INDIANAPOLIS — Two long-serving Northwest Indiana state representatives likely will not see their long-sought legislative priorities enacted into law before leaving the General Assembly.
State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, and state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, thought their respective proposals for a 21-year-old minimum smoking age and equal pay for women mandate might have a better shot at passing the Republican-controlled Legislature this year because neither lawmaker is seeking re-election in November.
Last week, Brown's House Bill 1380 died due to a procedural maneuver that prevented it from advancing out of a second committee. Lawson's House Bill 1390 never got a committee hearing in the House.
"I am disappointed. ... It would have been nice if they were nice to me," Lawson said. "I did think there would be a possibility that I might get a hearing, but I was told that there was no time, or they had too many bills or something."
Brown, too, said he was "overwhelmingly" disappointed to see his broadly supported health improvement plan scuttled with little notice.
"It just doesn't make any sense," he said.
Brown's proposal to increase the minimum age for purchasing or using tobacco products or electronic cigarettes in Indiana was unanimously approved Jan. 29 by the House Public Health Committee.
It appeared destined for a vote by the full chamber this week on whether to send the measure to the Senate.
However, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, instead re-referred the legislation to the House Ways and Means Committee last Tuesday, after the deadline for House committees to advance legislation had passed — effectively killing the measure.
Bosma insisted afterward that wasn't his intent.
But after learning from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb's staff that hiking the minimum smoking age could cause Indiana to lose $14 million in annual cigarette tax revenue, Bosma said he was required by House rules to send Brown's legislation for further review by the committee that creates the state budget.
That decision, he said, was backed by a majority of the House Republican caucus.
"Because of that large number it was virtually unanimous, even among those that supported the bill in Public Health, that the bill needed to go to Ways and Means with that kind of fiscal impact on it," Bosma said.
He acknowledged that it was unfortunate the Public Health Committee waited until its last meeting for considering House proposals to decide to advance Brown's smoking age legislation.
"Had it come out of Public Health a week ago, it could have gotten into Ways and Means and they'd have the chance to review the fiscal impact, in addition to the health impact," Bosma said.
He suggested a summer study committee might be tasked with completing that assessment.
That outcome did not sit well with Bosma's traditional allies at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. CEO Kevin Brinegar said the business interest group was "extremely disappointed" in the decision to kill Brown's proposal.
"House Bill 1380 was a priority for the Indiana Chamber because smokers cost Hoosier employers over $6 billion per year in additional health care costs, absenteeism and lost productivity," Brinegar said.
"We thank Rep. Charlie Brown for his leadership on this issue. It's too bad House Republicans abruptly decided they didn’t want to vote on this important policy."
Brown said the focus on possible state revenue losses due to increasing the smoking age failed to take into account the long-term savings to the state from no longer having to pay Hoosier health care costs attributable to smoking-related illnesses.
"We still won't bite the bullet because the opposite (Republican) caucus is saying there's too much infringement on individual rights," Brown said.
"They never look at the data that shows how much money we spend for those who rely on government for their health care."
Moreover, Brown noted that estimated state revenue losses equal to, or greater than, the projection for increasing the smoking age did not halt the advance of Republican-sponsored legislation partially scrapping handgun license fees (House Bill 1424), or eliminating the sales tax on vending machine purchases (Senate Bill 124).
"There's just a paralysis of analysis for some of my colleagues," he said. "We are satisfied with always being last, as opposed to being first."
In the end, the 36-year Statehouse veteran said he still knows a few ways to revive a seemingly dead legislative proposal, and vowed to keep fighting for his plan to increase the smoking age "until I walk out the door."
Lawson, too, plans to keep looking for opportunities to attach her equal pay for women proposal onto other legislation moving through the General Assembly, though she suspects she won't be the one to ultimately carry it across the finish line.
"It's a bill that's been out there for 20 years. People are now talking about it. I think eventually people will take it seriously," Lawson said.
"And if there's more Democrats here and they can get a bill heard and have some voting power, then maybe something will be done. But it seems like there's lots and lots of talk that there hasn't been in the past."
Her measure would have made it an unlawful employment practice to pay wages that discriminate based on sex for substantially similar work, as well as prohibiting workplace rules that prevent employees from discussing pay rates with each other.
"It is impossible to encourage women to come to work in Indiana when it is proven time and again that a woman cannot earn the same amount of money for doing the same work," Lawson said. "This is not just a women's issue, it's an economic issue, a societal issue and a civil rights issue."
"Part of it is the glass ceiling, and part of it is the fact women aren't at the table making decisions about hiring people and giving them raises. Until that happens — and it's going to be gradual — it's still out there."
Lawson is the only female member of the House Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee, which never scheduled her proposal for a hearing at any of its three meetings in January where it debated 10 other bills and advanced eight.
None of the measures that made it out of the committee to the House floor had a Democrat as the primary sponsor.
For her part, Lawson doesn't buy the argument there was insufficient time to act on her proposal.
She said as a former committee chairwoman she knows "there's always time" if a committee actually is interested in doing something about a problem, and regarding equal pay: "We really need to do something about it."