IBJOpinion

FEIGENBAUM: Conference committees may offer fewer fireworks

Ed Feigenbaum
April 23, 2011
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Longtime readers may recall all the emphasis placed in this column on the final days of a given legislative session, analogizing the last two weeks to the final minutes of a National Basketball Association playoff game.

This, of course, is when much of the seeming non-urgency of the session (or season) to date is suddenly jettisoned, and attention focuses on the veterans and those, like the venerable Reggie Miller, who shine when the pressure and spotlight are on them.

You might have noticed that much of the end-of-session hi-jinks have largely dissipated in recent years, with a good chunk of the reason being single-party control of both chambers of the General Assembly and Governor’s Office. However, limited resources and a governor determined to prescribe how they should be divvied up also meant minimal cash to argue about. A closely politically divided House of Representatives offered little opportunity —or appetite—for major policy innovation that required last-minute compromise or fine-tuning.

Given the historical context, it would not be unexpected that there wouldn’t be much left to argue about as the 2011 legislative session approaches its scheduled April 29 conclusion. After all, one-party rule has allowed Republicans to largely achieve their major new policy objectives—even with the House Democratic Party exodus to Illinois. House and Senate Republicans largely agree over the major components of the big issues (particularly in education). And House Republicans reluctantly have offered a few crumbs in the way of modifications to Democrats. So there would seem to be little room for intrigue in the final days.

If you can search for the constitutional imperative that says you can’t have a legislative session in Indiana absent political intrigue, you won’t find such de jure language, but you can rest assured that it is certainly a de facto element.

Conference committees will be a rarer phenomenon this session, however, because there simply weren’t many bills passing both chambers in different forms. Because of the Democratic walkout, some House measures heard in the Senate were shuttled through that chamber without amendment simply over concern that the bills would die in limbo if the Senate exacted changes.

When Democrats emerged from hibernation, the House didn’t seem overly inclined to alter bills or to keep bills alive only as vehicles for nefarious purposes in conference. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that, while a few bills might be used to address some major issues in conference, it was simply better to keep the process moving, and not risk bills failing for lack of time. The time left available for conference committee deliberations is extremely compressed.

Because of the crunch, the general dearth of bills still alive compared with prior sessions, and some issues that died a surprise death earlier in the session, conference-committee time again will prove important.  

You must, however, keep an eye on “second reading” amendment efforts during this final week of legislative activity. Some amendments will keep concepts alive for conference, competing for inclusion in the few bills left, while concerns over germaneness may cause some issues to disappear in conference. Others may simply arise from nowhere (like recent Senate amendments affecting control of the Office of Secretary of State in a vacancy and prohibiting the state from contracting with, or granting to, Planned Parenthood of Indiana).

A major item likely to land in conference will be revival of the gubernatorially sought package that would ease the way for the Leucadia National Corp. coal gasification project.

The original Senate bill failed when the gubernatorial priority was not well-communicated to senators, but some of the newer senators who had concerns over granting eminent domain for a carbon-dioxide-byproduct pipeline might still not be reassured, and Indiana Farm Bureau is cranking up its opposition to granting such power to private interests.

If nuclear energy provisions remain, there also may be others raising post-Japan earthquake eyebrows.

As always, the budget will be the object of last-minute tweaking. As banking interests fight for repayment to the Public Deposit Insurance Fund of an old $50 million loan, agricultural interests fight to keep some $30 million in annual racino subsidies, and other entities seek to maintain certain education scholarships, lawmakers will be calculating the impact on the bottom line.

This session’s last few days will be interesting as always, like those playoff final games the Indiana Pacers once treated us to. Perhaps the only truism is that single-class high school basketball tournaments will not be reauthorized. Beyond that: “Game on!”•

__________

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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