The Washington Times-Herald

January 23, 2009

Messmer learning ropes at Statehouse

By Candy Neal, Jasper Herald

INDIANAPOLIS — Rep. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, grabs his suit coat and pulls it on as he leaves his wooden-encased cubicle on the second floor of the House of Representatives’ office. He goes to the first floor and to a similar cubicle inhabited by one of his 99 House colleagues, Rep. Dennie Oxley Sr., D-Taswell.

He peers in. “Are you ready?” he asks Oxley.

“Yep,” Oxley responds, standing. “Let’s go.”

It’s Monday afternoon, their third day on the job, and they leave their office and head to the clerk’s office in the House chambers. Their goal is to file a bill they have jointly authored. The proposed legislation would amend a law that allows disabled veterans to purchase a hunting and fishing license for the same fee assigned to senior citizens to allow that for certain other Hoosiers with a disability.

As they mount the stairs, Oxley asks Messmer, “Have you done one of these yet?”

“No,” Messmer responds. “Have you?”

“Nope. I guess it will be a learning experience for us both.”

While they come from different political parties and live in different counties, the two legislators have at least two things in common. They both represent a part of Dubois County. And they are both new to this job, having won their seats in November.

They are part of the freshman class that encompasses 23 new legislators: six senators and 17 representatives.

The Statehouse is full this afternoon with chattering visitors, wide-eyed schoolchildren and smooth-talking lobbyists. Though there are even more people here than normal — due to the inauguration ceremonies of state officials — the building is alive with noise every day.

“There’s always a hum in the building,” Messmer says as he carries copies of bills he’d like to get support for from other legislators. “In December, you could hear a pin drop in here.”

Messmer, 46, was at the Statehouse many times in November and December for training and meetings to prepare for the session, which started last week and runs through April. He had a lot of do to get himself, his family and the mechanical engineering business he co-owns ready for his absence.

He replaces Democrat Dave Crooks of Washington, who held the seat for 12 years.

As Messmer hurries to finish work on legislation he plans to file before the deadline that is less than 24 hours away, he is stopped by veteran Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville. “Hey, I just left you an e-mail,” Borders says and beckons Messmer over to a table he’s sitting at in the hall.

Borders asks Messmer to sign on as a coauthor of a bill that will adjust the monthly personal allowance received by seniors living in nursing facilities from $52 to $60.

“Eight dollars may not sound like a big deal,” Borders says, “but it’s a big deal to them.”

Messmer is well aware of the legislation. He’s heard from a woman living in a Jasper nursing home about how hard it is to do everything with that allotted $52. “Getting your hair done can cost $25, $30,” he says.

He wholeheartedly agrees to be a coauthor.

Getting co-authors strengthens your bill, Messmer says. That’s especially important for him, a Republican legislator, since the Democrats have the majority in the House.

“Being in the minority, if you don’t have a coauthor in the majority, the bill probably won’t get a hearing (in committee),” he says. A bill must get committee approval before it can be considered by the full House.

So it was especially important to him to get a Democrat — Rep. John Day, D-Indianapolis —to coauthor his bill about mental health.

As the law stands now, if the doctor who made the diagnosis determines that it could be dangerous to a patient’s mental health to see his or her own records, the doctor can withhold the records from the patient. Messmer’s bill would allow a second doctor, of the patient’s choosing, to review the records and determine if the patient can have them.

“This bill would align the state law with federal law,” he says.

After trying to catch Day a few times in the afternoon, Messmer calls his Jasper home to talk to his wife, Kim. She goes through his personal e-mails with him, telling him what each topic is and he says “save it” for the important ones and “delete” to the junk mail.

After a few minutes, he prepares to hang up. “Tell Maddie I’ll call around 6’ish to check on her math homework,” he says. Every evening Messmer and his 14-year-old daughter use Web cams and their computers to go over her math homework.

He heads to the Marriott Hotel for a reception, one of two for the evening.

“We’ve had at least one of these every evening since we’ve been here,” says Oxley, also in attendance. He snacks on the cold shrimp, cheese and fruit while members of the Indiana CPA Society make small talk about the session. The state’s certified public accountants don’t seem to have a particular agenda, Oxley notes as he and other legislators move from the CPA reception to a reception with the Green Industry Alliance at the Hyatt Hotel.

“But this will be dinner for me,” he says.

Both Oxley and Messmer still have full nights ahead of them — Messmer working on homework and Oxley calling his wife, Beverly, in Taswell before he reads over legislation that will be discussed the next morning in the Labor and Employment Committee, on which he sits.

Oxley, 59, is still learning the ropes of the Legislature. “There are a lot of specifics you have to learn,” he says, “how to research bills, learning who represents whom, getting to know the other legislators. This is different from my past experience up here.”

Oxley got some interesting legislative experience on the second day of the session. He was called on by House Speaker Patrick Bauer, D-South Bend, to adjourn the session. There’s specific language that must be used.

“I flubbed it big-time,” Oxley says with a laugh. “It was our second day, and I didn’t know it yet. Rep. (David) Wolkins (R-Winona Lake) tried to help me. They whispered the words to me. But I still stumbled on it. It got worse before I finally got it out.”

Next time, he’ll be ready. “After all that, (I) and all the freshmen now have a card with the words on it,” he says. “And I probably won’t get called on again. But I could be.”

Now whenever he or Messmer runs into a fellow freshman legislator, they all practice the words: “Mr. Speaker, I move you that we do now adjourn.”