STATEHOUSE DISPATCH: Political posturing puts session on strange trajectory

June 22, 2009

Casual observers of the legislative process might be confused by the political posturing, lack of a sense of imperative, and seeming non sequiturs in this General Assembly special session.

Rest assured that even many veteran legislative observers also share the sense of puzzlement about June's events. However, there is some method to the madness, and that will inevitably lead to a budget by month's end.

At least it has worked that way for almost 200 years of statehood, and there is no reason to believe this year's economic woes will prove more problematic in political and policy terms than the Civil War, assorted scandals that threatened the state's very existence, two world wars, and the Great Depression.

The past week began with the one-year Democratic version of the budget moving to the House floor. Because any House budget will be radically reworked by the Senate, this measure bears little attention, save for the statement it makes about Democrats' general priorities—focused on school funding amounts, sources and direction.

School funding will be the key item of negotiation between the House and the Senate and the Legislature and the governor before budget matters are resolved. While there will be significant compromises from all players, you should look for House Democrats to win more of what they seek on school funding than Senate Republicans or Gov. Mitch Daniels.

But last week's focus was not on the budget. Rather, it was on the governor's proposal to revamp the Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board—an anathema to many outside central Indiana, save lawmakers who view CIB reform as an opportunity to pile on and exact a toll in the form of their own local projects.

If more state tax revenue was to be directed to Indianapolis for what was perceived as a local issue, it was only fair for other local self-determination to be considered, they suggested.

The key issue threatening to blow up events was gambling. A large bloc of House Democrats was threatening to vote against the budget on the floor unless Gary was allowed to move one of its casino facilities further inland. Legislators from both parties also were seeking tax breaks for other casinos and expanded gambling for racinos.

When Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, on June 16 opted against offering his Gary casino amendment to the CIB bill in committee, the horizon appeared clearer, but other amendments, successful and not, clouded the picture.

Some concerns were partisan, while others reflected out-state distaste about Indianapolis' benefiting yet again. And add in a palpable lack of interest in helping the Ballard administration, which lawmakers from both parties view as not forthcoming and unwilling to help itself.

The CIB bill failed to pass the panel June 16, setting the stage for a stranger week.

And speaking of strange, why was a third bill, a partisan slap at the Family and Social Services Administration filed by an Evansville Democratic representative, on the agenda?

The measure sought a state-financed audit of the massive welfare benefits modernization and privatization program, and given that the Senate Majority Caucus had pledged to consider only budget and CIB issues—in one bill—this measure seemed incongruous.

But it was a safety valve. Democrats knew they could pass this negative statement on privatization, even if the budget and CIB bills were to fail on the floor, and it would become a vehicle in the Senate for other issues on their priority list.

Method to the madness. And both method and madness still await us.•

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

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