IBJOpinion

FEIGENBAUM: Session heads toward early, quiet completion

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As lawmakers approached the March 14 constitutional closing date of the 2010 legislative session, legislative leaders decided to accelerate the date for adjournment sine die. Although the House and Senate were still wrangling over a specific end date, chances were strong that lawmakers would be heading home by the time you read this.

The buzz as the days ran out suggested that nothing on the agenda was “must-pass” legislation, leaving Democrats and Republicans, the House and the Senate, and the governor and the General Assembly with little leverage to exert.

Job creation has been the legislative preoccupation, and it remained so in early March.

While it might not have been much of a surprise that the highly touted ethics bill avoided any nefarious side trip in conference and was concurred in unanimously by the House, there was considerably less precedent for a bill such as that which authorized the Illiana Expressway, to be approved via a concurrence instead of conference.

As you may recall, this bill, when it moved to the House, created the most potentially divisive intra-party (Democratic) and interparty splits of the session before Democrats cast aside some of their philosophical concerns about privatization and each side conceded a bit at the margins to pass a major job-creation and economic development initiative.

SB 382 authorizes a private entity to build and operate the Illiana Expressway, a 10-mile bypass in Indiana connecting Interstate 65 in southern Lake County with Interstate 55 in Illinois (Illinois is about to commit to building the stretch from its border to I-55 near Joliet). The expressway would be operated as a toll road, with the operator recouping its costs from the tolls, but the state would own the land underneath the road.

The operator would pay a negotiated fee upfront for the rights to build and operate the Illiana Expressway, with the proceeds directed to other road-building projects. Some 30,000 jobs would result from the estimated $1 billion project.  

The bill also includes a total of some $5 billion in transportation infrastructure projects—paid for without tax dollars. Mass transit and high-speed-rail passenger service studies are also part of the bill, making it (and the spinoff highway projects) more relevant to central Indiana.

Unresolved at midweek was the fate of the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund fee-hike delay (as passed the Senate) or repeal (as passed the House). The House Democratic approach forced House Republicans to decide between ending the fee hike they unanimously opposed last year (but which was largely forced through by Senate Republicans and House Democrats) and approving some Democratic amendments that favored organized labor over large employers, and seemed to raise the measure’s long-term price tag.

After Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R–Fort Wayne, stripped—as non-germane—some tax incentives for job creation inserted by House Democrats into a bill on agricultural-land property taxes, there was some talk that Democrats would try to add those provisions back into the unemployment insurance bill or elsewhere.

With heavy personal lobbying by leaders of some of Indiana’s largest employers slowing down the bill allowing employees to keep guns in locked cars on company property, the bill was starting to get weighed down by a slew of exceptions.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, too, has not yet indicated how he might act on such a measure, but he has been lectured by proponents and opponents on constitutional rights, fairness, public safety and economic grounds.

Bickering was continuing about assorted education bills, with the education-funding flexibility and social-promotion bills the hot items. Land-based gambling seemed to be a victim of more than the legislative clock, but Orange County advocates were still seeking a home for some tax breaks for their local casino. That prospect seemed more palatable than other casino and horse racing tax aid, and other changes that would help them economically.

All this final-week activity came against the backdrop of further deterioration in state revenue collections, suggesting belt-tightening of even greater historic proportions is forthcoming in 2011.•

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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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