Indiana Capital Chronicle: Roundup: public access counselor, child labor and birth control bills finalized

<p>The Indiana Statehouse in downtown Indianapolis. <strong>Eric Pritchett, DN</strong></p>

The Indiana Statehouse in downtown Indianapolis. Eric Pritchett, DN

Both chambers moved priority bills Wednesday, with a dwindling number of measures left to finalize before an anticipated adjournment on Friday.

In the Senate, a child care bill passed on a 45-2 vote, a move that would establish “microcenters” of less than 30 children, expand subsidies for child care workers and analyze industry wages. 

“This bill would help create more reliable and affordable child care for all Hoosiers,” Sen. Ed Charbonneau said in a release. “Senate Enrolled Act 2 would give Indiana the opportunity to address the child care shortage many families are facing and gain more information on ways we can continue to improve child care standards.”

Meanwhile, the House convened three separate times Wednesday to push forward dozens of proposals. Bills considered included a meeting decorum bill altered to target a state government role, loosening child labor laws and a birth control mandate.

All of the bills now move to the governor.

House Chamber actions

House lawmakers consented to Senate changes on a handful of House bills Wednesday afternoon.

Those measures included House Bill 1003, a priority for the Republican caucus, that would create a “more efficient” and balanced administrative appeals process by making Indiana’s Office of Administrative Law the “ultimate authority” on disputes between agencies and members of the public. 

But Bloomington Rep. Matt Pierce expressed concerns about shifting some of that process away from in-house experts within state agencies, especially in environmental law. 

“Now you have to hope that your judge is an expert in chemical engineering,” Pierce, a Democrat, said about the change. “You’re really undermining the agencies and you’re empowering the judges to basically inject their own opinions, their own feelings about the case.”

The bill advanced on a 70-24 vote along party lines. 

Despite their Senate colleagues’ qualms, House Democrats appeared to be more supportive of an effort to require hospitals to stock and offer certain long-acting reversible contraceptives and offer them to women on Medicaid after childbirth. 

Senate Democrats have pushed back against House Bill 1426 because Senate Republicans struck intrauterine devices, or IUDs, rather than just the subdermal implant the final version mandates. 

Cognizant of the criticism, Democrat Rep. Rita Fleming said it is still an option for Medicaid recipients — which she previously noted make up more than half of Indiana’s births — because providers could still stock and offer IUDs. 

She is the author of the bill, which originally included IUDs.

“It is unethical for a health care provider to not offer all options, the risks and the benefits. And it is disingenuous and disgraceful to suggest that health care providers would do otherwise,” Fleming said. “I appreciate your support. Thank you.”

A bipartisan coalition voted against the bill — including five Republicans and four Democrats.

Public Access Counselor under fire

But the bill garnering the most attention was one that would curtail the office of the Public Access Counselor (PAC), a little-known office tasked with interpreting the state’s public records and meetings laws. It squeaked by on a 56-38 vote.

Previously, the bill only gave some protections to localities dealing with disruptive members of the public. 

But the new restrictions, added by the Senate, would allow a governor to dismiss the state’s PAC at any time, rather than a “for cause” dismissal currently allowed during a four-year term. House Bill 1338 would also limit the PAC to considering only the “plain text” of the state’s public access laws and “valid” court opinions when putting together non-binding advisory opinions.

Senate Republicans have pointed to some of PAC Luke Britt’s advisories on school board meetings as the impetus for the language. Democrats, however, have argued the changes limit the PAC’s independence.

“That essentially means if somebody gets mad enough to complain to the governor, or maybe the governor himself gets mad, they can just remove the (PAC),” Pierce said. He added that the proposal would increase the likelihood that PAC opinions are “influenced by politics.”

Pierce also worried that legislation could overly limit Britt if he’s asked to rule on vague areas of the law. Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City, said advisories from the PAC could instead ask lawmakers to clarify those gray areas. Prescott authored the underlying bill. 

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, called the addition of the PAC language a “step back for public access.”

“We’re going to fool around with the language of the law. We’re going to fool around with the tenure of this office and we’re doing it all so that people will know less,” DeLaney said. “A vote for this is a vote for a less informed public, a vote for less open meetings, a vote for less public discussion.”

But not everyone thought the language would do much.

Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, recounted fighting with government agencies over access to public records while investigating insurance climbs.

“‘By God, it’s a public record and you’re going to give it to me,'” he recalled, noting that “letter-writing contest” took place before the PAC’s office was created in 1999. For him, the statute establishing access to public records rights is strong enough.

“… I didn’t even understand why that office was created. I don’t think this is a significant change,” Torr said. “… the public access counselor’s opinion really doesn’t mean anything.”


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