Legislature and Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Don't expect fireworks in session's grand finale

February 27, 2010

The final week of regular legislative action addressing bills passed by the opposite chamber proceeded more peacefully than we had expected after some foreboding notes.

Assuming that all remains copacetic—which you always hope for but should never bet on—lawmakers head into one of their briefest periods of conference committee deliberations in recent years with just a handful of major issues needing resolution.

Legislative leaders advised members and staff to expect to work a seven-day week beginning March 1. Discussions continue on a final adjournment target. While the tentative Senate calendar contemplates adjournment March 7, the House of Representatives may push for a wrap by March 6, well in advance of the March 14 deadline.

That would force one of the shortest time frames we can ever recall for coming to agreement on bills passing the two chambers in differing form. Then again, there is not exactly a huge pile of bills left to haggle over, but among them remain the proverbial high-value targets.

You knew “jobs” would be the legislative priority.

The Illiana Expressway was the subject of three late-February House hearings, including one on the road in Lake County.

After some political wrangling when the bill, which authorizes a privately built 10-mile connector from Interstate 65 to Illinois (and a complementary Illini segment to connect Interstate 57), moved from the Senate after virtual universal approval, partisan tensions largely dissipated. Democrats backed off a proposal to require local approval from each jurisdiction the road would touch, and instead sought some different governmental and environmental protections.

As it now looks, the package would differ somewhat from the Indiana Toll Road consortium lease. Here, investment bankers and attorneys are already forging a bid package under which a specific contractor would pay the state upfront for the right to build the road, and be reimbursed by charging tolls to drivers who choose that route instead of Interstates 80 or 94, or U.S. 30.

The front-end payment that would come this year—hinted to be huge— would, according to one version of the plan, help fully fund the Major Moves roads program that took a hit when interest rates plunged. Other projects could also be funded, and you may see a 2011 move to direct a chunk to a mass-transportation program in northwestern Indiana, and perhaps even the Indianapolis-area mass-transit concept.

Republicans like the concept of a privately funded initiative solving a major state problem, Democrats love the idea of jobs being created from the construction, and everyone is pleased with visions of future economic development spinoff from this initiative. All this should override the few minor roadblocks facing conferees.

A bill delaying the fee increase in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund was ultimately approved in the House last week—in the form of repeal—after Democrats expanded eligibility for benefits and hiked maximum weekly benefits, making the state eligible for federal stimulus funds, but also making it more difficult for Republicans to embrace.

Motives aside, agreement on the larger concepts suggests that work at the margins in conference would not be insurmountable. Democrats were willing to make concessions to big business and Republicans did not want to be unsympathetic to the plight of laid-off workers in an election year dominated by economic woes.

Education also saw recent rapid-fire action. You may see conference committee deliberations bring together (or back) issues dealing with school start dates, an end to social promotion from third to fourth grade (if attendant funding issues can be worked out), and solutions to issues involving school funding flexibility.

While different constituencies consider individual components important, none seem to rise to a critical level by universal standards, and sufficient leverage may be lacking for pieces to pass.

Gambling issues seemed to take a tumble when a Feb. 23 amendment authorizing the move of a Gary casino from Lake Michigan inland to I-80/I-94 died. This was viewed as imperative to the survival of Gary’s casino operator, and to the future of city finances. When that provision failed, but amendments to help the horse-racing industry passed, the apparent imbalance and a lack of perceived equity led Rep. Bill Crawford, D–Indianapolis, to pull the bill, but it had returned for consideration at IBJ press time.

The bill’s final fate was unresolved as of this writing, but gambling legislation never dies until the final gavel drops. Even if land-based language is beached, assistance for French Lick’s casino may come in tax measures, and some tweaks for casinos involving food and beverage service may be joined to another innocuous alcohol bill—even as some fear that may lead to broader alcohol-law changes.

With few big issues, little time and few bills floating about as vehicles for other unresolved issues, don’t expect much latitude for the unexpected in the coming days.•

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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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