Legislature and Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch and Government & Economic Development

FEIGENBAUM: Bills flying through Legislature at Castroneves' pace

January 16, 2010

Don’t blink or you may miss policy being made.

At a torrid pace, major pieces of legislation are flying through the Indiana General Assembly, leaving lawmakers with an envious decision: Adjourn early and make Hoosier voters happy, or stick around and devote attention to other major issues that deserve close scrutiny, but receive short shrift in sessions bogged down by battles over high-profile partisan matters.

A once-balky House of Representatives (more precisely, politically preoccupied House Democrats) overwhelmingly approved the House resolution amending the 1-2-3 property tax circuit-breaker caps into the Indiana Constitution. While the Senate followed suit on its own resolution to allow a public referendum on the constitutional caps the next day, the House vote was the key one.

Approval came by a 75-23 margin, with a large majority of members from both caucuses—including more than 60 percent of House Democrats—backing the caps. No freshmen lawmakers dared vote nay.

Recognizing political reality, House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, authored the amendment and allowed it to pass his committee in December, but failed to advocate for a favorable vote in his closing remarks on third reading.

“Vote your conscience,” he implored his colleagues, and Crawford ultimately voted against the politically popular measure.

As Helio Castroneves watched his likeness unveiled on the Borg-Warner trophy a few miles down the road, the House version of the campaign finance, ethics and lobby reform bill was crossing the Rotunda from the House to the Senate with the same speed with which Helio won his third Indianapolis 500 race last May.

And while legislative leaders engaged in the same kind of fancy footwork that won Helio a “Dancing with the Stars” trophy to pass the bill through the House unamended, there will still be considerable massaging of the measure out of the sight of the public before a final version of the bill is sent to Gov. Mitch Daniels for signature.

And speaking of Daniels, he’s the unwritten reason for some of the rapid action. The Republican governor delivers his sixth “State of the State” address Jan. 19, and the session traditionally doesn’t ramp up until the chief executive lays out his agenda. Democrats, however, did not want to hear him beat up on them for not having passed the property tax circuit-breaker cap resolution. They preferred to pre-empt him on the issue and, quite frankly, Daniels is probably pleased they did.

He will also likely praise lawmakers for taking the preliminary steps toward additional ethics reform without the specter of public corruption scandals that have forced other states to change their laws.

But much of the “State of the State” rhetoric will focus on the economy.

The governor will likely lament how the course of national and international events has hit Indiana. He will also suggest that, because of steps taken at his urging both before and since the economy crashed, Indiana remains in far better shape than our neighbors.

This is small consolation, he will acknowledge, reviewing steps he took to delay any cuts to education and other vital services until he was left with no alternative.

Expect him to outline how lawmakers and agency heads should view current straits as an opportunity to work with him to refine the internal processes of state government and reset (you may hear that specific word) our expectations of what state—and local—government should do for Hoosiers, and how.

He can be counted on to call for further consolidation of local government, endorsing some of the township reform initiatives already also zipping through the Legislature, some at his behest, and he will try to be inspirational, urging lawmakers to not give up on seeking to improve the state regardless of the dearth of resources.

The current political environment won’t tolerate any attention to new tax matters, even mere tax “shifts.” That makes it difficult for casinos and racinos to win tax breaks, but some favorable treatment at the margins is coming their way as major contributors to state coffers.

But even as conventional wisdom says not to expect much more from a short session like this, history also serves up a warning that the unexpected must be expected.

So don’t blink.•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.

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