INDIANAPOLIS – The spirit behind the legislation pumping out of the General Assembly this session – bills that advance carbon markets and lead testing in schools, and others that kneecap public schools, wetlands, and Indianapolis – begs the question: What does it mean to be a legislator? What is the promise that legislators make to themselves as they shape the way life is lived in Indiana?

I hoped the oath of office might suggest an answer. It took two phone calls to the Statehouse to find the text of it. A kindly intern in House Speaker Todd Huston’s office finally obliged:

“I,<insert name> do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of Indiana, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge my duties as a member of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of Indiana to the best of my skill and ability, so help me God.”

A quick word search of the Indiana Constitution doesn’t yield a definition of “the duties.” But there is this sweeping statement, right off the bat, in Article 1, Section 1: 

“We declare ... that all power is inherent in the people; and that all free governments are, and of right ought to be, founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and well-being. For the advancement of these ends, the people have, at all times, an indefeasible right to alter and reform their government.”

Aside from being a good argument for addressing gerrymandering, this clause stands out for the word choice of “well-being.” Whose well-being? Not just the well-being of industry, though that matters in a practical way. The well-being of the people.

What kind of well-being?

What calculator or compass of values do lawmakers use to decide what, in fact, is good for the well-being of the people? 

With some bills, it’s clear as day. Take SB377, which promotes broadband development. Or SB170, which would establish a “food desert” grant program at the Indiana Department of Health. These bills are grounded in well-being.

When too few lawmakers are centering their lawmaking on that principle, maybe it’s time for an ethics gut check. We turn to Article 2, Section 6: “Every person shall be disqualified from holding office  ...who shall have given or offered a bribe, threat, or reward, to procure his election.” At what point do gifts from utility lobbyists, agriculture lobbyists, or gaming industry lobbyists count as rewards?

Which brings us back to the oath of office. One word stands out: “impartially.” Is Sen. Linda Rogers (R-Granger), president of Nugent Builders, impartial when she sponsors a bill to make life easier for builders by repealing wetland permitting? Is Rep. Ed Soliday (R-Valparaiso) impartial when he took $113,550 in campaign contributions from the energy/natural resources industries while proposing HB1191, a bill meant to prevent municipalities from phasing out natural gas?

Is anyone policing these breaches of oath? We citizens must.

Where’s the long game? What about lawmakers’ role in imagining Indiana’s future? In stewarding Indiana’s natural resources for the long-term? Or anticipating adaptations we need to plan for as a society, such as climate-driven human migration and artificial intelligence? 

A bit in the daily e-newsletter “Centered” noted this week: “The Midwest holds major opportunities for modernizing infrastructure and deploying a range of clean energy technologies, according to a report from the Decarb America Research Initiative. The region’s abundance of agricultural resources positions it particularly well for biomass technologies, and the industrial base is well-suited for carbon capture technologies.”

Where are the study committees on topics like these? If lawmakers feel responsibility to do industry’s bidding, how about some future-looking industries? Sure, author bills that make the world safe for lemonade stands (HB1077) and eyelash extension technicians (HB1554). And, what the heck, make popcorn the state snack (SB97). That’s got my vote.

Legislate with informed hope, not fear of change. Make laws that look long into the distance, not fix us in the past. Re-read the oath, and ponder what will and won’t increase the “peace, safety, and well-being” of the people. 
A consultant and grant writer, Laker is principal of Laker Verbal LLC. She is the former director of communications at Indiana Forest Alliance and hosts a movie review show, Flick Fix, on WQRT 99.1 FM.