Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Lawmakers did much more than pass right to work

March 17, 2012

Reviewing the last 10 weeks, it was clearly a tale of two sessions.

And it was also the best of times and the worst of times—but not necessarily in that order.

The first half of the session was all about right to work, with the issue dominating the politics, policy and process. Other matters were hashed out in committee as usual, but without the same level of scrutiny or passion as in a typical legislative session (although “typical” sessions are a mere memory now, thanks to the 2011 education package and labor bills, and the recession’s impact before that).

As the Super Bowl approached, lawmakers enacted a law closing human trafficking loopholes. But there was a clear need for a halftime breather. When Madonna and the NFL circus left town, the air cleared, tensions lifted, and heavy lifting began anew.

While some editorial writers suggest legislators accomplished little of consequence this session, and House Democrats lament lost opportunities to restore education funding and fix child services programs, we actually experienced a remarkably productive final four weeks.

Lawmakers successfully tackled many major policy issues with bipartisan support, and some were debated at length, only to die with bipartisan opposition or be postponed for future sessions.

Set aside philosophical grievances with the outcome, and you’ll see that this session brought us:

• A right-to-work bill—the economic impact of which the governor now believes he severely underestimated.

• A more restrictive formula for automatic taxpayer refunds, with a chunk of cash returning to each taxpayer.

• Funding to expand full-day kindergarten opportunities.

• An inheritance tax phase-out.

• A statewide smoking ban for the bulk of workplaces and public places.

• An end to higher education “credit creep” at public colleges and universities.

• The elimination of many state boards and commissions.

• Changes to local government nepotism and conflict of interest practices.

• Further crackdowns on dangerous synthetic drugs.

• New fiscal lifelines for financially stressed local governments and school corporations.

In addition, many issues of importance went to interim study committees for in-depth summer review.

There were a number of major issues Hoosiers had expected movement on that were not acted upon, including a mass transit package (or at least a referendum) for Indianapolis and the collar counties; enlargement of the education voucher law; expansion of the historic preservation tax credit; definitive action on the Rockport synthetic natural gas plant package; and changes to the racino wagering tax.

As in every session, ancillary issues pop up that were entirely unanticipated in January, but this year’s squabbles over Girl Scouts and affinity group license plates didn’t derail proceedings.

And even though some things didn’t get done, the stage is set for a fascinating 2013 session when a biennial budget proffered by a new governor (and shaped in part by two new House Republican and Democratic fiscal leaders) takes center stage.

Beyond budget responsibilities, legislators next year will be asked to again consider a new central Indiana mass transit package—perhaps one wrapped up in a huge economic development package for Gary and Lake County.

Tax issues will likely be a major agenda item, with lawmakers taking time this summer, likely under the direction of Senate Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy Chair Brandt Hershman (R-Buck Creek), to review state tax credits in general.

Lawmakers also will begin to assess how the changing economy should cause us to restructure our tax system.

In the wake of the Amazon.com sales tax controversy, Senate Committee on Appropriations Chair Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville) has been contemplating what constitutes a fair taxing system.

The 2012 session was much more productive than your “typical” short session, and the 2013 session is poised to be more important in the long term than a normal budget session. Madame Defarge is already knitting.•

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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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