Outgoing Rep. Terri Austin reflects on the good and bad from time in Statehouse

Rep. Terri Austin is in the Indiana Statehouse in January, 2022. (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

This interview is part of a series of Q&As from outgoing lawmakers as they reflect on their time in the Statehouse.

Rep. Terri Austin in the Indiana Statehouse in January 2022. (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

Former Rep. Terri Austin was a fixture among Democrats in the Statehouse for two decades. The Anderson lawmaker was a leader among House Democrats before she narrowly lost her reelection bid against Republican Kyle Pierce by less than 2 percentage points this November after redistricting.

Austin was one of eight who lost either their primary or general election campaign this year, and is part of a large class of legislators not coming back to the Statehouse come January. Altogether, 19 lawmakers won’t be returning, according to the Capitol & Washington database.

State Affairs spoke with Austin as she prepares for her first session-free January in two decades about the impact of the supermajority on Hoosiers and, as she puts it, a deterioration of collegiality.

The conversation is edited for clarity, brevity and length.

Q. What were you most proud to accomplish or witness during your time in the legislature?

A. Two of them stand out.

One was introducing and passing Indiana's first human trafficking law to criminalize it, create a criminal statute for it. We did not have one. And I will tell you I give a lot of credit to [Republican] David Long, who wasn’t [yet] president pro tem. David was chairman of the Courts and Criminal Code committee, I believe, and he took that bill and took me under his wing and helped kind of shepherd it through. 

We got it through actually by putting it in the DCS [Department of Child Services] reform bill, believe it or not. I think it was in 2005.

Q. And the other one?

A. I always say it was the small business regulatory reform, which actually created an economic impact statement for any new rules or regulations that impacted small businesses.

At the time, small businesses had no real lobbying presence at the Statehouse. These are mom and pop shops that quite honestly are busy running their own business, and I was concerned that after I had gone out and talked to so many of them, they were just getting inundated with new regulations they couldn't even keep up with. They didn't even know they were coming down the pike. 

I learned about a model bill from going to a conference. Democrats were in the minority, and [I] brought it back and pitched the idea and had Republican coauthors on it, and we were able to get it through. I think it started people thinking about what are we really doing for small businesses in this state. Because they are significant job creators, and they're the backbone of a lot of communities.

Q. In what ways has the Indiana Statehouse evolved during your years in office?

A. I would say the tone has changed significantly. The level of collegiality has deteriorated. There used to be much more bipartisanship. I considered myself someone who had very good relationships with many of my Republican colleagues. Many of them called me after the election.

I think I would ask the folks who were the proponents of the idea [of a supermajority] — at the time I understand why it was important — if they think today it is still a good idea, or if it led to greater problems or unanticipated problems. You’ve got to remember, that was back in 2010. Twelve years of supermajority, and I think things have gotten more extreme. [Republicans] went for a supermajority to achieve certain economic-related things, and it, I would say, has lost its way.

Q. Do you think that's what is causing the level of collegiality to deteriorate?

A. I think it's contributed to it. I've always been in a competitive district and have always earned a significant amount of Republican support in my district. But when you have extremes and extreme districts on both sides, I just don't think that's healthy. I don't think it promotes civil discourse. This is my observation, but I think it makes moderation and governing from the middle more difficult.

Q. You've obviously witnessed both a divided legislature and one dominated by a supermajority. Do you think that one party rule of that magnitude hurts average Hoosiers?

A. You don't have to consider the views of all people. You tend to only listen maybe to the loudest or the most vocal, whether it's the majority or not — I don't believe it necessarily is, but it certainly can be the loudest.

Rep. Terri Austin speaks at the Indiana Statehouse in January 2022. (Credit: Indiana House Democrats)

Q. Thinking about the state as a whole, how has Indiana changed in the time you were in office in your opinion?

A. People talk about how we have a great tax climate, but we've also deteriorated in many ways. Our energy costs have increased significantly. When I first sat on Ways and Means, we had the fourth-best energy costs in the nation. We’re nowhere near that now. We've focused so much on lowering our tax rate, that we've significantly neglected other areas. 

We're having a difficult time filling higher-level workforce needs. Talk to any CEO of some of our major companies. When we have to work at attracting workers from other states through incentives because we don't have the skills here, that tells me we are in deep trouble. And we're talking about lowering expectations for kids at the high school level? I don't think that's a wise strategy.

Q. What do you wish more Hoosiers understood about what's happening at the Statehouse?

A. I just wish they were tuned in, which is why I'm going to try to consistently post [news articles] on my Facebook page. I'm transitioning my state [representative] page. I have a significant amount of followers and I thought I don’t want to just kill it, because people look at it. I'm going to use it as a medium to get people to follow what's going on at the Statehouse. I'll provide some commentary. I'll even broadcast some links to some committee hearings, so people can watch. But I thought why can't I help be a conduit to build awareness for people? There's no reason I can't.

Q. Aside from that, what’s next for you?

A. I have no idea. I am going to think long and hard about it. I don't want to do nothing. It's not in my nature to just sit around on the sidelines. I have no idea what I'm going to do. I truly don't.

Q. What suggestions would you give to incoming lawmakers on either side of the aisle who are new to the Statehouse?

A. I would say take time to get to know your colleagues on both sides. Listen to a variety of opinions. Be active in your community. I think the worst thing you can do is just show up for photo ops, personally. And remember, some of the most important work you do is actually the people you help back home.
Yes, your votes affect lives. It's also what you do at home that matters. 

Q. That's all my questions, but do you have any last thoughts?

A. I had 20 wonderful years. I learned so much. I've been through several speakers. 

One of my concerns is the respect for the institution seems to be diminishing. I see it, and I think other people have shown me they feel that way too.

Q. By that, do you mean lawmakers, regular Hoosiers? What’s the institution? 

A. Respect for an institution, how it operates, its importance and that there's a level of respect and decorum that starts at the top and toward each other, all the way down to the staff. I think for folks who've never had a chance to work in government, or even just maybe it's a sign of the times, there's a level of respect we need to get back to. 

But I had 20 wonderful years there. Some people get two. I’m going to miss people. And I will miss the intellectual exercise. It’s a tremendous intellectual exercise and an exercise in patience.

Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or email her at [email protected]

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