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JOHN KETZENBERGER Commentary: Let's use the right tool for the job

March 14, 2005

Indiana is one of just four states that requires a two-thirds majority to be present in the House or Senate to conduct business. It's a tool our constitution's drafters granted the minority party in 1851 to protect it from a tyrannical majority.

Too bad lawmakers lately have used the provision like a sledgehammer, smashing the legislative process to bits.

Lawmakers aren't the only ones choosing the wrong tool, though. Gov. Mitch Daniels took a few swings with his rhetorical sledgehammer, equating the Democrats' actions to a car bombing.

It's reasonable to conclude, then, that, when the legislative process gets really tough toward the end of April, Democrats, Daniels and fellow Republicans will really get after it hammer and tongs. Everyone under the Statehouse dome should reconsider their positions before the entire place is a shambles.

Rest assured, we'll know tyranny when we see it. The Republicans' attempt to redistrict Democrats into oblivion in 1995 was close, so it's hard to fault the minority's decision to stay away until the bad idea croaked. But the halftime hokum we just witnessed hardly qualifies as tyranny.

Last year's GOP decision to go MIA doesn't qualify either, by the way. These examples fall under the category of political theater, not principled positions taken to protect the sanctity of the state constitution.

Ostensibly, Democrats walked to stop two bills. One would require a photo identification to vote and the other would vest the inspector general, created by gubernatorial fiat, with prosecutorial powers.

These actions were interpreted by Democrats as power grabs. But instead of working through the process, Rep. Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, short-circuited it even though Republicans offered compromises on both bills.

The issues are likely to resurface this week in some of the 230 Senate bills the House is now considering. If Republicans offer to broaden the forms of voter identification and place the prosecutorial powers with the attorney general, as expected, Democrats will have a hard time reprising their walkout.

But what if the power politics was about something other than these issues, something like financial viability? Then consider House Bill 1719, a broad measure introduced by Rep. Jim Buck, R-Kokomo, to bring change to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, an agency so often flogged by Daniels during the campaign the people working there must be numb by now.

Tucked among the bill's many provisions was language to redirect the $30 fee charged for personalized license plates. As Daniels advocated during the campaign, the money that currently is split by the state's major political parties instead would be used for license branch operations.

Over the last five years, the state Democrat and Republican parties each garnered nearly $3.5 million from the fee.

Surely the state's 168 license branches could have used that $7 million to operate more efficiently. And it sure makes sense when the state's in a fiscal pinch, advocates reasoned.

What the reasoning fails to recognize, however, is how important that average $698,598 a year is to the parties, especially the Democrats, who have far less fund-raising firepower, given their current status. Without the license plate money, it'll be hard to keep the lights on in party headquarters and maintain the county apparatus throughout the state.

It's a situation Republicans ought to recall, since it wasn't too many years ago they found themselves similarly situated. Then, the Democrats often talked of rescinding the party money, but never came close to actually doing it.

House Bill 1719 was among those bludgeoned by the Democrats' walkout. A similar bill never made it out of committee in the Senate. If Republicans decide it's not a priority to drain the opposition's coffers, the General Assembly will avoid a rancorous halftime redux.

Despite the heightened rhetoric, leaders expressed confidence last week the session could end amicably by its April 29 deadline. And a little tension always precedes action, so this may yet be among the most productive sessions in recent years.

There are many tools in the box and a good carpenter knows which one is right for the job. If lawmakers would quit worrying about political retribution, they'd forgo the sledgehammer for a rubber mallet to gently shape public policy.

And we'd all be better off.



Ketzenberger is managing editor of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to jketzenberger@ibj.com.
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