STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Dems' control of House has shifted legislative dynamics

March 5, 2007

The Indiana General Assembly has reached mid-session, the point at which bills originating in the House have passed to the Senate, and vice versa. Those bills that have not mustered enough votes to cross the rotunda are theoretically dead, but, as you're accustomed to seeing in any number of cheap horror movies, there are all kinds of ways a concept can still arise from the dead until adjournment sine die.

The time remaining in the session is so much more important than the two months to date-and time between now and (presumably) April 29 will seem to move much more quickly.

One reason the process has seemed to lag is the pace has been much more deliberate than it was in 2005 and 2006, when the first Republican governor in 16 years worked the first GOP legislative majority in a decade to the bone, speeding through legislation with a lifetime impact on Hoosiers.

Matters such as a switch to daylight-saving time and the Indiana Toll Road lease deal were not simply proposed by Gov. Mitch Daniels. Democrats will say they were actually imposed on lawmakers, and Republican acquiescence was demanded.

Daniels moved Major Moves and other major items through the legislative calendar at a grueling pace, and party discipline played a critical role. Without House Republicans' closing ranks, Daniels' key initiatives would have faltered, and the tempo of the session played a big part in ensuring discipline.

This history is significant here. The fact that Democrats are now in charge of the House has caused Daniels to break stride and not push legislators into quick action as he did in 2005 and 2006 in what at least one (over-the-top) lawmaker privately labeled the "Bataan Death March."

But more important, party unity has become much less of a factor than it was in the previous two years.

The 51-strong House contingent of Democrats was unable to muster a constitutional majority for its property tax plan, and Republicans could not unite their caucus behind the governor's cigarette-tax hike.

Rep. Jon Elrod of Indianapolis, the only Republican lawmaker to win a seat in 2006 by defeating an incumbent Democrat, joined Democrats in passing a measure that would redirect some Major Moves moolah to local road programs. And Democrats were forced to add $2 million in the budget for a school district in Mishawaka to keep one of their own, Rep. Craig Fry of Mishawaka, on the reservation in budget deliberations.

Even in the Senate, where the wide Republican majority offers leadership more leeway, the governor has had difficulty advancing key proposals, most notably his Hoosier Lottery franchising effort.

While legislators are ostensibly elected to serve their constituents and vote their respective consciences, that's the civics textbook version. And while Republicans are not bound to follow the preferences of their governor and Democrats not compelled to oppose those same gubernatorial initiatives, that's the general idea.

"I went up there with the idea I would vote for whatever was best for my constituents, whether Republican or Democrat. I found out this is a little simplistic," freshman Rep. Amos Thomas, R-Brazil, told a cracker barrel session back home a few weeks ago. "I've been a little disappointed on the partisanship that exists between Democrats and Republicans."

Yet the partisanship hasn't translated into party-line votes the same way one might expect with such close party division.

Daniels and House and Senate leaders are now on notice that they cannot automatically muster their members in a display of unity on big issues.

That means there will be lots of trading of votes and projects as individual lawmakers cut deals with their own party leaders and with the loyal(?) opposition.

You'll have to decide for yourself whether these circumstances rate as an improvement over the past.

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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