Your elected representatives at the statehouse aren’t just working for you. In fact, many of them have other full-time jobs in a wide variety of industries across the state – the insurance industry, the agriculture industry, the health care industry and the manufacturing industry among them.
Naturally, those industries all have a vested interest in pursuing various business-friendly policies they’d like to see enacted at the Statehouse, where our elected lawmakers work part-time for the state, earning a per diem of about $180 a day when the legislature is in session.
Julia Vaughn with Common Cause Indiana says that can cause some issues from time to time.
“The problem with that is that conflicts of interest happen,” said Vaughn.
What kinds of conflicts?
Vaughn points to a bill passed last year dealing with our state’s wetlands, changing the permitting requirements for builders and developers. The bill’s authors, Sen. Chris Garten, Sen. Mark Messmer and Sen. Linda Rogers are all connected to the industry.
“That was an issue where many of us said that doesn’t look right when they’re going to benefit financially,” said Vaughn.
In a statement to the IndyStar last year, Rogers said her experience in the building industry did not play a role in her decision-making on this issue.
But it’s far from the only example.
State Sen. Chip Perfect, R-Lawrenceburg, owns Perfect North ski slopes in southern Indiana, which employs hundreds of teenagers. In 2019, the senator proposed a measure to remove work permit and hours restrictions for 16-and-17-year-old workers.
State Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, is the ranking Democratic member of the House Ways and Means Committee which allocates funding in the state budget, and also serves as a senior VP at the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, which is currently taking a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus wants them to drop that lawsuit, as outlined in a letter with Porter’s name on it which they wrote to Porter’s own employer.
In a statement, Porter’s press secretary said: “Representative Porter has and continues to abide by and practice the recusal process, as do many of his Indiana General Assembly colleagues. This practice helps preserve the personal integrity and legislative ethics of state representatives, while avoiding conflicts of interest that naturally arise as members of a part-time legislature, to the extent that any exist.”
Recently, House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, also found himself caught between his public and private roles. Last year, he had a six-figure job with The College Board, the national group that administers the SATs and advanced placement courses in high schools nationwide. But in the midst of a curriculum debate last year, activists called on The College Board to fire Huston, and days later he stepped down saying “it was just the right time.”
Huston’s counterpart in the Senate told us recently he sees no issue with the way the General Assembly operates.
“The value and the importance of being a part-time legislature, I’m a big proponent of that and will continue to be,” said State Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray, R-Martinsville. “People bring their expertise and their knowledge here to help craft good legislation.”
And with or without controversy, other lawmakers are also publicly visible in multiple roles.
For instance, State Rep. Mitch Gore, D-Indianapolis, who also serves as a Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy and has appeared in various press conferences as a lawmaker, and in others as a deputy.
Other lawmakers work as attorneys, educators and in various other public roles that often intersect with the policy decisions made at the Statehouse.
“Some do a good job of self-regulating, others not so much,” said Vaughn.
“We have an ethics committee so that if somebody is going to financially benefit from a law they are authoring, sponsoring, or voting on, they take that in front of the ethics committee,” said Bray. “But you’re going to have some of those conflicts every year because people engage in this business… so some of those conflicts are just going to come up.”
“The tendency is to hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” said Vaughn. “For many years, the leadership has acted as if conflicts of interest are inevitable. I think that’s ridiculous. I think that’s an excuse.”
Vaughn points to recent controversies like the one involving former State Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, who faced scrutiny for his family’s connections to the nursing home industry. Now, Vaughn wants tougher standards at the Statehouse and an ethics commission that includes regular citizens.
We also spoke with Bill Moreau, who founded a group called the Indiana Citizen to try and you give you more information about your government. On their website, you can find information about your elected officials at the Statehouse, and their professional background.
“We think it starts with having the information readily accessible to voters,” said Moreau. “Voters should know what’s motivating their state representative or senator to vote in a certain way.”