Niki Kelly: Study committees often a study in pointlessness

A recent prosecutorial oversight committee could be the poster child for why Indiana doesn’t need Legislative Interim Study Committees.

The group held one meeting. It lasted one hour. No member of the public testified. The group came up with no recommendations.

And that isn’t an aberration. Unfortunately, it is a rarity when these committees actually get something done. Over my 20-plus years covering them, I have seen that happen only a handful of times.

These committees — which used to be called summer study committees — are made up of lawmakers from the House and Senate and sometimes other stakeholders with expertise in a subject area. This could include judges, mayors and teachers. They now largely don’t occur until what could charitably be called late summer or early fall.

There are two thoughts behind the process.

The first is when a topic truly is complicated and could use additional time and expertise to delve into solutions that the expedited session process doesn’t allow.

The second is when a controversial proposal is dividing legislators, leadership assigns the topic to a study committee to get it off the table and out of view — to kill it.

But the committees do cost money – largely through per diem for members to attend and mileage reimbursement. The cost this year was about $114,000, according to the Legislative Services Agency.

Most of the final reports have no recommendations for or against legislation. They simply say what they were assigned to do, how many meetings and who spoke. A few have recommendations that are very vague.

And here’s the kicker: nothing they do or say is binding, so anything can happen in the upcoming session regardless of their work product.

Here are a few examples from this year:

  • The Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary was supposed to review weighted caseload study and requests for new judges and magistrates. It met once and “The Committee did not have a sufficient number of members present to make findings, recommendations, or adopt this report.”
  • The Interim Study Committee on Pension Management Oversight had four specific charges, including reviewing the 1977 Fund, pension foreign investment and a public defenders’ retirement fund. It met twice and recommended “that the legislature continue to consider the issue of public defenders’ retirement benefits.”
  • The Interim Study Committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications was supposed to study the securitization of costs for retired electric utility assets. It met once and issued no findings or recommendations.
  • The Interim Study Committee on Fiscal Policy had four different charges, including looking at the complexity index in the school funding formula. It met once and did not make any findings or recommendations.

There is promise in these meetings.

For instance, the Interim Study Committee on Public Health, Behavioral Health and Human Services heard a fascinating report on market concentration of the health insurance industry, and how it leads to higher costs for Hoosiers. But it issued no findings or recommendations. Same for a discussion on the health benefits and legalization of marijuana and THC-related products.

After all, who wants to take controversial votes only weeks before Election Day?

There are a few groups that have gotten things done recently. For instance, the Housing Task Force met three times and delved into the nitty-gritty of the housing shortage, what is making housing expensive and possible solutions. They passed 16 recommendations – some more specific than others – with a clear blueprint for how to address the problem in the 2023 session.

In government, Republicans talk a lot about return on investment, running government like a business and being accountable with taxpayer dollars. I would like to see what legislative leaders think Indiana is getting from these often pointless meetings.

Niki Kelly is editor-in-chief of indianacapitalchronicle.com, where this commentary first appeared. She has covered Indiana politics and the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 for publications including the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Send comments to [email protected]