The World’s Worst Legislature

Harrison Ullmann used to call the Indiana General Assembly “The World’s Worst Legislature.”

At the start of each legislative session, my husband used to warn everyone to watch their pocketbooks and count their spoons–“Like the shark in Jaws, they’re baaack…”

Yesterday, I linked to the Star article detailing the cozy relationships, conflicts of interest, and general lack of sensitivity to ethics that characterize the Indiana legislature. Today’s lesson involves a law that has been sailing through the process with little or no conversation–a measure that illustrates perfectly the perils of being a city in a state with no home rule in a state governed by a herd of petty dictators.

Senate Bill 213 would invalidate Indianapolis’ hard-won ordinance that protects gays and lesbians against job discrimination. By its terms, the law–which has passed both houses and awaits Mike Pence’s signature–denies cities and towns the right to pass employment measures inconsistent with state or federal law. The sponsors insist that their goal was to address the hodgepodge of wage and hour laws around the state, not to invalidate the grant of civil rights, and profess surprise that the measure could be interpreted to do so.

Either the sponsors are being disingenuous, or they are unbelievably naive. By its terms, the bill invalidates any provision of an employment contract that gives employees benefits not granted by the state or required by the federal government. Nowhere does the language limit its effect to wages.

Municipalities in Indiana whose own residents have engaged in the democratic process and passed civil rights protections for GLBT employees include Bloomington, Lafayette and West Lafayette, Michigan City, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Evansville and New Albany. But then, what do the citizens of those cities know? Why should they be allowed to make their own decisions about the requirements of fair treatment?

Even if you believe that this is a case of unintended consequences, the essential lesson remains: our arrogant lawmakers believe they know better than local folks what we should be able to pay workers and how we should be able to treat them. That attitude is manifest in the discussions about mass transit–why should we allow central Indiana residents to decide for themselves whether they want transit enough to pay for it?

I remember the political activism that preceded Indianapolis’ passage of the current ordinance. A lot of people worked very hard to pass the measure–exactly the sort of civic activism that all politicians claim to respect, and that teachers try to encourage.

Yesterday, during a discussion of political activism, several of my undergraduate students justified their political apathy by expressing a belief that individuals really can’t do anything that would change or otherwise affect “the system.”

Indiana’s legislators are working hard to prove them right.


  1. The older I get, the more I tend to agree with the sentiments expressed by your students. Even when my party is in power, I am re-amazed by the stupidity, pettiness and vindictiveness of legislators. However, hopelessness is no excuse for not speaking out. We surrender what dignity we retain, when we silently acquiesce.

  2. Below is the copy of my letter to the editor of the Star this morning in response to the article “Does bill eliminate anti-bias guards?” I doubt that it will be published; thank you Sheila for jumping on this issue immediately. The actions of the elected officials in this city and state keep sinking lower; will they ever hit bottom? At this point in time, is there a bottom the GOP can reach before beginning to move up to the once responsible party we worked for under Mayor Hudnut?

    The headline of this article posed a question which makes me question if any legislators in the Indiana House or Senate bothered to read this bill to know and understand exactly what they passed. The only answer I could come up with is – NO – Republicans rubber-stamped a gobledygook of preventions and restrictions written by a Republican. Mayor Ballard and his staff should have read and fully understood SB 213 in full before it was passed as it effects his future plans for this city; not waited till an hour after it’s passage to question what it said and what it meant. Mike Speedy (R) who sponsored the bill and Phil Boots (R) who wrote the bill state “the bill is aimed solely at stopping local governments from requiring private employers to pay wages or benefits greater than what is already required by state or federal laws.” Speedy, who voted against the 2005 human rights ordinance, said “nullifying that ordinance was never my intent.” The intent of SB 213 is blatantly another anti-union action by the State of Indiana with added specific targets. The front page headline “Indiana leading push to ban gay unions” will bear this out. The primary author of this national anti-gay movement is Indiana’s own Attorney General Greg Zoeller (R). Both of these actions is going against growing public opinion supporting the civil rights of LGBT American citizens throughout this country.

