STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: General Assembly’s shooting the three! Boom Baby!

Typically, when lawmakers are this near to reaching agreement on a state budget, it’s some time in early or mid-May, and we’re trying to pepper this column with analogies to the Indianapolis 500.

However, we started the year with a race analogy-the one about Mario Andretti suggesting that if you felt like you were under control you weren’t going fast enough-and since the Indiana Pacers seemed destined for a brief playoff run this year, we probably ought to stick to basketball.

That said, the General Assembly is a lot like the Pacers in the playoffs: A number of key players are trying to sort through their roles in the process, and much will depend upon the play of the opposing team.

Here is what to watch for in the final days.

When lawmakers convened for Organization Day last November-their first postelection gathering-their key priority was drafting a budget that spent no more than the state legitimately figured it would collect. That would not seem to be too difficult, except that it simply hadn’t been done in many years and assorted interests-ranging from education to social programs-were still reeling from spending cuts or budget tricks two years ago.

Oh, and as the mantra of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Meeks, R-LaGrange, reminded everyone on a regular basis, “There is no money.”

Lawmakers quickly found themselves caught up in the debate over assorted elements of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ legislative agenda. They were fighting over establishing an inspector general, fighting against an income tax surcharge on higher-income Hoosiers, and fighting to hear their own respective legislative agendas.

The budget got short shrift in the House and some Senate proposals over redistributing casino tax money dribbled out when aired early in caucus-incited battles between the have and have-not communities.

The budget remains the top issue on the agenda, but it’s a budget that includes some items that weren’t quite on the table last November. The key elements for central Indiana include the new stadium for the Indianapolis Colts and the Indiana Convention Center expansion.

However, as important as these two matters are to Indianapolis and environs, so, too, is a regional transportation authority that would mean planes, trains and buses to northwest Indiana. And this plan could also hold the key to the Indianapolis project.

The transit proposal unites Democrats and Republicans from Lake and Porter counties, city and county officials, and the often fractious legislative delegation, an almost unheard of trinity. The bottom line is that northwest Indiana will likely be able to recapture some of the revenue raised locally-perhaps some of the casino cash that would have been redirected around the state and an increase in tolls on the Indiana Toll Road-and help to finance transportation projects that would include infrastructure improvements at the Gary-Chicago International Airport, buses for urban areas in north Lake, and high-speed rail for Porter County. The authority would include state representation, with the chair apparently being appointed by the governor.

Keep your eye on this, because this paves the way for the rest of the budget.

Republicans in the House may not have enough votes to pass a budget that relies upon tax increases, even if they are on riverboats, cigarettes and other “sin” items. They may have to approach Lake County Democrats to get those votes, and they may well be there if the transit plan is in the budget, or even in the attendant revenueraising bill, currently House Bill 1120. A less onerous redistribution of the riverboat money, allowing a greater amount to stay along Lake Michigan for local needs, may also be part of the deal.

Republicans can also remind Lake County Democrats that they would be helping their brethren in Indianapolis-including Mayor Bart Peterson-because the stadium and convention center measures would be part of the package.

Beyond this, Daniels can also hold the structure of the regional transit authority over Peterson’s head, suggesting that whatever structure was proposed for The Region was acceptable to the six Democratic mayors from Lake County and Democratic legislative delegation there, and that a similar local control compromise ought to be forthcoming here from hizzoner.

Daniels can also ask them to hold their fire on more education funding if the transit and stadium/convention center bucks are included, and perhaps even push for daylight-saving time-an issue that doesn’t affect northwest Indiana as much as the rest of Indiana.

So while it seems like not much is happening on the court, a lot of the plays are being drawn up on the sidelines, waiting for Reggie’s deft shooting touch.

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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