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STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: It'll be full speed ahead as legislators start term

January 3, 2005

Words once uttered by a man who certainly qualifies as an honorary Hoosier-Mario Andretti-will probably prove prophetic as we watch Indiana's new governor and General Assembly over the next four months.

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough," Mario once said. That may well be the mantra of Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

While writing the initial column previewing the legislative session is always a daunting task, it is even more so this year because of the political sea-change we have experienced, not just since the election but back even to the end of the 2004 session.

Outgoing Gov. Joe Kernan, a Democrat, through the Peak Performance Project that he and outgoing Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis had organized, proposed a series of far-reaching changes in state government before the election that were generally well-received by lawmakers of both parties.

These and other ancillary proposals would have radically altered the structure of state government and how many key agencies delivered services to, and interacted with, Hoosiers.

During the campaign, Daniels proposed even more radical changes in some of the traditional assumptions and expectations we have held about state government. With sensitized Democrats and sympathetic Republicans in the Legislature, he is now in a position to follow through with his mandate.

Additional impetus for change comes from the legislatively created Government Efficiency Commission. That panel reported back after the election with a raft of criticism over how state government is organized and operated, and with a bevy of recommendations for change.

Daniels has promised swift action and some immediate changes. And it won't simply be "tinkering around the edges," Lt. Gov.-elect Becky Skillman assured Hoosiers.

New House Speaker Brian Bosma, RIndianapolis, quickly warned his majority caucus that this session will not resemble previous sessions where much of January was spent spinning wheels and easing into the workload. Speaker Bosma wants substantive work to begin as soon as lawmakers return on Jan. 4.

While the only constitutional mandate for legislators to fulfill this year is to craft and approve a biennial budget, which they will do by April 29 without a special session, there will be much more on their plates.

The new governor will ask solons to authorize a revamp of agencies responsible for matters ranging from social services to agriculture. And economic-development efforts also will go under the microscope.

The laws paving the way for the muchvaunted Indiana Economic Development Corporation still require some tweaking, and substantive measures will be proposed by the Daniels administration reflecting jobs as "Job One." You will hear the new governor propose tax credits for job creation and research and development in his State of the State Address, along with promotion of regional venture capital funds.

There is certainly a new sense of optimism for the state, from Republicans and Democrats alike. Democrats mumble their requisite minority-party lines about not burdening working Hoosiers at the expense of tax breaks for big business and not forgetting their social services needs while government programs face further cuts.

At the same time, however, many privately are glad that they will not have to make the difficult decisions forced by the state's precarious fiscal condition. And all want to see the state prosper. "If you're right, we're with you," former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Crawford, D-Indianapolis, assured the new committee chair, Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale. As Crawford observed, "All of our constituents benefit if there are two good years."

Lurking in the background, however, is fiscal reality. Projected revenue growth would have to more than double or all state programs would have to be cut by almost 10 percent to help compensate for the so-called "structural deficit," which has been pegged in recent weeks by different state sources at between $600 million and $1.2 billion.

Lawmakers largely agree that delayed payments to schools and local governments should be paid up, that state reserves need to be bolstered and that education spending deserves a boost.

At the same time, however, Indiana faces a huge increase in mandated Medicaid spending-more than $700 million, an amount that would equal an increase of about 4 percent in the K-12 budget. And even flat-lining K-12 spending for the biennium could require as much as $250 million more because of the way the current budget was arranged and to account for enrollment growth.

To work through this dilemma, said Sen. Bob Meeks, R-LaGrange, will take "discipline, discipline, discipline in spending." His understanding of this will be key, because he will chair the new Senate Committee on Appropriations.

"Buckle up," Daniels told Hoosiers on election night. As he and Mario would tell you, it will be full speed ahead for four years.



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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