2019 Session: Quiet With Few Major Controversies

Apr 25, 2019

A lot of Indiana lawmakers described the 2019 session the same way – it was a quiet one, with no big blowups or major controversies that typically characterize the General Assembly’s annual term. 

Heading into 2019, most agreed on what would be the biggest issues of the session: funding for teacher pay and the Department of Child Services, major changes to the gambling industry, and a hate crimes law.

Yet those issues didn’t generate much furor over the session’s four months. House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis) summed it up:

“This has not been a pulling-teeth session, as some are,” he says.

Take DCS. A year ago, controversy at the child welfare agency was highly charged. The former director said the governor’s policies would lead to children dying. Democrats wanted investigations.

This year, Rep. Ed DeLaney (D-Indianapolis) says the rhetoric settled down.

“I think there’s an unspoken hope that the new management of DCS will be able to turn that ship around,” DeLaney says.

And lawmakers easily approved multiple bills aimed at further reforms around the agency.

Let’s look at teacher pay funding. Debate on the issue was ignited last year by studies that suggest Indiana is at or near the bottom of the country for teacher pay raises.

Educators, like Indianapolis’s Amber Seibert, demonstrated in their communities throughout session.

“Teachers, we’re being expected to do more but we’re being given less. And teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate,” Seibert says.

There were also a couple rallies at the Statehouse, highlighted by Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick’s criticism of her fellow Republicans.

“Because you and I, we all know we have got to be better than this,” McCormick says.

But those rallies and demonstrations didn’t seem to resonate in the chambers. And when Republican leaders held a press conference near the end of session with school officials to tout their education funding package, teacher representatives were absent.

Still, Gov. Eric Holcomb said he hopes teachers are happy.

“This is a historic increase to K-12 investment,” Holcomb says.

So, if DCS and teacher pay didn’t charge things up at the Statehouse, what about gaming?

“In past years, we’ve made small tweaks to gaming policy,” says Rep. Peggy Mayfield (R-Martinsville). “And when we do – or when it’s proposed – everyone in the industry is running around with their hair on fire.”

This year’s bill clears the path for the state’s first new casinos in a decade and legalizes sports wagering statewide. Some called that a monumental shift, a once-in-a-generation effort. Or, as Mayfield put it, a “grenade” in the middle of the industry.

“And strangely enough, everybody seems to be on board,” she says.

Even abortion, the most highly-charged subject in the political world, failed to generate much of a storm. This year’s anti-abortion bill was met with a kind of muted resignation by even its fiercest opponents, like Sen. Jean Breaux (D-Indianapolis).

“Here we go again,” Breaux says.

READ MORE: ACLU Sues Indiana Over Latest Anti-Abortion Law

And then there’s the hate crimes debate. No one issue captured as much attention in 2019. And Governor Holcomb, who advocated for a comprehensive hate crimes sentencing law, urged the public to get involved.

“I’m going to encourage them not to stop with me, not to just write me,” Holcomb says. “They’ve got my vote. But they need to contact the legislators that vote.”

But there were no huge rallies at the Statehouse. Republican leaders said their phones weren’t ringing off the hook on the issue. And when a hate crimes bill did pass, Holcomb and the GOP declared victory while advocates grumbled that it didn’t go far enough.

So why, then, was 2019 so quiet? Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane (D-Anderson) has a theory: a lack of bold leadership.

“I don’t think this was a session where, at the end of it, you could say we pushed the envelope to move Indiana forward and that’s the problem that I have,” Lanane says.

Speaker Bosma has his own, somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer.

“Outstanding management, thoughtful strategies, careful planning … we only had two late nights, that’s never happened in institutional memory,” he says. “Our team worked very hard to keep things moving and we were able to do it.”

Whatever the reason, perhaps the safest bet is that the quiet won’t last.