[r72] A Clere view of the Statehouse: Let's hope this bird will fly (1/3/2011)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Start Date: 1/3/2011 All Day
End Date: 1/3/2011
Little more than a week before Thanksgiving, newly elected Indiana House of Representatives Speaker Brian Bosma used his first speech to talk turkey as he announced initiatives to promote bipartisanship, reduce government regulation and increase transparency.

Bosma served as speaker for two years after Republicans won a narrow majority in 2004. After Democrats regained control in 2006, he returned to the role of minority leader for four years. This year, Republicans won a 60-40 majority, and Speaker Bosma, of Indianapolis, returned to the podium on Organization Day, a week ago today. Parts of his speech surprised the chamber and many observers, and the implications have the potential to reshape state government.

Speaker Bosma announced a new committee, the Select Committee on Government Reduction, which will work over the next two years to identify and prioritize opportunities to reduce government regulation in Indiana. Bosma observed that in 1976, the year he graduated from high school, the Indiana Code was five and a half volumes with large print and wide margins. Today it is 21 fine-print volumes "that bury employers, families, schools and local government in regulation," he said.

But formation of the new committee wasn't the biggest announcement. Its chairman will be Rep. Chet Dobis, a Democrat from Merrillville, in Northwest Indiana. That's right, a Republican speaker appointed a Democrat to chair a committee. According to Speaker Bosma, never in the state's almost 200-year history has the majority party named a member of the minority party to head a committee - until now. And Bosma didn't stop with just one.

He appointed Southern Indiana's own Rep. Steve Stemler, a Democrat from Jeffersonville, to chair the Commerce, Small Business and Economic Development Committee.

Speaker Bosma pledged "to make every possible effort to restore civility, bipartisanship and respect for this institution and for each other.

"We owe it to the public. Some think that the statement that was made on Nov. 2 was a statement in support of one political party or condemning another. I disagree. It was the public in Indiana and throughout the nation saying, 'You have got to do it better.' We need to end partisan bickering, end the overreaching and work together to bring our institutions forward. I am fully aware that this is the toughest possible time to make this change."

It's true. The legislature faces daunting challenges: a projected $1 billion budget shortfall, a bankrupt unemployment trust fund and legislative redistricting. Those three issues alone would strain the body. In addition, there will be debate over education reform and local government reform and many other very difficult - and potentially divisive - subjects. The fact that it is the toughest time may make it exactly the right time. We simply must work together; too much is at stake.

Bosma pledged to end the practice of "blackballing of members in the minority party, telling them they can't carry bills, they can't be an author, that they would have to hand their bills to someone else in order for them to be heard."

Committees, he said, will be "where problems are worked out, where ideas are exchanged, with the minority having the full right to offer ideas, discuss and vote on amendments. There may be committee chairmen on my side that don't think that is such a great practice because they didn't receive that treatment. I'm telling you we must rise together to return to make committee the workhorse of the institution." Having been blackballed myself, I understand the temptation to treat Democrats the same way, now that Republicans are in the majority. For the record, however, I fully support Speaker Bosma's move, and I will do everything I can to help make it work. We must rise above past behavior. We should be about ideas and debate, not settling scores and maintaining power at any price.

Bosma continued, "We will also start our work on time every day and will end on time - God willing - and in April." By law, in a budget year, the session must end by April 30. In 2009, the session ended without a budget, and it took a special session in June to pass a budget - just hours before the end of the state's fiscal year and a looming government shutdown. There is a better way.

Speaker Bosma also announced a one-third reduction in the number of bills members will be allowed to file in the upcoming session - 10 instead of 15. Bosma said the move will "stem the avalanche of paper," reduce the burden on legislative staff and force legislators to focus their agendas. It's consistent with the initiative to reduce regulation. It would be contradictory to work on shrinking existing government without also limiting further expansion.

In addition, promising "unprecedented transparency," Bosma announced an expansion of the initiative he started in 2005 to broadcast House sessions and committee meetings on the Internet. Only two committee rooms were wired; now every room will be wired, and every committee meeting will be broadcasted live and archived.

Limiting the number of bills that can be filed and installing cameras in committee rooms are significant, but relatively easy, moves. Working together will be harder. Bosma's appointment of the two Democrats as committee chairmen was met with skepticism, and some will inevitably resist the gesture.

The holidays - starting with Thanksgiving - are a time of tradition. What better time to end bad traditions and start good traditions? The coming months will be difficult, but we should pause to count our blessings and reflect on how we can be better stewards of them in the year ahead. As Americans and as Hoosiers, we have much to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!