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FEIGENBAUM: Expect uncertainty in the 2010 General Assembly

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One certainty about the 2010 session of the Indiana General Assembly: It will be over by mid-March.

That, however, may be the only predictable element of a session that convenes during the most turbulent and unpredictable economic times this state has endured in decades.

As a result, this gathering likely will prove to be a united and uncontroversial meeting of the minds—as both parties coalesce to pass politically popular proposals that will do no harm, postponing their tough decisions until after the election (while forcing the governor to be the bad guy). Or they will jump in and make difficult choices that will allow the state to survive the economic straits and preserve legislative prerogative in spending decisions.

Today, our money is on the former.

December offers a peek at promises and priorities as the legislative schedule again opens a month early. The agenda features a bevy of committee hearings in both the Senate and House of Representatives aimed at expediting packages considered sufficiently important that legislative leaders deem calendar creep essential.

Many Democrats finally seem to be warming—at least politically—to adding property tax caps to the Indiana Constitution, but seek protection against “assessment creep” in a trailer bill. Serving up too many restrictions on assessed values, however, also could pose constitutional problems and further hamper provision of local government services.

And while some business interests are softening their previous opposition to the tax caps, that sentiment is universal, and the state’s agricultural community remains largely averse to how application of the circuit breaker affects Hoosier ag.

Expect a few more prominent issues, some important to business, and some not, to be the subject of some debate—or debate over why they will not be debated.

While a legislative interim study committee completed its two-year review of the state’s alcoholic beverage laws and recommended adherence to the status quo, there remains considerable pent-up demand for some changes. Recent administrative and legal action may offer additional impetus.

The state’s casino industry—a direct employer of some 14,000 and a major contributor to state coffers—is at a crossroads, facing coming competition from Ohio and possibly Kentucky. The racinos seek tax relief; some casinos want tax incentives for non-gambling economic investments, income tax credits against the wagering tax, or tax deferral on some free-play offerings.

Another interim study committee examined gambling issues and found it difficult to achieve consensus on equitable assistance, as each property seems to face its individual challenges and would be affected differently by universal solutions. Tax breaks are not politically palatable, a casino move is a tough sell, and the only legislation that might emerge could center on allowing land-based gambling at current riverboat sites or simply eliminating maritime requirements and crews. However, any time a gambling issue comes to the floor, things become complicated.

Township-government reform efforts also will return.

Other emotional issues, such as smoking bans and prohibitions on texting while driving, will inevitably arise and distract lawmakers.

We’re just jaded enough to believe that much of the session’s direction will not be evident until close to Feb. 19, the deadline for filing for legislative office. The 2010 election for the Indiana House of Representatives is acknowledged to be the most important of the decade, because Democrats need to maintain their majority to affect the drawing of new district lines in 2011.

Both parties believe their respective ability to “draw the maps” will largely determine which party will be able to control the House majority for the succeeding 10 years (when Republicans drew the House maps in 1981, they held the majority for all but one election in that decade; likewise, Democrats were in charge of House mapmaking in 1991 and 2001 and maintained their majorities in all but one election in each of those two decades, to date).•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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