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STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Negotiating blitz to bring legislative session to close

April 16, 2007

For those who thought this had been a fairly boring session of the Indiana General Assembly to date, wake up from your deep slumber. Nap time is over.

We've reached the point where the lowhanging fruit has been picked by lawmakers and passed on to the governor, and the heavy lifting remains.

Lawmakers embark upon the conference committee stage of deliberations. To understand conference committee time, forget all your conceptions to date about the session and begin with a clean slate. That's effectively what legislators will do.

As they begin to iron out the differences between bills approved in different forms (sometimes tactically, sometimes as a result of legitimate policy differences), virtually anything can happen, and often does. Legislation previously assumed dead because it didn't even receive a hearing in one chamber can be resurrected, and provisions can appear in bills even though they had never even been discussed during the session (that's technically not supposed to happen, but when such a sentence somehow worms its way into the more than 250 pages making up the budget, it's hard to stop the railroad).

The final week for regular passage of bills also had a few unexpected twists. The health insurance plan re-emerged and the same-sex marriage ban constitutional amendment didn't. The governor tried to resurrect his Hoosier Lottery lease plan to no avail, but a statewide smoking ban that could potentially reach most indoor public places, from workplaces to casinos, found a surprisingly strong bipartisan majority in the House.

The health insurance plan bears watching. As it emerged from the House, House Democrats backed the governor's basic plan for preventive care and individual health savings accounts for low-income Hoosiers, but lawmakers failed to serve up attendant funding. The cigarette tax was not attached, and there were some rumblings about using some revenues from the slots-at-the-horse-tracks measure to jump-start the program.

Also during the last week for committee deliberations, a budget measure emerged from the Senate, as did a comprehensive property tax relief plan that found significant bipartisan agreement on the four corners, if not the details-many of which were still fluid even as the Senate passed the measure to keep the process flowing.

Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, wants to use upfront cash from adding slot machines to the state's two horse tracks to help provide immediate property tax relief, but as the only significant revenueraising proposal still alive, everyone is looking to this bill for money.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels hasn't even indicated whether he is comfortable enough with the concept to sign the bill, despite the cover the Senate recently offered by proposing to crack down on illegal gambling, allowing policymakers to make the straight-faced assertion that adding 3,000 to 5,000 new slot machines at "destination gaming" locations would be a net reduction in gambling opportunities if the estimated (but unconfirmed) 20,000 to 40,000 illegal machines now in use were eliminated.

Rep. Trent Van Haaften, D-Mount Vernon, author of the slots-at-the-tracks bill, has been hinting in committee hearings and on the House floor that he would like to direct some of the new slot cash to the health insurance program, and he has reminded senators that more than a few of the 54 votes that measure received in the House were cast as a result of the revenue-sharing component, which extended some of the slot revenues to the counties without gambling.

That provision was stripped in the Senate complicating its future in the House.

SB 500 has now passed the House and also faces an interesting future. We told you a few months ago about this tax-procedure-and-administration bill that would, among other things, change the retailmerchant-sales-tax collection allowance. It has undergone significant revisions since, including designation of revenue to assorted state and local housing funds, tax exemptions related to the Indianapolis 2011 Super Bowl bid, and an interesting provision requiring airlines to refund or exchange tickets for passengers affected by certain flight delays.

So expect lots of quiet negotiating on the key revenue and tax relief measures. HB 1001, the budget bill, HB 1835, the slots-at-the-track bill, and HB 1478, the property tax reform bill, are each dependent upon the other and will emerge as a package at the end.

Other bills also are related, such as the illegal gambling crackdown and health insurance bills, and will play a role in the end game.

Of course, a number of other bills with major implications also head to conference, including minimum-wage legislation and regulation of large animal feeding operations.

This is the time of session when your vigilance is most needed.



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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