INDIANAPOLIS  — Early on in “The Man with Two Brains,” Steve Martin’s character needs guidance. He stares up at a gilded portrait of his recently deceased wife, begging her for a sign. Amazingly, the portrait detaches from the wall and begins spinning, slowly at first, then faster, as a woman’s voice wails a definitive “NO!” over and over. The ground rumbles, light bulbs explode, and the plaster behind the painting cracks. Smoke appears. The spinning grows faster, and the voice louder and louder. “Just any kind of sign,” Steve Martin says, seeming totally unfazed by the bizarre and horrifying display. “I’ll be on the lookout for it. In the meantime, I’m going to put you in the closet.”  

We appear to be witnessing a similar scene here in Indiana, as some in our state legislature appear unresponsive to the signs right in front of them. Earlier this month, the Legislative Council met to assign interim study topics. These study committees present an opportunity to reach clarity and consensus on where public policy is falling short and what can be done to improve it, or to revisit priority topics that could not be fully addressed in the context of the short session. This year’s selection of study topics has such glaring omissions, it almost seems as though there exists a willful refusal to acknowledge the data.

Indiana’s abysmal preterm birth, infant mortality, and maternal mortality rates deserve attention. In fact, they have been a priority item on Gov. Holcomb’s agenda for years. They have sparked at least some legislative attention to how and where pregnant women receive health care and, more recently, to the workplace experiences of pregnant women. 

When Sen. Alting’s bill to provide these women with more protection in the workplace faced opposition during the short session, the Senate transformed the bill into a study proposal instead. With such a stark crisis on our hands and strong, broad-based support for the proposal, surely Indiana lawmakers would be motivated to use an interim study to figure out how to join the 29 other states with protections for pregnant workers? Pregnancy accommodation: Not on the list.

How about paid leave? For four years in a row, legislators have proposed studying other states’ approaches to paid leave. This year, Sen. Randolph’s call to study paid leave happened to come in the midst of a pandemic, when the advice to everyone is to stay home when sick. 

Meanwhile, Indiana lags other states in workers’ access to paid leave, with an estimated one in three lacking the ability to earn even a paid sick day. Might it not be beneficial, after four years, to finally heed the call to figure out a systemic approach that supports workers and small businesses alike? Paid leave: Not on the list.

Perhaps Indiana lawmakers would rather encourage workers to build their own reserves as buffers against the storms of misfortune? Data clearly suggest that Hoosiers should be saving more – both for basic emergencies and for retirement, particularly now that defined benefit (pension) plans are largely a thing of the past. Both types of savings can insulate workers from deprivation during job loss or volatility. 

Sen. Tomes proposed studying how to create greater access to retirement savings accounts, a topic that the Indiana Senate has explored many times in the past without success in reaching consensus on an approach. Anyone looking for a strategy to rebuild a more resilient state might look to savings as an area to bolster. Retirement savings: Not on the list.

One might argue that these were likely areas that Legislative Council passed over in an attempt to more narrowly focus on the immediate effects of COVID-19. However, the fact that items like “whether package size discrimination is being used against certain retailers” and consumer credit regulations did make the list suggests the omissions were unrelated to a desire to pare down study topics to focus on the crisis at hand. In fact, when, during the meeting, Indiana’s legislative majority leadership refused to entertain a motion to take a deeper look at data on racial disparities in health outcomes, it seemed clear whose priorities won the day.

Leaders within the Indiana General Assembly need to stop ignoring the state’s indicators of distress and their constituents’ growing cries of concern. Yet, this most recent event suggests that they are willing to continue doing so. Unfortunately, unlike a Steve Martin movie, there is nothing funny about this. Lives are at stake, and the leadership’s infatuation with favoring business concerns will prove detrimental to many Hoosiers. 

Macey, PhD, is a senior policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families and the Indiana Community Action Association.