Commentary

Short session agnosia

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Everyone will have a favorite piece of legislation to root for or against this session of the Indiana General Assembly, so there is a chance some of the lesser bills will escape attention.

Here are three I’ll be monitoring.

House Bill 1013, which would designate the mastodon as the state fossil.

Senate Bill 81, which would require the teaching of cursive writing in Indiana schools.

S.B. 124, which would change the rules governing when Hoosier drivers must engage their turn signals.

I like the mastodon bill because it is utterly inconsequential, costing nothing, affecting nobody, leaving not a single wrinkle in the fabric of our lives.

The cursive bill could be described as meddling in local education affairs, but it has roughly zero chance of passing. Sen. Jean Lessing has been on a quixotic mission to improve our penmanship for years.

Hoosiers might be alarmed at the turn-signal bill, since most of us drive. But never fear. Current law requires signaling 200 feet ahead of a turn, which is problematic in urban areas, since many intersections are fewer feet apart than that. So, the new standard would be to signal, period, the distance left to the driver.

Basically, a standard that can’t be complied with will be replaced with one too vague to matter. But it’s such a trivial issue that it’s hard to work up any resentment except mild irritation.

Useless. Pointless. Mildly irritating. That says a lot, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, a bill was just introduced, aiming to reform prison sentencing, that is none of those things. Or, rather, the goal is to un-reform prison sentencing in order to correct a whopping big blunder the Legislature made nearly a decade ago.

In 2013, legislators thought they had a brilliant idea to partially empty the state’s embarrassingly overcrowded prisons. The lowest-level felons would go not to prison but to county jails, where, in the words of The Associated Press, they would receive “intensive local probation, work-release or addiction-treatment programs that would help prevent them from becoming career criminals.”

In one way, it worked all too well. The number of inmates being sent to state prisons dropped by about 40 percent a year, for a total of nearly 6,000.

But legislators did not exactly do due diligence to find out whether counties could handle a jail population that exploded by 60 percent. As a result, “most of the state’s 92 jails” are “overcrowded, understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the influx of people with addiction and other mental health issues.”

You’d think that having to cope with such a colossal misjudgment would give legislators a little humility, make them a little more cautious about what they know, a little less ambitious about what they think they can fix.

But no.

This is the short session, with the two-year budget safely in place, when legislators should attend to loose ends and errant contingencies. Indiana has an embarrassment of riches — hundreds of millions of federal funds floating around and a state surplus that is approaching 30 percent of the budget. Lawmakers should just give us a tax cut — even a modest one — and return home to praise for a job well done.

Instead, they are debating legislation that would have profound effects on the everyday lives of Hoosiers, on everything from how their children will be educated to how their employers must deal with a pandemic. They will plow ahead regardless of how little they really know about local conditions, let alone local desires.

Heaven only knows what they will have to undo in 2031.

By the way, in addition to a state tree, flower, song and seal, we can be proud to boast of a state insect and a state snack. But before we worry about a state fossil, shouldn’t we designate a state fish and mammal?

You may print your proposals. Cursive isn’t necessary.

Yet.

 

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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