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STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: State lawmakers have plenty to squabble over

January 15, 2007

Just because House Speaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, finessed the new legislative session's first area of potential legislative c o n t r ove r s y - t h e opening prayer-without any fuss (and even with some compliments from both sides) doesn't mean you should expect the next 14-odd weeks to slide by as a big legislative lovefest.

However, you should consider his action in the broader context we outlined last week: where House Democrats can find bottom-line areas of agreement on bigprinciple items with House and Senate Republicans and Gov. Mitch Daniels, they won't necessarily provoke confrontation.

Indeed, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, has twice postponed hearings throughout central Indiana (and possibly as far away as Evansville) on the governor's Indiana Commerce Connector proposal. As chairwoman of the relevant House committee, she has agreed to wait until the actual enabling legislation takes form in the Senate.

If she had held pre-session (or early January) hearings, they almost certainly would have focused more on the potential negatives in the proposal because of the lack of firm details.

Don't take that assertion about Democrats being more conciliatory than you might assume, however, as being too "Pollyanna," because virtually no session runs smoothly, without any significant partisan bickering.

There will certainly be dissent as lawmakers establish spending priorities, although these will not always fall out along party lines.

The governor has been adamant that the result matters more than how we get there. Skeptical Democrats interpret this as the end justifying the means for him, but that's not quite true.

While the nature of the system means Daniels can't be, in the words of President Bush, "the decider," he has taken on the role of "the proposer," and he doesn't expect the Legislature to be "the disposer" of his ideas.

What the governor has done is look to see where he believes the state should be, and try to determine how he can best move Indiana there. That is a gubernatorial prerogative (and some would suggest, a leadership imperative in a state in which the Legislature tends to be more reactive than proactive, and driven more by compromise than by striving to generate and enact controversial, bold new ideas).

From tax increases and toll hikes to shedding public employees and assets, Daniels has not been concerned about the reaction to his proposals, but neither has he been entirely wedded to the means he has proposed. He continues to implore others to suggest more lucrative, simpler and less painful ways to achieve the goals he seeks for Indiana, but he hasn't seen many step up to the plate with alternatives.

Surprisingly, few have yet challenged his view of where Indiana needs to be down the road. When challenged by Democrats (or even Republicans) on his road to those goals, however, he has generally not been receptive to alternative means, and his intransigence toward change has led to ill will.

The next big issue to come to a head will be the Hoosier Lottery "franchising" proposal, and lawmakers will not be happy to see a formal Morgan Stanleyprepared proposal ready to roll before the end of January.

But these are the big-picture items that help frame the overarching tension in the session. The tension is not always partisan, and can also run between the House and the Senate and between the legislative and executive branches. Of course, individual issues will also play a role in this, and we haven't even touched on property tax relief and reform, school funding issues, and the shape of the budget.

Other issues also inevitably will emerge unexpectedly, as a senator's mugging last week seemed to assure that crime issues will move to the fore.

As things unfold, remember there are more complicated factors at play here than simple partisan bickering.



Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached by e-mail at edf@ingrouponline.com.
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