INDIANAPOLIS -- Few lawmakers expected the vote to be unanimous. But it was.
In late January, the Indiana House of Representatives voted 93-0 to pass HB 1214, a bill that would legalize CBD oil for thousands of Hoosiers who say they desperately need it to treat their pain, seizures, Alzheimer’s Disease and other medical problems.
It got plenty of support in the Senate, too, passing by a 3-to-1 margin. All it needs now is for a joint conference committee to work out some differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill, and then it’s off to the governor for his signature.
Or so we thought. But this in Indiana, and Indiana politics is full of surprises.
I caught up with the bill’s author Thursday afternoon and asked him, “Hey, what’s up with HB 1214?”
Rep. Bill Friend (R-Macy) rolled his eyes at me and shook his head. He looked like someone who knew something he didn’t want to know.
“It’s a veekel,” he said quietly.
“A veekel?” I replied, pretending to understand what I thought the veteran lawmaker had told me in the noisy hallway outside a busy committee room.
“Yes,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with CBD oil. Nothing. Not anymore.”
At that moment, I realized what Friend had actually said: V-E-H-I-C-L-E. HB 1214 has been tagged by House leadership as a vehicle bill. The legislation that Friend carefully shepherded through multiple committee hearings and floor votes in the House and Senate to make CBD oil legal in the state of Indiana has lost its identity. It has lost its soul.
Now only inches from crossing the finish line, the bill is about to undergo a metamorphosis right before our very eyes. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
When lawmakers meet Monday morning to discuss HB 1214 in joint conference committee, the bill will no longer have any mention of CBD oil. By 10:00 am Monday, it will become a much different bill – a bill about guns. Yes, you read that correctly. Guns. Erase all talk of easing pain with CBD oil. Replace it -- lock, stock and barrel -- with a bill to provide more ease and convenience for Indiana gun owners.
What’s about to happen next is a part of the legislative process few people know about.
“It’s not always a process,” said Friend, who is retiring from the General Assembly later this year after representing Miami County for the past quarter century. “We’re making sausage. It’s a sausage factory, and it’s not always pretty.”
Not pretty at all. But it is fascinating and exhilarating. Or infuriating and dumbfounding. All depends on your tolerance for political shenanigans and whether you can stomach the sausage-making process that happens at the State Capital. I’m about to take you behind the scenes to see the process first hand, but first, an important announcement…
What the heck is going on
Let me get this out of the way: No, legalizing CBD oil in Indiana is not dead. Quite the contrary.
While HB 1214 has now become a possessed zombie bill that is wandering the halls of the Statehouse, its companion bill, SB 52, is alive and well. If Senate and House lawmakers stay true to their promise, they will complete their work on SB 52 Monday or Tuesday and have it on the governor’s desk by mid-week. Of the ten CBD legalization bills that lawmakers introduced in January, SB 52 is THE bill that will cross the finish line intact, and in its current version, it will make CBD oil legal to buy, sell and possess in Indiana in the very near future.
And that is what turned HB 1214 into a mutant piece of legislation. You see, lawmakers need only ONE bill to legalize CBD oil. They came darn close to passing two. Totally unnecessary. A waste of time, when you really think about it.
But why let a perfectly good bill that has already passed BOTH chambers of the General Assembly die when you can instead stab it in the back, strip away its heart and guts and put it on life support -- then heroically save it from certain death by surgically implanting another bill – or perhaps two – into its lifeless body, stitch it up, and set it free in a joint committee conference room where everyone will act like nothing has happened and we are simply engaging in the wonders of modern democracy as our Founding Fathers intended?
You can now begin to understand why this is a very unique vehicle bill.
Traditional vehicle bills are those that House leaders introduce at the very start of each legislative session. There are currently 25 of them – empty bills sitting around with nothing to do unless legislative leaders need a “vehicle” to carry some last-minute legislation at the end of the session. HB 1214 has become an unexpected vehicle bill that will do the same thing. It will serve as a vehicle for Republican leaders to carry some legislative business across the finish line before the clock strikes midnight late Wednesday and lawmakers scatter across Indiana to do whatever they do for the other nine months of the year. But instead of putting that business into an empty bill, lawmakers have chosen to use a now-redundant (and therefore useless) CBD bill instead. It’s a relatively rare – but not completely uncommon – procedure called strip and insert: strip away the existing bill and insert something totally different.
Good bye CBD oil. Hello guns.
How does Rep. Friend feel about all this?
“That’s how it works sometimes,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “The speaker’s got to have his vehicle bills.”
Dead bills brought back to life
The mutant zombie bill now has the heart of SB 33 and the brain of HB 1424.
