30 Laws in 30 Days: Secrets of the legislature may be revealed in oral history project

By Ashley Steeb
TheStatehouseFile.com

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of stories about new laws that are taking effect, most of them on July 1.

INDIANAPOLIS — If you wonder what happens behind the scenes as your state lawmaker is working on the budget, you just might get the chance to hear the stories of what unfolded as Indiana’s legislators worked on laws that have had great impact on the state or its citizens. Or you might learn about something much less serious like how sugar cream became the state’s official pie.

A law taking effect July 1 requires the Indiana Historical Bureau to create and maintain an oral history of the legislature. The legislation, authored by authored by Rep. Matthew Lehman, R-Berne, passed the Indiana House and Senate by overwhelming margins and was quickly signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Gathering the oral histories of those involved in the legislative process over the years is an efficient way for people to record and share their stories, said Chandler Lighty, director of the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Often the process of collecting stories through the oral history process is used in cases of disadvantaged people who may have no other way of documenting their story.

“So, you might think it’s odd that a bunch of legislators who have power need to do this oral history,” Lighty said. “But the fact of the matter is, lawmaking, a lot of it is done not only on the floors of the chambers, but also over dinner, backyard barbecues, socializing in the hallways and stuff.”

Lighty said an oral history will give the bureau and legislature an opportunity to share stories about what happens behind the scenes.

In celebration of the 100th meeting of the legislature, a committee was created to make a book documenting the history of the General Assembly from 1816-1978. The commission was also tasked with making a biography of every legislator who served in the General Assembly up to that point. The final product was the Centennial History of the General Assembly.

The “Centennial History of The General Assembly, 1816-1978” by Justin Walsh inspired Rep. Matthew Lehman, R-Berne, to create similar legislation. An oral history of the legislature from 1978 will be recorded starting July. Photo by Ashley Steeb, TheStatehouseFile.com

The book is touted as the first history of a legislature in the country. It contains information such as where legislators were born, their religion as well as which party held the majority during every session. The committee hoped the book would increase citizens’ knowledge of the legislature, legislative processes and procedures. In the appendix, the document lists the names of every woman legislator.

Lehman drew inspiration from the 1978 commission and wanted to continue the project for similar purposes.

“So many things have happened since ’78 that I think that years down the road scholars or students, but also just the general public that would, I think, find somewhat fascinating,” Lehman said.

Legislation similar to Lehman’s was introduced in the early 2000s by Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis. The bills were adopted, but Lighty said they were never implemented because the state’s budget was running a deficit and former Gov. Frank O’Bannon found it unwise to spend money on the program.

Once the slow process of compiling all of the information is complete, Lighty said the audio recordings of the interviews and the transcripts will be stored on a digital database through the library. A full-time historian hired by Lighty after the law takes effect will conduct the interviews. The public will have access to this material.

The bureau must submit a progress report of their work to the Legislative Council before July 1, 2018. An advisory board comprised of four members and four legislators appointed by the governor will help the historical bureau create the oral history.

Ashley Steeb is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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