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.