What Legislatures are For

Given the antics of the Indiana General Assembly in the just (mercifully) ended session, you might think the role of the legislature is to ensure proper singing of the national anthem,  determine whether children need to learn cursive and require the BMV to honor the prejudices of people who hate gays. So it might come as something of a surprise to learn that this branch of government really does have a proper function.

Okay, for a lot of us, it apparently comes as a surprise to learn that we have three branches of government–and that there is a reason that the legislature is separate from the executive branch.

Which brings me to a story reported by the Courier Press a week or so ago.

The Governor has been supporting a coal gasification plant being developed in Rockport, Indiana. He has been so supportive, in fact, that he has had the Indiana Finance Authority negotiate a 30-year contract to purchase the gas and resell it to Hoosier ratepayers. And Daniels also favored an award of a 20-year, $120 million dollar tax credit to the plant operation–a tax credit that required legislative approval.

When the legislature proved reluctant to provide that approval, the administration suddenly decided that the credit could be enacted by the Indiana Department of Revenue. No legislative action needed, thanks very much.

Now, I don’t know whether the criticisms of the Rockport plant as a boondoggle, and the Governor’s support as “crony capitalism”are accurate. I do know that the questions raised by other utilities and some lawmakers are legitimate, and deserve answers. Maybe taxpayer support can be justified, maybe not.

But I do know that legislatures are supposed to make these kinds of decisions.

Let’s revisit the first lesson of high school government: the legislature decides what policies to enact, and the administrative branch–under the stewardship of the chief executive–administers those policies. In the real world, of course, it is never that neat–government workers in the executive branch necessarily “make policy” in some sense when dealing with the public. But it is not within the authority of the administration to decide whether taxpayers will go on the hook for $120 million-dollar coal gasification plant.

It’s called “checks and balances.”

As the head of the Citizens Action Coalition put it, “I thought we overthrew the monarchy in 1776.”

Let me spell this out: approving applications for specialty license plates is an administrative function. Deciding whether to teach cursive is an administrative function. Deciding to spend $120 million dollars of taxpayer money on a new technology is a legislative function.

Do we provide these people with job descriptions?


  1. Actually the legislature is fully within its authority to pass laws regarding passing out speciality plates and teaching cursive. Those may be tasks better left to others, but the legislature weighing in is not inconsistent with separation of powers. The body of your article though I strongly agree with. The Gov. should have gotten legislative approval of the tax credit. No doubt about it.

  2. Just because they CAN do it (or not do it) doesn’t mean they SHOULD. It’s easier to deal with specialty plates, teaching cursive, and naming a state gun than to put themselves on the line yea or nay on an ISSUE. Did you know that at one time, the Indiana General Assembly almost passed a law declaring that the formula for pi should not exceed two decimal points? For the whole story, see http://www.ralphsramblings.com, a blog by Ralph D. Gray, Professor Emeritus, IUPUI.

  3. It is shameful. Every year I participate as a citizen lobbyist for the past 5 years. I got a chance to speak to my representative that he couldn’t vote on a bill, the reason he gave was logical, but I pushed and asked why these other issues have not been taken care of…Supposedly the criminal code is to be reworked this summer, apparently this has not been done since the early 70’s. In the meantime reasonable bills will not be passed because the entire criminal code needs to be reworked. I told him what a great way to justify some of these offense to recieve greater penalties by passing the bill. Frustrating…

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