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STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Events outside the Capitol shape final days of session

April 30, 2007

As I write this, we have no way of knowing what the 2007 session of the Indiana General Assembly will mean for gambling, property tax relief or the biennial budget-the three overarching items looming over the heads of lawmakers as they entered their final week of deliberations. But that won't prevent us from making a few pertinent observations about the context, and how that atmosphere was shaping events.

Each legislative session possesses a flow of its own, based on incidents, individuals, rhythm or other intangible events that guide the course of legislation.

This session was no different in that respect, guided first by change, with Democrats regaining control of the House, giving Indiana its first Republican governor and Democratic House since the mid-1970s, and the first change in Senate majority leadership at the top in a generation.

Both Senate President David Long, RFort Wayne, and House Speaker Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, took great pains during the session to avoid missteps that would poison the atmosphere within their own chambers and polarize the opposition. Bauer also seemed to turn down the volume on his rhetoric against the governor of the past two years.

The session also was buffeted by tragedy, including the death of the eldest senator, major surgery that put another veteran Republican senator out of commission during April, and the traffic death of the daughter of a Democratic senator that put a damper on the final week of deliberations.

But as we headed toward the session's inexorable terminus, the dynamics changed as radically as did the fate of the Indiana Pacers franchise after the Detroit brawl.

We learned on April 24 that property taxes were expected to jump almost 24 percent on average this year (not the approximate 15 percent projected). The same day, a Republican House member presented a motion to the House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee seeking a third-reading vote on SJR 7, the same-sex marriage amendment, by the end of session.

That move followed another shot fired in the "culture wars": an American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana lawsuit seeking to impose a specialty-plate-type fee on the popular "In God We Trust" alternate license plate created by the Legislature.

And also that day, a wild card was introduced in the form of events-described live nationally by at least one cable news network anchor as a "fullscale riot"-at the privatized New Castle Correctional Facility, which had recently begun to house Arizona inmates under contract to that state.

All three major Indianapolis television stations carried helicopter video live from the chaotic scene through the afternoon.

Although it was quelled by the time the 6 p.m. news shows took to the air and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels characterized it as a "disturbance" that "turned out to be relatively minor," the images and coverage were unsettling, and helped contribute to an alteration of the karmic balance of the session.

While Hoosiers care about the culture wars, what really seems to steam them is unfair taxes. And when the new data suggested property tax bills might jump 24 percent, property tax reform suddenly became imperative.

While some were skeptical about the veracity of the local numbers-some call it an effort by local officials to inflate real estate values to avoid the expected hit from the circuit breaker-there was no time to analyze the theory, and, in any event, lawmakers politically could not afford to split statistical hairs on the issue.

A one-time fix for the hike of almost 25 percent in taxes would cost the state almost $525 million-and that would not offer permanent relief. That sent negotiators back to the table to figure out both immediate and long-term remedies.

Of course, the only pot of gold large enough to make an impact comes from gambling expansion, so the property tax news sent those involved in the slots-atthe-track debate scrambling, and even allowed bars and taverns to re-enter the picture with their own plea for alternative gambling.

All living organisms contain DNA, genetic instructions for their development and function. Each General Assembly session is a living organism of sorts, guided by that DNA. But DNA isn't the only thing that guides our development; we are also shaped in part by external events and so, too, is the Legislature.

The legislative double helix was important, but the lasting imprint this session will leave was influenced by outside events, no more so than in its final days.



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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