Citizen-legislators lend the Indiana General Assembly the perspective of everyday Hoosiers. The 150-member body includes small business owners, teachers, bankers and real estate brokers, each bringing experience to inform state laws and policy.
It works well, except when members forget their primary responsibility is to constituents and not their employers or business interests.
In the current session, with Republicans holding a super-majority in each chamber, that important principle is willfully ignored. Consider some examples:
House Speaker Pro Tem P. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, offered an amendment to a bill that would pave the way for Insure-Rite, a Utah company his daughter represents as a lobbyist, to secure a multi-million-dollar contract with the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. Also, a company Turner co-founded with his son, Mainstreet Property Group, would receive $345,000 in tax credits and aid from the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to relocate its headquarters from Cicero to Carmel.
The sponsor of legislation to postpone new tax assessments for farmers, Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, cut the tax bill for her own 300-acre farm significantly with her legislation. A House co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Robert Cherry, R-Greenfield, is an executive with Indiana Farm Bureau.
Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, and Rep. Matt Ubelhor, R-Bloomfield, worked to weaken legislation that would have killed the controversial Rockport coal-to-gas plant. Both lawmakers have significant ties to the coal industry: Merritt is vice president of corporate affairs for Indiana Rail Road Co., which has negotiated an exclusive deal to haul coal for Peabody Energy. Ubelhor is a coal mine manager for Peabody, which owns five of the largest mining complexes in southwest Indiana.
The troubling entanglements are in stark contrast to Rep. Phil GiaQuinta’s recent abstention from a vote involving the sewer service dispute between Huntertown and his employer, City Utilities.
I probably didn’t need to, but I thought I should, GiaQuinta said. I just wanted to be on the up and up.
Fortunately, Gov. Mike Pence also seems to recognize the obvious conflicts. He put the state aid to Turner’s Mainstreet Property Group on hold and earlier directed the state’s inspector general to investigate a land purchase involving former legislator Troy Woodruff, now the chief of the Indiana Department of Transportation, and members of his family.
The governor also appears to be in the same camp with House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long in requiring more regulatory review for the 30-year Rockport agreement, which some believe will cost Indiana utility consumers dearly.
Given some lawmakers’ refusal to acknowledge their compromised positions, it’s at least reassuring that top Republican leaders recognize that trust in the legislative process is harmed when conflicts exist.
Indiana voters, however, must remember those compromised votes and remind lawmakers at election time that professional experience is one thing; blatant self-interest is another.