More than 20 Hoosier legislators will leave the General Assembly this year.
Uniondale Republican Jeff Espich began serving his district in the Indiana House in 1972. This year, on the day of the filing deadline for reelection, Espich sent a letter to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette indicating he would not be running again. He says he simply decided it was time to end his service.
“I’ve been here 40 years,” he says. “It’s always time to move on or move over and let somebody else do their thing or whatever.”
The Art Of Compromise
Espich is the chairman of Ways and Means, the House committee that controls the legislative purse-strings. He has been his party’s fiscal leader for years, and IUPUI political science professor Brian Vargus says while someone will fill Espich’s chairmanship, they cannot simply replace the lost institutional memory.
“There are things that aren’t necessarily written down that have been discussed and deals that have been made and so forth, and that’s particularly true of the two members who serve on Ways and Means: Jeff Espich and Bill Crawford,” Vargus says.
Indianapolis Representative Bill Crawford is Espich’s Democratic counterpart. Crawford and Espich entered the legislature together 40 years ago, and Crawford’s reasons for retirement echoed Espich’s. But unlike his Republican colleague, Crawford says he is glad to leave the General Assembly behind.
“The lack of civility, the lack of collegiality that has been apparent in the last four or five years,” he says. “I’m not going to miss it.”
Speaker Brian Bosma says Crawford is overstating challenges in the legislature.
“The past is always a little rosier when you look back at it, and I could cite a number of instances in the past, where [it was] no different than today,” he says.
But Vargus thinks Crawford is right, and he says losing long-time legislators who knew the art of compromise won’t help.
“Some of the fresh blood are not people who are likely to come in with any fresh ideas, they’re going to stick to their ideological commitment, which does not bode well for civility,” he says.
Institutional memory and civility are not the only things that might be lost. Martinsville Republican Richard Bray is retiring after 40 years spent between the House and Senate. As chairman of the Senate judiciary committee for more than a dozen years, Bray helped lead the way in trying to reform Indiana’s criminal code. He says failing to accomplish it is his biggest regret, and Vargus says retirements can kill momentum on those sorts of projects.
“Those things go with them because other people come in with their pet ideas and pet things they want to do,” Vargus says.
Filling The Void
Both houses spent time during the closing days of session honoring the retiring legislators, and expertise in different areas was something often cited as an invaluable resource that would be lost in their absence. Senate President Pro Tem David Long says that is particularly true for Greenfield Republican Beverly Gard, the Senate’s leader on environmental issues.
“Even on a national basis for Senator Gard, an international, she’s traveled to speak in Europe, even,” he says. “She’s a highly respected expert.”
Jesse Kharbanda is the executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, an organization that’s worked with Senator Gard for years. While he says he has a lot of respect for Gard, he’s hoping her retirement gives environment advocates a fresh start in the Senate.
“We really want to see somebody who not only has the professional decency and courtesy to meet with us but who genuinely takes our ideas seriously,” he says.
Ultimately, Speaker Bosma says the retirement of so many well-respected, long-time lawmakers is a big loss, but not an insurmountable one.
“There are dozens and dozens of folks over the years that we’ve said they can’t possibly be replaced, but somehow Hoosiers step up and leaders fill the void,” he says.
Vargus says it will be especially important to see who replaces Espich and Crawford in the Ways and Means committee because next year the General Assembly will write a new budget.