Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch

FEIGENBAUM: General Assembly is Senate-centric this term

March 9, 2013

Cynics might suggest the General Assembly really hasn’t accomplished much since convening in January.

While that’s a tad unfair, the session does seem unusual.

More bills were introduced in the Senate than in the House, the Senate seems to have been more active in sending bills to the House than in recent years, and the House will have its hands full processing those bills between now and mid-April.

As the key fiscal leaders await details of the mid-April revenue forecast, we’re accustomed to the budget bill’s being largely an aspirational outline (while having a fairly good idea of the bottom line) headed into conference committee deliberations. Yet, having so many bills sent from one chamber to the other with lots of work left is less typical.

Take the central Indiana mass transit bill, for example. There wasn’t as much opposition as expected in the House, but part of the reason was that backers kept the bill as amorphous as possible to avoid offending legislators potentially on the fence.

The details will be worked out in Senate committees—and then in conference committee, where the fine-tuning that could prove disruptive if performed through floor amendments will likely end up packaged with enough other elements to make the measure palatable to a majority, while offering enough to the proponents that it is worth passage to get their noses under the tent.

That means you won’t see the specifics (or tracks being laid for a fancy Palladium-to-Stadium light rail between Carmel and downtown Indianapolis), but rather an emphasis on non-binding referenda and more easily supported expanded bus service that can later quickly grow like many Carmel city projects.

Also watch the gambling bill, Senate Bill 528. As drafted, it offered so much of the gambling industry wish list that it was overkill even to them. Many individual elements in the bill favored some casinos at the expense of a neighboring casino.

Lawmakers were so eager to pass a measure to help defend critical casino revenue against new competition from Ohio that they ignored the immediate and unaffordable revenue hit to state coffers from the assorted tax breaks.

Senate Committee on Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, patched up the overly aggressive state treasury drain in his panel. In doing so, however, he offered too little for the casinos to be excited about. He also incited a negative local government response not seen since the property tax cap debates, because his changes would force communities dependent upon the river booty to share the sacrifice of some of the state revenue shortages.

Not to worry, however, because the author assured everyone before the vote that the bill was “a work in progress” that would be massaged in the House, where Speaker Brian Bosma, R–Indianapolis, expresses wariness about its being an “expansion” of gambling.

Bills with big fiscal implications are not the only ones being moved along simply to keep the debate alive.

Some “statement” legislation is also being advanced with the understanding that those measures will not remain in anything resembling their current form.

The grass-roots bill that emerged from the Senate serving up a pause for the school Common Core State Standards will almost certainly not survive House scrutiny.

Other education bills dealing with vouchers and financing will also go down to the wire as expansion of the choice scholarship program is debated, school finance formulas are tweaked, and decisions are made about how closely funds should follow students in the new voucher era.

If Mike Pence had a nickel for each time someone rose on the floor of either chamber in the past few weeks to urge their colleagues to simply pass a deficient measure because it was merely “a work in progress” and the author promised to resolve concerns as it moved across the Rotunda, the governor might have been able to fund his signature individual income tax rate cut without waiting on the forecast.•

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

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