Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch and Government Reform

FEIGENBAUM: Session to test lawmakers' views on small government

January 1, 2011

Every legislative session opens with a unique set of issues that lawmakers expect to confront. As the weeks pass, it develops its own rhythm as specifics take shape. And it concludes on a note of general satisfaction or with a sense of exhaustion after a realization that not everything could be handled in a given year.

Of course, this 2011 session will be no different in those respects, and everyone is well aware of the uphill climb lawmakers face in crafting a biennial budget amid a stagnant national and regional economy, and the pent-up demand on key social and economic issues that the new—and large—Republican majority in the House hopes to address.

But there also will be an underlying current of “smaller government” that will shape many basic issues that either directly or indirectly affect Hoosier businesses.

Many new House and Senate members won election in part on platforms of reducing government regulation and minimizing government in the lives of Hoosiers. A growing number of issues likely will be framed in terms relevant to that large contingent. The exact impact will be decided on an issue-by-issue basis.

This may prove to be a fascinating scenario unfolding, as first-time lawmakers grapple with balancing their baseline principles against individual issues they will quickly learn might not lend themselves to such simple resolution—despite how well it may have resonated in those incessant 30-second campaign sound bites.

Advocates for revising the confusing system of alcohol sales regulations may find a more receptive audience in the new members who may question why the free market system does not permit cold alcohol sales in non-package stores, and how the Hoosier economy is helped by banning Sunday sales of alcohol.

After all, we’ve seen some fairly impressive statistics showing how sales (read: tax revenue) would be pumped up by deregulation. But lots of “mom and pop” stores would be hurt by allowing major retailers to further cut into their sales. Opponents of change are sure to raise public safety arguments, as well as potential problems with carding and shoplifting at larger retail establishments where minors can work and shop. Concerns over a “government-created monopoly” may end up not being as dispositive as expected.

Other issues that could leave lawmakers torn between arguments for public safety and excessive government intrusion into our daily lives:

• Criminalizing or otherwise penalizing conduct related to obscenity and privacy on the Internet.

• Banning the sale of highly caffeinated alcoholic beverages (or even highly caffeinated beverages without alcohol, as Kentucky is now considering).

• Prohibiting smoking in public places.

• Requiring prescriptions for the sale of ethical drug products containing ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine.

Some of these philosophical arguments may be reversed by pro-choice legislators fighting against a bill to be filed requiring ultrasounds before abortions.

And what about advocates for township government reform? That is decidedly not a partisan political issue, given the nonpartisan recommendations of the Kernan-Shepard Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels suggests that some justification for eliminating layers of township government is economic in nature, saving scarce tax dollars.

The fiscal frugality and elimination of what the incumbent governor and his Democratic predecessor assail as anachronistic government should be a slam-dunk argument with the new class of solons. However, many emerged from the Hoosier AAA political farm team of township government, campaigned to retain the level of government closest to the people, and are suspicious of consolidating power at the county level, particularly in larger counties.

As Assistant House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, explained last month at a legislative conference, many issues destined for debate will not be determined on a partisan basis, but by legislators making difficult decisions based upon “what they value most.”

For many of these lawmakers, particularly freshmen not accustomed to compromising on basic principles, this won’t be as intuitive as they anticipated—and it will be much more agonizing.•

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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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