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STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Daniels may not wield as much influence this session

January 16, 2006

We've only made it through the first few days of activity, but already we can get a feel for what this session of the Indiana General Assembly will focus on.

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels made it clear in his Jan. 11 State of the State Address that he believes lawmakers should devote the bulk of their attention to a legislative agenda revolving around highway construction, education, and local government reform and flexibility.

House Republicans last week unveiled a broad series of proposals that ranged from homeowner property-tax relief to redistricting reform.

Lawmakers also have been advancing assorted other measures. Some are highprofile, such as those restricting eminent domain and promoting telecommunications deregulation, and others are tweaks of existing laws and policies.

What stands out at this point-admittedly early in the process-is a disconnect of sorts on several levels.

Daniels continues to believe that he can, in large part, set the agenda for the Legislature. This perception appears to be based in part on his ability to take the lead in 2005, and in part on his strong belief that certain things simply must get done.

He's already twisted enough legislative arms to turn this from a typical short "do no harm" election-year session into one that will produce some significant results.

But what the governor fails to understand is the legislative predilection for getting in and out of Indianapolis in a hurry in an election year, and passing only politically popular programs. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has been quite vocal about seeking property-tax relief for homeowners in this session, for example, but he still can't find a way to fund the estimated $225 million price-particularly with Daniels seeking to apply the tax amnesty windfall to budget deficits that aren't shrinking as quickly as once hoped.

The governor's Major Moves transportation program is being met with skepticism from both Republicans and Democrats-although GOP concerns will fade once the Toll Road lease bids come in well north of most lawmakers' expectations and the governor agrees to apply a bigger chunk of the upfront cash to projects in northern Indiana.

Still, legislators continue to complain about local government reform and flexibility efforts being more than can be bitten off in the next two months. And there doesn't seem to be consensus on education issues.

There also are a number of members of the House and Senate majority who would like to use that majority status to not only stake out the moral high ground, but also build hotels on it. That's why the "In God We Trust" license plate whizzed through a House committee during the first week, and why so much thought went into finessing the federal court ruling on prayer in the House chamber.

But some of the more radical proposals-requiring intelligent design to be taught in schools and making abortion in virtually all circumstances a crime, for example-won't even receive a committee hearing, avoiding a polarizing session and a potential Democratic walkout and preserving moderate support.

But as the majority does its dance with the governor over what issues will dominate debate, other items have emerged.

Telecommunications deregulation, for one, may finally have found its legislative legs, and the governor stands behind it.

After failing in recent years to achieve consensus and being batted back by leadership-principally in the Senate-bills offered by Sen. Brandt Hershman, RWheatfield, and Rep. Mike Murphy, RIndianapolis, may be melded together this session to produce an outline for reform.

However, a Senate committee hearing last week saw two Republicans vote against the measure simply because backers sought to push the measure through in one abbreviated hearing. If any issue is complicated, dependent upon market forces and federal regulatory changes, and fraught with unpredictable consequences, it is this one, and it is far too early to assess its chances of success.

So the governor and legislative leaders appear to be pursuing separate-and sometimes competing-agendas.

If there is a significant positive buzz from the State of the State Address, lawmakers could be cowed into changes, but in a House where the balance of partisan control depends on the results in a literal handful of what will be closely contested races, gubernatorial influence may be limited.



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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