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Analysis: Lawmakers put pragmatism before party

April 29, 2013

Left to their own devices, Indiana's Republican-led General Assembly pushed the state right ever so gently, adopting such marquee conservative priorities as tax cuts, a school voucher expansion and constrained spending in measured fashion.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, hit the brakes during the 2013 session on the adoption of national Common Core education standards and a guaranteed-purchase contract with the developers of the $2.8 billion Rockport coal-gasification plant.

A last-minute push to cut state employee benefits was pulled by Republican leaders, who decided the issue needed a public vetting. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, also pulled a measure that would have banned secret filming on private property, a measure sought by farmers who said they were under assault from animal rights activists but opposed by free speech supporters who dubbed it the "ag gag" bill.

"Part of the leader's job is to be sure the vision is set and the Legislature moves in the right directions. I feel like we made wise decisions in that regard," Bosma said, shortly after the 2013 session ended, about 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

The tone of the session was a far cry from 2012, when Republican's made Indiana the 23rd state to ban mandatory union fees via right-to-work legislation. There were no union members chanting in the marble halls this year or packing the Statehouse lawn. Nor was there a push for sweeping education, immigration or abortion changes.

Gov. Mike Pence urged lawmakers to tack harder to the right, but his influence during his first session was weak and his first-year agenda light. Lawmakers took his budget, which curbed spending to pay for a 10-percent cut in the income tax, and added more for roads and schools, while giving him a modest tax cut. Senate lawmakers trimmed Pence's call for a school voucher expansion.

"As this legislative session draws to a close, I am grateful for the efforts of every member who made this one of the most civil and substantive sessions of our state legislature in recent memory," Pence said in a written statement.

Pence's staff said he would answer questions about the session on Monday.

Democrats noted that a modest push to the right is still a push in the opposite direction they would like. Addressing lawmakers shortly before the end of session, House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, called the session a wasted opportunity to help the middle class.

"I have to admit, I'm envious of you guys. You've been presented a tremendous opportunity to lead Indiana. You've been given two supermajorities. You've been given a governor who's supportive of you — most of the time — and even a bounty of statewide officials, save one. And even she enjoys working with you," he said, alluding to Democratic School Superintendent Glenda Ritz. "And that's why I'm so concerned that you didn't use it to do more."

There's little question that Republicans, who won a supermajority in the House last year and maintained one in the Senate, dominated the 2013 session. But contentious measures were largely shelved this year.

Legislation that would have allowed school prayer and challenged the teaching of evolution was locked away in the Senate rules committee at the start of the session. Republicans considered writing the state's gay marriage ban into the state constitution, but opted instead to wait on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer on a pair of cases that could override any state measure.

A mid-session push to arm teachers in schools, in response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, was changed to a grant program that would help schools hire more trained law enforcement. And a measure that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients died in the Senate amid concerns that children would lose aid if their parents tested positive.

In some cases, the Legislature even re-evaluated measures previously championed by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, both Republicans. Bennett's A-F school grading system will be recrafted by the state board of education as part of a measure that also "pauses" national Common Core education standards to allow lawmakers to study their impact.

And lawmakers decided they acted too soon, six years ago, when they authorized the Daniels administration to enter into a 30-year contract with the developers of the Rockport coal gasification plant, led by Daniels' longtime friend and ally, Mark Lubbers. Lawmakers voted to have the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission review the project's cost to ratepayers, if the state Supreme Court determines the contract is void.

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