This is about the time each year when I write about the advent of the conference committee process, the black hole that not even the Stephen Hawkings of the legislative process can fathom.
Just when you have figured out the session dynamics-leadership, partisan mischief, interconnections between issues and bills, and the relationships among key lawmakers-conference committees begin and all your presumed understanding flies out the window.
Regardless of all the pablum you may hear about rules, what issues may be alive or dead, and the integrity of the process, almost anything is fair game in conference deliberations, and this year's process will be particularly fascinating.
The process was designed to iron out differences in language between House and Senate versions of the same bills. The process has changed over the years to the point where bills are jockeyed to move them into conference so other issues may be included, substituted or even killed.
What emerges from conference committee deliberations on a given measure may not even resemble either of the bills that entered, and language that finds its way into bills in conference may not have even been considered by-much less passed-either chamber.
This year, the dynamics will be a bit different.
The schedule will be changed from the past. New House rules require the budget to sit for at least 24 hours before a final vote.
Over the past 15 years of writing this column, I have drawn the parallel between the conference committee process and the NBA playoffs. This is the time of the session-and season-when the real professionals move to the fore-and floor-and the rookies take a seat on the bench. I've also referenced how Reggie Miller had a legislative counterpart as the go-to guy in conference.
But just as Miller is ready to hang up his sneakers, the lineup has also changed in the Legislature. For the first time in decades, former Sen. Larry Borst, RGreenwood, will be on the sidelines when conference committee deliberations open on the budget and related fiscal policy matters.
Taking up the budget and key financial issues for the Senate will be Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Meeks, R-LaGrange, and Tax and Fiscal Policy Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville. While both have been involved in the delicate budget negotiations over the past several sessions, neither has had the buck stop at his desk before. There even is some question as to where the principal negotiating locus will be.
On the House side, Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, will be the top majority negotiator on money issues, which also will be a new responsibility for him.
What these lawmakers will have to do-in conjunction, to a certain extent, with Democratic negotiators on the conference panels-is produce a budget acceptable to Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican.
That means the budget will have to be honestly balanced. But Daniels seems to have given lawmakers a long leash on other budget-related issues, and they will be able to undertake a good bit of horse trading as a result.
That deal-making ability may be able to calm down Democrats concerned about how school financing affects urban districts, and suburban Republicans whose districts complain about insufficient funds for burgeoning enrollment. This may also accommodate northwest Indiana lawmakers who want money generated there to pay for property tax relief, regional transportation and new infrastructure in exchange for a financing plan for a new Colts stadium and Indiana Convention Center expansion for Indianapolis.
This far into the session, some issues have just headed to the floors of the respective chambers for the first time and the picture is no clearer on key policy issues such as daylight-saving time, but that is one reason conference committee deliberation has evolved into almost a special session unto itself.
Some might suggest I am making too big a deal about the power of conference negotiators; after all, they must receive the assent of their respective caucuses for final action. But this is where the power will lie in the final two weeks.
New rules mean Solons will actually be able to review and digest the full budget before voting on it, where before their votes came as an article of faith in negotiators and their respective party leadership. Watch to see how the new players and rules interact with the unique budget issues this year.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.