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Legislature fails to act on Indiana State Fair concerns

fair attendees ride sky ride
MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The 2018 Indiana General Assembly had a chance to clarify state fair issues, but instead avoided those bills. This new sky ride was introduced at the 2017 Indiana State Fair.
Two bills that would have clarified important points about who controls state fair decisions died in committee.

The Indiana State Fair is a fun place to visit. For livestock breeders, it’s a great venue for exhibiting animals. Parents with 4-H’ers who play by the rules know it’s a great place to mold character. Will it still offer the same kind of experiences 10 or 20 years from now?

Some people believe the Indiana State Fair is at a crossroads. Is it going to continue its heritage as an agricultural fair, or will it become an event-oriented fair? Can it do both and still succeed?

Simmering below the surface for several years is disagreement among the Indiana State Fair Commission, the Indiana State Fair Board and the state fair staff over key matters. Who should put on the fair — the commission or the board? How far should the fair go in catering to nonagricultural events and entertainment?

Long history
The issue dates back nearly three decades when the Legislature created the Indiana State Fair Commission. Until then, the Indiana State Fair Board and staff operated the fairgrounds and held the fair.

Key leaders from that period say that while there were good reasons for creating the commission to help with oversight, the Legislature’s intent was for the Indiana State Fair Board and board members to still have authority to make decisions about the fair.

Others don’t remember it that way. They believe the commission was created partly to oversee the fair. Unfortunately, language that created the commission isn’t clear. Who should make decisions regarding the fair depends upon how you interpret the wording. Nearly 30 years later, it’s difficult to discern intent.

The commission has assumed the primary role of operating the fairgrounds and the fair itself. Some current and past state fair board members indicate their roles and responsibilities have been greatly reduced. Some also question certain decisions related to livestock shows and use of prime space that was once devoted to commercial ag exhibitors.

Legislative inaction
In 2018, Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, introduced House Bill 1162, and Don Lehe, R-Brookston, introduced House Bill 1404. Cherry’s bill would have clarified several points in the language adopted decades ago. It also would have modernized the election process and specified that both the Indiana State Fair Commission and the Indiana State Fair Board would become state agencies for purposes of the Indiana Tort Claims Act. Lehe’s bill would have specified duties of the Indiana State Fair Commission and the Indiana State Fair Board.

Indiana Farm Bureau reported on these bills weekly in its Public Policy Dispatch update. Both bills received hearings in committee, but neither bill was called for a vote. IFB indicates the issue was pushed to the 2019 session.

We hope the Legislature addresses this issue again in 2019. Hopefully this time reasonable legislation clarifying roles and filling loopholes will become law. It’s long past time this issue was settled.

What happens on the Indiana State Fairgrounds and during the fair won’t raise the price of corn. But it’s vital to guaranteeing that the heritage and fabric of the Indiana State Fair remain intact.

Some things are more important than money. Support for agricultural heritage qualifies. Ask questions, visit the 2018 Indiana State Fair and attend state fair board elections. Make up your own mind. Let legislators know how you feel. This issue is too important to be ignored any longer.

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