INDIANAPOLIS | It is still seven months until members of the Indiana General Assembly resume regular daily meetings. But in many ways the 2014 legislative session began earlier this month, when the first study committees convened at the Statehouse.
Hoosier lawmakers use study committees as a tool to help them gain a deeper understanding of issues before they pass new state laws, as well as a way to see how effectively recently passed or long-existing laws are being implemented.
"I have always said that the committees are the workhorses of the Statehouse," said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.
For instance, the Department of Child Services Interim Study Committee last year heard from 65 witnesses over seven meetings and made six recommendations it believed would improve the then-beleaguered state child protection agency.
Each recommendation eventually was enacted into law during the 2013 session in part because a significant number of lawmakers already were familiar with the issues facing DCS thanks to their summer study work.
Throughout this summer and fall, lawmakers of both parties from both chambers will meet to discuss ideas, listen to expert testimony and hash out compromises that often are the starting point for major policy changes.
With the 2014 legislative session scheduled to last just 10 weeks, from early January to mid-March, experienced lawmakers know their proposals must be in near-perfect form on the first day of session if they're going to make it to the governor's desk.
"These summer study committees are a vital part of the legislative process in Indiana," said state Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso. "Even though session takes place during the first few months of the year, the foundation for legislation is discussed, debated and developed in these study committees."
Some of the major topics set for review this summer are Indiana's continued participation in the Common Core education standards, how to improve school safety, ISTEP+ testing interruptions, a potential requirement that food stamp recipients carry photo identification, additional changes to the state's criminal code and proposals to reduce school absenteeism.
Lawmakers also will study, among dozens of additional assigned topics, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the state's approach to addiction and mental health treatment, public transit funding issues, the roles of regional university campuses and an overall review of state income tax credits.
Legislative leaders generally assign members to study committees based on expertise, interest and availability.
The chairmanship of committees typically switches annually between the majority party in each chamber. This year, Senate Republicans will lead or co-lead nearly all the study committees.
Charbonneau's three committee chairmanships are most among region Senate Republicans. He'll oversee the Environmental Quality Service Council, Water Resources Study Committee and the Compliance Advisory Panel.
State Sen. Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake, is chairwoman of the Census Data Advisory Committee, while state Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, is chairman of the Commission on State Tax and Financing Policy.
Owing to an alternative committee leadership schedule, state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, will serve this summer as chairman of the Joint Study Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Assessment and Solutions.