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EDITORIAL: Leadership void stymied special legislative session

July 6, 2009

Legislative sessions that occur during recessions are inherently unsatisfying. With tax revenue pinched, lawmakers are rightfully tightfisted about funding even the most worthy programs, recognizing that, above all, they must not jeopardize the state's long-term financial health.

But the session that concluded June 30 with passage of a two-year budget left an especially bad taste in our mouths.

For starters, legislators lacked the courage to tackle local government reform—even though cash-strapped units of government desperately need the millions of dollars in savings they would generate. In short, they put political cronyism ahead of the interests of the state.

Then there was the Capital Improvement Board fiasco. Could Mayor Greg Ballard have done a more inept job garnering support for a bailout of CIB, which oversees the city's sports and convention venues and faces a projected $47 million deficit? It's hard to imagine how. The mayor was missing in action through much of the session. And when he finally did thrust himself into the debate, lawmakers found him more annoying than persuasive.

The result: The General Assembly approved only a partial solution, giving the City-County Council authority to raise the hotel tax but not the authority to ratchet up other taxes Ballard had sought.

The compromise leaves CIB with a massive shortfall, about $12 million. The board has little choice but to look for additional cuts, even if they put at risk the vitality of Indianapolis' sports-and-convention-dependent downtown.

The resurgence of downtown was one of the state's great achievements in the waning years of the last century. It helped turn the convention trade into an economic engine for the entire region, not to mention the significant-but-less-tangible impact on the city's civic pride and quality of life.

But in the absence of an effective campaign, outstate lawmakers successfully cast the CIB crisis as "an Indianapolis problem." As Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, told The Indianapolis Star, "The CIB stands for the 'Celebrate Indianapolis Bailout."

Also disappointing was the demise of measures that would have made Indiana a more progressive—and healthier—place to live and work. Opponents snuffed out efforts to impose a statewide workplace smoking ban, as well as a measure requiring utilities to supply at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources. Funding for mass transit also fell by the wayside.

There were a few bright spots. Public schools eked out a funding increase (although we think urban districts—which face the stiffest challenges—should have fared better). We're glad lawmakers did not put the state's financial problems on the backs of schoolchildren.

We're also glad lawmakers ultimately heeded Gov. Mitch Daniels' call for fiscal restraint. The budget leaves $1 billion in reserves—money the state may need to tap if the recession lingers on.

But overall we're left wanting. It wasn't just money that was in short supply this session. It was leadership. 

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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