A few key Senators will mold most-crucial legislation

March 9, 2009
We're now in the final half of the 2009 legislative session. And while we'll resist labeling this the "home stretch" for at least another month, the consideration of legislation that has passed one chamber in the opposite chamber marks a major milestone.

However, things are less settled than usual at this point, simply because of the economic uncertainty. State revenue collections have been well below forecasts, and the state continues to hemorrhage jobs from north to south, east to west, and in both rural and urban areas.

The key legislative item at this point remains House Bill 1001, the budget bill. As a result of the economic uncertainty, House Democrats want the state to adopt a budget that covers only the next fiscal year instead of the fiscal biennium, and they would tap into some state reserves. House and Senate Republicans prefer to continue biennial budgeting, and want to hold off on relying on reserves, allowing them to remain intact should conditions worsen, as many predict.

So, as expected and almost of necessity, the Senate has its work cut out for it. The House — after the lack of direction from the Daniels administration, and the unwillingness of Democrats to tackle the enormity of the problem and Republicans to go on record for a tax increase on business — also failed to address the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund deficit, leaving two huge responsibilities for the Senate.

One phrase you will hear incessantly from the media and Senate Republicans over the next few weeks is that the "heavy lifting" now must be performed by the Senate, and Republicans in the Senate will grouse about how they have to be the "adults" in their relationship with House Democrats, making the difficult decisions about how to keep the ship of state not only afloat, but steaming forward.

Some of the faces responsible for the major items outstanding will be familiar, but others may be new to you.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, has a new job this session, chairing the Senate Committee on Appropriations. He now oversees the budget. Expect the Senate fiscal veteran to effectively start from scratch with the numbers, move everything back into a two-year format, work with colleagues to determine the appropriate level at which to fund K-12 and higher education, ensure that the bottom-line does not prove to be a further undue burden on cash-strapped local governments living under the property tax caps, weave in some level of road and infrastructure projects from the House stimulus bill, solve the Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board operating shortfall, and likely also include the ultimate solution others arrive at to shore up and restore the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

About the only difficult and controversial issue that won't find its way into the budget this year is a repeal of class basketball.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, is chairing the Committee on Pensions & Labor that must now resolve the UI Trust Fund dilemma. Kruse's legislative work to date has not been high-profile, but he takes a center seat this session. In the first days of this month, he made progress on a trust fund fix that would require higher payroll taxes, tightened eligibility, and reduced worker benefits. He also leads the charge on immigration reform.

Sen. Connie Lawson, R-Danville, the Senate majority floor leader, worked tirelessly on Kernan-Shepard Commission local government reform issues during the first half of the session, and she will do the same in her Committee on Local Government with some of the related issues that moved over from the House. Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, the Senate majority whip, chairs the Committee on Tax & Fiscal Policy, and he will also handle some high-profile revenue issues in the next few weeks.

Overseeing the Senate effort is Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, more comfortable now in his second term as leader. While his predecessor of record tenure, Bob Garton, had to juggle generational interests, Long has been faced with balancing senators with varying ideological perspectives, and has done so masterfully to date.

Don't expect any ideological breakdown over the next two months. The crisis mindset has led to more philosophical unity than you might ordinarily see. The key will be avoiding a crippling partisan division between now and the end of April.


Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached adf@ingrouponline.com. 
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