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Legislators taking time to investigate

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At one point, Sen. Travis Holdman wondered what else could go wrong.

The Markle Republican had been assigned as co-chair of the Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee in the Indiana General Assembly. With 11 years of experience in child protective services, Holdman had asked Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, to be appointed to the committee.

Holdman had knowledge of the state agency and an interest in children’s issues. However, in the summer and fall of 2012, outrage was growing over some of the practices of the DCS, especially in regard to its centralized hotline.

The committee first met on Aug. 22, 2012, and in five subsequent meetings spent hours listening to testimony and reviewing DCS policies. Stamping out political fires and corralling the intense media scrutiny were among the challenges Holdman faced.

Unforeseen events brought new interruptions and distractions.

About a month after the committee started, DCS Director James Payne resigned under fire for intervening in a case that involved his family. Then the committee’s other co-chair, Rep. Cindy Noe, R-Indianapolis, lost her legislative seat in a hotly contested election.

That’s when Holdman asked, “What else can go wrong with this committee from an administrative standpoint?”

Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, was named co-chair and Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, who was appointed to fill Noe’s seat, became a committee member. Kubacki was familiar with the committee’s work having attended some of the meetings, but she still had to spend hours going over the details with Holdman.

The DCS Interim Study Committee held its last meeting Nov. 27. At Holdman’s request, the committee had been granted special permission to continue its work and file its final report after the Nov. 1 deadline.

While the DCS Interim Study Committee faced uncommon circumstances, the work that it did is not unusual. The study committees that are formed by the Legislative Council and meet when the Legislature is out of session are seen as a key component of the lawmaking process. Advocates say through the interim groups legislators have time to investigate issues and solicit the views from experts in a given field.

“I think they’re essential,” said Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, pointing out that certain issues cannot be dealt with adequately during a session. “If the summer study committee is focused and does its job, we produce some very good legislation.”

Messy, thoughtful process

The Legislative Council is scheduled to meet May 23 at the Statehouse to determine the interim committees and the topics to be reviewed. From there, senators and representatives will be assigned to the different groups.

Oftentimes, topics are routed to interim committees for a full vetting. Other times, issues are given to study groups as a way to buy time while public opinion catches up or as a way to bury an issue that is not thought to be good public policy.

Pointing to the number of bills that get filed – more than 2,000 in 2013 – John Ketzenberger, president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, said tackling issues and giving them a thoughtful examination is difficult during a regular session, especially in a part-time Legislature.

Many of the bills never get a hearing. Those that do get attention will be squeezed onto a standing committee’s loaded agenda. Not surprising, these committees have little time, if any, to hear multiple people testify and review piles of documents.

As executive director of the ARC of Indiana, an agency for people with developmental disabilities, John Dickerson has testified before interim study committees and watched the groups craft legislation. The interim format gives citizens and interested parties the opportunity to speak to the committee and build relationships with legislators.

Hearing many individuals discuss complex issues can make the interim committee process messy. Interested parties that testify may not get what they want or the committee may not propose any legislation.

Still, Dickerson sees value in holding interim studies.

“It is not always clear, it is not always clean, but it is the best way out there,” he said. “I think it is good democracy. It allows for people to study the issue and move it forward.”

Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, agreed that interim committees provide a forum for thoroughly vetting a subject, but he believes the structure of these committees could be improved.

Namely, Brown has been pushing for the interim committees to be populated with the members of standing committees that are studying similar topics. Instead of randomly selecting legislators to investigate subjects they may not be familiar with, he said, the leadership should assign the senators and representatives who work with comparable issues during the session.

Consequently, when the legislative session opens, bills coming from the interim committees would be able to progress more quickly to the floor, he said. Currently, the General Assembly experiences a lull of one or two weeks at the start of each session while the House of Representatives and Senate wait for the standing committees to crank out the bills.

“I think it is a good process, but there is a better process,” Brown said of interim committees. “If we’re going to do this during the summer, the issues should be assigned to standing committees instead of selecting individuals.”

In the Legislature

The DCS Interim Study Committee recommended a handful of bills, the most significant of which was the establishment of the Commission on Improving the Status of Children.

To shepherd the proposed legislation through the General Assembly, four members from the interim committee – Holdman, Mahan, Kubacki, and Indiana Justice Loretta Rush – along with John Ryan, who served as interim director of DCS after Payne resigned, met every Tuesday morning.

The individuals convened to ensure that nothing fell through the cracks, Holdman said. They made sure they were saying the same thing and getting the facts straight so they could quickly dispel any rumors.

Bills coming from an interim committee generally carry more weight among the legislators because these measures are perceived as having been mindfully studied. When colleagues had questions about proposals from the DCS interim committee, Holdman was able to refer to discussions among the committee members and how a consensus was achieved.

One significant bill that came from an interim committee is headed back for additional work. The overhaul of the state’s criminal code, House Enrolled Act 1006, was the product of the Criminal Code Evaluation Commission and passed through the Legislature in the 2013 session.

Although the measure prevailed in the Statehouse and was signed by Gov. Mike Pence, the legislation will be taken up by an interim committee this summer. Namely, the committee will be charged with reviewing sentencing issues and taking a closer look at the costs of alternative probation programs.

Steuerwald, author of HEA 1006, called the CCEC the best study committee on which he has ever served. Members spent thousands of hours reviewing the state’s criminal code line by line and drawing insight from a broad cross-section of experts including prosecutors, public defenders and probation officers.

The members of the CCEC knew they were there to get a job done. “It was a good effort,” Steuerwald said, “and (HEA) 1006 is a really good bill.”•

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New laws

Here is a snapshot of some of the bills that Indiana Lawyer covered during the 2013 legislative session that have been signed into law.

Senate Enrolled Act 125: establishes child fatality review committee and Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana

SEA 164: allows a prosecuting attorney to request a juvenile court to authorize the filing of a petition alleging that a child is a child in need of services

SEA 224: describes the duties of delegates and alternate delegates to a convention called under Article V of the United States Constitution

SEA 225: provides for the appointment of delegates and alternate delegates by the General Assembly to a convention called under Article V of the U.S. Constitution

HEA 1006: overhauls Indiana’s criminal code

HEA 1016: provides additional circumstances under which a person can participate in a problem-solving court program

HEA 1054: provides that the Indiana Secretary of State may refuse to accept certain filings or records. Bill targets “sovereign citizens” who have been filing fraudulent Uniform Commercial Code financial statements against civic leaders and using SOS documents in fraudulent real estate transactions.

HEA 1320: specifies after June 30, 2014, the pecuniary liability for workers’ compensation and occupational diseases compensation payments to a medical service facility

HEA 1482: provides that a court shall expunge records concerning misdemeanor convictions and minor Class D felony convictions under certain circumstances and that a court may expunge records concerning more serious felony convictions

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