This is Sunshine Week, a celebration of citizen access to public information. Government business conducted in meetings open to all is a cornerstone of public access law, and the General Assembly is subject to the Indiana Open Door Law. Who would argue that state lawmakers should craft laws or a budget behind closed doors?
But debate over a bias crimes law last month revealed how supermajority control subverts the spirit of the Open Door Law by locking the public out of the decision-making. The law grants an exception for a political caucus, defined as “a gathering of members of a political party or coalition which is held for purposes of planning political strategy and holding discussions designed to prepare the members for taking official action.”
Indiana Republicans – and Democrats if they ever could gain a supermajority – can hold a caucus not just to prepare for official action, but to take it. Whatever they decide behind closed doors prevails on the Senate floor, because the minority party doesn't have enough votes to counter them.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than with Senate Bill 12, the bias crimes law supported by a broad coalition of Indiana organizations and individuals, including Eli Lilly and Company, the city of Columbus and the leaders of the University of Saint Francis, Trine University and Grace College and Seminary. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has endorsed legislation that removes Indiana from the shrinking list of states without a hate crime designating protected classes.
The Senate's Public Policy Committee voted 9-1 last month to advance SB 12. But the next day, 40 GOP senators caucused for four hours behind closed doors. When they finally joined their 10 Democratic colleagues on the Senate floor, Republican Aaron Freeman offered an amendment to essentially gut the measure, stripping out protections for race, religion, color, sex, gender identity, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation or age. Several Democratic senators made powerful arguments for defeating the amendment, but to no avail. The fate of the legislation had already been decided in secret.
Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray defended the move.
“You're going to see the vote, so you know exactly where they stand,” Bray told reporters. “I mean, that's a transparent process and that's how this place works.”
Yes, that's how a legislature under one-party control works. But no transparency exists when decisions are made behind closed doors. What sort of political strong-arming went on in caucus to convince 39 Republicans to adopt a weakened bias crimes bill over the Public Policy Committee's strong measure? Was legislation threatened with defeat if senators didn't support the caucus' position on hate crimes? Were they warned they might face a primary election challenge or be denied the party's financial support?
We'll never know, because supermajority status allows a political party to do the people's work in secret. While Indiana voters give the parties permission to lock them out of the decision-making when they elect supermajorities, the problem goes back to closed-door caucuses, where Democrats and Republicans alike have repeatedly killed efforts to hand over the responsibility for drawing their own electoral districts to an independent redistricting commission.
Sunshine Week is clouded this year and every year by a redistricting process that allows lawmakers to choose their own voters and, in turn, to keep those voters in the dark by making policy behind closed doors. If our elected representatives support open government in both theory and practice, they will deliver it with redistricting reform.