Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Lots of bills still in play as session nears home stretch

February 11, 2012

The disarray and dysfunction endured within the General Assembly during the first half of the session is basically behind lawmakers. Now they can sit back and legislate while watching the disorder shift to the executive branch of government—where voters, judges, the governor and state commissions can’t even agree on who should be the secretary of state.

The relevant functions of the Secretary of State’s Office largely run themselves without need for policy direction—thanks to effective, professional managers in the business services and securities divisions—so you should rest easily knowing that the state seal is in safe hands, and you can turn your full attention back to the Legislature.

Overarching the next five weeks or so could be the transformation of the Senate. That body has evolved from a largely reactive, more moderate body (one that traditionally filled the role of the saucer into which the hot tea from the House was poured to cool) into one from which more activist legislation is emanating. Hoosiers in the past generation have typically seen such bills emerge first from the House.

Now, particularly in education policy, the Senate is taking the lead, and the generational, gender and philosophical change among members there bears watching as you sort through what might advance (and from which body) going forward.

But back to the immediate post-Super Bowl reality.

Despite the perception that there was just “a whole lot of shirkin’ goin’ on” in the House during the first month of the session, when Democrats largely avoided a presence on the House floor in hopes of denying passage to the right-to-work law, many more bills than you might assume advanced from the House to the Senate.

Senate bill passage didn’t miss a beat, either.

While legislative fiscal leaders are no doubt reserving some of their more imaginative tools for conference committee negotiations in a few short weeks, many issues that address daily commerce, business relationships, education policy, and the internal functions of state and local government remain to be addressed.

House members, pummeled by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform over a referendum that could raise taxes to support mass transit in central Indiana, punted on a carefully crafted mass transit package. Seeing the House reluctance and the apparent attendant voter perception, Senate leaders seemingly pronounced the concept derailed this year.

But don’t be too quick to accept that fate. Look for the local mass transit consortium to forge a new alliance allowing a more limited measure to be resurrected—perhaps even in the form of an interim study committee—that will generate momentum and ensure the issue returns to the legislative front-burner in 2013.

Strong grass-roots pressure from Main Street Indiana “brick-and-mortar” retailers has found a sympathetic ear from lawmakers. However, they remain reluctant to simply require online retailers, such as Amazon.com, to impose and collect the 7 percent sales tax absent a broader national solution that seems likely before the state’s deal to charge Amazon.com begins in 2014.

There are ways to address the tax collection issue in the short run by meeting midway (for example, requiring Amazon and other mega-Internet retailers to send e-mails to Indiana customers reminding them of their obligation to pay Indiana use tax), but that is unlikely to be translated into legislation in the coming weeks.

Education matters—ranging from the content and accessibility of school superintendent contracts to teaching of creationism, and from college “credit creep” to how proprietary schools are regulated by the state—remain on the agenda.

Local government nepotism and conflict-of-interest concerns finally appear ripe for a legislative solution this year.

Among the criminal justice laws alive are further crackdowns on synthetic drugs such as so-called “bath salts” and “spice,” and clarifications of the “castle” doctrine for homeowners.

A number of bills governing professional and occupational licensing and administrative appeals procedures remain pending.

Bills to end the Indiana inheritance tax and change the racino slot wagering tax structure and distribution also will be addressed this month.

There is much more legislating taking place than public perception might suggest.•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly when the General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.
 

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