FEIGENBAUM: Prepare for a history-making budget process

March 5, 2011

Elections have consequences. Democrats nationally chided Republicans after the 2008 elections. When the outcome was reversed following the 2010 elections, Republicans reminded them of that refrain.

But as elections have consequences, so do other actions, and Hoosier Democrats may find that their solon sojourn in Illinois invokes Newton’s law of political physics: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

 The Democratic walkout during the final week for bills to be considered in their chamber of origin seems to have finally and formally caused the death of dozens of measures, among them HB 1001, the House budget bill. House Republicans believe this is the first time in some 130 years that a budget bill failed to pass the House during the first half of the session.

The apparent inability of the House to move a budget bill across the rotunda to the Senate isn’t by any means a fatal blow to the budget. However, it does complicate the scenario, and offers Republicans an opportunity to exact revenge on House Democrats for exiting.

Should House Democrats not return and play nice, here’s how you might expect things to unfold: The Senate Appropriations Committee, under the leadership of a veteran budget-crafter, Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, could consider a budget bill the week of March 7. The fact that it doesn’t technically exist doesn’t mean much. Kenley can find a live House bill to use as a victim, stripping it and inserting budget language into the shell.

That budget language would be based upon the HB 1001 content as it emerged from the House Committee on Ways and Means, assembled by that panel’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, the dean of House Republicans.

Kenley would work closely behind the scenes with Espich and the Senate Majority Caucus in deliberations. Kenley would not exclude Senate Democrats from the process, and Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, would have to channel any House Democratic input by proxy into final budget language.

Calling this “final budget language” here is not hyperbole. While the budget bill is typically the last measure passed in any given session, the product of countless hours of bipartisan deliberation and debate in conference-committee meetings and quiet talks among the principals out of the white-hot light of the public (and even other legislators), this year’s process will necessarily be different—perhaps even unique in state history.

The new Senate budget bill could then be passed largely (if not entirely) along party lines in the Senate, and returned to the House—assuming it is functioning—for what would ordinarily be a dissent by the original author there. That would send the bill to conference committee to work through differences between House and Senate budget priorities, and allow lawmakers to quietly tuck in a few policy-related items in a line or two that didn’t find a home elsewhere.

But perhaps not this year. The script that may instead play out would find the author concurring with Senate changes, forcing the House into an up-or-down final vote to send the budget to the governor. That takes just a quorum and a majority, and while it could provoke yet another walkout if House Democrats protest their exclusion from the process, that’s probably their sole option to stop it.

Legislative reapportionment could be handled similarly. Senators could strip a House election-related bill, add their version of Senate districts, round it out with House Republican-preferred House maps and a negotiated congressional district plan, and return it to the House for concurrence and passage.

While this might be far more partisan an approach than Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels might prefer on a legislative matter that is effectively a political mission—and one necessarily decided late in the second half of the session due to when the state receives census data—it would serve as the ultimate punishment for Democrats’ holding out.

Depending upon how the bills that were left in limbo thanks to the Illinois exodus are handled when the process resumes, there also will be a limited universe of legislation of any type remaining, reducing options for lawmakers.

For these concepts or specifics to remain alive, they must be inserted in other bills in conference-committee deliberations, and that poses additional problems.

Bills resembling the proverbial “Christmas trees” tend to be viewed with disfavor by legislative leaders, regardless of party, and any added content must be germane to the original bill. This “sniff test” of sorts has been defined more strictly in the Senate. But some wonder whether traditional germaneness principles may be loosened a tad come April, when Senate bill authors start to see hopes for their respective favored measures begin to fade away without a home.

That’s the brutal truth about consequences for Democrats, assuming continued intransigence.

Will Republicans be more beneficent?•


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


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