INDIANAPOLIS - A 13-year-old Newburgh boy's effort to change Indiana's child labor laws so that he can referee soccer games before his next birthday took another step forward Tuesday, winning a House panel's approval.
Along with Southwestern Indiana's legislative delegation, Matthew Burkart is pushing a measure that would allow sports leagues to hire youths his age as officials. His idea has passed the full Senate and now a House committee without a single "no" vote.
"This bill will get kids off the couches and iPads and help teach us responsibility, commitment and confidence through a job that we can enjoy for much of our lives," Burkart said.
Currently, Indiana law prevents children under age 14 from being hired, except as golf caddies, farm workers and newspaper deliverers. Burkart is seeking to add officiating youth sports events to that list of exemptions.
His proposal, Senate Bill 153, was approved unanimously Tuesday by the House Employment, Labor and Pensions Committee. It now heads to the full chamber for a vote as early as next week that could send it to Gov. Mike Pence's desk.
The bill is advancing with the support of Murray Clark, the Indiana Soccer Association president who is also the former Indiana Republican Party chairman.
Clark told the committee Tuesday that the measure "affects about 300 Matthews statewide."
He said the organization, which includes about 60,000 players across Indiana, had worked to recruit 12- and 13-year-old referees to officiate younger players' games.
"It's been an initiative of ours to improve the refereeing by starting the referees younger," Clark said, "because what we've learned is, if you've played the game, you can be a better referee if you work hard and train."
That stopped last year, he said, after the Indiana Department of Labor notified the association that it was running afoul of state child labor laws.
"Now, all of a sudden, you have these clubs that have these games or a tournament with 8-, 9-, 10-year-old players and there's a shortage" of referees, Clark said. "In these instances, that's when the 12- and 13-year-old kids could officiate."
Burkart gave committee members packets that included letters of support signed by the mayors of Indianapolis, Evansville, Fort Wayne and South Bend, as well as university presidents, school and law enforcement officials and more.
He also produced a petition signed by 140 soccer players, coaches, referees and parents -- including Lauren Cheney, an Indiana native and United States women's national team member.
Most of the 12 committee members who voted in favor of Burkart's bill Tuesday also commended his lobbying efforts.
"Some of you older folk might want to pay attention to how to testify," said Republican Rep. Doug Gutwein of Francesville, the committee's chairman -- and one who's known for running a tight ship.
"This can be an intimidating kind of situation, but you stood tall. I just wanted to recognize the fact that you read well, you presented yourself well and you did a great job," said Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis.
The measure Burkart is supporting is being carried through the legislative process by several members of Southwestern Indiana's delegation.
It was authored by Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, and it cleared the Senate in January on a unanimous 48-0 vote.
"He truly believes in the importance of this legislation, and I back him 100 percent," Becker said.
In the House, its sponsor is Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, and her co-sponsors are Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, and Rep. Ron Bacon, R-Chandler.
"The initiative taken by young Hoosiers like Matthew is incredible," Crouch said. "These truly are the future leaders of our state. I commend Matthew not only for his articulate and well thought out testimony, but also for the time and effort he has put into garnering support for youth referees."