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July 6, 2009

Posted by Laura Arnold in Uncategorized.
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July 5, 2009
Indianapolis Star

Some ideas on improving the legislature

Politics isn’t supposed to be pretty. It isn’t supposed to be perfect. And let’s be honest: If it was, it wouldn’t be much fun.

Still, the dysfunction at the Indiana Statehouse reached alarming levels during this year’s just-concluded General Assembly session.

And, again, while I wouldn’t want a political scene free of battles, intense debates or even the occasional silliness, the session proved once again that Indiana desperately needs a better-functioning legislature.

Here are five suggestions with that goal in mind:

1. The legislature should allow a nonpartisan group to draw legislative district maps that don’t take political considerations or incumbent clout into account. The long tradition of gerrymandering results in a majority of districts dominated by one party or the other. This, of course, leads to largely symbolic elections; one party is essentially predestined to win based on the demographics of the district.

Fairly drawn districts, in contrast, would lead to more competitive political campaigns and higher voter turnout. They might also bring out a higher caliber of candidates, as parties would be forced to recruit top-notch candidates for competitive races. This step would strip political parties and incumbents of much of the advantage they now have.

2. Indiana should impose new restrictions aimed at reducing the clout of lobbyists. The coziness between lawmakers and lobbyists is on display every day during the session — in the Statehouse halls and at dinners and receptions.

What should be done? For starters, lawmakers should be forced to immediately disclose all meetings with lobbyists. Some say this is too strict. But what’s wrong with voters knowing more about those who influence their representatives?

3. The legislature should limit the number of years members can serve as party leaders or committee chairs. One of the legislature’s biggest problems is a lack of fresh blood. Another, particularly in the House, is the lack of rank-and-file members willing to buck entrenched party leaders. Too few people (see: Bauer, Pat) hold too much power for too long.

While I’m not sold on the idea of term limits, the General Assembly could at least limit the time any one lawmaker can hold a position of power.

4. Legislative hearings should be held in the evenings and away from the Statehouse. Lawmakers spend their days surrounded by partisan politics and hallway lobbyists. As the months pass, the legislative culture takes hold of even the most sincere lawmaker.

Meanwhile, average Hoosiers can hardly be expected to attend midday, midweek hearings in Downtown Indy. Lawmakers should hold meetings at libraries and schools around the state — anything to remind them that life within the Statehouse walls in not representative of Indiana.

5. This one’s for you, dear reader: Pay more attention to state politics. No, it’s not as sexy as national politics. But one reason the legislature is filled with so much goofiness is that too few voters pay attention to it.

Matthew Tully has covered government and politics since 1992. He started his career at the Gary Post-Tribune, later covered the U.S. Senate for Congressional Quarterly, and has worked for The Indianapolis Star since 2002. He was named the paper’s political columnist in 2005. In 2008, Tully was named “Journalist of the Year” by the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and also won the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors’ top award — the Kent Cooper prize for best overall newswriting. Raised in northwest Indiana, Tully graduated (barely) from Indiana University in 1992. A lifelong fan of Elvis Presley and the Chicago Cubs, he lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Valerie.

Phone: 1-317-444-6033
E-mail:
matthew.tully@indystar.com
Twitter: @MatthewLTully
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