When something as fundamental as the right of a community to decide whether it should raise local funds for local needs (i.e. transit) gets defeated in the Indiana legislature, it’s no wonder that there is pessimism about the forward-thinking abilities of Indiana’s legislature. But coming away with the view that the legislature is “hopeless” — or some have said, “useless” — is a sweeping, and wrong, conclusion.
If we attain a perspective of the obstacles that we citizens face, while maintaining an awareness that citizen groups and their partners have indeed made some important advances despite the odds, we will have within us the power to fight another day for positive change.
The legislature, in the absence of strong backing of the governor or the legislative leadership, is structured in Indiana to make swift and far-reaching pro-economic and pro-environmental change difficult. Lawmaking is, overwhelmingly, a part-time position for most Indiana legislators, as the pay of $22,000 per year, makes it impractical for most legislators to make this a full-time job.
Furthermore, legislators meet just three to four months per year, and generally share a legislative assistant with one — sometimes two — lawmaker. In this context of relatively meager decision-making time and resources, it is inherently challenging, from a policy and political perspective, to make sweeping change in a single legislative session.
In part due to this frugal decision-making infrastructure, lobbyists for large corporate interests play an outsized role: they are looked to, and aim to fill, knowledge gaps that ought to be filled by a larger legislative research staff, or an independent, Indiana-focused policy research group. And through healthy expense accounts, such lobbyists can foster relationships with legislators over a fancy meal or at a pricey sporting event that can compound that influence, and increase the existing influence their companies have had through campaign contributions.
This is not to suggest that these corporate interests are inherently in conflict with the public interest, but those corporate interests are certainly focused, first and foremost, on advancing their sector’s specific interests.
Overlaying corporate influence over public policy is a situation where Indiana has elected a number of legislators who are ideologically very critical of new safeguards for the environment— even if such safeguards might be necessary to tackle situations which federal law does not adequately address.
For citizens who want to see policy created that best reflects the broad public interest, the cards seem stacked against such a vision. But giving up on the legislature is absolutely not an option.
Giving up would mean an imbalanced set of perspectives that legislators get exposed to. Public interest groups play a crucial role in making sure that public interest considerations are not sidelined to the focused interests of a specific industry.
In 2012, public interest groups like the Hoosier Environmental Council played an important role in helping to turn away a bill that would likely have had the effect of gutting many publicly available recycling and household hazardous waste collection programs across Indiana — programs that are an important aspect environmental protection.
Public interest groups like the Indiana Wildlife Federation were essential to ending a bill that would have legalized deer hunting in fenced-in enclosures, which — beyond issues of humane treatment of wildlife — would pose great risk to the health of deer populations, and in turn the Hoosier recreational economy, statewide.
It isn’t just that public interest groups — and the citizens that they represent — help to shelve legislation that is adverse to the public good. Such groups have also shown a great capacity to be catalysts for forward-thinking conversations — which is a precondition to making far-reaching change in the interest of the public good.
The legislative committee rooms were standing room only, for example, for bills related to public transit funding and to a bill that would have provided affordable new options for small businesses to green their buildings while cutting their energy bills. Both ideas were first championed by public interest groups, and were eventually embraced by coalitions that involved businesses and associated economic development groups.
Great societies — ones which simultaneously advance economic development and improved air, soil, and water quality, and greater levels of health and enhanced justice — do not become that way by some mechanical laws of economics.
Those societies are instead the result of the strenuous efforts of citizens, citizen groups, social entrepreneurs, civic-minded businesses, and public-spirited elected officials.
So the world that we create in Indiana depends on us — on our efforts.
Sure, we may rest for a bit from the long hours engaging the legislature, but we must remain resilient about creating a new chapter in our history that those who follow us in the decades to come will be proud to read.