Zay notes being new guy in statehouse a bit tough, but not overwhelming with some help

Indiana State Sen. Andy Zay, who was appointed to represent the 17th District when Jim Banks was elected to Congress, makes a point during a senate session earlier this year.
Indiana State Sen. Andy Zay, who was appointed to represent the 17th District when Jim Banks was elected to Congress, makes a point during a senate session earlier this year. Photo provided.

Originally published May 12, 2017.

What’s it like to be the new guy in the Indiana Statehouse?

There’s “a little bit of learn by fire,” says Sen. Andy Zay, fresh off his first term as a member of the state’s legislative body.

On the other hand, he says, there was always a seasoned lawmaker, an aide or a representative of a state agency available and accessible to provide him with the information he needed.

The Huntington businessman was appointed to represent the Indiana Senate’s 17th District on Dec. 6, filling a vacancy created when his predecessor, Jim Banks, was elected to the U.S. Congress. Two weeks later, on Dec. 20, he was sworn into office.

Before that, he says, he’d spent “very little” time at the statehouse. But he wasn’t a fish completely out of water.

“The interesting thing is it’s a lot different than anything you’ve ever done in your life,” Zay says. “But the other side of the coin is it’s very similar to what we do, whether it’s our fraternal organizations, our school boards and different things you’ve served on locally.

“So, you know, it did feel very comfortable in that regard, having served on many local boards and committees. The function was a little more formal, but in many regards they’re really the same.”

Zay and the nine other freshmen attended orientation sessions to learn about higher education, road funding, K-12 education, social services and other areas, giving them foundational knowledge and contacts for future questions. The “learn by fire,” he says, came in the area of navigating the introduction of a bill.

One of Zay’s committee assignments was the Senate Committee on Education and Career Development, which he says turned out to be a fortunate assignment for a freshman senator — even though more than 100 education bills were proposed during the session.

“That committee, as it functions under Sen. (Dennis) Kruse, is a very deliberative committee,” he says. “And what I mean by that is there’s a schedule, you hear the bills, they give testimony — and if you show up to testify, you get to testify — and then it’s actually put on hold for a week. We don’t vote on it until the next week … It was measured, very deliberate. It was a good one to be involved in, being a new senator.”

Zay says two experienced senators became his mentors — Mark Messmer of Jasper, with whom he shared a legislative assistant, and Chip Perfect of Dearborn County, who sat near Zay in the back row.

From the time the General Assembly’s 2017 session began on Jan. 3 until it ended on April 22, the legislators met Monday through Thursday.

“Sometimes I would escape home during the week, but generally I ran a pretty full day,” Zay says. “We start anywhere from 7:30 to 8:30 in the morning and wrap up somewhere between 11:30 at night to 1 in the morning. Sometimes we can get more done when nobody’s there.

“It’s pretty quiet at night, so many times after dinner I’d go back — all we have down there is a cubicle — but I could go down and get through some reading, do some constituent work, answer emails, that kind of thing.”

The emails, and the phone calls, were many — 400 to 600 emails a day, and 100 to 300 phone calls. And not all came from people living in the 17th District’s four counties — Wabash County and portions of Grant, Huntington and Whitley counties — or even from people living elsewhere in Indiana. On some issues, he says, advocates from coast to coast contacted the Indiana lawmakers to express their opinions.

Zay says he worked to represent the issues important to the four rural counties he represents, while keeping in mind the needs of the rest of the state.

“The policies that we’re being asked to vote on, that we’re being asked to consider in committees, are statewide policies,” he says. “Many issues, it was about what’s best for my district, and a few issues were what’s best for the state.

“And so you have to have a little bit more of that global perspective … You are representing the state, with of course a keen eye on how that policy or whatever you’re considering fits within your district.”

Sometimes, he says, the people at home are disappointed, especially as lawmakers try to be fiscally responsible.

“Sometimes it doesn’t get enough money to schools,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t bring enough money home to counties or cities.

“But at the end of the day it’s a balanced budget that we’ve proposed and adopted. It’s a difficult road funding plan that needed to be done.”

There are differences of opinions among the lawmakers especially in funding issues, Zay says, but the tone has always been civil.

“With 50 of us in the Senate and 100 across the hallway in the House, there’s 150 ideas of how to fund all these different things,” he says.

“It’s civil discourse, is what I would call it. We’re challenged with that repeatedly — to disagree, to challenge testimony, to challenge fellow legislators in a professional decorum and in a professional manner.

“We’re not going to start throwing things, we’re not we’re not going to scream and yell and carry on. But there’s plenty of room to disagree. There’s plenty of room to vote your conscience.

“The important thing for all of us is to be respectful of the process and understand that democracy does work.”

Zay encourages more people to get involved in government.

“It takes good people to have good government,” he says. “We always need good people to step up and hold office, all kinds of offices, from the presidential level down to the township level and precinct level of government.

“Even choosing to participate in voting, because there’s so many people that, whatever their reasons, choose not to do that.

“It’s a very unique, very powerful form of government, but it only works if the people participate.”