STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Low poll numbers don’t seem to slow Daniels’ agenda

For a guy whose approval level is about as low as-well-the president’s, and who was pushing a program about as popular as turning over supervision of vital national assets to a foreign entity (see the parallels yet?), Gov. Mitch Daniels sure enjoyed some major success this legislative session.

He just signed a wide-ranging telecommunications deregulation measure he had strongly advocated, placing Indiana at the cusp of reform in the field, after several years of the Legislature’s refusing to move off the dime (that used to buy you a call at a pay phone).

He said that even if nothing else happened this session, that would be a towering accomplishment, but even that success was overshadowed by a much more controversial win-one that was the lynchpin of his administration’s agenda-in the waning hours of the session.

This battle was as hard-fought as any-legislative denizens such as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, a veteran of 34 years, acknowledged that the House had not experienced such a difficult vote as that on the governor’s Major Moves transportation program-and it came down to a one-vote margin in the House.

And even though that one vote (you can point the finger at freshman Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Lakeville) was in question even as the session entered its final evening March 13, Daniels was still able to win the most important vote of his tenure to date-and perhaps the most important vote any General Assembly will cast for decades.

I don’t write that because of concerns that “Red China” might end up owning the Indiana Toll Road between now and November, as one legislator suggested.

The Major Moves program, which Daniels positioned as the “jobs vote of a generation,” will generate a windfall of cash from the lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign-owned consortium. That cash-some $3 billion after expenses-will be used to build and repair roads and bridges across the state, seed assorted economic development funds in northern Indiana, and be placed into trust for future road-building projects..

One veteran northwestern Indiana lawmaker, Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, even took to the House floor the night of the vote to suggest that Indianapolis lawmakers-at least his Republican brethren-should support the measure, because Indianapolis and its immediate environs would enjoy the majority of the benefits and none of the costs.

Indianapolis was also a critical focus of the conference committee changes in the measure, with the northern terminus of the Interstate 69 extension legislatively micro-managed to avoid losing votes.

In the end, of course, no House Democrat voted for the politically unpopular program, likely believing that a united caucus would aid them in November, when they focus on defeating a handful of GOP lawmakers over their votes on Major Moves and Daylight Saving Time last year.

The legislature also devoted some time in its final hours to a limited property tax relief effort. The impact will be different from county-to-county and communityto-community, but should help to negate some of the impact of tax increases that would have happened next year.

What did not become part of the final measure, much to the chagrin of Senate Tax & Fiscal Policy Committee Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, and many mayors, was a local government “fiscal toolbox” that would have offered permanent property tax relief in exchange for allowing local governments to recoup some of that lost revenue.

A more far-reaching property tax relief package will be on the 2007 agenda, regardless of which party wins control of the General Assembly in November.

Other major policy changes came from the session as well.

While most Hoosiers will probably be most attuned to changes that make the socalled “illegal” fireworks totally legal for sale in the state (without that troublesome affidavit and “club” fee), other changes in law will become even more important, though far less visible.

One is a change in how corporate business income is apportioned for adjusted gross income tax purposes. In the future, a single sales factor will be used, instead of basing the tax on sales, property and payroll. This provision already proved important last week in sealing the deal for 1,000 new Toyota jobs at the Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc. plant in Lafayette.

So a governor stumbling in the polls pushing a politically unpalatable program in a “short” legislative session-one that has traditionally been viewed by all concerned as a “do no harm” event-enjoyed stunning success.

You can only imagine what he might do buoyed by better poll numbers and a more popular agenda-and how exhausted lawmakers might feel about the next “short” session in 2008.

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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