STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Lawmakers will get serious when the dancing ends

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Indianapolis may still be waiting for its first significant snowfall of 2006, but the legislative session zips along at breakneck speed. Jan. 23-27 marks the final week in which committees may consider legislation in their respective chambers of origin.

We’ve warned you this session would consider matters of substance despite its short fuse-lawmakers will adjourn no later than March 14. So how do things shape up so far?

If someone from another planet were to peer in underneath the Statehouse dome, he, she or it would likely conclude little progress has been made to date on key agenda items such as education, highway construction and local government reform.

But our system of government isn’t easy to explain to an alien (or to most Hoosiers), and the lack of apparent action to date should not be mistaken for nothing being accomplished.

Key committee hearings have already taken place on matters as diverse-and important-as property tax relief and telecommunications reform. While some of these have been relatively perfunctory due to Republican control of the process, others have been more intriguing.

Telecom reform, the subject of competing bills in the House and Senate, will continue to be a controversial issue relatively devoid of partisanship. The Major Moves roads program proposed by Gov. Mitch Daniels received its first committee hearing last week, and it will become a partisan issue, even though many Republicans, particularly those representing Indiana Toll Road constituencies, are extremely skeptical.

Daniels has found that while many of his overarching ideas may generate considerable favorable public sentiment, the devil is in the details, as he-and lawmakers of all stripes and geographic areas-discovered last year with daylight saving time.

Major Moves is dependent upon a multibillion-dollar Toll Road lease deal, and Hoosiers won’t learn until this week just how much money such a long-term lease can be expected to generate. That’s one reason the legislation has not yet moved. Another reason is that many remain concerned about the prospect of a foreign consortium’s controlling the asset. The lessor would also apparently be allowed to control restaurants, gas stations and hotels along the route that could compete with existing Hoosier businesses. The governor would have new powers over tolls. And the bill as drafted would allow the state to lease other key assets, such as airports, cargo ports and other transit systems.

As we mentioned, the devil is in the details, and there will be a few more hearings before this measure-the centerpiece of the governor’s 2006 agenda-goes anywhere.

With all the attention the governor has generated for his education package, local government reform and a cigarette tax increase, those matters have yet to assume the legislative spotlight, but they might soon.

What happens this week in committee deliberations will help frame the agenda for the rest of the session. If they are important enough, concepts that fail to receive a hearing by week’s end can be revived in the form of floor amendments or in amendments in committee when House bills move to the Senate and Senate bills to the House next month.

But the governor and his agency heads, legislators and lobbyists are all intent on advancing their preferred measures as quickly as they can, fearing the law of unintended consequences-such as last year’s walkout (or car-bombing) by House Democrats that effectively waylaid scores of bills.

The players are currently engaged in the old Kabuki-like dance where each has a role to play, and there is little divergence from the script and little concern over the lack of progress. Daniels professes to want lawmakers to act now on his major issues, and not obsess about matters of little importance to the administration. Legislators want to proceed at their own pace, and do not want to be forced into action by the governor or lobby. House Republicans also have their own agenda-one they believe will return them to the House majority-and hope to earn some political points by pursuing some of those items as well.

An uneasy tension of sorts is building between the governor and lawmakers. Not only do they have differing agendas, but some legislators are unhappy that Daniels stole what could have been their credit for paying off one-half of delayed payments to school districts. He did this with tax amnesty money, and between the amount committed to schools, paying down the budget deficit, and collectionrelated expenses, lawmakers have just a pocketful of change at best to play with. They aren’t happy about it.

So focus your attention on what does and doesn’t get afforded a hearing … but more important at this point, listen for the more interesting back stories.

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

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