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FEIGENBAUM: Pence’s speech kept things simple, but expect detours

January 17, 2015

Ed FeigenbaumThe governor’s State of the State address is rarely a high point of legislative sessions, even if it is always hotly anticipated, at least by 150 lawmakers and the scores of lobbyists who nervously wait to see if their agendas and pet programs merit a mention.

Rather, it is a starting point.

The speech itself is always formulaic, offering a look at the highlights of the past year and suggesting that everyone elsewhere envies the economic and fiscal position of the Hoosier state. It also celebrates the achievements, patriotism and heroism of individual and collective Hoosiers in the prior year (some still refer to those recognized in the gallery as “human bumper stickers”), and sets forth broad goals.

Most of the time, a governor will choose to drop in one program, policy or proposal that has flown entirely under the radar (that’s the moment gubernatorial aides in the chamber positively beam about keeping the cat in the bag until show time).

The speech typically closes with some high-minded rhetoric about how wonderful Hoosiers are when they work together toward a single goal, and leaves lawmakers with their marching orders.

The 2015 State of the State delivered Jan. 13 by Republican Gov. Mike Pence certainly went according to form—and even ran directly up against an Indiana University home basketball game, as seems to be an unfortunate coincidence of recent years.

Last week, we told you what to expect in terms of specifics, and Pence didn’t disappoint.

He took on the federal government for overreaching on health care and environmental regulations (the latter loudly delivered, and winning a huge applause line).

He reiterated his priorities on education—including vocational and technical education—and that this is where the legislative fiscal focus should be directed.

Outside of stressing his belief in the need to lift voucher caps for K-12 students, he didn’t get into the weeds on any issues, even declining to offer detail on his energy policy and energy-efficiency package.

The sole surprise—and it didn’t generate enthusiasm, given that Republican legislative supermajorities have effectively guaranteed him the bottom-line budget outcome he seeks—was his request to remove Indiana from the ranks of just six states that don’t have a balanced budget amendment.

Lawmakers have been cool about tying their hands with a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” that would limit annual growth in state and local revenue to the sum of the inflation rate and percentage change in population, and they were decidedly tepid to this request—a local MacGuffin of sorts, more a shiny object for national media to focus upon than a practical Hoosier governing tool.

But the State of the State is the governor’s road map (recall that former Gov. Mitch Daniels literally printed and displayed one) to the future, and we now have a better sense of where Pence wants to lead Hoosiers.

Yes, we got a sense of it with the budget proposals Team Pence outlined during the opening week, but he reinforced much of it in his address.

The fact that the speech emphasized education—and offered no distractions with other major budget items (such as the surprise December revelations of a major need for spending on prison construction and new operating expenses)—confirms that this will be his top priority this session. Yet there will be opportunities for distractions at the margins, such as with details of school funding formula reform, pupil-transportation funding, and broader issues associated with changing the state-level education governance structure.

Pence also made it clear his administration would continue to pound away at the imperative of reducing infant mortality across the state, something his team has quietly been chipping away at.

While there was no mention of significant new business programs or economic development initiatives, that doesn’t mean you won’t see any. Expect considerable behind-the-scenes action on taxes—business, gambling and gas taxes, to name a few—just as you will see many policy areas addressed by lawmakers outside of gubernatorial priorities, such as alcohol deregulation and helping the gambling industry cope with competition.

So while you have your road map of sorts, just like in real life, expect some orange cones slowing lawmakers down and even detouring them on the bumpy road to adjournment sine die.•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.

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