Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: Key issues still taking shape in Legislature

February 2, 2013

You were warned: Republicans’ continued control of the executive and legislative branches of state government—and with super-majorities on both sides of the Rotunda—wouldn’t necessarily mean symmetry between the House and Senate, nor an alignment of priorities on the second and third floors.

What has been surprising, however, is that legislative events aren’t proceeding according to a recognizable formula so far, leaving the coming months difficult to predict. Some major concepts usually take shape by this point in a session. But few telling themes have yet to emerge.

Unlike his predecessor in 2005, Republican Gov. Mike Pence hasn’t sought to dominate the General Assembly and force through his agenda (or force of personality). But Pence is a creature of the Legislature.

He understands that keeping his powder dry, focusing on a limited number of items (his individual income tax cut proposal–destined for major alteration–and vocational/career education, for example), and not yet going above the heads of lawmakers to rally public support can serve him well in April and beyond.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, a Republican from Fort Wayne, faces a tough task. He is seeking to corral a growing number of no-longer-junior senators while ensuring that other members will not be required to vote on issues that may feel good to approve, but would have little practical effect—and could expose the state to expensive litigation and adverse national publicity.

One such measure, dealing with nullification of some federal laws, has attracted 10 Senate co-sponsors, forcing Long to strike a delicate balance between bottling up a bill backed by one-third of his caucus and protecting his party, his governor and his state. So far, he’s managed to carry out this task with aplomb.

Long also has seen one such measure with potential to backfire—a bill seeking to roll back the Common Core Standards for education—evolve into what could be a win-win proposition.

The bill, advocated by Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, sought to repeal the standards implemented by a former Republican superintendent of public instruction. It was largely backed by the relevant committee chairman, but all sides seem to be pursuing a compromise under which they’ll hit the “pause” button while Republican lawmakers and new Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz hit the road for informal hearings to gain public input. Disaster averted.

But not much has firmed up yet on major items of substance.

Utility issues loom large, from some of the ratemaking issues that Chris O’Malley recently wrote about in these pages, to the more troublesome matter of addressing the long-term deal entered into by the Daniels administration with Leucadia’s Indiana Gasification LLC to build a $3 billion power plant in Rockport.

Legislative leaders are now skeptical as natural gas prices have plummeted since the Leucadia deal was approved, changing the dynamics, and the Pence administration also expresses reservations.

As for other big-picture issues that remain unresolved: There appears to be no consensus yet on how much more funding will go to K-12 education, although legislators are largely committed to a much larger chunk of cash than Pence has proposed. And there appears to be even less certainty about just how much money lawmakers believe should be granted to higher education—or just how convinced they are of the value the assorted institutions provide to the state beyond educating Hoosiers.

A sentencing-reform package is taking shape, but health insurance exchange talk remains just that. Mass-transit backers continue to struggle to find their sweet spot, and spending by central Indiana Republican mayors makes this a more difficult proposition for some non-doughnut-county Republicans to support.

And whither “social issues”?

While it’s just early February, it’s surprising how little is discernible about what’s shaping up.•

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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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