars spent won't have fed a single hungry person, put a school book in a child's hand, hired a police officer to walk or even done so much as pay for the electricity to power a street light.

All of that is true, but it's a criticism that could be leveled at almost any political campaign or dispute. The money we spend deciding elections and public policy debates is a basic cost of living in a self-governing society. This time, the bill just happens to be larger - much larger - than normal.

And the tenor will be different.

In most political campaigns, however negative they may be, there also generally is some attempt to unite people for the work of governing.

This fight will be exclusively about dividing people.

In the coming months, we're likely to see a lot of spots that depict people who support gay marriage - or at least don't want to see a ban placed in the state constitution - as the moral equivalent of pornographers and those who oppose the ban caricatured as bigoted snake-handling rubes. There won't be a lot of nuance. There will be a lot of calculated insults.

When the flood waters roll back, expect a lot of hard feelings to remain.

The problem is that the fighting - and the hard feelings - won't end when the ballots are cast. The dirty secret of most advocacy organizations is that they welcome battles like this because such fights represent marvelous opportunities for recruiting and fundraising. Angry, scared people - regardless of which side of the ideological divide they occupy - are the ones most likely to stay involved and keep writing checks, so it is in the advocacy group's interest to keep roiling the waters.

But that, of course, is the way of floods.

The waters roll over everything in sight, wreaking havoc as they go, changing the lives and the landscape they flow over forever.

This time the lives and the landscape just happen to be ours.

John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.
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