Commentary: David Long’s closed-door legacy

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – When David Long announced his retirement as president pro tempore of the Indiana Senate, most tributes focused on his part in the battles and public policy decisions that have made the state a laboratory for conservative governance.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

In his retirement announcement, the Fort Wayne Republican touted his role in creating one of the most expansive school voucher systems in America. He spoke with fondness for the work he and his fellow Republicans did to create a long-term road-funding plan. He also talked with satisfaction about Indiana’s right-to-work law and the implementation of property tax caps.

Other Republicans joined in the congratulations.

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, summed up the mood when he said Long “helped drive Indiana’s success story.”

Long and his fellow GOP stalwarts are entitled to bask in the glow.

Reasonable people may and will disagree about the wisdom of some of these policy initiatives, as well as how successful they have been in implementation. But they are serious ideas, ones that built upon a foundation of conservative ideology to shape the way Indiana meets and solves its problems.

Politics at the most basic level is the practice of converting plans into policy.

Long did that.

He and other Republicans can take pride in that.

It is the part of his legacy that will shine the most.

There is another part of Long’s legacy, though, that should trouble all thinking Hoosiers, Republican, Democrat or independent.

It was on Long’s watch that government decision-making with increasing frequency stepped out of the sunlight and disappeared back into the shadows.

I remember talking once with former Indiana Sen. Robert Garton, R-Columbus. Garton was Long’s predecessor as Senate president pro tempore.

Garton, in fact, was the longest-serving legislative leader in Indiana history. He held the post for 26 years, from 1980 to 2006.

I’d asked Garton what he considered his most significant accomplishment.

He said it involved opening the process.

Before he became the president pro tempore, Garton said, Senate committees held their meetings behind closed doors. Those committees didn’t circulate agendas, take public testimony, record minutes or tell the public what the vote had been. Sometimes, they didn’t even have or release draft versions of the measures they were considering.

Not surprisingly, this turned out to be an environment conducive to corruption.

Some of Garton’s predecessors ended up in prison.

During Garton’s tenure, that changed. The process became more institutionalized and inclusive. Committees opened their doors and invited the public.

Long honored the letter of those changes, but not always the spirit.

Time and again during his tenure, important public policy discussions and decisions – the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, hate crimes and other sensitive subjects – took place out of public sight.

These debates in darkness were a product of Indiana’s Republican legislative supermajorities – which themselves were products of deft and ruthless gerrymandering.

Because Democrats lacked the votes to perform the traditional function of a loyal opposition and force public discussions on public questions, too often the important debates and votes took place in the solitude of GOP caucus meetings.

In those cases, once again, there was no public agenda, no minutes recording who said what or how each lawmaker voted and no opportunity for ordinary Hoosiers to offer their testimony.

It’s not fair to blame Long alone for this trend toward closed-door government.

The House, on Bosma’s watch, has done the same thing.

But it is fair to say Long did nothing to slow or stop the movement to take the process of self-government away from public sight.

He certainly never advanced an argument for conducting so much important business behind closed caucus doors much more sophisticated than saying, in effect:

We’re doing it this way just because we can.

David Long’s retirement announcement gave him and Indiana’s other elected officials, the overwhelming majority of whom are Republicans, the opportunity to crow about the things they’ve accomplished, the ways they have moved the state forward.

They and he are entitled to do so.

But they and he also should acknowledge that, in one important way, they and he have moved the state backward at least 40 years.

Out of the sunlight and back into the dark.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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