  3. Harrison Ullman’s line is nonsense. What goes on in the Indiana legislature goes on in all 50 state legislatures and in Congress. The notion that we somehow have the “worst” legislature is pure silliness.

    Every state legislature gets called the “worst.” I once did a google study to see which legislature gets labeled the “worst” most frequently. Indiana’s legislature did not finish anywhere close to the top.

  4. I once read that the ultimate optimist and the ultimate pessimist encountered each other. The optimist said, “This is the best of all possible worlds.” The pessimist agreed. Unfortunately, Mr. Ogden might be correct in his assessment that conflicts of interest such as those described in the paper “goes on in all 50 legislatures and in Congress.” Indiana is not “special” in this regard. I still believe the only plausible argument one could make about the Indiana General Assembly having progressed in ethics, in any way, is to rely upon something Irving Liebowitz wrote. It was said the way to pass a bill through the Indiana General Assembly was to toss a papersack full of cash over a transom in the Claypool Hotel in the dark of night. Today there is no Claypool Hotel, therefore, as a character said in “Casablanca,” “We are as honest as the day is long.”

  5. Its Indianastan….Dominated by rural ignorance and reinforced by right-wing demagogues looking for a job. It makes sense that the state wants to control the affairs of Indianapolis & other local Governments because they dont want it to be like our dastadly liberal neighbors to the west, Illinois!

  6. Thanks Prof. This is a very sad development. I HOPE their extreme overreach comes back to bit them. Maybe. We are seeing a similar pattern in Madison, WI where the “R” people are firmly in control. A good bill was introduced to try to regulate the FOR PROFIT schools. They take huge amounts money from the federal funding pool and produce poor results. They account for few grads and lots of unpaid student loans. They only exist to extract taxpayer money. A law to regulate these schemes would be in order in any state. It died a quick death as the for profit schools and their paid legislators put a stake in its heart. The “R” people really are shameless. This does nothing to protect the taxpayer or the student. It ONLY benefits the for profit school. Great. Legislative greed and stupidity indeed are widespread in this new Tea Party World.

  7. Another legislator, Lindel Hume (D-Princeton) is leaving with the comment “…we used to be able to work in the same direction [but] there’s a change in that attitude”. Good people are leaving representative government because representative government is becoming mean-spirited and inhabited by wingnuts, so whether we are REALLY at the bottom is an academic question. If that is the story everywhere else, the idea of representative government and the legislature being a deliberative body is in trouble, and for different reasons than the ones who insist on their “freedoms”. We are losing the point of freedom.

  8. The corruption in Indiana’s legislature is noteworthy primarily because it goes unprosecuted. When I worked for the legislature in Illinois, there was a general rule that there was always at least one member either under investigation or on trial for public corruption–by the federal government. It was funny because there really were no secrets about who was on the take for those of us who worked inside the State House. I remember sitting in my boss’ office one time for a meeting with the caucus legislative leaders when he said out loud that he heard a rumor the FBI had his office bugged. They were investigating him as it turned out, but the close as they got to him was his chief of staff, the wife of Cook Co. judge who did wind up going to prison for doing campaign work on state time. Served him right. My former boss let out a public sigh of relief when the statute of limitations ran against him. Everyone was ordered for years to conduct political work on state time, sometimes using our state offices and state phones; only the attorneys on staff bugged out, complaining that they didn’t want to lose their license to practice law. The same is true at the Indiana State House. For many decades, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Indianapolis has been run by political hacks of both parties who simply won’t prosecute the same cases that are regularly prosecuted in Illinois for officials at all levels of government. The Northern District U.S. Attorney’s Office is a tad tougher, but it’s got Lake County where the low-hanging fruit is plentiful.

  9. Right on, Gary. We also have a home in Lake County where our vote counts and counts. There are places in Lake County where people think that corrupt practices are legal. Some are pretty careful, though. Many towns squashed next to each other, with different practices.

