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How do I follow Indiana’s legislative session? Here’s your guide to demystify the process

By Lauren Chapman, IPB News | Published on in Government, Politics
(Lauren Chapman/IPB News)

Indiana’s legislative session begins on Jan. 9. This year, lawmakers will create the state’s two-year budget. And they’re expected to tackle public health, workforce and education funding while doing it.

Hundreds of bills are filed every year, and it’s difficult for even journalists – who are literally paid to – to keep up with all of them. How can you keep up? Here’s our guide for how to navigate Indiana’s legislative session.

How does a bill become a law in Indiana?

To follow along, it’s good to have a firm grasp of all the major steps along the way. The Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities has an in-depth guide and resources on how to contact your lawmakers. We’ll just hit the sign posts.

Before the legislative session starts:

Pre-introduction of a bill: An idea is developed, and a senator or representative decides to sponsor it. They draft a bill, with research and technical help from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA).

Introduction: The legislator enters the bill into their respective chamber. There’s one exception: bills raising revenue can only originate in the House.

Once the legislative session starts:

First reading: This is a procedural step. Bills are typically moved forward in big groups together. From here, a bill is assigned to one of 25 House committees or one of 22 Senate committees.

Committee hearing: The committee chair needs to call for a hearing on a bill for it to move forward – though they may or may not ask for testimony. If they do, this is the step for you to make your voice heard. It’s at this point in the process that Hoosiers, advocates and other stakeholders may testify to the committee about the bill. Even if the bill passes its initial committee, it may be reassigned to another – depending on the content or the potential fiscal impact of the bill.

The committee has four options: it can amend, approve, or reject the bill entirely; or the bill doesn’t get brought up again that session by the committee for any kind of action. More often than not, if there aren’t enough votes to pass the bill, it won’t be voted on by the committee.

This is also the step in which most bills die during the legislative session. If a committee chair doesn’t call for a hearing before legislative deadlines, then the bill won’t move forward.

Second reading: Once the bill is called for second reading, anyone in the chamber can offer an amendment. But each amendment must be approved by a simple majority.

On second reading, a bill only dies if it misses a legislative deadline or the bill’s author decides not to advance it past this stage.

Third reading: After advancing past second reading, bills are eligible for third reading – passage by the full chamber. This is the point lawmakers debate the bill’s overall merit.

If the bill’s author doesn’t believe they have enough votes to pass, or if they don’t agree with the amendments made to the bill, they may not call the bill for third reading.

Depending on the length of the session, House bills must be heard for third reading by Feb. 5 or Feb. 27 and Senate bills by Feb. 6 or Feb. 28.

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Send to the opposite chamber: Bills go through the exact same process in the opposite chamber – first reading, committee hearing, second reading, and third reading.

The big deadline is on third reading – House bills must be heard for third reading in the Senate by March 5 or April 18. Senate bills must be heard in the House by March 4 or April 17.

If no changes are made to a bill in the opposite chamber, then the bill goes to the governor’s desk upon passage at third reading.

Conference committee: If changes were made during the second half of the legislative session, either the bill’s author agrees to those changes and the original chamber passes the bill on a concurrence vote and sends it to the governor, or the bill is sent to conference committee.

In conference committee, the largely private group of lawmakers reconcile the changes made to the bill. If they come up with acceptable language, it is voted on by both chambers again, and then sent to the governor.

Sent to the governor: The governor has seven days to do one of three things: sign the bill into law; do nothing and the bill becomes law without their signature; or they can veto the bill. If the governor vetoes the bill, it goes back to the House and Senate, which has the opportunity to override the veto with a simple majority vote. If both chambers achieve that majority, the bill becomes law.

What’s special about a budget-writing session?

Every other year, state lawmakers put together a two-year budget based on revenue projections. Budget-writing sessions run about six weeks longer than short sessions.

The spending plan lays out funding for state agencies (like the Department of Child Services, Department of Workforce Development, Department of Correction and Department of Transportation), statewide projects (like On My Way Pre-K and the War Memorials Commission) and public education across the state.

Contact Lauren at lchapman@wfyi.org or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.