Economy and Education & Workforce Development and Government and Economic Development and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Short legislative session may be eventful, for a change

January 2, 2006

We've all become lulled into assuming that the so-called "short" session of the Indiana General Assembly in the even-numbered years is the political equivalent of the practice of medicine: First, do no harm.

In election years, lawmakers are reluctant to do much beyond that which they must do to protect public health, safety and treasury. The short session originated as a vehicle for handling emergencies arising between the odd-numbered-year budget sessions, and many legislators-particularly those seeking re-election-didn't see much cause for slogging through a political thicket of controversial legislation shortly before they faced the voters.

But 2006 may be the year that finally breaks our long-held conceptions of the short session.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is champing at the bit to pick up where he left off in a fast-paced 2005 session and has made it clear to legislative leaders that he does not view the shorter time frame and 2006 elections as an excuse for not continuing to advance the state's business.

As a result, the leaders of the House and Senate-both Republican-controlled bodies-have conceded that the session will likely last until its scheduled March 14 adjournment date, and they expect it will be substantive.

You can expect "one of the busiest and most interesting short sessions in recent memory," promises House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

And it will be interesting literally beginning at the drop of the gavel on Jan. 4, the first session day in the House. All eyes will be focused on the podium there, where the first prayer will be offered since a federal judge issued certain proscriptions. While both Democrats and Republicans have publicly chafed over the limitations, how this is handled may help set the tone for the session.

The session itself will focus on some big-picture items, and economic development and related issues will again assume center stage.

Among the highlights:

The governor wants lawmakers to quickly approve his "major moves" transportation program-which contains his toll road leasing request-to give road-building a jump-start of sorts. Legislators of both parties, however, have some reservations.

Those from along the Interstate 80/Interstate 90 corridor want the bulk of up-front payments to stay in the area and assurances that increased tolls won't drive traffic to local roads, while others from farther south believe that they should benefit from the lease of such a major state asset.

Job-creation efforts will continue to be addressed. Expect a Republican package to assist entrepreneurs and extend the Economic Development through a Growing Economy (EDGE) tax-credit program.

A tussle will develop over property-tax relief. As the elections approach, complaints are growing that the Legislature balanced the budget on the backs of local governments and schools, and some lawmakers plan to seek new property-tax relief.

That effort chagrins Daniels, who views balancing the budget as a key priority, and the recent discouraging fiscal forecast certainly didn't change his mind. He wants to apply the bulk of tax-amnesty income to the budget, while lawmakers of both parties are already talking about using some of the $255 million in other areas.

Some, such as Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee Chair Luke Kenley, RNoblesville, want to help schools with rising fuel and heating bills. Others, such as Bosma, want to help homeowners with residential property taxes-which doesn't sit well with businesses who see the burden shifting back to them.

Education issues also will be on the front burner. The governor will seek to move Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress testing from fall to spring and push dollars from administration to the classroom, and legislative Republicans will look to offer education vouchers to certain classes of students. Democrats will push for more education dollars overall.

Government reform will be addressed. You will hear a hue and cry for government consolidation and flexibility. Evansville, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis all may seek further ability to consolidate functions with their respective counties, and the Indiana Association of Cities & Towns is gearing up for a major campaign to allow municipalities a greater ability to fund their own activities.

Some will move to abolish what many see as anachronistic local units of government, which may culminate in elimination of certain non-constitutional offices.

Democrats also will seek to protect state government workers and jobs from the governor's privatization and "localization" programs.

In addition, there will be the usual assortment of legislation that is not ripe for headlines, but constitutes the "stuff of government," and a handful of bills that represent political posturing.

The dynamics, which we will explore in subsequent columns, will be fascinating. While Gov. Daniels may not prove to be an irresistible force, the Legislature is not an immovable object, and there will be some latent tensions beyond the purely partisan.



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