Most lawmakers say the biggest issue before the Indiana General Assembly this year is passing a balanced budget during tough economic times.
But there are a few hot topics that some legislators also want addressed this session. They include taking the next step toward amending caps on property tax bills into the state constitution, starting over on trying to put a ban on gay marriage in the constitution, and cracking down on illegal immigration.
Backers of those measures face a formidable barrier, however: Democratic House Speaker Patrick Bauer of South Bend, who wields tremendous power and is sour on dealing with such measures.
“I think when you have a patient that is very ill, which we do, which is called the fiscal body of this state, that is what the doctor should be administering,” Bauer said.
Bauer is a hands-on leader, keenly aware of what legislation is moving – or not moving – in Democrat-controlled House committees and in what forms. His committee chairs may have discretion, but it’s no secret that Bauer has a tight rein on his caucus, and the buck stops with him.
He sometimes lets legislation he finds distasteful get to the House floor, only to ensure that changes are made that either make it too ugly to pass or work to achieve goals of the caucus he commands.
Given statements he’s made so far, constitutional property tax caps, a gay marriage amendment measure and legislation on illegal immigration might not get anywhere in the House this year.
Gov. Mitch Daniels and many fellow Republicans in the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-ruled Senate have been clamoring for passing a resolution a second time this session that seeks to have caps on property tax bills amended into the state constitution.
The caps were enacted last year, and when fully phased in next year will limit bills on homeowners to 1 percent of their homes’ values, with 2 percent limits on rental property and 3 percent caps on business property.
If lawmakers pass the resolution a second time this year or next, voters would decide in 2010 whether to amend them into the constitution. Daniels and many Republicans say the amendment is needed to ensure that the caps cannot be struck down by judges, and make it harder for future legislatures to undo.
Passing the resolution this year will ensure now that the measure will be on the 2010 ballot, they say, and there is nothing to gain by waiting until next year.
But Bauer wants to wait. The caps this year are expected to save property taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, but that is money local governments won’t get. The caps are projected to save taxpayers $403 million when fully phased in next year, but again, it’s money local governments will go without.
Many cities and other local governments already have raised local taxes, laid off staff, cut services or imposed user fees to make up the money. Bauer has been adamant about waiting to see what impact the caps have this year before considering passing the constitutional resolution next year.
“We [House Democrats] said we wanted to see how it works and we need more evidence,” Bauer said.
House Minority Leader Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the resolution would pass overwhelmingly if Bauer would just “take the handcuffs off.” Look for House Republicans to make this a big issue in coming days.
Bauer seems unwavering on that issue.
And some Republicans say that he is solely to blame in recent years for blocking legislation that would place a ban on gay marriage in the state constitution. Bauer notes that gay marriage already is banned by state law, and legal challenges to the law have failed.
He said to take up the contentious issue this session would be a distraction from what he believes are the most pressing issues – creating jobs and enacting a two-year budget that ensures adequate funding for education.
Cracking down on illegal immigration was a hot issue last session, and could become so again this year. But Bauer thinks it’s almost solely a federal issue, and taking it up on the state level would be a distraction from higher priorities.
Bauer, with all his power, could give in or bend on these issues. But don’t bank on it.