IBJOpinion

FEIGENBAUM: Daniels' agenda built on avoiding new taxes, programs

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The State of the State address delivered by Gov. Mitch Daniels Jan. 19 contained no surprises at all, except, perhaps in his optimism.

We cautioned you last week not to expect new initiatives; the state simply can’t accommodate any new programs—much less any surprises. Of course, the governor also believes Hoosiers can’t afford any new taxes, either, and there weren’t any of those on his (or anyone else’s) agenda.

The Republican governor sought to comfort Hoosiers with the knowledge that while we are suffering economically as individual citizens and collectively as a state, we are in far better shape than residents of other Midwestern states (and, to no surprise, California).

For those fond of analogies, the governor sees Indiana as “a peony in a parking lot.”

Lawmakers were given some props for their assistance in making this possible through assorted actions over the past few years, and for taking key steps this session to address property tax caps, local government reorganization and ethics reform—issues on which the governor would have taken the lead had his speech been delivered a bit earlier in the session.

As with many other such addresses delivered by governors of different parties, it may prove difficult to disagree with some of the overarching principles. Yet after the applause dies down, the House and Senate and Democrats and Republicans still must hammer out specific language acceptable to both chambers and the chief executive on state and local reorganization initiatives, education reform, criminal and civil law changes, and matters related to economic development and gambling.

And that’s just what will consume the next several weeks.

Now that some of the heavy lifting on property taxes (and initial work on shepherding lobbying and local government reforms through the House) is out of the way, work can proceed on fine-tuning these measures, and turning attention to other matters. You will hear as much hue and cry over the intrusion on individual freedom posed by proposals to ban texting while driving as you will on calls to approve the Defense of Marriage Amendment.

Democrats were largely unimpressed with the speech itself, believing that Daniels owed Hoosiers more ideas on how to put more than 300,000 Hoosiers back to work, and not just make them feel better because they didn’t live in Illinois or Michigan. They bemoaned the lack of initiatives to jump-start Indiana’s economy and allow thousands of Hoosiers to begin earning paychecks once again.

That’s where much of the disconnect between the parties will be found as the session evolves.

Democrats continue to advocate for greater investment by the governor and his party in economic stimulus and job-growth efforts, but find little general traction because public concern over government spending remains high.

Even the work of Democratic U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh against deficit-increasing programs at the federal level would seem to be cutting against state Democrats here.

Still, with the state unemployment rate hovering above the 9-percent threshold for the past year, the lowered road-building costs that Daniels keeps referencing, and the fact that some $1 billion in casino-related capital expenditures in the past two fiscal years have come to a screeching halt, ultimately may re-energize this debate.

Top legislative Republicans insist the governor’s speech was all about how we’ve laid a foundation for job creation, but they also might be willing to bite off a chunk of the Democratic proposals.

Senate Committee on Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, chairman of the State Budget Committee, are exploring whether it is appropriate for the state to accelerate some university bonding projects already approved by the General Assembly but temporarily placed on hold by budget cuts. The duo is analyzing whether the state can currently afford repayments of those bonds.

But this is only a small piece of what Democrats seek. Release of significant funding for road-building is what they are after—along with an opportunity to raise questions about the specifics of how decisions have been made with respect to Major Moves Trust Fund dollars from the $3.9 billion Indiana Toll Road lease proceeds.

Some of that puffery may disappear if the proposed toll-based Illiana Expressway proposal from Interstate 65 near Lowell to Interstate 57 in Illinois continues to progress with bipartisan support.

As things stand now, there is a strong chance lawmakers can exit Indianapolis by early March, rather than the middle of that month. House Speaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, was gratified by the absence of negative undertones to the speech. He offers one reason: “The Indiana House already has taken care of many of the other issues considered to be priorities for 2010.”

But a lot of lawmaking—and speechmaking—remains between now and then.•

__________

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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