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Home rule overrule


State lawmakers backing a bill on employment rules insist they just want to protect employers and guarantee a uniform set of rules for wages and benefits throughout Indiana. Instead, those lawmakers crafted legislation that, according to several legal experts, nullifies local antidiscrimination ordinances and provides an excellent example of the danger of unintended consequences.

Senate Bill 213, authored by Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, and sponsored in the House by Rep. Mike Speedy, R- Indianapolis, passed in both chambers. It needs only Gov. Mike Pence’s signature for it to become law. The bill prohibits local governments from establishing laws that require an employer to provide benefits, terms of employment, working conditions or attendance policies that exceed state or federal laws.

The problem is that the bill’s broad statement prohibiting local governments from adopting any employment rules greater than state or federal rules appears to nullify any local ordinances, including Fort Wayne’s, meant to discourage discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The administration of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, was quick to voice concerns about the bill and deserves credit for bringing the problem to the public’s attention. An initial review from the city’s legal staff found that the bill would invalidate significant portions of Marion County’s human rights ordinance.

A Ballard spokesman told the Indianapolis Star that the mayor was concerned because he “wants to do everything he can to make sure that we are a welcoming and inviting place for business and residents and employees.”

The Fort Wayne civil rights ordinance adding sexual orientation to the list of protected categories was passed in 2001. It is an example of courageous leadership from Mayor Tom Henry, who authored the legislation during his last term on the Fort Wayne City Council.

Legal review

“From our initial legal review, it appears the bill might have the unintended consequence of negating our local ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation since that is not a protected class under state or federal law,” said John Perlich, Henry’s spokesman, in an email.

Cathy Serrano, executive director of the Fort Wayne Metropolitan Human Relations Commission and an attorney, concurred.

“After reviewing the last printing of the bill, I think it might have the unintended consequence of impacting the portion of our ordinance which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” she said in an email.

The bill’s supporters insist the intent was not to nullify local equal employment protections. The purpose was to stop local governments from requiring private employers to pay higher wages or benefits than required by state or federal laws.

Unfortunately, once the bill becomes law, the author’s professed intent will not matter. The only thing that matters is what is written in the bill.

Home rule

The impending nullification of the local ordinances, unintended or not, is another example of the importance of state lawmakers maintaining a healthy respect for the concept of home rule.

Local government officials are increasingly complaining about the tendency of the General Assembly to adopt legislation with scant consideration to how those laws will ultimately affect cities and towns. This disregard for home rule is the impetus for the recent “Trust Local” initiative from the nonpartisan Indiana Conference of Mayors. The group is trying to encourage state lawmakers to be more responsive to local interests.

Lawmakers had the opportunity to avoid the mistake altogether. On March 18, Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, proposed adding an amendment specifying that the bill would not affect equal opportunity in employment. But the amendment was defeated in a party-line vote, casting some doubt on stated intentions of the bill’s supporters.

Fortunately, there are easy remedies for the legislators’ mistake.

GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma has asked House legal staff to review the bill. He said if that review finds the bill will affect the local ordinances, lawmakers can fix the mistake by amending another bill.