INDIANAPOLIS | With the 2015 legislative session in their rearview mirrors, Northwest Indiana's three new state representatives agreed they all learned a lot during their four months at the Statehouse and it was an experience they'll never forget.
In a twist on typical region politics, three Republicans were elected last year to represent portions of Lake and Porter counties in the Indiana House: state Reps. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron; Bill Fine, R-Munster; and Julie Olthoff, R-Crown Point.
Fine and Olthoff never had held elected office before. Aylesworth, on the other hand, previously served as a Porter County commissioner and on the county council, lobbied lawmakers as president of the Indiana Corn Growers Association and worked as a state environmental regulator.
Olthoff admitted it was hard at first to crack the many acronyms and procedural shortcuts that are a way of life in the House, though she quickly discovered just about everyone was willing to lend a helping hand.
"I think people here for the most part want to do good and make a difference," Olthoff said. "You feel honored to be part of the process."
She had the somewhat unique experience of watching her primary legislative proposal — authorizing nonprofits to host wine auctions without obtaining a liquor license — hit every possible stop on the line from introduction to enactment, including a House-Senate conference committee that crafted the final version of her measure after it passed both chambers.
"I'm thankful for that because you really see how a bill travels," Olthoff said. "I didn't come from the political world, so my expectations were different from somebody who comes from politics. It really expanded my horizons about how it all works."
Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed Olthoff's House Enrolled Act 1435 into law May 4. It takes effect July 1.
Fine said his first year went about as expected, though he was surprised at "the quality of the support staff, the number of people who are here to make you look good and help you through the process.
"I expected it to be challenging and it has been, but it's a great growth opportunity," Fine said. "I've never dealt with policy as much as you have to when you're here, so it's a new perspective for me."
He helped win passage of new laws expanding the civil jurisdiction of most city and town courts in Lake County (House Enrolled Act 1307), changing the weighted vote distribution of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (House Enrolled Act 1164) and authorizing area planning zoning in Lake County (Senate Enrolled Act 429).
Fine joked that as an attorney he sometimes wondered what state legislators were thinking when they wrote some laws — "Now I understand how it actually gets accomplished," he said.
At the same time, Fine discovered he was able to use his experience as a legal practitioner, especially in House committees, to reshape legislative proposals by making them easier to understand and more useful for the lawyers who ultimately will be dealing with the new laws on a regular basis.
Aylesworth, too, found the legislative session lived up to his expectations, even when it appeared at times to go off the rails.
"There were peaks and valleys, some exciting times that we didn't expect, but I think that usually happens in almost every session," he said. "They are people trying to do what's best for Indiana, so I'm very proud of that."
By keeping his eye on the ball, Aylesworth helped pass into law Senate Enrolled Act 390, mandating county commissioner oversight of the Lake County Solid Waste Management District; House Enrolled Act 1281, providing new investment options for Porter County hospital sale proceeds; and Senate Enrolled Act 474, planning for future water use needs.
He said his biggest surprise was the camaraderie among members, especially in private meetings of House Republicans.
"I didn't know how raucous it would be in caucus, but everyone conducts themselves very respectfully," Aylesworth said. "People can air out their differences, but then come back together for a good vote that ends up in the right direction."
"It's really a fine process," he added. "It's a democracy."
The 119th Indiana General Assembly adjourned for the year April 29.
Most lawmakers, including these three, will return to the Statehouse intermittently throughout the summer and fall to participate in study committees that will prepare proposals for the 2016 legislative session that convenes in January.