  10. Does there come a time when we are forced to admit that Indiana has sunk so low – as measured by virtually any standard of fairness – in working through the issues of the 21st century, that it is time to express our discontent by actions well beyond criticizing and campaigning to halt the demise of our once-beloved Hoosier state? Over the course of history – take this chemistry and mathematics trained writer’s view of history with a grain of salt – it seems that there are times when the only recourse to theocracies that press their unwanted religious view on all, and oligarchies that became entrenched and corrupted, has been to pack-up and get on the Mayflower. At what point is it time for fair-minded responsible citizens to say: “That’s it, I’m not supporting this oppression with my tax dollars any longer – I’m out of here?” Now that Indiana has nosed out Arizona, Alabama, Mississippi, Michigan, Kansas, and the Dakotas as the legislative testing ground for the most outrageous and oppressive measures that the American Legislative Exchange Council can conjure up during the off-season, is it time to absorb the emotional pain of leaving family and friends and make a statement with more political and economic impact? I mean like Illinois has an Assembly Hall too, and the women there are not required to undergo a legislative rape when consulting with their physicians. And that Illinois license plate isn’t too bad either. True, several past Illinois governors and legislators have had to do some time – doubting it was hard time – but that may be due more to Gary Welch’s prosecutorial analysis than to any actual difference in Illinois and Indiana gubernatorial and legislative adventures.
    (After a decade in retirement, this is my first rant, and if I wish to remain happily married, it will likely be the last rant – she who must be obeyed has spoken.)

  11. Bob Small, we had that with the walkout. By objective measure, that was rock-bottom: NO legislative process, caused by a special-interest funded vacation. At least this time around we can get everybody in the same room. That’s a start.

    Knowing people who have been victims of sexual abuse, your use of the expression “legislative rape” is extremely offensive. There is only one kind of rape and suggesting it can be compared to anything else is a bad thing.

  12. An edited version of my letter to the editor of the Star (#2) questioning SB 213 eliminating anti-bias guards was published. The published version omitted my reference to the article regarding Indiana Attorney General Zoeller being the primary author of the bill before the Supreme Court to ban gay unions. These articles and the issues are, of course, joined the hip.

    Today the Star published another article spotlighting another attempt by the Legislature (HB 1175) to exert control over releasing public records which is in accordance with state and federal law by being allowed to charge $20 per hour for research (Public-records bill stalls in Senate, page 3, Metro & State section). To quote Gerry Lanosga, president of Indiana Coalition for Open Government, “The fact is that all public documents in any public agency are bought and paid for with tax dollars, so I think access to them ought to be pretty unfettered.” Having been in the position of researching and copying requested public records, I understand it is time-consuming but more important is the fact that the public has the right to know what is being done on public issues using tax dollars – at no charge. In other words, the record keepers would be paid a fee for obeying the law. As an employee of the City of Indianapolis and records secretary for the Metropolitan Development Commission, we received numerous requests for information, we charged a copy fee of 35 cents per page under the Goldsmith administration. Prior to that, there was no charge as it was part of our job and was defined by law.

  13. I have to admit, when I first saw the title of this post, I thought, for a split second, that Mrs. Kennedy meant the Federal Legislative body. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t get much worse than that.

  14. In my earlier comment (#7), I pointed out that another legislator was leaving, not that Mr. Hume was “good” or “bad”, and that he was the most recent from among a number of folks who, from the inside, are seeing a change in tenor, from a collegial and deliberative relationship to an ideological one. The specific behaviors, which never constitute a healthy development, have been mentioned in this blog in one way or another several times. In case anyone is interested, the story with the entire comment was in the Princeton Clarion on March 17 (

  15. The behavior has been very toned down this session. Generally, it’s been much more cordial than the last few years, and it’s much better than when Bauer ran the House.

    What evidence do you have of this “change in tenor”?

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