Tom LoBianco, writing for the Associated Press has an article on summer study committees entitled “Legislative Studies often precede tough action.” That’s true, but – as the article also discusses – it’s often where legislation goes to die. And, I guess that’s appropriate too. Sometimes a study will reveal that no action is the proper action.
Generally the dynamic is that a legislator will have a cause. The cause can’t quite garner enough votes for substantive action. As a way of avoiding total defeat, sometimes the substantive bill will get amended to be a study committee. It’s a half a loaf situation for opponents and proponents alike.
Critics of these studies say they equate to “punting” on the issue, while supporters say it allows the time to delve deeper into a subject after the harried days of the session. Either way, months of routine meetings on one specific topic often help drive action on many of Indiana’s toughest issues.
The best example from this year could be the regulations for religious daycare centers that lawmakers are on the verge of approving. Proposed regulations were often stymied in previous sessions, despite grim reports of child deaths and multiple newspaper investigations that exposed widespread problems. But it wasn’t until after lawmakers spent a summer reviewing the issue that new rules seemed possible.
Maybe things have changed in the 15 years (yikes!) since I was at LSA, but the summer study committee is an area where the General Assembly could stand to study the committee process itself and maybe implement more formal procedures. From my perspective anyway, the process seemed fairly slapdash. The witnesses and materials reviewed by legislators seemed arbitrary and far from comprehensive. The meetings could be sporadic and often rushed at the end of the summer and in the first half of fall. The meetings were, at times, pro forma.
The quality of the studies was largely dependent on who the chair of the committee was. Among other things, some legislators are simply more diligent than others. And, of course, if the study gets assigned to a committee where the chairperson isn’t very interested, not a lot is going to happen. (Though that’s true of the regular session committee as well.)
Another factor is that we still have, at least nominally, a part time legislature. These lawmakers mostly have jobs in the “real” world as well. And they have a lot of catch up to do after spending the winter and early spring in session. So, beefing up the summer study committees will be challenging under the best of circumstances.