STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Major Moves displays short-session political mastery

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A combination of arm-twisting, dealmaking and the sheer brute force of the Office of the Governor came together the last week of January in a way Hoosiers seldom see. All the pressure was enough to keep Republican House members in line at just the right time in the legislative process to keep the governor’s Major Moves transportation plan moving.

There was a lot of deep exhaling at week’s end, some from those in the Governor’s Office doing the heavy lifting necessary to keep the centerpiece of their legislative agenda rolling-if not with bipartisan support. Some exhaling came from Republican lawmakers, whose adrenalin levels were beginning to return to normal after an intense 10 days or so of constituent input and gubernatorial lobbying. And some came from House Democrats, who look forward to campaigning over the summer against what they see as a highly unpopular deal.

The process was as fascinating as the result and may portend how Gov. Mitch Daniels will continue to wield his proverbial bully pulpit.

The Major Moves proposal was bold and imaginative, but its complexity-and the ability of Democrats to frame it simply as a sellout to foreign interests for less cash than the state could generate from more traditional and safer means-made it a tough sell statewide.

Even more important, the proposal for a long-term lease of the Indiana Toll Road was met with skepticism from Republican lawmakers along the Interstate 80/Interstate 90 stretch, and their constituents were adamantly opposed. Add in some Republicans from southwestern Indiana who had constituents unenthused about the proposed I-69 extension being a toll road financed separately from the I-80/I-90 booty, and the governor was struggling to keep his proposal rolling forward.

He was undaunted, however, believing strongly in the deal’s economics, and in the need to jump-start highway construction from the toll booths separating Hammond from Illinois to the twin bridges proposed over the Ohio River to Louisville.

Daniels began to take his case for Major Moves on the road, explaining to Hoosiers, local officials and lawmakers that road-building projects (many of which they thought were done deals) would be in jeopardy without the $3.9 billion infusion of cash from the Toll Road lease deal. What Democrats interpreted as gubernatorial petulance, Republicans saw as a governor being straight with the facts, further dividing the two parties.

Aiming Higher, the governor’s outside non-political political fund, solicited donations from all sorts of groups with a stake in the deal, and applied that cash to radio and newspaper ads touting the jobs bill of a generation. State Democrats also spent some cash on radio spots opposing the plan, and House Democrats were believed to be behind a phone campaign appealing to key GOP lawmakers to oppose the deal.

The worm began to turn over the last full weekend in January, as the horsetrading began, culminating in a series of amendments pushed through by GOP lawmakers from along the Toll Road route with the backing of the governor.

There were two key amendments to the measure that passed last week, paving the way for the approval of the overall deal.

One amendment, authored by Rep. Tim Neese, R-Elkhart, froze tolls for residents of Toll Road counties for a decade (which may be problematic in administering before electronic tolling, could result in state tax implications, and will force a reallocation of some $150 million in state revenue from the deal).

The Neese amendment attracted some serious questions from Democrats, and Rep. David Orentlicher, D-Indianapolis, cautioned that its impact on interstate commerce may be unconstitutional. There was no amendment offered to raise Indianapolis Colts ticket prices for residents of Toll Road counties who will attend games in the new Indiana Stadium, funded in part by food and beverage taxes on central Indiana diners.

The second amendment, authored by Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville, established a regional development authority for some of the north central and northeastern counties to be funded with $100 million in Toll Road revenue (and no local match required, unlike the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority established in 2005). Conspicuously absent: St. Joseph County, home to House Democratic Leader Pat Bauer.

Outside the legislative context, some Republican lawmakers were successful in securing what they perceived as commitments from the Daniels administration that road projects important to their districts would be started earlier or bumped up the priority list.

There may be some tweaking in the Senate, but nothing should now stop this bill from enactment. Having a measure of such complexity and controversy pass so quickly in a short session without the groundwork being laid beforehand (as with tax restructuring a few years ago) is unprecedented, but you may see similar strategies employed in the future. Could higher education changes be next up

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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