On Jan. 11, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels will deliver his State of the State Address to the Indiana General Assembly. You need to watch it with an eye toward its structure, substance and tone.
In many years, the State of the State Address serves as the practical jumping-off point for the legislative session. In such situations, or when a legislature collectively seeks gubernatorial guidance, the speech, broadcast statewide, forces lawmakers to focus on supporting an agenda—or fighting against one.
A State of the State Address can help outline priorities for a given session, and governors have used them to dramatically draw a line in the proverbial sand, directly delivering a message to the individual members and leaders of the legislative branch—and over their heads to the voters—as to what they expect, will tolerate, and hope for.
That last item, the aspirational nature of a speech, should not be underestimated. A governor’s dreams for the state typically both lead and close the speech. Indeed, such addresses are fairly formulaic.
Expect the governor to begin by affirming that our current troubles are effectively as challenging as those that many living generations of Hoosiers have ever faced. Yet Hoosiers have always met challenges with ingenuity and inspiration, and this biennium will be no different. The challenges presented by the economy should be viewed as an opportunity, you will hear, and Hoosiers have seized upon similar misfortune over the past two years to rethink and reset.
Just as Hoosiers have tightened their individual fiscal belts to meet reduced household budgets, so, too, has state government tightened the collective state purse strings, eliminating unnecessary programs and personnel, determining the essential elements of government, and ascertaining creative financial and programmatic solutions to continue the delivery of vital state services.
So the speech will open with a recitation of how well we have responded to adversity, how job creation is said to be proceeding at an unprecedented pace, and the now-familiar news that, while the state revenue stream is improving, we are still far from where we were before the recession (expect references to how we have essentially lost a five-year revenue stream, depositing us back into fiscal year 2007).
That gets the governor to the meat of the message.
The nuances you should listen for will revolve around just how ambitious a legislative agenda he proposes to tackle.
Pledging not to raise taxes in times of recession does not require him to be particularly adroit. What requires nimbleness is addressing the state’s negative $1.8 billion Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund balance, which will force the state—not employers—to start paying interest to the federal government this year. The initial interest payment is some $60 million, and employers will shoulder a per-employee surcharge while we remain in debtor status.
Listen to whether the governor offers a creative solution that will require some sacrifice from both business and labor, while not unduly burdening companies, their workers and benefit recipients. And monitor legislative reaction. You may get an early indication as to whether lawmakers will consider approval of a package as the functional equivalent of a tax hike.
Education reform likely will assume the bulk of the governor’s attention. He will expound on how higher education must cut costs, improve efficiency with cash and student time, and graduate people who will be immediate positive contributors to the needs of the new economy.
K-12 educators will be reminded he has reformed government to redirect cash toward education, and their budget will not be cut in this biennium. But he will stress the same kinds of efficiencies for teachers and administrators that have led to their considering him an enemy of public education. Of particular interest this year: whether he will specifically back vouchers.
He should ask lawmakers to restrain themselves and do what is right for Hoosiers and not themselves or political parties in redistricting, and urge reform of township government.
If he chooses to call for setting aside such emotional issues as single-sex marriage, right to work, and abortion restrictions until key fiscal measures are formulated, watch if Republicans are as negative toward the concept as Democrats are positive.
The speech will inevitably conclude with a reiteration of how we can turn lemons into lemonade—and beat our hand-wringing neighbors in creating jobs at lemonade stands.•
Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.