Legislature and Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Remainder of legislative session will be all about jobs

February 13, 2010

House Democrats now have their opportunity to tinker with legislation sent to them by the Senate, and they will look for every opportunity to use these miscellaneous bills to preserve and create jobs. Similarly, Senate Republicans will analyze each piece of legislation that crossed the Statehouse Rotunda from the House to determine whether it is a “job-killer.”

Both parties devoted the first half of the session to trying to avoid spending money, and rightfully so. Revenue for the first half of fiscal 2010 lagged the special revenue forecast from last May that was relied upon to craft a special session budget. A December forecast employed a new methodology that was supposed to take into account economic realities shaping Indiana, and that showed disaster looming—absent major budget cuts.

As a result, Gov. Mitch Daniels reluctantly, but quickly and unilaterally, ordered historic budget cuts. Then actual revenue collections in both December and January trailed even the new forecast, causing extreme consternation among politicians of both parties. December sales tax numbers and January individual income tax collections, both key indicators for those months, were disappointing.

So Democrats dropped any pretense of partisanship and agreed upfront with the governor and Republicans that legislation with any net negative fiscal impact upon state coffers would simply not receive consideration.

As surprising as the unanimity and solid commitment offered by Democrats was, equally impressive was that both parties and both chambers followed through on their rhetoric during the first half of the session.

If lawmakers concluded legislation would cost the state on a net basis, they simply abandoned it—something Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the governor both rudely discovered. Legislators shot down the governor’s one new State of the State Address initiative: no more “social promotion” for third-grade students who fail to master basic literacy skills. The state couldn’t afford the remediation cost for those students, lawmakers determined, even as the legislation went through all sorts of contortions to appear cost-neutral.

So will this legislative comity hold through the remainder of the session?

Democrats in the House are better empowered than their Senate minority counterparts to approve legislation that would create jobs, and you will see some elements of the Senate Democratic caucus job-creation program revived. But key to all this will be how House Democrats choose to approach things.

If they offer their endorsement for some Republican programs (such as the Illiana Expressway), and recast them as economic-stimulus efforts that will prove to be job generators, both sides should prove happy. But in the Legislature, both parties can’t be happy if one party can’t get its own act together, and some internecine Democratic battles between leadership and at least one prominent Lake County lawmaker could make this a difficult task.

Because House Democrats have only 52 votes when all party’s representatives are in their seats, every vote is critical for Speaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend. And one Democratic lawmaker from southeastern Indiana hasn’t been in Indianapolis since before Organization Day in November because of health issues, further complicating Bauer’s quest to come out on top by holding his troops together.

The speaker’s ability to keep everyone in line on every vote before adjournment sine die, given at least one disaffected member of his caucus, will determine how successful this session will be. If one Democrat jumps ship on a key vote, not only does that block a bill, but, more important, it creates the kind of partisan and intramural tension that has caused some sessions to derail in the past few decades.

But back to jobs.

In the coming weeks, you’ll see lawmakers clamor to pass any perceived job-generator. Possibilities include everything from rebuilding the Cline Avenue Bridge in northwestern Indiana to jump-starting university bonding projects to legalizing land-based casinos.

You should not take anything you hear for the remainder of the session at face value with respect to the job message. Instead, you should look beyond the political rhetoric to the reality.•

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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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