Weighty bills look doomed as session nears end-WEB ONLY

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Keep hope alive.

That’s the stance Rep. Charlie Brown (D-Gary) is taking in hopes of reviving a bill that would impose a statewide smoking ban in enclosed public places.

A version of the bill passed the House but went nowhere in the Senate. Now Brown hopes it finds new life in late-session conference committees, where lawmakers wheel and deal in hopes of finding new homes for legislation that passed only the House or Senate.

“I don’t think anything is dead until the speaker of the House and the president pro tem of the Senate gavel out the session,” said Sen. Mike Delph (R-Carmel)

But there are several weighty bills this session that sponsors admit are dead, and some that appear to be on life support.

For example, while Brown isn’t giving up hope on his smoking-ban proposal, he won’t pursue efforts to save a bill that would require chain restaurants to provide customers with nutritional information on the food items they sell. It barely passed the House but was shelved in the Senate.

Many Republicans and restaurant lobbyists said the bill’s requirements would be too costly for an industry struggling in tough economic times. In the frantic, waning days of a session, lawmakers have to pick and choose what they will fight for, and Brown sees no chance for the nutritional information bill – something he was passionate about.

“It makes no sense to fight wars you cannot win,” said Brown, chairman of the House Public Health Committee.

Delph has been a staunch proponent of legislation that would subject businesses that knowingly employ illegal immigrants to having their licenses suspended or revoked. A version of the bill passed both chambers in 2008, but no final compromise was reached.

A similar bill passed the Senate this session but did not get a hearing in the House. House Speaker Patrick Bauer (D-South Bend) says illegal immigration is a federal issue. And the bill doesn’t seem to lend itself to becoming a bargaining chip that could result in its revival and passage.

It has been a contentious issue, and lawmakers already have two of those with billions of dollars at stake – crafting a new state budget and fixing Indiana’s bankrupt unemployment insurance fund.

Naturally, Delph is disappointed.

“It’s unfortunate in 2009 that something that is trying to hold people accountable for knowingly and willingly breaking federal law is somehow controversial,” he said. “It goes beyond my understanding and comprehension.”

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and some business groups had high hopes for bills that would restructure local government. The bills stemmed from recommendations made by a commission created by Daniels and led by former Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard.

The bills initially would have eliminated township government, nixed three-member county commissions in favor of a single county executive and required library districts to consider consolidating. Another would have required some small school districts to consolidate.

That one never cleared the Republican-controlled Senate, and many provisions in the others were changed significantly and in some cases watered down. Bauer has said all along that he did not consider restructuring local government a high priority this session.

When asked whether the effort could be revived, he noted that the legislation that passed the Senate barely resembled what Daniels originally proposed.

“They didn’t even send us a skeleton, they sent us a wishbone,” Bauer said.
Translation: Don’t count on major changes to local government passing in the waning days of the session.

Delph is right in saying that nothing is truly dead until lawmakers adjourn. But Brown is also right. It makes no sense to fight wars you cannot win.

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