SB 33 was authored by Sen. Jack Sandlin (R-Indianapolis) and Sen. Jim Tomes (R-Wadesville), and it would allow individuals who can legally possess a firearm to carry a gun onto school property at a church – as long as the church doesn’t have a ban against guns. The full Senate passed the bill 43-5, and the House Public Policy Committee then approved the proposal 10-0. It was never called for a final vote in the House.
HB 1424 would allow Hoosiers to obtain a state gun permit that is free and that lasts a lifetime. (Current law requires a fee to obtain a gun permit, and some of those permits last only four or five years.) Rep. Tim Wesco (R-Elkhart) authored the bill, which passed the full House 71-20 and the Senate Judiciary Committee 7-3 before stalling in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
These bills were essentially dead just a few days ago after they each passed one chamber of the General Assembly but failed to get a vote in the other. But lawmakers tell me as long as a bill passes at least one chamber – which both SB 33 and HB 1424 did – it still has a pulse that can be revived with the help of a vehicle bill.
By Friday afternoon, Democrats had heard rumors that Republicans were planning a legislative coup on HB 1214, but they had not heard what legislation would be inserted into the vehicle bill.
“There is some talk of guns, but I haven’t heard anything more than that,” said Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington), one of four lawmakers selected to sit on the joint conference committee for HB 1214. “It’s ironic. I got on the committee because I really wanted to make sure the CBD legislation got through. I didn’t really expect to be on a conference committee on a bill related to guns.”
Late Friday afternoon, House Speaker Brian Bosma’s press secretary confirmed for 13 Investigates that the 1214-33-1424 switcheroo is indeed taking place, directing me to a conference committee report for the new, unrecognizable HB 1214.
House Democrats aren’t surprised, but they’re angry.
Now it’s all about guns
“This is an egregious example of using procedural devices to stop debate,” said Rep. Ed Delaney (D-Indianapolis).
Delaney says Bosma halted discussion on SB 33 in the House after he and other Democrats introduced a series of amendments to place additional regulations on some firearms. On the heels of last month’s mass shooting that killed 17 students and staff at a Florida High School, House Democrats proposed limiting bump stocks, studying the effects of gun violence in Indiana and prohibiting certain types of weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“We were ready to have a vigorous debate over gun safety, but we couldn’t debate because the majority didn’t want to vote on our amendments. They didn’t want to have a full debate on gun safety and school safety,” Delaney said. “Now someone can rescue their bill from oblivion and cut off debate and pass a law. That’s unfortunate, but it can be done under the rules.”
“It's definitely allowed, but what’s unusual is what they’re really doing here,” added Pierce. “They did not want to vote on the record on SB 33. There were all kinds of amendments. The [Republican] leadership decided rather than having a debate and having the public see the debate and have their votes recorded publicly, they could slide it into conference committee and not have their votes on the record.”
Bosma’s office said the Speaker was not available to talk about the issue Friday night, but did arrange for me to speak with Rep. Ben Smaltz (R-Auburn) who is chairman of the HB 1214 joint conference committee. He believes Democrats did have an opportunity to debate the issue in both the Senate and in a House conference committee, and he said Democrats will also get to weigh in during Monday’s conference committee meeting.
“I’ve gone to great lengths to submit a draft committee report 72 hours ahead of time. I’m trying to add sunshine to the whole process,” Smaltz told me. “I know there are people who support this and there are people who don’t. It’s important to me that we listen to everyone and give them a fair shake. We’re going to have a good debate Monday morning.”
Pierce is not optimistic. First, traditional amendments cannot be added to a conference report. The tougher gun measures sought by some Democrats will never be accepted by Republican leaders who can craft a take-it-or-leave-it approach to negotiations.
While the committee currently includes two Democrats and two Republicans – and all four must agree to the changes to HB 1214 for the bill to be approved and head to the governor – Pierce knows how the game is played with conference committees. If there is no consensus (and the two Democrats on the committee will not agree to sign the Republican-drafted committee report), Bosma and Senate President Pro Tempore David Long (R-Fort Wayne) can replace the two Democrats on the committee with any two lawmakers they’d like.
“I suspect I’ll be removed from the conference committee at some point,” Pierce said. “That’s pretty likely.”
What’s also likely: Republicans will cleverly use their supermajority next week to pass a hempless, gun-friendly bill that will ride a beat-up, old vehicle all the way to the governor’s desk.
Before you get outraged, you should know vehicle bills have been around as long as most Indiana lawmakers can remember. Democrats used them not too long ago when they controlled the Indiana House.
But that doesn’t make the eleventh-hour, strip-and-insert, bait-and-switch, duck-and-cover tactic any more attractive or logical.
Then again, attractive and logical aren’t words I’ve ever heard used to describe making laws at the Indiana Statehouse.
It’s a sausage factory.